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No Expectations 028: Smoke Screen
If you’re interviewing an artist, remember to shut up and be a good listener. Plus, why you should always see the opener.
Welcome to No Expectations.
No Expectations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
If you’re one of the 100 or so new people here who subscribed via Twitter since last week, I appreciate you signing up. No Expectations is a weekly newsletter (or blog) about music and culture that arrives in inboxes every Thursday at 9am cst. I’ve been a full-time writer in Chicago since 2013. You may have seen my work in places like Vice, RedEye Chicago, and Netflix or maybe you just saw my tweets.
No Expectations is anti-algorithm entertainment writing through a Midwestern lens. Every week, I’ll have a wildcard essay about whatever I’m interested in or thinking about at the moment. Some weeks the essay is on the ins and outs of freelance writing, other times it’s about a new album I’m loving or hating, and every once in a while it’s a take on sports or television. There’s the occasional interview with an artist like my Taste Profile series, a news roundup, or an answer to a mailbag question (email@example.com). But no matter what, there are weekly roundups of whatever I’m listening to, reading, and watching, along with a 15-song playlist and a Chicago calendar of recommended shows each week. There’s an optional paid tier too if you enjoy what you read and feel inclined to support my work.
This blog is a purposefully mixed bag but the hope is you’ll find something you like through the recommendations here and support some deserving artists. I try to cover the under-the-radar but essential acts most major outlets have yet to highlight. The scope here is more to put a shine on the bands playing 100-500 cap rooms rather than the ones playing arenas. But really, it’s just been nice to be able to have an outlet that allows me to write freely outside of the work that pays my bills at publications or elsewhere. Starting this blog so I can highlight the art I love has been one of the most rewarding and fun decisions of my entire career.
I’m happy you’re here. If you only signed up to find out who the opener was in my semi-viral tweet from the weekend, scroll down to the “What I Listened To” section and see that it’s Chicago songwriter Hannah Frances. I hope you stick around though.
Listening Goes a Long Way
My dream culture journalism job would just be interviewing artists and writing magazine profiles about them. I love talking to people, learning about them, and getting someone I’ve never met before to feel comfortable enough to open up to me. The stories I’m most proud of writing are usually ones where I was allowed to go long and talk to an artist whose music I love. I could always be better at interviewing folks but a decade-plus doing this job has led me to feel relatively at ease conducting them. That skill didn’t come naturally to me and it’s mostly because I didn’t know when to shut the hell up.
Early on in my career, I’d listen back to the recording and cringe. Too often, I’d be unaware that I was cutting off the artist midthought so I could bring up an anecdote related to what they were talking about or saying filler words like “yeah totally” to affirm them. I’d give up what would’ve been a great and revealing quote because I’d interrupt or was too busy thinking about my next question to truly be in the moment with them. More than that simply being sloppy and self-defeating journalism, it was also rude. The biggest tip I can give an aspiring journalist is to learn when to be quiet. The answer is always more than you think.
Putting it another way, it’s “be interested, not interesting.” My friend Bailey’s dad (shoutout Gary) reminded me of this mantra the other week and I think it’s an important lesson for not just journalists conducting an interview but for everyone. Curiosity is one of the most important qualities to cultivate and people almost always open up when you ask them questions and show a genuine interest in their lives. So many folks are at their most comfortable when they’re talking about themselves and you will almost always make a good impression when you indulge them.
When you’re conducting an interview, you’ll feel the urge to interject but you should wait until your subject is absolutely done talking for the sake of your story and not coming off like a blowhard. You can stay in the moment, hang onto their words, and have more time to think of a follow-up question. It’s hard to do, especially since most artist Q&As these days are done over Zoom or phone, but being a good listener will make them feel like you’re having a casual conversation over a drink somewhere.
It feels obvious writing this down but even if you’re not a journalist, you can remember a time you asked a friend about something and cut them off before they could finish their story. In a lot of ways, the traits that make someone good at conducting an interview seamlessly translate to being a good friend. You actually listen, remember the details of something they’re saying, and ask thoughtful questions to make whoever you’re talking to feel interesting and valued. It’s not a perfect science and there will certainly be times you’re too caught up in what’s going on in your life to do this, but attentively listening is often better than venting.
This is probably a funny thing to read coming from a guy who writes a weekly Substack and tweets too much but I think the social media-based incentives to be the loudest voice in the room will be pretty bad collectively longterm. There’s a time to let loose and be loud but there’s also a fine line between being the life of the party and sucking up all the air out of a conversation. There’s nothing wrong with taking a step back and listening.
According to a new report, the media industry has announced 17,436 job cuts so far this year. It’s the highest total on record, even higher than the mass layoffs that happened in 2020 due to the pandemic. Now, because this report only counts from the beginning of the year to May this total doesn’t include this month’s prominent layoffs like the 74 laid-off LA Times staffers, the 21 LAist workers, the four Onion Inc employees, or the 20 reporters axed by The Athletic, a sports media company recently bought by the New York Times for $550 million in 2022. Even though I was lucky enough to be employed at VICE throughout 2020 and most of 2021, the media landscape felt like it was the worst it’s ever been. Now, it’s so bleak that I don’t really see it ever getting better.
What I listened to:
Gig report: Sima Cunningham and Hannah Frances at Hungry Brain (6/10)
Sima Cunningham is one of the great connectors in Chicago music. She’s such a galvanizing, welcoming, and kind force that she’s basically the mascot for how inclusive and supportive the local community here can be at its best. She’s one half of local art-rock outfit Finom (fka Ohmme), a fantastic solo songwriter, and someone who’s been a dear friend since 2015. Even though she had a beautiful baby girl this year, she’s still amazingly active in the local scene here and played two shows at Hungry Brain, where she and her brother Liam Kazar used to work. Her set was phenomenal with a band featuring her partner Dorian Gehring on guitar and pedal steel, drummer Spencer Tweedy, and bassist Aunt Kelly. They were locked in—Sima’s songs soared and they nailed some transcendent harmonies. Their next show is July 16 at Sleeping Village with Alica Walter and Carlile.
Opening the set was Chicago’s Hannah Frances who I had never seen play before. Like a dumbass, I arrived late and only caught the last couple of songs but what I saw made me an instant fan. On record, Frances’ songs are gorgeous but minimalist—most available tunes feature her with a guitar and maybe some synths or pedal steel—but live, they’re immaculately rendered with a huge band—there were horns, strings, pedal steel, and more. The band’s tightness reminded me of Big Thief and Andy Shauf but Frances’ songs are more winding and spectral. I wish I had caught the whole thing so I tweeted something about always doing your best to catch the openers. It went semi-viral and I woke up to more new subscribers than I’d expect. If my tardiness means someone’s going to support Frances on Bandcamp or see a gig, then my embarrassment to miss the set will be worth it.
Feeble Little Horse, Girl With Fish
Pittsburgh’s Feeble Little Horse are one of those bands that feels like they arrived fully formed with their own unique sensibility and sound. They’re the kind of act where your first thought hearing the songs is “Wow, this sounds different” rather than “This reminds me of a more popular band.” Normally, whenever I write a press bio for a band it’s because someone from either the band, their management, their label, or their publicist hit me up to do it. But here, I was so taken by their 2021 debut LP Hayday that I literally emailed their publicist to throw my name in for it. Talking to the band, I was struck by their vision for the whole thing and their obvious friendship. I’m so happy this album is finally out: it’s such a fun collection of songs that veer from sugary pop hooks to caustic distortion and glitch beats sometimes in seconds. Stereogum says that this is the fifth-best album of the year so far and it’s hard to disagree.
Fog Lake, Midnight Society
Newfoundland-based musician Aaron Powell has been remarkably prolific as Fog Lake. He makes quiet, homespun songs that feel intimate and open. Despite the sometimes grainy and unfussy recordings, his music is always memorable. These are the type of tunes that get a co-sign from the gentlehearted comedian Joe Pera, who used Fog Lake’s 2018 track “Serotonin” as the soundtrack for a video of fan-made bean arches inspired form season two of Joe Pera Talks With You. A few weeks back, Powell surprise-released a new full-length in Midnight Society and it’s his most dynamic and inviting release yet. Though it starts off relatively sleepy with the gorgeous opener “Bandaid Heart,” it picks up with the pace with You Forgot It In People-era Broken Social Scene-evoking rockers like “Hot Knives” and “Motorcade.”
What I watched:
We Own This City (streaming on Max)
Ever since finishing another rewatch of The Wire, I’m trying to check out all the David Simon HBO shows I’ve never watched. 2022’s We Own This City is one of them and it’s another Baltimore-set cop drama but set in the 2010s under the backdrop of Freddie Gray’s murder. Unlike The Wire, this show is based on real events, namely a corrupt gun task force on BPD who were all arrested for selling stolen drugs and stealing from citizens they were often illegally apprehending. It doesn’t come close to matching the heights of The Wire but it is sobering to see how vile these police officers are and how the events depicted on the show actually happened. Plus, like with all of Simon’s shows, actors who appeared on The Wire also feature here. The actor who played Marlo is a detective, which took some getting used to. It’s only six episodes and won’t get a second season for obvious reasons but it’s worth a binge.
Reality (streaming on Max)
Speaking of conducting interviews, Reality is a fascinating and weird small movie that has dialogue that never deviates from the bizarre transcript of the FBI interrogating its real-life subject Reality Winner for leaking classified documents to The Intercept. The awkwardness and forced politeness in the FBI agents' conversations with Winner, who is awkward and polite herself, make the movie. Sydney Sweeney is excellent in the role too. The film feels more like a play but the costuming is so specific and even if you know little about the case, the inherent tension in the situation is gripping. It loses steam when the director of the film takes some experimental leaps mid-film and when it tries to sum up what it all means too abruptly in the final scenes, but it’s worth a quick watch at 83 minutes.
What I read:
By Max Read (NYT Magazine)
Donaldson is explicit that profit is not the goal; expansion is. The effect is a kind of unstoppable flywheel of charity, spectacle and growth — a combination lottery, raffle, game show and telethon, administered by the Willy Wonka of Greenville, N.C. But it can be hard to tell where the momentum comes from and what it’s serving: Is it growth and spectacle for the sake of charity, or charity for the sake of growth and spectacle? In this sense, “1,000 Blind People See for the First Time” is something like the apotheosis of the MrBeast brand, for the way it literalizes the MrBeast system of turning eyeballs into money, money into charity, charity into content and content into more eyeballs. As a joking subtitle at the end of the video puts it: “I wonder if we’ll get 1,000 more views from the people we cured LOL.”
The No Expectations Weekly Chicago Show Calendar
Friday, June 16: Temples, Post Animal at Metro. Tickets.
Friday, June 16: Cunningham/Laurenzi/Bryan at Hungry Brain. Tickets.
Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June 16-18: Jamila Woods, Digable Planets, Rich Jones and more at Taste of Randolph. $15 suggested donation.
Saturday, June 17: Minor Moon, Bats at Judson and Moore. Tickets.
Saturday, June 17: John Dwyer (of OSEES), Cindy Lee, Steve Gunn, Who Is The Witness?, Oui Ennui, Cafe Racer, Mandy at the Bohemian National Cemetery. Tickets.
Saturday, June 17: Damien Jurado at Sleeping Village. Tickets.
Saturday, June 17: Ms. Lauryn Hill at Ravinia. Tickets.
Saturday and Sunday, June 17-18: Hyde Park Summerfest (Lil Kim, 2 Chainz, Twista, Clipse, Vic Mensa, etc) at Midway Plaisance Park. Tickets.
Sunday, June 18: Gretel Hänlyn, Grace Bloom at Schubas. Tickets.
No Expectations is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.