Interview with Natalie Zed: from supervillain to superwoman

NYCBack again, with some proper journo-investigation. As a Christmas gift, for all of you, aspiring hacks of the world, a long, long chat with the inspiring NatalieZedAs a music writer, journalist, promoter and copywriter, she represents the best combination of a supervillain and a superwoman. It is a long, and yet precious source of tips, hints and information for al of you out there – on the plus side, you cannot really act surprised – what could you expect from a writer? “Chatty” is our second name on the birth certificate.

Merry Christmas to everyone by the way!

Which was your dream job as a child, apart from super villain? Were you already thinking of being a writer?

I have always been a writer. Before I could form coherent sentences I would practice writing letters, and make “books” by stapling pieces of construction paper together and making word-art in them. I have always written as a way to process and deal with my experience. I started writing poems when I was about ten, and have kept diaries and blogs all my life. Before I formed my own narratives I also wrote fan fiction.

As for knowing I wanted to be a writer when I grew up: it was always something that I was, and the concept of a career as a “writer” in my head was that of a novelist, which is something that I am not (yet). I thought it was always something that I did or would do, but a natural part of me, like eating or breathing. If asked, I would have answered that I wanted to be a medical doctor (and bodies are still a subject of consuming fascination for me).

In high school I started to get the idea that being a professional writer was something that could mean many things, and be a career as well as a mode of being. I started to plan to make it a career around them; I suppose I was about fifteen when I knew for certain this was what I wanted to do.

What subject did you study for your undergraduate degree? What topics did you particularly like studying? And what did you do beyond your course? (For instance, did you work on a student newspaper?)

I did my undergraduate degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. I adored it; my undergrad was a brilliant time for me. I always love studying contemporary poetry the best, especially experimental literature and books written by women. I had the opportunity to study with some amazing writers, who produced their own work in addition to being teachers, like Susan Holbrook, Darryl Whetter and Di Brandt.

I am the queen of extracurricular activities. During my undergrad I was the undergraduate representative on most of the departmental committees. I was a research assistant and TA as well, doing everything from endless photocopying to teaching classes and proctoring exams. I also founded the English Undergraduate Students society, and which included a reading series and a quarterly ‘zine.

What did you find most challenging when you started out in journalism?

The greatest challenge for me has always been formatting. I didn’t go to J-School and don’t have any formal journalistic training; everything I know has been learned by experience, by making mistakes and correcting them, and by taking the guidance and instruction of my editors. This is something I still struggle with occasionally.

Also, the vocabulary of journalism is something I am very much learning. Sometimes I will still come across an acronym or term I don’t know and have to look up, or someone will use a phrase that makes me draw a blank. I am blessed with very patient editors who are  happy to explain things to me when need be, but who also respect my intelligence.

You are juggling between being an editor, a copywriter, a journalist and a full-time writer. What does your daily routine look like?

BAHAHAHAHAHA. “Routine.” Ha! Ha ha. Heh. Hoo.

It is absolutely impossible to have any kind of a routine with the lifestyle I lead. Between frequent travelling, assignments that can take place at odd hours, interviews that often happen across time zones, nights filled with show to review and more in-person interviews to conduct, and always an absurd amount of copy to write, I don’t really have any set thing that resembles a schedule. This is al compounded by the fact that my partner is the Managing Editor of a national magazine as well as the frontman for a metal band (who keep up a rigorous rehearsal schedule and tour regularly), so I have two insane schedules to navigate at any time if I ever feel like seeing the person who usually sleeps next to me.

In place of a routine, I have rules. Because I have to structure my time differently every day, I try and apply some of the same principles to the way I go about that.

  • Get productive early. Depending on whether I am nocturnal or not at the moment, “early” can mean very different things. Generally speaking, within an hour of waking up something resembling work needs to be happening.
  • Make a to-do list a plan a method of attack. I love lists. I have daily, weekly and monthly schedules to keep me on track and make sure I don’t miss obligations or end up with conflicts. They still happen occasionally, but far less often this way.
  • Schedule breaks. I am getting to the point in my life that I have to force myself to take a walk or get a coffee or play with the kitten for half an hour, but here we are. Not resting enough leads to burn out.
  • Find new work every day. Pick up a story, respond to a PR email, pitch something to an editor, contact a satisfied client to see if they have more work.
  • Eat food at reasonable intervals.
  • Respect but limit social media time. Participate in important conversations, post any work that goes live, and promote upcoming events, but also avoid getting sucked into the Tumblr void for hours.
  • Make the time to consume the art that I love. This means reading and listening for pleasure and not just work, going to a play or film I don’t have to review. Even simply reading a short article for pleasure can be a great recharge.
  • Stay engaged with colleagues’ work. Read other reviews and stories, especially those relevant to any work I’m doing.
  • Check email in a few big blocks throughout the day, rather than checking it constantly, so my whole day does not become email.
  • For at least one solid block of time (usually 2-4 hours), turn off outside distractions like chat and social media, and just write hard. I like to use apps like Antisocial and Freedom to prevent me from wandering off and Internetting during this time.

What happens when you mix feminism and aggressive music? 

Lots of interesting things! Aggressive music has the potential to be a deeply feminist forms of expression, as it has traditionally allowed for a place in which traditional gender roles can be subverted (men with long hair, riot grrrls).  Since heavy metal’s inception, there have been women playing this music. For example, way back in 1980, Motörhead and Girlschool (entirely composed of women) put out a split 7” called St Valentine’s Day Massacre. There have always been women serving as powerful peers and influences in the genre, so it is not exactly something new that is happening.

However, because the values in heavy metal (aggression, power, violence, dramatic imagery, etc.) are things that are traditionally viewed as male, the genre does tend to attract more male fans. Metal shows can become highly masculinized spaces, and music is often written for a very specific (young, male, white, straight) audience in mind. Even though metal can be a subversive genre, it is also constantly battling a deep inner conservatism.

What I find so interesting and useful about applying feminism to heavy metal is that it serve to remind the world that there are a lot of metal fans who don’t ascribe to the traditional image of the long-haired boy. It reminds fans that many of their heroes in the genre are women, and women have always been there. It highlights the contribution of women the the heavy music industry. And, it helps metal get back in touch with its subversive roots. All of these things are valuable.

Could you tell me something more about your column “Girl Don’t Like Metal”? Were you already managing editor of Canada Arts Connect at the time? 

I had been writing for Canada Arts Connect for a little while as an occasional contributor, when I applied for the position of Managing Editor and got the job. One of my first tasks was to overhaul the magazine portion of the site and come up with a new content strategy, which involved hiring new writers, coming up with a formal schedule, an working with the writers to develop columns. When I was coming up with a template for the new writers to use, I invested Girls Don’t Like Metal as a sample to demonstrate what I was looking for.

I immediately liked the idea so much that I asked out Artistic Director Desiree Ossandon if I could write it as well as edit, and she was totally on board.

I named the column after the article “Public Service Announcement: Girls Do Not Like Metal,” which appeared on Metalsucks in October of 2011. While the piece is ostensibly intended to be satirical, it’s also mean-spirited, ill-aimed and I think reveals a lot about some very real barriers that women who are metal fans face. Any kind of “feminine” expression (fashion, certain sub-genres) is looked down on, women are constantly questions about the depth and trueness of their fandom, and most of all, the spectre of “you’re just doing this for male attention” is raised to effectively dismiss any woman’s interest in the genre. They only allow that the very rare woman is actually a real fan (whatever that means) but they are few and far between. And probably hopelessly awkward and unattractive. Because lord knows, it would be IMPOSSIBLE for an engaged, knowledgeable, AND good-looking metal fan to exist. It paints women into a corner.

I started Girls Don’t Like Metal in the hopes of creating a positive antidote to this attitude. I wanted to create a space where women could talk about their careers, share their contribution to the metal scene in whatever form that took on, from musicians to sound techs and label reps to journalists. I wanted to showcase how important women are to the genre and how deep their love for metal goes. I also wanted to give them the opportunity to discuss the challenges they face as women in metal.

What has been one of the highlights so far, in your career, both as a writer and a journalist?

Unquestionably it has been the opportunity to serve on the jury for the Polaris Prize. It is an annual prize in Canada that seems to recognize the single best Canadian record released in the past year, regardless of genre or label support. It has been an incredible experience that has given me access to a vast network of professional colleagues and exposed me to a ton of fantastic new music that I may never have heard of otherwise.

This is a tricky one: but what does it take to be good at music writing?

Hoo boy.

I don’t think there is any one thing that defines whether or not someone will be a good music writer. My parter (and editor) would disagree, and in his opinion a good music writer just needs to do “everything better and more on time.”

The most important thing is to have something to say, to have an angle or an approach that is yours. Everyone has their own voice, sure, but I think to be truly great you need to bring something to the practice of music criticism that is your own. Whether that be a style of criticism, a socio-cultural lens, or the structure of the writing itself, great writers always grab me because they are doing something in a way no one else could do the same way.

Aside from that: write all the damn time. All the time, all the time. Think critically. Listen to music from many genres and sub-genres. Listen in different places and under a variety of circumstances. Do a ton of research. Be open minded. Balance generosity and sharpness. And write. So much writing.

Do you think aspiring journalists would find it difficult to break into journalism these days? What sorts of skills and experiences do you think they should be looking to develop if they want to be a journalist?

In terms of difficulty getting started: yes and no. Like any industry, writing for a living even as an abstract concept is changing rapidly. There is a lot of uncertainty in music journalism, to be sure, but there is also a new fluidity, and the potential to change things drastically, to come up with entirely new models of content production. Those looking for safety and security won’t find it, but those willing to carve a place for themselves will find a more malleable environment that ever before. Write lots, write well, and make solid professional contacts, and making a career is still entirely possible.

As for skills and experiences: ALL OF THEM. Seriously, everything that you do, every skill that you have, every obscure bit of knowledge, will be useful in your writing somehow.

The trick, I think, is to become an anthropologist in your own life. Develop your skills of observation. Notice things. Become fascinated by the world. The more curious you are, and the more open to actively, constantly learning, the better a journalist you will be.

Also, write everything all of the time.

When you are not busy writing, editing and copywriting, how do you like to relax?

Is that even a thing that happens anymore?

Kidding; I do make a conscious effort not to completely burn myself out. I love to cook and bake, both of which I find incredibly relaxing, so when I need to think or wind down a pie will often appear. I love to real speculative fiction and short stories, as well as good long-form journalism. I am also a huge fan of comic books (Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, Sam Keith, Gail Simone, Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick are favourites). I play a lot of video games as well.

I’m also a fan of getting my nails did, going for long walks with my headphones on, biking around the city, and getting drinks with my ladies.

Given that this is still a music blog: what’s been warming your iPod or CD player recently?

I’ve been playing a ton of Dragged into Sunlight – Widowmaker, Witch Mountain — Cauldron of the Wild, Gaza — No Absolutes in Human Suffering, Pallbearer — Sorrow and Extinction, Enslaved — RIITIIR, Mares of Thrace — The Pilgrimage, Oak Pantheon — From a Whisper, Gojira — L’Enfant Sauvage, and the new Neurosis and Converge records.

This is also the time of year that I take other people up on their excellent recommendations, which means have also been spinning Mgla – With Hearts Towards None and Derketa – In Death We Meet.

What does the future look like for you?

Exciting! I’m adding new projects all of the time. I’ve started work on what will become my third book, and I have recently signed on to new publications. I am particularly interested in expanding the scope of things I write about. While I will always write a ton about music, but I am reaching out more and more to write more about literature, comic books, and video games. I will also do more traditional journalism.

Long term? There’s always the possibility that I will eventually settle down for a few years to do my PhD.


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