Interview: Jenn Pelly
PORTALS recently had the opportunity to chat with writer Jenn Pelly about her experience in journalism, what it’s like working for Pitchfork, the bands she’s been most excited by this year, and more.
I know you had the opportunity to go to Primavera this past Summer, what was your standout moment of the festival?
Primavera was months ago but as the summer comes to an end it remains clear to me that it was a total highlight. I feel extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to attend the best-run music festival in the world. I was working the entire time on an article about bands from Barcelona so I was pretty exhausted. It was worth it. One standout moment was sitting with my sister in these bleacher-type seats and watching Codeine play the ATP stage. It was real late at night and the sea was in the distance behind the stage. The entire thing was unbelievable. From where we were sitting we could see the entire crowd of thousands and thousands, all there for the same reason, it was surreal. Seeing all of those people made me think really hard about where I was and how I got there. I’d never been to a music festival this big before, let alone on the other side of the world.
It’s pretty incredible that your job takes you to places like Spain. How did working for Pitchfork come to fruition?
They needed to hire an associate staff writer and got in touch. I have always been writing about music as much as possible since I was a teenager, so someone there was familiar with my work.
Can you walk us through an average day of work?
I walk to the office, which I feel grateful for. The type of work I do varies. Mostly I write news and work on features. Sometimes I’ll interview someone on the phone. Occasionally I’ve been out of the office to work on a report or feature. “Day of work”/”day of life,” it’s all the same for me right now which I feel lucky about. I can’t ever turn my brain off and stop thinking about stuff. When you’re a writer there are no boundaries because you have trained yourself to be hyper-perceptive, and there are ideas everywhere.
Interviewing Beach House, premiering new music from Fiona Apple, and traveling the globe have quickly become part of your day-to-day tasks. Do you ever have to pinch yourself?
I feel really grateful for all of these things but they also have nothing to do with why I’m a writer. They have nothing to do with my growth as a writer or the process of writing and developing/conveying thoughts and communicating with people. They are just orbiting around the core of why I love doing this. But I definitely feel like it’s a massive honor to get to premiere new music from Fiona Apple, her albums have always been extremely important to me; “When the Pawn” is my favorite album ever. I really liked interviewing Beach House because they are an honest band with serious integrity.
When given the creative freedom, how do you choose what stories to tell? Do you find yourself telling stories relevant to the time, or more so stories that you’ve always wanted the audience for?
I just try to tell stories and write about things that I think are valuable—that no one else has written about, or that no one else has written about in a certain way. I definitely would never write about a band just because they sound good if they’ve already been written about a million times and I don’t have anything startlingly new to say. Long-form writing and deep reporting are the most fulfilling sorts of journalism to produce and consume, that’s the end goal for anyone who is a journalist. I love writing about underground music, and I like writing for small audiences. When you write for a big audience, you usually have to make it concise and easier to read, and some things can be lost in the process. When you write for a small audience, you can say whatever the fuck you want. Lately something I have been thinking about is how artists don’t have to make sense. When I’m working through an interview, my job is to make it so that you can understand what a person is talking about. But artists are allowed to not make sense; they are allowed to say things and leave it open to interpretation for the fan/reader. You can’t really translate that so easy when you’re writing for a million people. That’s something you’re going to get in a smaller/non-commercial publication. There are interesting untold stories embedded in underground music so that fascinates me, people who do stuff more purely. I don’t really care as much about reading a carefully crafted/insightful profile on some huge boring rock band on their fourth album or some plastic, vile, misogynist artist. It’s hard for me to see the value in that.
As a professional journalist, what are your thoughts on music blogs? What makes your favorites your favorites?
The only time in my life that I ever actively read blogs was when I had a college radio show called “The New Afternoon Show” and every week I would need 3.5 hours of new music to play. I did not read music blogs before I started that show, and I don’t read them much anymore. I look at the distro pages for labels I like. I find music mostly from going out to shows constantly or from recommendations by artists whose opinions I respect. But I like blogs that teach you about music you’d otherwise not know about.
Do you have any favorite music journalists? What’re they doing that makes their journalism so meaningful to you?
Yes of course, too many to name. There are a lot of people at Pitchfork who I find inspiring because they have dedicated themselves to this so intensely in a way I haven’t seen at other magazines I’ve worked at. Otherwise… Ellen Willis, Greil Marcus, people who come to it with an awareness of the world outside of music. Rob Sheffield. I have the SPIN Alternative Record Guide and it’s like my bible. I have spent a lot of time in the archives of Rolling Stone and SPIN. I interned at both of those magazines for a year each making no money etc. I also used to live next door to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and they had back catalogs there.
When and how did you know you wanted to write about music for a living?
I think if you are a person who is compelled to communicate your thoughts with other people it’s intuitive. I have always wanted to be a writer, since I was five years old. There has never been a point in my life where I have seriously considered anything else, so I’m lucky this is working out. I’ve wanted to be a writer since kindergarten. I was at a Daisy’s meeting and an author came to read from a children’s book she had put out and I fell in love with storytelling. This story in particular I think was about talking soap bubbles who live on the edge of a rainbow, which in retrospect is totally psychedelic and weird. There is literally nothing to do on Long Island other than go to Tower Records and Barnes and Noble and hang out in parking lots and (of course) go to shows, so when I was growing up I did a lot of that. At some point in 7th or 8th grade, from reading music magazines at Tower Records all the time and being involved with the music scene on Long Island, I started to think about how perfect it would be to fuse my passion for writing with my love of music because at that point I felt like music had saved my life by showing me the light away from standard suburban culture. There was a period of time when I lost interest in music journalism, when I started getting jaded about how shitty and misogynist the music scene on Long Island was. Like if you were a girl at a show people automatically thought your interest in the music was less sincere. This was when I was 14 or 15 years old. I became disillusioned by music and decided that I only cared about female artists. All I really listened to was Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Sleater-Kinney, Bjork, Joni Mitchell. But then I also listened to artists like Bob Dylan, Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, the Smiths, entry-level high school stuff. I thought I might want to be a news reporter or an investigative journalist. My sister and I wrote some big investigative stories for the school newspaper together. The newspaper was our life. I was the Editor-in-Chief. I was also straight edge until the end of high school and vegetarian and in Girl Scouts; I always was super socially conscious, etc so I thought my writing should go that way. Then freshman year of college a series of events happened that made me think really hard about life and ultimately rekindled my dedication to music, the summer after that I interned at Rolling Stone and never really looked back.
Who were some of the first artists you ever wrote about?
Probably some pop-punk bands on my LiveJournal in 2003.
You have a joint blog with your twin sister Liz called Pelly Twins. Is the site still active? Do you look to collaborate more in the future?
We’ve had to set it aside over the past year or so, and I think for the most part it’s over. I don’t feel bad about it. It’s like a relationship that ends for the sake of something better. We are really excited about the idea of doing a biannual print publication. We have spent time working on it this year and we’re hoping the first issue will be out by November. It’s going to be called “Cryptophazia“, which is a play on the spelling of “cryptophasia,” which is the psychological term for the secret language that twins develop and share between each other. The freedom that self-publishing allows is really important. We want to do something that feels vital and creative and we value artifacts. I have an iPad, but I don’t bring my computer home from work that much anymore. My computer breaks my heart every time I look at it outside of work and think about how much time of my life I have wasted on it. I don’t think technology is evil or completely destructive but like Kraftwerk said “you have to own it”.
Do the two of you generally agree on music? Is there anything you just can’t seem to agree on?
Liz Pelly and I never agree on music.
Are there any bands that you’ve been particularly impressed by this year?
I really loved the White Lung album. I love the Blanche Blanche Blanche album from Night People and I love the new Swearin’ album. I saw a band called Hysterics from Olympia last week and was totally blown away. I am obsessed with Merchandise from Tampa—I think what they’re doing is important and exciting. Their music is beautiful and thoughtful and so good that it almost scares me. I also really like the new Lower EP on Escho. These are all bands that I have had the pleasure of writing about for Pitchfork this year. But what I really haven’t taken off my turntable is the Moss Icon discography reissue from Temporary Residence. That is so good. I’ve been inspired by a lot of music this year. Frank Ocean‘s “Bad Religion”.
What band/trend could you live without?
There are way too many, but I’d rather not spend more time thinking about them than I’ve already had to in life… I don’t like talking about stuff I hate unless it really deeply profoundly offends me. Most of the stuff that I hate today is not even that offensive, it’s just fucking boring and not contributing anything valuable. I guess a lot of music on the radio offends me. If there are trends that really bother me, they are more in the attitude and behaviors of musicians today, less so in their music itself. I really hate bands who are legitimately just making music so that they can tour and party and perpetuate their dumb lifestyle on the road. That has nothing to do with writing valuable music. I think it’s obvious when that’s the case. I find it easy to see through people because intuition tells me not to trust anyone. I think it’s easy to tell when bands aren’t being sincere.
And lastly, seeing as you are only 23, where do you see yourself in the following 10 years?
I don’t know, I don’t even really know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I spent so much time throughout high school and college thinking about the future, right now I am trying to focus on the present and just doing the best possible work that I can do, working on honing my craft, exploring new areas, trying to be a better person. It’s always been an undeniable pipe dream of mine to write for the New York Times one day because it has always been my favorite paper, it was my lifeline when I was in high school—sitting at lunch by myself, listening to music, reading the New York Times. But I love what I’m doing right now and feel extremely lucky for all of the opportunities I’ve been afforded. As I mentioned I really want to start my own print publication even if only 10 people read it so that I can just write stuff that feels vital and sort of experiment more with the journalist/subject exchange. There are some books that I feel like I need to write in my life even if no one ever reads them, about my family, my grandparents’ lives. I love writing deep long-form stories about one other person/topic because it’s such an intense experience, it’s only through spending an insane amount of time with a person or topic that some sort of truth begins to reveal itself to you. But things are changing all the time. So much shit has happened in my life that so obviously is a result of fate that it’s hard for me to believe that I’m in control of anything.
(Curated by Speaker Snacks)