Our favourite music interviews of 2015: Prince, Kendrick, Blur, Björk and more

Goofing out with Joanna Newsome, an endurance event with Blur, and the fear and the fury of Jerry Lee Lewis … meeting the stars held unknown highlights for our writers this year

Prince by Alexis Petridis

No artist I’ve ever interviewed has elicited such fantastic interest from friends and acquaintances as Prince. Not long after I met him, I went to a party and ended up retelling the story of my encounter with him about eight times: every time I saw someone I knew, it was the first thing they asked me about. People really want to know what he’s like. Like David Bowie or Kate Bush, he’s managed to become a huge, vastly influential star while keeping a sense of mystery entirely intact. So what is he like? Based on the weekend I spent in Minneapolis, I still have no idea, beyond the fact that he’s incredibly skilled at leading the media a merry dance: making sure they go home with a story without really revealing anything of himself at all. That’s quite a talent. But, then, that’s one thing everyone does know about Prince: he’s a talented man.

Blur by Tim Jonze

This interview was, quite literally, a bit of a blur for me. I’d only landed in Hong Kong the night before, and jet lag had prevented me from getting any sleep. In between meeting each band member, there were awkward three-hour intervals and usually a journey to be made somewhere in torrential rain and sweltering heat. It felt more like an endurance challenge than an interview, and the encounters themselves brought with them their own mini pitfalls: Graham Coxon told me off for asking boring questions; Alex James looked visibly hurt when I brought up his friendship with David Cameron; even Dave Rowntree could be surprisingly defensive. Meanwhile Damon Albarn was wild-eyed and enthusiastic and then off to soundcheck before I could really pin him down on anything. And yet when I got home and pieced all these weird, brief interactions together, everything seemed to come together and make sense – a bit like the band themselves, I guess.

A human with a beating heart ... Björk Photograph: Publicity image

Björk by Sophie Heawood

Despite having been a Björk fan for years, it never really struck me that she’d be warm. Fascinating, brave and cerebral, certainly, but not warm. Yet here was a human being with a beating heart, who was still getting over a divorce, and about to begin a custody battle, releasing a record that perhaps even scared her. I don’t think I asked many questions, really. It felt like there was a lot of trust in the room, so she just talked. She talked about her whole life. It can take years of interviewing people to learn to just shut up and let them speak.

Kendrick Lamar by Dorian Lynskey

When this interview was first mooted in 2014, Kendrick Lamar hadn’t yet finished his official second album. Once To Pimp a Butterfly dropped, and was universally hailed as a masterpiece, things got complicated. Potential dates in London and Los Angeles came and went while I wrote pages of questions I suspected I would never get to ask. But finally there he was, strolling into the Guardian offices without a flicker of ego, exactly as I had hoped he would be from the album: thoughtful, articulate, and direct. We started cautiously but after about 15 minutes I asked a question about his background that seemed to unlock him and suddenly there was nothing he wouldn’t talk about. The conversation came to feel like an extension of the album: an intensely moral and intelligent young man working out where he had come from and where he was going.

Mac DeMarco by Harriet Gibsone

When I met Mac back in September, he seemed a bit burdened with all that was expected of him, as both an artist of the people and a debauched slacker rock star. Not a boy, not yet a man, he is caught between rock’n’roll recklessness and the responsibilities of moderate fame. Apart from the patch of booze-induced puke on his shoe, I saw more of the latter as we sat in bed at his Airbnb; a little defensive, and a flicker of earnest ambition in his eyes. Either that or it was his hangover kicking in.

Joanna Newsom
Actually quite goofy ... Joanna Newsom Photograph: Annabel Mehran

Joanna Newsom by Tim Lewis

Preparing for a celebrity interview can sometimes feel like revising for an exam. It felt especially so with Joanna Newsom, who – whatever your opinion on how they are delivered – stands out as one of the most ambitious, wilfully challenging lyricists in music today. For a couple of days before we met, I crammed references and allusions to all sorts of arcane subjects. But Newsom, in person, is mostly much less intimidating than her public image; in fact, she’s actually quite goofy at times. I hoped the article would represent both these sides of her character.

Vince Staples by Ben Beaumont-Thomas

Vince Staples spent 2015 becoming rap’s most entertaining interviewee, from talking up his knowledge of copper trading (“My precious metal game is immaculate”) to naming his childhood mentor as the black Power Ranger. During my own 50 minutes with him he admitted to a one-time “bloodthirst” for killing people and argued that slavery worked. This was not mere provocation – he backed up his points by referencing the likes of Los Angeles psychogeographer Mike Davis and murdered Black Panther Bunchy Carter. He would head down logical dead ends, then double back into another incendiary insight, guided by unflinching honesty and a bracing disinterest in a personal brand. Drake and Meek Mill’s squabble over authenticity shows that “realness” is still rap’s most sought-after commodity; Vince Staples has accumulated vast reserves by not caring about it.

Benjamin Clementine by Tshepo Mokoena

I met Benjamin Clementine about a week and a half before he nabbed this year’s Mercury prize. Chatting in his former local public library, he said he didn’t think he’d win, and reckoned Glaswegian multi-instrumentalist C Duncan deserved it. Or Eska. Or, come to think of it, Ghostpoet or Róisín Murphy. He expressed the same stuttering, slightly rambling generosity when he welcomed all the other nominees onstage with him at the awards show. He clearly believes in himself as an artist, but has a talent for blunt self-deprecation and telling a meandering tale that make him wonderfully endearing – even when moaning about the press.

Adele by Tom Lamont

“I’ve missed talking,” said Adele, on the autumn afternoon we sat down together in a lounge at her record label, XL. After five self-imposed years in the pop-publicity wilderness, she was actually looking forward to interviews. “I’ve been desperate to talk. I’ve been talking to myself.” So over the course of the afternoon Adele talked, and talked, and talked – about monster-fame and motherhood, about old boyfriends and current ones, about her ego and her writing engine and her income. Into the second hour, voice recorder filling up, I asked if she had time for all of this. One Direction, in an equivalent position of global admiration and demand, had granted me a steel-cordoned 17 minutes. And Adele was that week in the busy end stages of production on her new album, the soon-to-sell-millions 25. “As long as I can still go Halloween shopping with my kid later, we’re good,” said Adele, and she banged on cheerfully for another hour.

Jerry Lee Lewis by Simon Hattenstone

I’ve interviewed Mike Tyson, gangsters and a fair few murderers in my time. But to be honest they didn’t worry me as much as the prospect of meeting Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee has history with guns, and settling out of court. There are disturbing rumours about how two of his seven wives died. When I got there I was introduced to the mountain lion rug on the floor of the den. “Oh, don’t you worry about her,” Judith, number seven, said, “That’s Jane. Jerry’s second wife!” Jerry Lee didn’t disappoint, as he growled his way through the interview, at one point warning me not to tread on thin ice, at another stomping his stick with fury. He even played a short impromptu gig for the handful of us in his den, and it was beautiful. And as for the last thing he said … it left me with a lump in my throat.

The Replacements
Uncomfortable with their legacy ... the Replacements Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns via Getty Images

Benga by Kate Hutchinson

It took an incredible amount of bravery for dubstep artist Benga to take to Twitter in September and tell his followers about his struggle with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. When he announced his retirement last year, most people assumed that he was simply tired of life as a touring DJ; few can have known how sick it had actually made him. Not many people call out the negative sides of the dance music industry: it’s all euphoria and escapism and having a legendary time. It’s promising to see that, in the music media at least, Benga’s story has helped continue the conversation about musicians and mental health. I hope it encourages other DJs and producers to speak up, too.

The Replacements by Michael Hann

I was one of the few thousand who were excited beyond belief that the reformed Replacements were to come to the UK to play two shows – at last, I had a chance to talk to one of my favourite ever bands. Tommy Stinson, the bass player, sounded exactly as you might expect from a man who had divided his working career between the Replacements and Guns N’ Roses, two bands noted for neither restraint or reliability. His voice was that of a man who has lived life fully. Paul Westerberg was an enigma. He sounded deeply ambivalent about being back on the road with his bandmates, describing the version of the band that was touring as “just a footnote” to the original iteration. He was mildly irritated at the people making money all over again out of the Replacements, about the repackaging of his old songs: “I could make more money with an acoustic guitar on my own,” he said. Comfortable with his legacy? Not so much. Still, I got to talk to the Replacements, I got to see them twice. I was thrilled.

Jenny Hval by Sharon O’Connell

Even now, I find Skype a weirdly dislocating communication medium. It’s hardly designed to winkle revelations or insights out of strangers. But somehow, its faux intimacy fitted my conversation with Jenny Hval; not because she wasn’t engaged and frank, but because she views her life as an ongoing art project. Happily, she is “also just a person”, one who in this instance ranged over far too many thought-provoking subjects to crowbar into a short feature – the psychology of embarrassment and the sexual signification of the banana included. For my part, it’s hard to imagine any future exchange having a higher “dick” count. At least, one that’s professionally justified.


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