Name: Leah Kardos
Current Project: Black Star Theory on Bloomsbury
Recommendations: The Exterminating Angel Symphony by Thomas Ades / Star Trek: Acid Party
If you enjoyed this interview with Leah Kardos, visit her website for more information and news about her book, music and collaborations.
When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I haven’t been writing about music professionally for very long. For me it has been a natural transition from academic writing, which itself began as more of an expectation to publish research papers as part of my university role.
But I’ve always been completely fascinated and enamoured by music and sound, there’s nothing I enjoy more than thinking about, listening to, observing, participating in it. I’m a sucker for a deep analysis; I’m really drawn to the multi-disciplinary precision of writers like Daniel Levitin, Paul Hegarty and You Nakai, and music journalism with an attentive and sensitive approach - Geeta Dayal on experimentalism, Carl Wilson’s album reviews, Chris O’Leary’s writing on Bowie.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as a writer and the transition towards your own style?
I was a music creator before I got into writing, though I find both activities feel remarkably similar. It’s this same feeling I sense being a music teacher, maker, fan, writer… like it’s all the same activity – being attendant and open to the experience of music and wanting to frame that experience for myself and for others.
Funny story though, I only got into writing for the Wire because I had sent my album in for review (Bird Rib, from 2020) – Joe Stannard responded to my begging for coverage by offering me the writing gig. This happened while I was working on ‘Blackstar Theory’, so I welcomed the chance to develop my language and practise writing in a more accessible tone.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your work?
I feel it infuses it completely. From the subjectivity of my perspectives, my own way of hearing, seeing and connecting bits of information together. Describing how music feels for me, what it does to me. As Allan Moore said, meaning in music is never inscribed, one can only ascribe it.
What were your main challenges as a writer when starting out and how have they changed over time?
Time. Energy. It has only gotten worse over time, and not because my life has gotten busier, but because I seem to take longer to process, think and work these days. I used to be able to bang things out quickly and intuitively; I seem to have lost that ability now. I get seduced by depths, ideas can swallow whole weeks and months and years if I let them.
How do you see the role of music journalism in the creative process? Should it amplify public taste, distinguish the good from the bad, inform, promote artists, or, as Howard Mandel put it, “illuminate, educate and entertain” readers?
I think at the very least it should pay attention to the music, and honour the thought, time and effort that has been invested into it with seriousness and, ideally, if it’s worthy, to be reciprocated with thought, time, and effort in kind. As a creator, I understand that many music artists are driven by the hope that their work will be closely listened to. I try my best to engage with music on these terms. I’m not really bothered about promoting people or showing what I know about scenes and styles. I’m only interested in what the music does.
Whom do you feel your obligation to – the artists, the readers, the publication you're writing for?
First, it’s for the reader, so they can get a sense of what the music does. Then it’s for the artist, to respond to the work in an attentive way. Then again, I also write for myself, trying to find my way inside, to penetrate the surfaces.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives, writers and possibly even the artists you're interviewing or working with for a piece?
Collaborating with an editorial or peer review process can feel a bit brutal, but I’ve learned that being edited is a real privilege. I’m Australian, so I’m forever being corrected by people for pronouncing things wrongly (the running joke on Kath & Kim about limited Aussie vocabularies is painfully true in my experience!). It also keeps the ego in check, and keeps me writing from an open, slightly unsure, always questioning headspace. As with music, I really welcome collaboration in writing - without it, the creative process can feel quite lonely. Ditto for interviewing, it just feels like a huge gift to have special access to a subject. I’m always ready for my writing or research to topple in the face of what new thing it might uncover.