September 5th, 2008

Jenny Eliscu :: Contributing Editor – Rolling Stone Magazine

Jenny Eliscu :: Contributing Editor   Rolling Stone Magazine

When I was at this year’s Lollapalooza in Chicago I met Jenny Eliscu.

Jenny has been with Rolling Stone for almost 10 years where she’s gone from a young writer to her current role as one of the magazine’s contributing editors. She’s the author of Schools that Rock: The Rolling Stone College Guide. When she is not writing and traveling to festivals, she hosts Left of Center on Sirius Satellite Radio.

We had a great talk and discussed everything from her coverage of the Napster trial, George Harrison, Amy Winehouse, tequila shots and the current state of music business.

R&G: How did you get your start with Rolling Stone?

Jenny: I started off at a consumer magazine called the CMJ New Music Monthly and after 5 years was looking for anything at a real magazine. I interviewed for a job at Details that I didn’t get because I was supposedly “over-qualified”, which is hardly flattering when you’re like, “No. What do you mean? I’ll take it!”. I remained in contact and became friends with the guy who interviewed me. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had worked for and when a position opened up he recommended me for it.

R&G: What was his name?

Jenny: Rob Levine. He’s a fantastic dude and responsible for a great deal of my career thus far with that one simple gesture.

R&G: When did you start writing for the magazine?

I had been at for maybe two weeks when my current editor, Jason Fine, came down and asked me to go to Woodstock ’99 to do a story for the magazine about this doctor who was setting up a psychiatric triage for kids who were tripping on whatever they tripped on in 1999. So I was like, “What? First of all, I’m going to Woodstock ’99? Second of all, I’m writing a story for Rolling Stone Magazine? What the fuck?”

R&G: That’s a major story for your first article.

Jenny: Yeah! Oh my God, totally! I had no idea. I look back now and I know I felt very humbled by the experience, but I don’t think I knew what the hell I was doing. I could do it so much better now; obviously. This entire summer I’m going to festivals, and now it’s stressful since I’m covering them. But I know what I’m doing now. Whereas Woodstock ’99 was a literally trial by fire.

R&G: I’m interested in how technology is disrupting the music business. You covered the Napster trial. Did you or anyone you interview foresee the impact that Peer to Peer Technology (P2P) would have on the music industry today?

Oh no…definitely not. I have to say that when the initial Napster story broke, it had reached a point of being a mainstream issue where everybody was using it. When Metallica and Dr. Dre decided to sue Napster, it was obvious that something big was going to happen that seemed like it would change everything.

R&G: But didn’t it blow your mind at the time? Did you think that the labels, with all the money they had, might be able to get rid of this type of “uprising”?

Jenny: It’s hard to say. I really wish I could look back on that with 20/20 vision. I’m not skirting the issue by being journalistic, but you can’t be too convinced you know what’s going to happen next, or you lose your engagement with the topic. The other thing is that nobody fucking knew what was happening. Every issue, I would do a story on Napster and I would interview experts and various execs in the music business. I was talking to Jimmy Iovine about what this Napster thing was going to do and asking Dr. Dre why he’s suing Napster. Everybody had different ideas. For a while, it was, “It’s going to be the universal jukebox where you can stream any song you ever wanted to hear online in an instant, high quality audio, so why would anyone need to download anything.” Then other people would say, “Oh, it’s all going to be downloaded. Nobody wants to stream. They want it on their hard drive.Then the iPod came out. Nobody saw that coming. Nobody fuckin’ saw that. It came up from behind. All the shit that people postulated would happen, none of it happened, and now Apple rules the music business.

R&G: Do you think Steve Jobs is good for the music industry?

Jenny: Definitely. Steve Jobs is great. Even if he does what he does for purely mercenary reasons, he is just a good capitalist. Shaking things up is better for music. Anybody who comes in and fucks shit up is great for the industry.

R&G: Where do you see the music industry in the next five years?

Well, if I’ve learned anything in covering this stuff, it’s not to make any predictions.

R&G: But make one.

Jenny: Five years ago, the landscape for digital distribution and music was really not that different from what it’s like now, but obviously, five years prior to that it was very different. I think the personal electronic side of things is really in its biggest boom right now. Some “smart” opinions are that wireless companies might start buying/investing in record labels.

R&G: With all these potential business models the consumer ends up losing out on music at some point. It’s going to be tough to get all of your music in one place.

I totally agree with you. That’s bad for music, and when it’s bad for music, consumers respond by not buying as much of what you’re putting out there. It’s almost impossible to transition into any of these potentially viable models until the publishers of songs start loosening their hold on the purse strings a little bit. You can’t have this competition where only this label’s songs are available here on this download site. Give the customers what they want.

R&G: What do you think of music blogs breaking stories “real time” before the magazines can report on them?

Jenny: When well executed, they are a great thing. I do think that, as a writer, clearly the first two things that suffer are writing and reporting in those instances. So you have a lot of false information that people take as true because it’s presumably a news source when it’s not; it’s a blog, and so that is unfortunate. From a Rolling Stone standpoint, that’s not what we do. We offer a more expert and thoroughly written look at the stories we report and think our readers care about most.

R&G: So you guys have to move faster on your deadlines to get the magazine out?

Jenny: We come out every two weeks, so we have very short lead times. In response to the popularity of blogs and even YouTube and stuff like that, we have to reconsider how we cover things like the Video Music Awards because where it falls in our production cycle, it could be old news with all the good jokes made and the insights insighted.

R&G: Which major artists have you interviewed?

Jenny: I’ve had extensive series of interviews with Pete Townsend, and I’ve interviewed George Harrison on the phone once.

R&G: You spoke to George Harrison right before he passed away, correct?

Jenny: Shortly before, yes.

R&G: When you talked to him, did you know he was ill?

Jenny: No, he seemed fine. He had a new record coming out, Brainwashed, which ultimately ended up being his final album, released posthumously. He was promoting it when I spoke to him. There was a buzz of activity around him, which was the only reason I was able to get the interview. I was so nervous; it was like 11:00 in the morning and I’m not much of a drinker, but I had some airplane bottles of tequila and I downed two of them before we spoke.

R&G: Nothing wrong with that. Was there something that you came away with during that conversation that you didn’t expect?

Jenny: It was easier to talk to him than I thought it would be. It all made sense when I got off the phone with him. He knew how to guide the interview. He was very professional. He knew what he wanted to talk about and I knew clearly what he wanted to talk about and I have never been one to take advantage of my access to ask things that I don’t think they’d be prepared to answer. It’s like, George frickin’ Harrison agreed to talk to me. I’d always thought that he’d be an amazing person and he was.

R&G: You’ve interviewed Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, and Amy Winehouse. How did you become the diva interview lady?

Jenny: There are very few women who write for Rolling Stone. There have been times over the years where I have been the go-to if they wanted a woman interviewed by another woman.

R&G: When you are sitting in Mariah Carey’s apartment or wherever the hell you are, do you feel like you’re on Pluto?

Jenny: Yeah, but that’s the fun part. Either you feel like you’re on Pluto – and that’s fun – or you feel like wow, I really don’t feel like I’m on Pluto. Isn’t this interesting? Those three women are all different cases, and I can’t really speak much to Christina Aguilera, but she’s a lot smarter than anyone would expect or give her credit for and I liked her quite a bit. And Britney Spears, I love Britney.

R&G: When you interviewed Amy Winehouse, did you see any hints that she was messed up?

Jenny: There was just an element of drama to her from the “go”. I just had a feeling that this girl was going through some shit. It’s not controversial to acknowledge that Amy Winehouse has some kind of substance abuse problem.

R&G: You saw her at a monumental point in her life that foreshadowed where she is now and how we perceive her through the media…

Jenny: I couldn’t believe it when I met with her the first day in Toronto and they (Winehouse & Blake Civil-Fielder) had this explosive fight. She was hysterical and like a week later in Miami, I was supposed to hang out with her/them that morning and her publicist calls me to say that they needed to reschedule the interview for later. Then I get a call from my office and since we also publish US Weekly someone there tells me, “Oh, did you hear that Amy Winehouse got married?” That was how I heard. I was in the same city as her, waiting to do an interview with her, and found out that she got married.

R&G: Were you pissed that you weren’t a bridesmaid?

Jenny: [Laughs] I was like, “What the fuck? What do you mean she got married?” They postponed my interview so that they could go get married? I was like, when last we met, they were in a big dramatic fight. This is brilliant. You can’t make this shit up. It’s the best when you can’t make the shit up.

R&G: You did a piece on Band of Horses for Rolling Stone’s 2007 Hotlist.

Jenny: Yeah, I did a feature on Band of Horses – who, I think are fantastic – I was not a major fan of their first record, but their most recent [Cease To Begin] – the one I did that story on – I think is an incredible record and I’m kind of surprised that it didn’t do better. I think My Morning Jacket (MMJ) are more skilled but I certainly think that a larger portion of MMJ fans should be Band of Horses fans.

R&G: Do you like MMJ’s new album [Evil Urges]?

Jenny: Totally.

R&G: It’s great when a band takes a risk and tries something new and interesting.

Jenny: I think one of the most salient points about My Morning Jacket is that their success demonstrates that those generalizations about people having bad taste, are not entirely true. You see a band like MMJ playing Madison Square Garden on New Years’ Eve, and especially as a New Yorker, that’s significant; that’s not lost on me. It’s like, “Really? Oh my god!” Not only good for them but good for you guys, buying those tickets. I mean, I think MMJ are amazing and I think they have always said, “We’re not just one kind of band.” They continue to demonstrate that and I appreciate it.

R&G: How about the Strokes, are they going to put out another album?

: Yeah! I can’t say exactly when, but I do believe there’s going to be some new Strokes activity early next year.

R&G: Thank you–you’ve been great.

You’re lucky I’m not giving you hell over your Kings of Leon text messages from earlier.

R&G: I am what? Lucky? [Laughs]

You’re lucky I’m not giving you hell over your schlagging the Kings Of Leon.

R&G: Yes, I did schlagged them. I saw them at the The Greek Theatre [Los Angeles] – and they killed it. They are still one of my favorite bands, but it looked like they spent an hour and a half on their hair and the clothes before the show. They’re a southern rock n’ roll band and they have perms and makeup on.

Jenny: First of all, this is rock n’ roll, baby! Would you complain if David Johansen took too long putting on his fucking eyelashes for the New York Dolls? Who cares?

Further Reading:
The Troubled Homecoming Of The Marlboro Marine – Jenny Eliscu