Music journalists Will Hermes and Amanda Petrusich talk music and artistry during Q&A

By Shreya Singh, Staff Writer

To Will Hermes, an acclaimed music journalist for Rolling Stone, separating art from the artist isn’t something specific to musicians.

“I think even critics and journalists too,” Hermes said. “I mean I have a sense that I’m a little bit different on page than in real life, and maybe that’s the appeal of it.”

Hermes participated in a music journalism Q&A on Zoom Thursday night as a part of the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series, a program dedicated to bringing notable writers to Pitt’s campus. The Q&A session had about 60 people in attendance, featuring two music journalists — Will Hermes and Amanda Petrusich — who discussed their expansive careers. 

The series is fully funded by the Office of the Dean of Arts and Science. Some writers from past events in the series include George Saunders, the author of “Lincoln in the Bardo,” in 2007, and John McPhee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, in 2001.

Shannon Reed, the managing director of the program, said the series is meant for creative writing students at Pitt to learn about the many aspects of writing from experts in the field. 

“We seek to bring notable writers of intellectual caliber to the university to read every year at three or four events,” Reed said. “My personal interest is in providing opportunities for our creative writing students to hear a wide variety of writers read their own work and discuss their careers. We always try to have a Q&A period, which is such a great opportunity for students to ask writers about how they’ve shaped their lives.”

Hermes is the author of “Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever,” which he released in 2012. Hermes is also a contributor to NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered,” which delivers in-depth conversations about current events.

At the start of the event, Hermes read an excerpt from an upcoming biography he wrote on Lou Reed, an American musician in the rock band The Velvet Underground.

Petrusich is a music journalist who writes for The New Yorker and is the author of three books. She was nominated for a Grammy for Best Album Notes in 2019 and is the recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction. Additionally, she is an associate professor at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. 

Reed said the program invited Hermes and Petrusich to speak at the event because they are currently two of the most notable music journalists.

“Peter Trachtenberg, the current interim director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at Pitt, is a musician as well as a writer,” Reed said. “He’s friends with Will and put together this amazing lineup of Will and Amanda, truly two of the best and most interesting music writers working today.”

During the event, Trachtenberg asked questions regarding how Hermes and Petrusich approach writing different musical profiles. One question asked if an artist’s materials reflect the artist themself.

Petrusich said separating an artist from their art is difficult at times and that there’s a fine line between the two.

“I do think for any public facing artist — whoever they are on stage, whoever they are on social media, whoever they are in interviews — it is inevitably an extension of their work,” Petrusich said. “I think for some very lucky, very healthy artists, the line between persona and person is clear and definitive, but I think in general, it’s probably much more complicated. You know, sort of the idea that the mask becomes the face.”

Addressing how she writes criticism on music albums that artists put out, Petrusich said she doesn’t like the idea of how “cut and dry” it seems at times.

“For me at least, the idea of criticism as simply a thing where a person of great authority and expertise sort of declares works of art good and bad doesn’t work,” Petrusich said. “You know, to me that always felt a little uncomfortable. I didn’t want to do that kind of writing. There’s got to be a more complicated and interesting way to do this work. I was less interested in judging something than understanding it.”

Considering how many artist profiles and features Hermes and Petrusich write, they both have plenty of experience listening to and learning about different genres of music. Through this experience, they’ve found which artists’ works truly speak to them.

Hermes said Lou Reed, who he’s writing a biography on, is a musician he feels especially connected to.

“For me, it’s probably Lou Reed,” Hermes said. “More specifically, the Velvet Underground era of Lou Reed. I’m not trying to compare myself to him in any way, but we do share a little bit of background. I grew up 15 miles away from where he grew up and in a similar era with similar experiences. His lyrics always just really, really spoke to me.”

Petrusich said her favorite artist is a common choice, but one whose music she resonated with. 

“For me, this is a lame answer, but probably Bob Dylan,” Petrusich said. “I mean, he was sort of my first musical love and the first records that I heard where I wondered how someone else could have these kinds of raw thoughts. He’s the one artist I feel like I have an uncanny kinship with. He’s someone whose work just resonates with me on every level. I love his work instinctively. I loved it instantly.”

The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series will continue to organize free events annually that feature professional writers. Reed said she looks forward to the program hosting in-person events after the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the accessibility that Zoom allows.

“We’re really excited to be able to host an in-person event next,” Reed said. “Will and Amanda are [on] Zoom for a variety of reasons, but Dantiel W. Moniz, the author of ‘MILK BLOOD HEAT,’ who’s reading on October 28, will be on campus for a few days. She is our first writer to visit since February of 2020. At the same time, I love that Zoom events allow more people to attend.”