BY LANA HARRIS
Though her Pitchfork-logo’d desk placard would probably read “music journalist,” Amanda Wicks is ‘forever seeking sound’ and cultural phenomena through a colourful variety of its realisations. Thus, her writings have dived into topics ranging from Future Sex/Love Sounds’ tenth birthday to the paternally-spurred storytelling of Good Guy’s Nick Thune.
Wicks’ album reviews and new music updates grace the aisles of highly esteemed critical music platforms including Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound, and CBS Radio while her culturally focused writing on burgeoning local music scenes and global news dance through sources like Paste Magazine, The Bluegrass Situation, and Complex.
Finding her home in the Creole-spiced American south, Wicks was drawn in by the burgeoning bubblings of Baton Rouge’s music; this wed with a profound love for bluegrass spurred Wicks to become an indispensable documenter of Baton Rouge’s local scene.
She took a minute to speak with us about her Canadian upbringing, her past life as an English major, and the ever-morphing mystique of freelance writing in the age of the internet.
AW: My story’s kind of weird. I was born in Toronto and my dad was a news anchor so we moved quite a bit because of his job. I’ve been in and out of the States kind of my whole live, but I try to go back once a year. I call it a working vacation because I have to take my work with me and get something done while I’m there.
NM: Would you say that having your Dad as a news anchor spurred the path of music journalism?
AW: Narratively, it should, but that wasn’t really the case. He did broadcast journalism. Growing up with that, I didn’t really pay close attention to what he was doing. I thought it was cool and appreciated it, but found my own path in studying English. So I definitely didn’t try to go into journalism, but kind of fell into it anyway.
NM: How did your degree influence your career in journalism?
AW: My degree was mostly American literature, but I’d argue that the skills I learned in terms of analysis and critical reading/thinking really helped me. I can’t advocate enough for the fact that I got really good at writing 20-30 page papers. Suddenly, writing an 800-word think-piece was really quick. Not to underplay the think-piece, because it is hard work in and of itself, but I like the training that I received to think bigger and whittle that down to what we see online, these days.
NM: Could you talk about the dominance of blog-style journalism from the time you graduated college until now?
AW: I’m technically of the age of writers that should have come up in print journalism, and did. I did kind of get my foot in print journalism in terms of local media- local magazines, alt weeklies… however, in order to lead to a more national scene, you did need to publish online. Even though the print magazines pay more, it’s hard to get your foot in the door with them. They have an established team of freelancers that they work with, they don’t want to take on new writers as much unless you come to the table having this massive clips base. I think the ubiquity of online journalism is fantastic for writers. It’s still hard to get published, but there’s a lot more out there for writers to find a footing in. But it’s hard because the pay isn’t necessarily as sustainable as it was with print.
NM: How do you decide which outlets to work for, with your wide volume of topical inspirations?
AW: When I was just getting started, I didn’t say no to anything. I took on any kind of writing assignment that I could, knowing that I’d learn something about each and every one. I’d learn something like, “oh, I don’t want to work with that editor again” or “oh, I didn’t like that kind of assignment. As you build your clip base, you can pitch different places. I’ve found that through my working relationships with editors I’ve really come to love a set few and just go back to them time and again. Knowing that they’ll take care of the writing; they’ll give me meaty assignments, and we’ll have a good working relationship.
I feel like a lot of people might try to generalise at first which is a good thing, but at some point you have to specialise in a particular area. I’m at a point when I’m trying to focus my writing a bit more within a certain genre as opposed to just picking up whatever.
NM: I notice that you heavily touch on folk and bluegrass as well as the Louisiana Baton Rouge scene. Would you say your writing is more focused on a geographical scope or a genre-based scope?
AW: That’s a great question, I’m kind of wrestling with it myself, actually. I love country, Americana, and Roots so I really want to write about that as much as possible. But, if I meet someone who has a really great angle, then I’d try to attack that. I notice a lot of writers who might specialise in an area, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to exclude themselves from an area to try and write about something else. For example, Justin Timberlake doesn’t exactly fall into the scope of Bluegrass, but my editor asked me to throw some thoughts out there, so I thought it’d be an interesting approach.
Speaking to my various freelance positions, I would say that Pitchfork really likes its criticism and the historical musical context/musicology setting (I would argue that any music publication enjoys that approach). But for those of us who haven’t necessarily done journalism as a background, many editors are interested in new writers who can approach things a bit outside of the box. If every outlet is going to publish a Q+A with Lana Del Rey, the one person who can come in and look at things philosophically or touch on themes might do something different that gets more readership… It might not, but it’s important to take that risk.
NM: Can you pinpoint a few major turning points in your career and what they were incited by?
AW: For me it started in Baton Rouge. I hadn’t lived in a city that had such a rich local music scene. It had mostly been cover bands for me, at that point. When I moved to a city that had artists doing really interesting, original music, it started getting interesting in a different sort of way. I started pitching local magazines and music scenes to get them some attention. I would say another turning point for me was an article I wrote for Paste’s comedy section. Being able to take all of those local clips that I had, pitch to a national editor, and get accepted suddenly opened the door, and I realised “Hey, I could be doing this more!”
NM: What made you settle down predominantly into music authorship?
AW: That’s a great question, and I’m not sure if even I fully understand it. I just loved music growing up. I was always listening. When I moved to Baton Rouge, I fell into a scene where I felt like I had a voice- I could make claims about it, I could ask interesting questions, it just fit.
NM: A couple of your articles mention the openly defined identity of Baton Rouge’s music scene. Could you elaborate?
AW: There were several different minds picking up on the fact that they like to 1) make music and 2) play music in front of an audience. The majority of them were singer/songwriters of the Americana- Bob Dylan sort of folk-strain. Within that core foundation, you had other bands spring up thanks to the LSU school of music. Thus, there cropped up jam bands, funk bands, classical-influenced bands… It was interesting to be there documenting it. There was a sense that you were watching something at its nexus, its birth. It’s so cool to see these local musicians who are teaching themselves paired with the students who are doing something a bit more structured.
NM: I was reading about the dearth of venues. Have there been any progression in the live sense?
AW: There hasn’t yet been anything to fully replace the major venues that were helping foster the scene. Although there have been 2-3 that have since sprung up that host local music that do a good job, they haven’t fully recovered from that loss. The bands who have been born up out of that movement have simply found other opportunities to tour and to play outside the scene.
NM: Could you compare Baton Rouge’s scene to another American metropolitan area’s?
AW: You have a mix of local regional artists getting together and jamming in different venues. A lot of brass and a lot of roots coming about in different ways. It doesn’t stick to a strict definition of those two styles/genres… what you hear is more of a living, breathing experience. I like to think of it as a smorgasbord – there’s a little bit of everything going on. It can be more exciting for the well-trained ear.
NM: Tying things back to the issue of identity – have you had any horror experiences as a women in music journalism?
AW: Thankfully I have not, though I do have colleagues who I’ve heard horror stories from. I will say that the frustrating thing is that depending on the age of the artist, usually men of the older generation, they may still look at writers as groupies or as some kind of dabbler; they don’t take us as seriously, or they say cutesy things that they maybe wouldn’t if a man was talking to them. That has been fading out- I talk to men and women of all ages, and I would say it’s just primarily a problem of the 50s-60s generation. But I’ve been pretty lucky, and try to come well-armed with questions.