Talk the Talk: Advice for Nailing Artist Interviews
Billboard’s Kevan Kenney shares tips for when it’s time to talk to journalists.
Getting ready to be interviewed as an emerging artist is mind-blowingly exciting: This is your time to shine and tell your story. Someone is turning a spotlight on you, and it’s a huge opportunity to grab that spotlight and hold on, deepening the interest of the fans you already have and—ideally—attracting a bunch of new ones.
So you’d better prepare. Think through the questions you’re likely to be asked, and how you want to present yourself. What do you want people to know about you and your music? What and who inspired you? How can people learn more about you? And of course, what’s next?
We spoke to someone with plenty of experience holding the mic: Kevan Kenney, who has interviewed dozens of artists, including Kylie Minogue, BTS, Ed Sheeran, Billy Corgan, J Balvin, Shawn Mendes, Tove Lo, DJ Khaled, and Nick Jonas.
Kevan’s calendar is jam-packed with interviews as co-host of Billboard News, Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10 Countdown, and the BUILD Series. He’s also a red-carpet correspondent for Dick Clark Productions, and soon he’ll be hitting the airwaves at New York’s ALT 92.3 FM. He’s seen plenty of artists give successful interviews that make them look confident, interesting, and relatable—and he’s also conducted some interviews where the musician wasn’t prepared and didn’t exactly ace it. Here are some of his ideas about how to make sure you’re in the former group.
Spotify for Artists: I’m going to put you on the spot right off the bat. What makes for a successful artist interview? What’s something emerging artists should know when preparing for their first interview?
Kevan Kenney: In one word: authenticity. I think the best interviews are conversations where we can get past the standard talking points and get to know you as a person. I think we’re all more alike than we are different, so let’s explore that. Let’s find those connections between you and your fans. You make punk-rock music, but back in grade school your locker was covered with photos of Usher? That viewer at home may go “No way, me too! Let me check out this EP you’ve got coming out…”
As far as prep goes, definitely know the important facts. Your release date. Who produced your record. When tickets go on sale. If they are on sale, where the viewer can purchase them. This may sound incredibly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked a question about these things and gotten crickets. Past that, just be yourself!
Are there any interesting things you do to prepare for an interview? How do you keep the energy level up throughout?
I try to spend time with the artist before the interview. That can be 15 minutes in the green room beforehand. That can be beers the night before. In some cases, it’s watching their YouTube videos. The more I can familiarize myself with the guest before the producer counts us in and the cameras start rolling, the better.
We all have the most energy when we’re talking about things we’re passionate about, so I try to stick to the artist’s interests and especially the artist’s work, but not every interview needs to be super high energy. It’s like hanging out with your friends. Sometimes you guys are going to be going nuts, wildin’ out—and other times, it’s just a chill night in watching Netflix, contemplating life. It’s all about the vibe and context of the interview.
How do you get artists—from emerging to 20+ years in the biz—to open up and share intimate details about their lives with you?
It’s remembering we’re all people at the end of the day. No different than the friends we grew up with or the folks we may bump into in our everyday lives. Billy Corgan isn’t from some foreign rock-star planet, he’s from Chicago. He’s an incredibly talented musician—borderline genius—whose career path just happened to be incredibly public, so of course the world knows him, and he’s this legendary artist, but at the end of the day, he is a guy. So, when Corgan came on the show, I talked to him like I was talking to anybody else, and I think that may help artists open up. I don’t think there is much of a difference going from talking to say, Earth, Wind & Fire—who have been making hit music for five decades—to say, a Grace VanderWaal, who isn’t even in high school yet. If you can connect, you connect. Fun fact: That’s actually a real-world example. They were both guests of ours on the Billboard show on the same day, and I interviewed them back-to-back.
What do you do when an artist is visibly nervous? And since anything can happen in an interview, what do you do when things get off track, or get awkward?
When I can sense a guest is nervous, I try my best to make them feel comfortable. I’m in front of lights and cameras and an audience nearly every day of my life, so to me it’s just normal, but for some artists, it’s not. This is their first big, visible interview and they don’t want to mess it up. So I totally get the nerves. In those instances, I may show a vulnerable side of myself backstage—maybe tell an embarrassing story, admit to my own nerves. Talk it out. I think some artists get nervous because they feel the interview is a test and they’re going to be asked a question they may not know the answer to, but that’s not how an interview should feel. You and I are just shooting the breeze and getting to talk about something pretty cool—your music!
When it comes to awkwardness during an interview, I find it best to simply acknowledge it.
The most awkward interview I’ve ever done was probably Lil Yachty. We were out on Long Island for Billboard’s Hot 100 Festival last summer, and they had built us this beautiful set on the actual water. It made for gorgeous shots during the day, but at night our production was the only source of light on the bay. You know who loves light? Flies! We go live, and Yachty and I are just swarmed by bugs. So Yachty and I are trying to ignore these flies buzzing around our eyes, our ears, our mouths—it was really gross—until he finally goes, “Man, how are you not acknowledging these bugs right now?!” I had a big laugh, and I realized the quickest way out of an awkward situation is to acknowledge whatever the awkward component is. It takes away its power and then you can have fun with it and move on.
Do you have any advice for artists walking the red carpet for the first time?
For artists walking carpets: Don’t overthink it, take lots of deep breaths, and feel free to skip the gym that day. Sometimes those carpets can be workouts unto themselves.
Do you think of location as being a factor? Interviewing artists at Governors Ball is a completely different vibe from sitting down in a studio, or being on a red carpet, or backstage at an award show.
Totally. Location is always a factor. You could even say it’s the third subject in an interview after myself and the artist. Location will more often than not dictate the tone, style, and nature of our conversation. Backstage at Governors Ball, it’ll be a lot of atmosphere; you like playing at festivals? What’s the vibe been like? Who have you bumped into? Have you tried the complimentary tequila bar? Whereas if we have 30 minutes in a studio in a controlled setting, that’s where we may dig a bit deeper into both you as an artist and the music your fans are eager to hear about.
We all know that successful artists have fans who look up to them. Do you think it's important for artists to use an interview as a platform for world change—a discussion that might involve politics, #MeToo, mental health, gun control—in addition to just plugging their music?
To each their own. An artist’s only true obligation in my eyes is to be true to themselves. If there are issues you’re passionate about and you want to utilize the platform your music has afforded you, I say go for it. That’s the beautiful thing about developing an audience through doing what you love to do: It has the ability to amplify your voice. With that said, I do appreciate when artists use that platform for good, or at the very least not use it to glamorize harmful behavior.
You knew I was going to ask this. Do you have a most memorable interview, and who haven’t you interviewed that’s on your bucket list?
Nick Jonas called our chat the best interview he’s ever done and then instructed his legion of fans in the audience to offer me a round of applause, which was awfully nice of him and pretty memorable. Personally telling Ed Sheeran he had the new No. 1 song in the country with Beyoncé and announcing him as Billboard’s Artist of the Year at Madison Square Garden was definitely a day at work that stays with me. I remember I was trying to plug Dua Lipa’s new single when she was on the show, and she thought I was asking her if she was single—also pretty memorable, and embarrassing … but I think I’ve gotta pick one that was near and dear to me, personally. One of my favorite bands growing up was New Found Glory, and it just so happened that they were playing Brooklyn last fall on my birthday. As fate would have it, we had a big live backstage show booked with them where I got to interview them 10 minutes before their set and walk with them to stage, with our Billboard cameras capturing it all. What a birthday.
As for bucket lists, I (along with everyone else, probably) would love to speak with Drake. I think for as big of a superstar as he is, he’s still a bit misunderstood. So I’d love to sit down and be able to add some context to both Aubrey Graham the man and Drake the artist.