A Bill King Conversation with... Karen Bliss
I still don’t believe anything I see on television until I see it in print the following morning. There’s something authentic about print journalism. Rock music criticism has largely been the playground of star male scribes; Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus and Nick Kent – never much elbow room for aspiring female writers.
Obviously, Canada’s Karen Bliss figured out how to cut past the ordained and carve a long enduring career in music journalism busting a path straight to the podium or main stage and record a developing story and get the story written - to print and out within the scheduled due date.
This garnered Bliss the 2013 Journalist of the Year Award from the Canadian Music Industry and Broadcast Awards. She’s the Canadian correspondent for Billboard, has a long history in print appearing in many of the planet’s top music publications, and she edits/publishes her own charity/music web site – Samaritanmag.com.
Samaritanmag receives generous financial assistance from the Slaight Family Foundation which helps compensate contributing writers and guarantee an online presence. Donations are welcomed.
Karen dropped by her alma mater the University of Toronto and my Thursday morning interview show for a good hour-long chat. Here’s a portion of that exchange.
Bill King: You were part of CIUT 89.5 FM? When was that?
Karen Bliss: Way back when I was in school - when it was on St. George – not in this gorgeous building.
B.K: What were you doing?
K.B: I had a weekly radio show where I interviewed local artists or artists coming into town. That helped me kick off my career and I was also the music editor of The Varsity at the time.
I was at U of T doing a double major in English and Music History. I would sometimes walk out of class so I could go do an interview or go to a press conference because I had my priorities straight and knew I wanted to be a music journalist.
B.K: Before university – did you collect magazines or follow particular writers?
K.B: It’s very strange. I come from a family of pharmacists and dentists and doctors and lawyers and that kind of thing. There’s no one artistic in my immediate family. No offense to my family – myself included – I can’t sing.
I started getting into the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Depeche Mode, The Cure, on and on. I doctored my driver’s license so I could get into the local clubs – not to drink, never been a big drinker – but honestly, to see bands. I would see anything. I didn’t care what it was – any genre. Small bands, big bands – that is what happened.
B.K: Do you remember the first article you wrote?
K.B: I do. It might date me a little bit. I’ll tell you a funny story – not one I ended up writing. Blair Packham of The Jitters might remember this. I have told him this story before.
There was a local magazine I believe called Metro. I contacted them and wanted to write something. They said go interview a band. My friend’s friend was dating the drummer in The Jitters. I remember seeing them at Humber College. I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t believe I had a recorder or took notes. I interviewed Blair and I think I wrote something. They didn’t use it but they gave me a couple more assignments – this was when I was a teenager.
I just learned on my own. No one taught me how. I just paid attention to how I was being edited. At U of T they didn’t teach me how to write. I was reading eighty English Lit novels. I read so many music magazines and subscribed to Melody Maker, NME and Rolling Stone. Great writers and I would pay attention – also at the time I’d be watching New Music. That was like my bible. I’d read NOW Magazine every single week and learnt how to do it to this day.
I’ve never had a real job – I’ve always been self-employed as a music journalist and it’s been great.
B.K: Who was the first big star you cornered?
K.B: I remember being given the chance to interview Ron Wood of the Stones. That was a biggie for me being a huge Stones fan and Keith is my guy. I still haven’t interviewed him yet. He was a very nice guy.
I’ve never encountered too many problems. It’s always a learning experience. I remember back then doing an interview with a band called the Secret Chiefs and Mike Monroe was in that band and I think some of the Blackhearts.
It’s hard sometimes to interview a full band, especially a true rock n’ roll band. They were kind of giving me a hard time. I must have either asked something or they said something they didn’t want used and I left and was walking down the street and then someone who was working with them at the time and lives in Toronto came running after me and says, 'I just need the tape (cassette) to do something with.' I gave it to him and I remember as soon as it left my hand – it was like slow motion and even had an entry on the back I needed – I wasn’t getting it back. Live and learn.
B.K: Your first big assignment for a major publication?
K.B: I think it was for Music Express, which was like Canada’s Rolling Stone at the time. I went to review the The Tubes at Kingswood Music Theatre – which I wish was still around. I went to see so many bands at Wonderland. I remember riding up with the editor, I believe his name was Tarin Elbert - I might be getting these names wrong – and he was complaining about security – these dumb young kids. I was thinking – oh, I’m like a dumb young kid – I was still a teenager. It was awkward and funny. I was not really responding – agreeing.
B.K: Have you ever been tossed from a show?
K.B: Not that I can remember. I’m sure if it happened it would have been a harrowing experience. I have seen kids get tossed by aggressive security. I’ve actually followed and kind of stood up for a kid. That’s happened a few times.
Thugs usually like me. I get along with them.
B.K: You weaseled your way into the NBA All Star game.
K.B: Yes. It was legit. I remember when it was announced I thought how on earth am I going to get in there.
B.K: Is this how it’s done?
K.B: Drake has enabled me to write about some Raptors games for Billboard.
B.K: Do you talk to Drake?
K.B: I have interviewed Drake - five minutes - one on one at the Junos for Samaritanmag, courtesy of Tyson Parker.
With the NBA game it was legit because as soon as I found out Drake was coaching one of the celebrity all star teams and Win Butler of Arcade Fire was going to be on one of the teams. That was enough for me pitch that to one of my editors at Billboard – which of course said yes – then Sting gets announced. Let me tell you the publicists for the NBA are fantastic. I hit them up a few weeks before and they immediately gave me accreditation. They were always responsive and a great experience. I got to go to the Celebrity All Star game – the skills contest on the Saturday night was the best then the Sunday game. Bought some merch.
My Drake story is – I was going to see Beyoncé at Molson Amphitheatre with Farley Flex – long time music manager, helped launch Maestro Fresh Wes' career – the Flow radio station – great guy and business partner on a couple things. We went to see Beyoncé and we are waiting outside to get our tickets and waiting outside is Drake waiting to get his tickets. Then a year later he ended up playing there.
B.K: And Beyoncé..
K.B: I’ve spoken to her in the early years – not recently about Formation – the new controversial single and video – no, I have not spoken to her about that.
B.K: Are there questions you’d like to ask?
K.B: Probably nothing that hasn’t been discussed.
B.K: Not much to talk about it now.
K.B: Moving on to Twitter feuds – Kanye talking about Deadmau5. It’s pretty amusing.
B.K: You are always in trouble when you wear mouse ears..
K.B: He’s great though. He speaks his mind and we need someone like him.
B.K: You are still an easy target in mouse ears.
K.B: He’s done pretty well with those ears.
B.K: Is there anyone Kanye hasn’t picked a fight with?
K.B: Me – you!
B.K: It reminds me of Donald Trump and his attachment to Twitter – to quick to react!
K.B: Let me say on the record I’d much prefer Kanye for president than Donald Trump.
B.K: Which brings me to this observation – Donald Trump wouldn’t be a good fit for Samaritan.
K.B: Which brings me to this – you don’t hear much about his charitable work.
B.K: That counts plenty with you.
K.B: It does. I have an online magazine – Samaritanmag.com and the reason I started it was because I have this amazing fun job going to concerts and talking to music people just like yourself – we have pretty cool jobs – I felt I wasn’t contributing to society in any worthwhile way and I would see friends and musicians I know hook-up with charities like War Child and World Vision and go to developing countries and come back with these amazing life-changing stories. I would pitch to publications I wrote for and they didn’t care.
It was also at the time of the rise of TMZ and Perez Hilton and they were picking on people I know. I thought, come on, not everyone cares about who has cellulite or who’s getting divorced. I do not care.
B.K: Someone thinks we care. Do you think the “millennials” care? I don’t think they read this stuff – it’s for juveniles – pre-teens or something.
K.B: Some of it is amusing – the Kanye stuff you wonder what is this idiot going to do now. But in terms of who gained weight and who’s in rehab, I don’t know. People obviously care – there are TV shows about it.
Samaritan talks to all people not just celebrities – pretty much anyone who has a charity, a business, a charity initiative. I have a story coming out soon with Michael Buble – Nelly Furtado. I just interviewed this Australian artist Missy Higgins whose video is “Oh, Canada” – fantastic. There are some amazing people doing amazing things that actually help people. I say its good people trying to change bad things.
B.K: The Samaritan site looks really good.
K.B: Do you like my skull with a halo?
B.K: Of course.
K.B: That’s rock n’ roll.
BK: The site is still about music...
K.B: Music heavy..
B.K: Yet with a blend of true humanity in there.
K.B: Still, our most popular stories are about animals – it doesn’t matter if it’s a Biber story or a One Direction story. If it’s animal rescue, people love it. There is actually a rescue for pretty much every species.
B.K: You like all things Keith Richards.
K.B: All things Keith Richards!
B.K: I bet you read Life three times?
K.B: No, it’s quite long to read three times. His documentary – Under the Influence is fantastic.
B.K: A lot of people didn’t get it – thought he was just sitting around loitering.
K.B: It’s a perfect title. It’s a great way to show his influences and he’s just as much a fan of music as us.
B.K: He’s such a music guy and Ron Wood too. I believe absent Ron Wood the Stones would fall apart.
K.B: Really? What about Charlie?
B.K: The last time I saw the Stones, Keith was recalling the parts he played on the songs – sometimes not quite on the mark. Ron Wood was solid and filled in the gaps.
K.B: When I go to see the Stones I wait for Keith’s two songs – what will they be? I saw Springsteen recently.
B.K: What did you think?
K.B: Hands down the best live performer I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen thousands.
B.K.: Samaritanmag and the record companies. Do you need their help?
K.B: I do need their help.
B.K.: How have they responded to you? Are they treating you good or what?
It’s been tough, building up the content on the site. Initially what would happen is if I wasn’t connected to the artist somehow through my work in Canada — people that have been really supportive like Billy Talent and the Simple Plan guys — if it’s someone else that I need, I would be interviewing them for another outlet and at the very end I would say, ‘By the way I have this online magazine; it’s all about causes and charities. Do you have anything that you support?’ Most do. Pete Townshend, I was told [by the publicist], ‘you only have 15 minutes and you can only talk to him about the book,’ and he gave me another 15 minutes. That happened with the actor Ian Somerhalder. I was told at the MuchMusic Video Awards, ‘You’ve got two minutes’ and he kept waving the publicist away once he found out what I was doing. Michael Bublé, I talked to recently about his Walk of Fame star in Toronto, told him about Samaritan, and he was like that’s great and gave me a contact for someone he has gone into business with. The story will be up in the next couple of weeks on Samaritan. Bryan Adams checked out the site and said ‘I’m proud of you,’ which really meant a lot because I’m a big Bryan Adams fan; ever since my youth, I would road trip to see that man. That really meant a lot because he’s such a charitable person so that was kind of cool.
B.K.: But the labels?
K.B: So the labels, they all know I exist now.
B.K.: How long has Samaritan been around?
K.B: I would say it’s been three years solid with this new design, but the idea I had in 2010, 2011. Initially I wanted it to be a beautiful glossy publication, almost like a How To, but obviously that’s foolish in this day and age. The labels, obviously I’d love way more support because pretty much every artist they have is involved with some charity, even off the bat. When you look at Shawn Mendes, I can’t remember, I think it was with Pencils of Promise. Might not be that. He did these post-it notes you leave for people to boost their day [was for DoSomething.org]. And that took off. Scott Helman on Warner, he’s trying to start a blog on his web site talking about the charitable things that they’re doing to make a difference. Of course, I’d love to interview Lady Gaga about her charity. There are so many people but it’s very tough because record companies still want to sell albums and they want their artist to do the big major publications even if the artist would want to talk to me. But it would be great to get more support and get some ads and sponsorship. We don’t just interview musicians though. We interview athletes. We interview business owners; we interview the founders of charities, just a wide variety.
B.K.: Now you hooked up with Chris Bosh and Nelly Furtado and did the video on racism.
K.B: That was actually before I started Samaritan , I had this idea The Girl with Pinhead Parents and it’s all different races — imagined races, so there’s the boy with hockey-stick hands, the girl with lollipop hair. Their skin tones are all wacky primary colours. Because it’s you would never say to your kid ‘You can’t play with that boy with hockey-stick hands.’ And that’s all it is, a silly prejudice. All prejudice is silly but it just makes no sense to not like someone because of their skin colour. So they are really fun characters. I was working with Farley Flex and between us we got Nelly Furtado to voice the pinhead girl, Chris Bosh the hockey-sticks hands boy; we have LIGHTS as one of the voices, Jully Black, Jacob Hoggard from Hedley. Jian Ghomeshi …
B.K.: Yeah I read that.
K.B:Yeah, he’s actually the voice of the radio announcer.
B.K.: Big teddy’s ears.
K.B: He didn’t mention any teddies but he’s in that. I was hoping it would go viral and someone would contact me from Disney and say, ‘This is a fantastic idea. We want to turn this into a feature-length film.’ It’s an animated PSA; it's very heavy-handed and if I did do a TV show or a movie, it would be lighter, along the lines of a Flintstones or a Jetsons. It’s very costly. I didn’thave those contacts. We tried and tried and tried.I have way too many ideas for my own good. My head’s gonna explode. I watchDragon’s Den and SharkTank to learn how to conduct myself.
B.K.: How to focus, right. So what do you think when you watchDragon’s Den?
K.B:Sometimes I think why didn’t I think of that? But it inspires me. I know that’s crazy. It’s taught me some things. You really do have to focus and you can’t be all over the place. So my main priorities are obviously writing for Billboard — that’s my main one — and Samaritanmag.com.
B.K.: When you write for Billboard, do they assign you something or do you bring ideas to them?
K.B: It works both ways but typically I pitch them. They are a US-based publication and site and obviously that is their focus and they are a business trade so that is an essential part of it. They have their consumer site, Billboard.com. I’ve written for dozens of publications — the best — I‘ve never worked with a team that is so on-it. Everyone’s connected. They will always check the sources if they see something breaking from a TMZ; they don’t automatically jump on it. They have to verify. They are true professionals. It’s like a well-oiled machine. There are editors for all different departments. They’re fantastic.
Link to Samaritanmag.com http://www.samaritanmag.com/
Link to my shawnmendes piece http://www.samaritanmag.com/musicians/shawn-mendes-wants-continue-making-difference-perhaps-go-africa
Link to my Scott Helman piece http://www.samaritanmag.com/musicians/musician-scott-helman-wants-fans-solve-solvable
Link to the anti-racism PSA http://www.samaritanmag.com/musicians/musician-scott-helman-wants-fans-solve-solvable
- Listen to the podcast interview with Karen by linking here.