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Working with Words: Darren Levin

Read Saturday, 7 Nov 2015

Darren Levin is the managing editor of Junkee Media (formerly Sound Alliance), a new media company responsible for publishing pop culture title Junkee, music titles inthemix, FasterLouder and Mess+Noise, and travel title AWOL (in partnership with Qantas). He also writes about music for Rolling Stone, the Age and the Guardian.

In addition to reflecting on the stresses and rewards of publishing, writing and editing in digital media, Darren shares his views on good pitching … and confesses he’d convince William Miller (the teen rock journalist from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) to pursue other career options.

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Photo of Darren Levin

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

A review of The Strokes’ first album in Monash’s student paper, Lot’s Wife. I submitted it by hand and some poor sod in the office had to transcribe it. Thankfully you can’t find it online.

What’s the best part of your job?

Getting to live my childhood dream and write about music for a living (at least some of the time). Working with creative and inspiring people. Being part of a media landscape that is shifting by the second. Having a different challenge thrown at me every day. The fact that I’ve never had to wear a suit to work or partake in something as obscene as ‘casual Fridays’.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Grammar pedants in the comments section. The never-ending public scrutiny. My 2354 unread emails. The unrelenting 24-hour news cycle and the fact I’m looking at my phone more than I’m engaged in a conversation with you. Sorry. 

Never read the comments.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

There are two: when Craig Mathieson asked me to be sub-editor of Mess+Noise (when it was a print mag) and when I fluked my way into Rolling Stone US. I interviewed the singer of this cult act called Ween for the Australian edition, and for some reason he decided to break up the band right then and there. Trouble is he hadn’t told anyone else, including his band mates. When I got off the phone I knew I had a pretty big scoop on my hands. I got in touch with the US editor, filed 500 words over the weekend and had an inbox full of hate mail from Ween fans on Monday. It was the scoop of a lifetime and I got it by asking the most innocuous question ever: ‘So why are you putting this album out under your real name?’  

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

Never read the comments.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself? 

I’ve worked online for half of my career, so I’ve been called everything you could ever imagine. Someone once described me as ‘emblematic of every single problem plaguing music criticism today’, which I took as a major compliment (thanks Jake!). I’m still pretty surprised when people say they think something I’ve written is good. But I bet everyone says that.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I’d be the guy mocking your purchases in one of Melbourne’s few remaining record stores.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

I didn’t go to Michael Chabon’s talk at the Wheeler Centre, but a friend tweeted his thoughts on this subject: ‘You can teach someone how to write. But you can’t teach them how to have a voice. That takes a lifetime.’ As usual, Michael Chabon articulates my thoughts better than I ever could.

I could care less about the physical product when it comes to books. Music on the other hand …

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

My advice to young writers is always to ‘pitch ideas, not yourself.’ Editors don’t really care about where you went to school or the fact you worked in six call centres over the past year. If you have a great idea, that’s usually good enough for me to give you a shot. The other piece of advice is to never say ‘no’ to any job. If it’s an overnight turnaround, cancel your dinner plans and work your arse off. You probably didn’t need that pulled pork slider anyway.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

I have never been a voracious reader. I’ve bought eight books this year on my Kindle and read half of each one. I could care less about the physical product when it comes to books. Music on the other hand … 

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I would go out with William Miller, the 15-year-old rock journalist prodigy from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, and convince him to become a dentist instead. He’s ruined enough teenage dreams already.

Never say ‘no’ to any job. If it’s an overnight turnaround, cancel your dinner plans and work your arse off.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

The music writing in the Age’s EG lift-out opened my eyes to so many great records and writers as a teenager … so you can imagine how thrilled I was when I finally cracked into their fairly rusted-on review team. Some months later, EG editor Larissa Dubecki was kind enough to give me a column and photo byline. Going in for the photo shoot was one of the greatest moments of my professional life.

Darren and Junkee are soon to add a new site to their stable called The Cusp, which Darren describes as ‘a site focussing on money, health and wellbeing, and career – things that I absolutely suck at’.

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