A Skype call briefly synchs a brash Melbourne summer’s day with the dim midwinter of country England.
Robert Plant, formerly of Led Zeppelin, is cheerily regaling Australian music journalist Michael Dwyer about his icy dawn amble as he checks his farm for fallen trees after the previous night’s storm.
Dwyer never takes these kinds of moments for granted. Despite having interviewed countless musical legends, and having reviewed thousands of gigs and albums, there is still an explicit sense of privilege in speaking with people who have made music their life’s work.
“I’m fascinated and inspired by creative people, and the fact that they place that search for meaning and refinement of craft as such a priority in life,” he told upstart.
“I find those people are the most interesting people to me. Really that’s it, and music is something that has always touched me, and I find it a real privilege to sit down with someone who devotes their life to it.”
With a close-cropped beard, rimless glasses and wearing an oversize grey hoodie, the man who has interviewed everyone from David Bowie and Yoko Ono to Paul Simon pulls off an effortless ‘I’m just ducking out to get milk’ look.
He speaks with a soft, unhurried articulation. He expresses a point, and then re-expresses it in a marginally different way, as if the writer in him is editing as he speaks.
This comes across less as academic rigor than as a desire to be as plainly understood as possible. In conversation, he relies frequently on the use of “I think’ and ‘I suppose’. The net effect is a verbal nod that all this talk of music, and writing about music, is subjective – they’re art forms, never to be taken as absolute truth.
When interviewing even the newest bands, what interests Dwyer most is uncovering what drives a musician. He can always find it, he says, even among younger bands who may have not yet nailed it down themselves.
Usually, he says, his stories angle is somehow about their passion, but he waits to see what thread “presents itself”.
“I might have an idea of where I’m going with the questions, but it’s not until after the interview that I work out what the story is actually about. It would be a bit arrogant to do it the other way around, then you’re moulding it to your idea.”
Dwyer’s career path was not always going to be writing.
“I was a musician, so that was kind of the critical skill, but I had done a degree in English literature at Sydney Uni – I always knew that I was a competent writer and I knew about music and I just put them together, that was really it.”
Since his beginnings in Perth street press in 1988, where he became managing Editor of X-Press Magazine before moving to London in 1993 to write for Melody Maker and Rolling Stone, he has found his words about music to be in demand.
Returning to Australia, he broadcast on the Triple J network nationally, and 1999 saw him relocate to Melbourne, where he has settled, with a wife and two children. Since then, he has written about music and culture for The Age, now Fairfax Media, for 25 years. He was also one of Rolling Stone Australia’s most prolific writers until that iconic magazine’s recent demise.
In his three decades of being a music journalist, he has seen the business of journalism turned upside down by job cuts and the emergence of free online music journalism platforms.
“This whole idea that it’s become more democratic and ‘everyone’s voice can be heard’ and we’re ‘engaging in a dialogue’ — I mean that’s all true, but I don’t know where the professional writers are going to find their income from. I’m not saying it’s not going to happen but I just don’t think anyone quite knows how the financial model is going to work.”
Before his writing career took flight, a young Dwyer was an aspiring singer-songwriter, with limited success.
“You know the guy in the corner with the guitar, playing ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘American Pie’, that sort of thing? That was me. I did a little bit of that, but really was pretty directionless, hoping to be a musician but not really having the bravery.”
Thanks to the writing gigs drying up, Dwyer has been enticed back onto a musical performance path twenty years after he put down his guitar, performing with two fellow Melbournian musicians and David Bowie aficionados.
“The project that I’m involved in now is called Thin White Ukes, it’s a David Bowie tribute, and we arrange David Bowie songs on ukuleles and vocals and it’s been remarkably successful.”
Performing lead tenor ukulele (yes, that’s a thing) and vocals for The Thin White Ukes, Dwyer and his band have played gigs and festivals since 2015 to glowing reviews, and released their first EP in 2016.
Between his freelance writing for Fairfax and Thin White Ukes gigs, Dwyer also teaches aspiring writers in an entertainment journalism course.
He uses his wealth of experience in interviewing to advise his students on how to get the best from their subjects.
“Just have a conversation, know what you want to know, and don’t ask general questions. Try to get stories out of them and do a face-to-face if you can. Get as much of their personality as you can, not just words – try to get to the heart of their passion.”
Through questioning some of the most talented, publicity-worn musicians on the planet, Dwyer knows what makes a good story.
“It keeps coming back to passion for me, ‘cause it’s the thing that everybody relates to. In a song, when you hear a great song, what you’re responding to is the passion of the singer or the lyric. You can’t be fooled in music.”
Photo: Chris Riordan.