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‘Nevertheless, she persisted’

Breaking music journalism’s ‘glass ceiling’ at CL

When I was a teenager in Sandy Springs in the late ’80s, I obsessively read every issue of Creative Loafing cover to cover. I especially loved the music section, which educated me about important Atlanta bands such as Hollyfaith and Mary My Hope. Going to concerts at The Point or The Cotton Club sounded so exciting compared to my rather sheltered life in the sleepy northern suburbs. Once in a while, I attended an “all ages” show, but for the most part, my knowledge of Atlanta’s music scene came from the articles I read in CL .

My love for music and writing made me decide to become a music journalist, so I started contributing to the student newspaper at North Springs High School. Surprisingly, I somehow convinced quite a number of respected Atlanta musicians to let me interview them, even though I had no idea what I was doing. My faculty adviser seemed to think that I was an oddball for writing about this type of thing, so he offered no guidance. Instead, I studied the articles in Creative Loafing and other music magazines, trying to teach myself how to write like those journalists.

Though I loved Atlanta, I moved to Athens in 1991 so I could study journalism at The University of Georgia. I was lucky: I arrived there when the music scene there was having a heyday, thanks to Athenian artists such as R.E.M. and The B-52’s reaching their commercial peak at that point. Even so, I still sought out Creative Loafing every week so I could keep up with what was happening in Atlanta.

I’m not sure what made me decide to try to write for CL . It certainly wasn’t because it was very welcoming — the masthead prominently said “NO CALLS, PLEASE.” It might’ve been phrased a bit differently than that, but however it was said, the message was clear: people like me shouldn’t pester them.

But like most teenagers, I wasn’t keen on being told what I shouldn’t do. I did a little detective work and got the direct phone number for Tony Paris, CL ’s music editor. I remember dialing that number for the first time with shaking hands — I was so nervous.

My nerves weren’t assuaged when Tony picked up. I don’t remember the details of that conversation anymore, but I do vividly recall how it started: “How did you get this number?” he asked, incredulous, then immediately added, “You did see where it said not to call here, right?”

Needless to say, I failed to convince him to take me on as a writer that day.

However — and with the kind of baseless confidence only the very young can muster — I was undeterred. I called Tony every single Thursday afternoon for the next six months straight. “You again,” he’d say, with some mixture of astonishment, irritation, and amusement.

And every week I’d hear: “I’m still not giving you an assignment.” But this was pre-internet times: Tony couldn’t simply send a curt rejection email and forget about it. He had a desperately eager kid on the line, so he was kind enough to talk to me a little bit before extracting himself from the call. He’d ask about my journalism classes, or what I did for fun. Sometimes he’d tell me little things about himself. Even though I wasn’t succeeding at getting any work, the attention I got from him was enough to keep me motivated to continue calling back week after week, month after month.

One Thursday in June, I said to Tony, “By the time I talk to you next week, I’ll have turned nineteen years old.” He said, “You’ve been calling me for six months now — so as a birthday present, I’m going to reward your persistence: here’s an assignment.” He gave me an interview with World Party frontman Karl Wallinger — my first time covering an internationally famous musician. The chat happened on my birthday. I was over the moon.

Then — finally! — I saw my byline in Creative Loafing ! For the first time, I felt like a “real” journalist. After that, Tony gave me more assignments, and I became a regular contributor. I even wrote a couple of cover stories. A dream come true!

It must be said, though, that not everyone at CL  was so willing to give me a chance. A few of the older male writers balked at letting a female teenager into the “boy’s club” that was the status quo in music journalism at that time. They weren’t shy about letting me know how little they thought of me, either. I often heard about snide things they’d said behind my back.

One night at Smith’s Olde Bar, one of CL ’s better-known writers cornered me. Sneering, he leaned in close and asked, “Do you actually write your own articles, or does Tony Paris write them for you?” He was someone whose work I’d read avidly for years, so it was hurtful and infuriating to have him treat me with such disrespect. (For the record, Tony never wrote anything for me, though he did teach me more about music journalism than I ever learned in any class.)

Most of my fellow CL  writers were incredibly encouraging, though. Jason Ferguson was very supportive of my work, especially after he took over the music editor position from Tony in the mid ’90s. And Jeff Clark, for all his well-known cantankerousness, was always generous with advice and praise. He would go on to become an editor, first for the magazine affiliated with the radio station 99X, and then editor and publisher at his own magazine Stomp & Stammer — where he frequently hired me to write for him. I was honored that Jeff asked me to write the cover story for the final S&S issue (on singer-songwriter Jesse Malin) before he shuttered the magazine last year.

When editors at other outlets saw that I contributed to CL , they would be willing to give me a chance, too. This dramatically helped my career. I’ve lived in New York City for ten years now, and I write for Billboard, Spin, American Songwriter, and several other magazines (and I just signed my first book deal). Part of me will always think of Atlanta as “home,” though, and there’s no other outlet that has place in my heart like Creative Loafing does. I’m not sure that the opportunities that have come my way would’ve been possible if I hadn’t “earned my stripes” at CL .

It was exactly thirty years ago when Tony Paris finally gave me that fateful first assignment. Now that he’s back as CL ’s editor, it feels both familiar and nostalgic to write for him again. I think I’ll always feel like getting an assignment at CL  is something extra special.

Creative Loafing has played a crucial role in my life, but I know I’m not the only one: Atlanta would not be the same without it. —CL—