Caragh Medlicott sat down with Jude Rogers to discuss her new book, The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives. Part memoir, part study into the effect of music on our brains, the conversation covered her career as a music journalist, the defining tracks of her life and how the meaning we give to the songs we love can change over time.
Caragh Medlicott: I wanted to start by talking about the form of The Sound of Being Human. In many ways it’s memoir-esque and very personal in chronicling moments of your life. But the other aspect of it is the research and the experts that try to give substance to the reasons why music impacts us in the way it does. I wonder if you knew from the outset if that was something you wanted to include, and why you felt it was important?
Jude Rogers: It was something I knew I wanted to do, and I’ve been thinking recently about why. I think partly it was a lack of confidence in myself. I was thinking, would anyone want to read my burblings about the music in my life? I suppose that’s the product of a South Walian upbringing where you don’t put your head above the parapet. So, there is a bit of that, but it was also a case of wanting to find these things out for myself.
As I say in the book’s preface, as I’ve gotten older, I still have these moments where I think, why does this song propel me back? Why does this song make me feel this way? Why is it that when I feel sad, I listen to this song and I feel better? I knew that I couldn’t answer those questions just with my own theories, and I wanted to speak to people who have investigated this in a way that’s beyond my own skillset – I did single-award science and ran away from it as soon as I could, but I have always been interested in how our brains work, particularly emotions and their relationship to music.
I’m also a big lover of research and reading, and I kept finding interesting papers on subjects like music and dance, music and grief, and that’s when I started to notice people around the edges of my work who were working in these fields like Mark Taubert in Cardiff who talks about music and grief in his practice. So, I thought it would be wonderful to chart how music can shape our lives, and it’s not something that’s been written about very much by journalists. The challenge was to combine these two worlds, and interviewing people to get their science to be as accessible and understandable for the reader as possible.
Caragh Medlicott: Do you see it as an elaboration on what you do as a music journalist? In that you have music which can be almost mystical in the way it makes you feel on a personal level, but then you have music writing which is a way of demystifying it, and then science as another way of giving substance to that.
Jude Rogers: That’s a really good way of putting it. I’m not sure who said – it’s always attributed to Frank Zappa, but I think that’s wrong – that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. There is some truth in that, in that you’re trying to pin down something quite intangible, but writing is also about communicating; it’s about sharing ideas and your love of a song or an artist. That’s what it is for me anyway. For some journalists it’s not, it’s about judging and compartmentalising. But yes, it was about trying to demystify music and there are chapters – like the one about music’s place in religion and mysticism – that you could write a whole other book about! I’m hoping the book will start a sequence of thoughts in the reader’s head or people wanting to think about these things in a bit more detail and they can go from there. I didn’t want it to be really academic, and I knew that telling the reader some my own experiences like I was sat next to them in the pub would help that along.
Caragh Medlicott: It does seem that reading and writing have been important to you as portal into music. In the book you describe that almost transcendent experience of discovering your first copy of Smash Hits. Was it always obvious to you that you wanted to go into music journalism and not actually become a musician?
Jude Rogers: It’s funny, as a teenager I wanted to be a journalist desperately, and I remember buying myself a book called the Magazine Journalists’ Handbook – it had the nib of a pen on the front. I had it delivered to my Grandma’s house where I stayed at the weekend and I used to underline things and write to editors. I knew I wanted to write, but I didn’t become a writer until I was 25 because I didn’t know how you turn that desire into getting your foot in the door. I interview [fellow journalist and writer] Miranda Sawyer in the book and she got into it by applying to an advert to write for Smash Hits, but that doesn’t really happen anymore – it’s a bit opaque how you do it.
When I was a kid I played music – I had piano lessons, violin lessons, and I really loved writing music. I won a competition with school when I was 11, I won a keyboard – for the school, not for me which I was very disappointed about. But I got real joy from that, I used to always mess around and write things until I did music at A Level. If anything, at some point I did think about doing a degree in music to pursue composition, but that also felt very unrealistic when you’re forced to have conversations in school about job prospects – you know, ‘you can’t be a composer!’ I loved making things as a kid, like writing stories, keeping a diary – I had a book where I’d write about pop culture and it’s got things like Kurt Cobain cuttings in there. But I didn’t have this confidence thing about translating it into a job.
Caragh Medlicott: It sounds like you were already doing it for yourself.
Jude Rogers: Yeah, it was quite private I suppose. I did get a job at the Llanelli Star newspaper on holidays and weekends which was amazing, and the editor there – Robert Lloyd – was great and we’re still in touch. But there wasn’t a lot of music going on in Llanelli, we must have had about one band. I used to go to Swansea occasionally to review films in the old UCI cinema, but mainly I was documenting local news. At that point I realised I didn’t want to be a news journalist, but being a music journalist seemed so far away. In my teens there were lots of things I wanted to do but most of them felt out of reach.
Caragh Medlicott: Is that a class thing as well? I relate to what you’re saying about the opaqueness on how to get into stuff. I spoke to Kayleigh Llewellyn who wrote In My Skin and she echoed that. That’s a kind of nepotism in itself – being able to pass on knowledge about how to approach this stuff.
Jude Rogers: It’s funny, I was talking about this last week. I was good at school, I went to college, and there was an Oxbridge programme that I was encouraged to join, which I did, and I went to Oxford for three years. I was asked back to talk to the students last week which was a bit nuts, and we talked about class and privilege. When I grew up, I thought I was very privileged – we were a lower middle-class family, we had a house and a mortgage, we had two cars, and in every other respect we were very privileged and I was never put off reading and writing. Occasionally my mum would ask, ‘what are you doing now?’ because I’d do something like take my desk out into the garden because I wanted to write outside. My mum was a primary school teacher, my stepdad was a clerk in British Steel, and my mum was the one who pushed me into writing. So I felt very privileged, including in the comprehensive school I went to.
There was a lack of confidence – when I went to Oxford I went to the music journalism desk of the student newspaper, did one review and never went back because everyone had this easy confidence about them which made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing, I can’t be part of this world. I’ve talked to other people since then from similar backgrounds to me like Laura Barton who also writes for the Guardian as a freelancer who was at Oxford at the same time. She became deputy editor of the newspaper, and she spent the whole time absolutely terrified. It depends on how you define class – it’s money, but it’s also taste and the people who surround you. I was conscious I was a bit different to a lot of the people around me growing up.
Caragh Medlicott: When you did start your career in music journalism it was a point when the music industry but also music journalism was changing. You mention the comment piece you wrote on Jeff Buckley and how you couldn’t have anticipated that over 10 years later people would still be getting in touch with you about it. You say in that section that you think “criticism has lost its teeth” – I wondered if you think the internet has hindered the quality of criticism and if there’s a way back?
Jude Rogers: In the pre-internet days you found out about records through music journalism. You were probably first aware of what they sounded like by reading somebody’s words – maybe not the big songs on the pop chart that were previewed on the radio but other things. Whereas now you don’t need music critics in the same way because you can access music so much more easily. In the book I talk about a Kate Bush gig I covered, where on the night I knew everyone was going to give it five stars. There was almost a collective will for her to get five stars, and I was slightly hampered by how I felt, but I wanted to write honestly and in the first part of the gig her voice wasn’t as amazing as what it might have been. But the big problem with online stuff is the fear that someone might come back to you on Twitter and slag you off. I had that when I reviewed the ABBA album last year, and I did a piece this week about the ABBA gigs and whether I wanted to go or not because the weirdness could hamper my feelings about the band. I heard a lot of people say, ‘you’re taking this far too seriously, you’ve got to see the joy in music,’ and I thought, yeah, but also if everyone just took the good things they liked about music it would be really boring – everything would be great, and not everything is great.
Caragh Medlicott: You talked in the book in that moment about wanting Kate Bush to be human, too, not some sort of superhuman.
Jude Rogers: Exactly – Taylor Swift can get seven out of ten on an album and everyone gets catatonic online – it’s just insane. There are some places online where people do let themselves go out there because the level of response you can get can be so full-on. When I wrote that Jeff Buckley piece I was trying to inhabit a bit of a persona with my writing – ‘Yeah! I’m going to say this!’ – and actually I think a lot of his stuff is great, I wasn’t saying he’s absolutely dreadful. I set up a professional Facebook page to post about my stuff recently and there were three messages from the same man, slagging me off, saying ‘How dare you! How dare you do this!’ What, have an opinion? The internet makes people feel that if you don’t agree with me, you are the worst.
Caragh Medlicott: Do you think fandom is different now because of social media?
Jude Rogers: I wonder a lot about this. Is it that fandom has changed or is it that the way we see it has changed? In the heyday of the music press people would write letters into the music pages – the ‘green ink brigade’ as my editors used to call them – these mad, rambling letters, but the editors could choose what goes into print and then they would do their replies, it was all very heavily managed. Whereas now it just comes at you anytime. I’ve got a website where you can click through and email me – I keep it like that because I’m a freelancer and I want to get work, but it can be quite mad. I do think that because of the way algorithms work, the things that are going to prompt a reaction from you are the things you see online. People feel they have the right to reply a bit more, and they have these online personas where they feel they can rant a bit more online than if say, I met them in the supermarket.
Caragh Medlicott: You seem to have a lot of faith in music, and you don’t dwell too much in the book on the transition into the digital age, at least in terms of streaming. But at the same time physical media was very important to your discovery of music, so have we lost something from at least the rituals around music, or is it just a natural evolution?
Jude Rogers: It’s harder to find new things when you’re confronted with an empty search bar on a streaming site. For family dinners or cooking on a Saturday night I’ll quite often say ‘what shall I put on?’ and of course with Spotify I just don’t know. The algorithms don’t really work, so I’ll just put on Paul Simon radio or default back to albums I know will work for family. I’ve got a load of CDs in my office still and I’ve only actually kept the ones I can’t find easily on Spotify – interesting compilations, old stuff that might not be online, but you do need a guide to help find and remember names – these sites just don’t lay all that stuff out in front of you.
I was watching an interview recently with David Hepworth who used to be my editor and he was saying music used to be very hard to get – you had to save up, buy it, or take a punt on something based on the cover art. It felt like an investment. I do miss that, though I don’t miss being a student when I spent my student loan on CDs at £10 each. My little brother is 32 and he didn’t spend his student loan on CDs. There’s something about the world around an artist or an album that is lost online – the artwork, the liner notes, if the lyrics are present or not was so important to who they were. Even the choice of typeface – it’s like a little work of art.
In my office is the grown up’s equivalent of a student’s room – the posters are framed now, but I’ve got a big noticeboard of postcards, band stuff and I love seeing it all and the art around the musician. I was so fascinated by New Order, and Factory Records’ aesthetics, and that has been lost. But that’s just in relation to Spotify and if you look elsewhere artists might be doing something interesting on TikTok. I tried TikTok briefly once and I thought no, not for me at 44, I don’t think it’s for me now as a journalist to be on all these platforms. I still listen to loads of new stuff but I’m happy for people younger than me to get on with all that and go to the mosh pits. Bands I really love I still buy their records – bands like Self Esteem with their record last year. Things I really love I really want to hold – but I don’t think that’s just an age thing.
Caragh Medlicott: With younger generations it’s almost like a nostalgia for something you didn’t have. I and most of my friends now have record players even though we grew up with CDs and then iPods, so there’s clearly that need deep inside to hold something physical or support the artist in some way.
Jude Rogers: It really underlines the connection between you and the artist. I haven’t got rid of my favourite mixtapes. I nearly got rid of my CDs, they were in boxes for years but when I last moved in 2016 I thought, ‘right, I’m going to get them out’. But now we’ve been given a second-hand CD player for my boy who’s eight – originally for kids stories – but now he’s a bit older he’ll come into my office and I’ll let him pick one of my CDs to see if he likes it. It makes me feel a bit embarrassed because it’s this ancient media and I’m his ancient mother, but he’s got really into the first Franz Ferdinand record – he puts it on, presses play, and turns it up really loud. He could do that if we gave him a device, but I quite like that it’s CDs.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s not as tactile, is it, to just do it on a phone? I’m officially starting to talk about the ‘young people today’ because of TikTok. I remember when I was younger people saying ‘people don’t listen to albums anymore, it’s the playlist generation,’ but now some young people aren’t even hearing the whole song, it’ll just be the most addictive part of it.
Jude Rogers: It’s not right, is it? I always ward against being the person saying, ‘back in my day,’ but when things like music and songs are precision-tooled by machines, I find it quite overwhelming.
Caragh Medlicott: In the book, each chapter has a track that corresponds to that part of your life. What was the process like of picking those songs? I’m imagining a sort of detective scene with pictures on the walls, strings connecting stuff.
Jude Rogers: I do actually have a framed poster of the history of electronic music in my room with the post-it notes of the chapter titles. I just feel like if I take them off something bad will happen. I went with 12 chapters and I wanted each to answer a different set of questions or tell a different story. I also wanted them to be diverse – in terms of genres, in terms of the artists – and I knew the first two chapters were going to be ‘Super Trouper’ (Abba) and ‘Only You’ (Yazoo) because they were such important bits of my story. I also knew I really wanted to do something on ‘Buffalo Stance’ by Neneh Cherry, because that was such a massive track for me. At that point between childhood and adolescence, the obvious thing for me to focus on might have been New Kids on the Block or whatever boyband was around at the time, but I thought that the artists that had the bigger impact on me in the long term were the women. I quite like the clash between growing up in a south Wales chapel-going family and really getting into rap, and that was really fun to write about. A few of the titles did change – there could have been one on a Pet Shop Boys song, but the last chapter felt like this very serendipitous thing because, obviously, the book can’t end with my death.
I knew I really wanted to write about grief and musicians which I thought was really interesting and would resonate with lots of people, and I knew I wanted to write about music at the end of life, partly because that fitted the chronology but also writing it from the position of my friend Pat dying was quite an interesting and personal angle on it. I realised I wanted to write something about Covid and music, and I was torn between two songs. I wanted it to be about a Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons song. I approached the songwriter for an interview but I couldn’t work out how this tells a deeper story, and then a Prefab Sprout track just kept coming back into my life in strange ways. So I thought, ‘go with this,’ and suddenly it was working, and I did the interview with [the band’s founder] Paddy McAloon and it was just the parallels between his experiences of making that record and me writing this book to try and work things out. It was quite nice because he was talking about suddenly getting to this place in your life where a lot of my editors – or the people interviewing me – are a lot younger. My parents are now the oldest generation, my grandparents are gone and we’re the deathly, deathly adults now – at the age of 44! It feels like an interesting point in your professional life, especially when you write about music which feels like a young person’s thing sometimes. The most important thing about picking the tracks was eclecticism – I wanted to show a range of stuff, not just because that would connect with a range of people but because it would show what most people’s music tastes are like. I think people think that music journalists just like ‘good stuff’ and reign in their ‘guilty pleasure’ (which I hate), but I wanted to write about how I love ABBA. The bit where I write about ‘Freedom’ by Wham! I talked about at the book launch in London, and quite a few people laughed. I wanted to speak to a musicologist about Wham! and rail against that snobbery.
Caragh Medlicott: That’s one of the things I really loved about the book. It rejects snobbery, it’s about loving music, not what’s cool and what isn’t. But like you said, that snobbery is very rife is music, but I wonder why – is it wrapped up in identity or is it something else?
Jude Rogers: I think there are two ways of liking music. I’ve met a lot of music fans, and there are the ones who might ask, ‘oh have you heard this? Let me tell you about this,’ and they want to share it and they see music as this communal thing. Then there are people who are like, ‘I’ve got this on 10” vinyl in purple from 1973 and it was only released in Germany,’ and they love an artist so much they want to get all the different iterations of their stuff. I mean I do know people who are like that who I like. And I’m somebody who in the past – not so much anymore – bought lovely editions of albums or singles, I still might put them on my Christmas list, and I do have things which are probably worth quite a bit. You know I’ve got Adele’s first single which was a limited release. But for some people it is an identity thing – I’m in this club, you can’t be in my club, and they want their club to be this very shut-off place.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s almost like hoarding what’s special about the artist for themselves.
Jude Rogers: They don’t want anybody else to be in on that, whereas I’m perfectly happy to share my music. It’s like you’re putting up a defence around your music in a way, and I do think music journalism can be like that, it can be very serious and joyless. It feels very teenage – the worst sides of being a teenager. I loved the fact that the bands I started to love took me out of where I’d been and introduced me to other people and other ideas. In my teens I sold my Madonna cassette, and I didn’t like pop music for a while, but then I grew out of it. But there are a lot of men of a certain age who are still like that.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s such a communal thing, music and gigs. When I was a kid I was obsessed with the question of, if I put a CD on, how many other people happened to be listening to that song at the same time? I was a bit of a child insomniac and I liked the idea that someone else was awake and listening to the same thing I was.
Jude Rogers: That’s the magic about it. You’ll like a song but you know that somebody else out there, who you don’t know, will like it too. That’s why I wanted to write about the magic of radio listening. Obviously, there are so many more ways to listen to music nowadays, but there was something magical as a teenager that you knew everyone around your age, if they were into music, was listening to Radio 1, to Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley, or John Peel on Fridays, or Mark Radcliffe and Mark Riley in the evenings. You were there, just waiting with your two fingers ready to press record on your tape deck if there’s anything you’re interested in. It’s lovely to hear about those shared experiences when people are responding to the book – there’s a retired chorister in his 70s in my brother’s male voice choir who sent this long email about how much he loved the book, and how some of the chapters – even though they were from a female perspective – had made him think differently about music and the songs he liked. His taste was very classical and musical theatre-related but he still felt the connection there. It was lovely that he was able to do that even though the book mainly focused on pop, indie and electronic music.
Caragh Medlicott: Speaking of rejecting cool…I have to ask. I saw you share an interview with [the UK’s second-placed Eurovision entry] Sam Ryder, and in it he says that ‘cool is the enemy,’ so I wanted to know you thought of this year’s Eurovision and his song.
Jude Rogers: I loved it. On Eurovision night this year, my best friend Dan, who I write about in the book, texted me at about five to eight, asking if I was watching Eurovision. The last time I watched it was when I lived with him in 2006 or 2007, but I thought, you know what, I’m going to watch it this year. Obviously, it’s cheesy and it’s fun, but the political element running through it this year you couldn’t shy away from. People were saying Ukraine could have won if it was just somebody farting, but I actually thought their song was really good. Sam Ryder’s song was lovely. I was on Radio Wales the day after Eurovision, and they asked me what I thought of it, and I said I’d only heard it last night, and they said, ‘you’re supposed to be a music journalist!’ but these days I’ll interview artists in their 50s and 60s, and I write a regular folk column, and other bits and pieces. It was quite lovely hearing it for the first time live on the night. It was really well written and not cynical, and there was a real joy and optimism together with him being a great character. When I was a kid, I’d watch Eurovision on the black-and-white TV in my room and I always loved the voting. I really liked Lithuania’s entry this year – the woman with the 60s haircut. Who else was good? I think I voted for about six countries in the end…
Caragh Medlicott: I hadn’t watched Eurovision properly for years either and got incredibly merry with some friends. When the votes were coming in, I didn’t know what came over me.
Jude Rogers: I like watching music stuff with my husband – he plays drums and saxophone and he’s more into jazz. It’s hilarious, I took him to the Mercury Prize one year and he asked, ‘who’s this?’ and it was the Arctic Monkeys. I love watching these things with him because he’s just very amusing.
Caragh Medlicott: Going back to the book, obviously it’s an incredibly personal thing to write. It starts with a story about your dad, who died when you were six, and that loss runs as a thread through the book. I wonder what the process of writing about that was like, and whether you came to some sort of peace at the end?
Jude Rogers: I’ve written about my dad over the years and always felt a bit strange. As a journalist you write for money, so it feels a bit weird to write about grief. I think, who am I doing this for? Myself? Is it wise to do this? But the story about me and him, it’s the truth, and I still think about the things we could have had conversations about but didn’t. One of the nice things about my mum remarrying is that I’ve got a little brother now and he’s absolutely wonderful, and that is some comfort to think that relationship wouldn’t be in my life. After the book’s come out, having to go on radio stations and hearing ‘Only You’ 300 times has been so weird, although that song will now mean different things to me again because there’s now that new layer of memory. It has been weird, and I’ve felt a little bit fragile thinking whether it’s something I should have done, but what’s been lovely is that my family have all read it and love it. My younger brother absolutely loves it which means the world and I think other people who have had similar experiences and link music with grief have got a lot out of it.
I had an email the other day from a journalist I know, and he said the book’s really generous in trying to connect with people and explain their feelings. That meant a lot to me because it’s hard to put your life out there – I talk about other things, like my miscarriage, or when my son was born. There’ll be people who I know well, or parents of kids in my son’s school, who will read it and find out these things about me, but they’re things that aren’t bad to talk about and are good to be shared. Writing a memoir is a strange one because it’s laying yourself out there, but maybe that’s a reason I wanted to do that – to help people with similar experiences.
In the last chapter I was talking to Paddy McAloon about that Prefab Sprout track, and he was trying to make sense of his life as he was coming to this point of adulthood when you look back on your life for the first time in a meaningful sense. That chimed with what I felt. I don’t get very bereft about my father’s death – obviously sometimes I get a little sad, but I felt like it helped me get to a point where I don’t have to think about him without all of my connections to music. At the end my urge was to call my mum and talk about her and him rather than just me and him, and I found out more about her. And I talked to my dad’s old friends and found out about them, and I realised it doesn’t always have to be about that moment.
Caragh Medlicott: We spoke before about physical media, does it feel that through writing this book you now have a physical record of these things, that you’ve almost been able to stow it away?
Jude Rogers: Absolutely, there’s a bit in the book where I talk about finding one of my father’s tapes, and how precious that was, and now it feels really precious to have this book. I’m in Abergavenny today and I keep trying not to walk into Waterstones to see if there are copies still there. I could see it at the front of the shop and I thought, ‘oh my god, it still exists!’ All these things I wanted to put together and express I’ve done now. I’d love to write another book – I’ve got no idea what on – but for now I just want to be proud about it and enjoy when people say nice things about it. I got a message this morning on Instagram from a DJ in Berlin who’s just read it, and I just love the fact there’s a DJ in Berlin who has read it. My favourite things is that I managed to get a copy to Ruth Jones, the actor, because I’ve done a couple of interviews with her, and she sent me this massive text about the music in her life – how she was obsessed with Kate Bush when she was 13 and all of this sort of stuff. It’s nice that it’s connecting with lots of different people.
Caragh Medlicott: It’s made me think about how we all have different soundtracks to our lives.
Jude Rogers: Absolutely, on the day the book came out I wanted to make a playlist of every song mentioned in the book. It’s 530-odd tracks and 44 hours long. Last month I had this playlist on shuffle in the car, and it’s amazing because one song will come on and it’ll be a bit embarrassing and make me laugh, then the next one will be a long ambient meditative track, and the next will be something that reminds me of my brother, and the next one will be something that reminds me of a boyfriend. It’s great and would be wonderful for people to do that for themselves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Sound of Being Human: How Music Shapes Our Lives by Jude Rogers is available now.