Meet Sarah MacDonald
Sarah MacDonald is a music journalist, editor and devoted Raptors fan. We interviewed her about her workplace where she showed us how she does what she does.
How did you become a music journalist and what drew you to it?
Sometimes I wish I had more elaborate backstory with music journalism but it is simply this: I fell in love with music and musicians. I had always wanted to be a journalist (I did a big school project on Christiane Amanpour once) but news felt too rigid for me. I grew up watching MuchMusic thinking I could be Rachel Perry but I'm too self-conscious for television so I turned to writing. Originally, I wanted to be a novelist. I wrote several novels by the time I was 16. (All of those works are recycled now and I hope being put to better use.)
I loved learning about genres and bands, musical movements, the history around it all, the personalities and egos when I was a teenager. It was intoxicating. At one point, I'm not sure when, I had decided I could make a career out of this fandom. (It took a long time for me to learn how to separate fan from critic, a process I am still in today.) By the time I was in journalism school, I took all the principles I learned about reporting and applied them as best I could to music writing, though I still had to teach myself about creative literary writing because my program was so anti-anything that wasn't considered CBC News appropriate. I made music writing my vocation and forced myself to practice it for shitty blogs or a national newspaper if the opportunity presented itself and kept going from there.
I didn't read women writers with the same hunger I do now. I read music magazines without looking at the byline, which I think I really under-appreciated because of how much I could enjoy a work without knowing if the person was a jackass or not. I could tell by their style and voice if they were. Like, I never gave a shit about Hunter S. Thompson—so much so I just Googled his name because I forgot. Yet, when I would do research, I still deferred to male opinions on literature and music too often. Eventually, when I found that I never thought similarly to them when it came to women-identifying musicians, that's when I knew things had to change, and how frustrated I got with the industry, wanting to bring my voice to it. Men were simply everywhere and it was a lot more work to dig for a woman's voice. I like being here and doing what I do; writing what I write. I find it difficult a lot of the time though because I'm often told by men I don't know what I'm doing; that my approach to music writing through emotions and the self, even in a critical vein, is simply wrong. It's a ton of effort to keep going.
How do you get ready to start working? What does "the zone" look like?
I get up early. I'm awake by 7 or 7:30 and immediately start working. I am at my sharpest in the morning or late at night. I've used my afternoons to nap or watch television. Sometimes in the morning I make a French press of coffee, watch the news, scroll through Twitter or my favourite websites, check my horoscope and then look at my to-do list. (A to-do list has been vital for me to stay on track as a full-time freelancer.) I cut myself off after 45-ish minutes of this scrolling and news absorbing because if I go past a certain point, then I'm just procrastinating.
The zone really just looks like me sitting at my couch or kitchen island (I haven't made a small office/workspace yet but that is about to change!) and grinding it out, basically. I get sweaty, I drink a lot of water, I don't often listen to music because it distracts me. I'm a fast writer but not an especially fast critical thinker. When I have done all of that thinking work, compiled my notes or done my transcriptions, I can get a 2000 word feature out of my system in about 45 minutes. While working at Noisey, I had a great managing editor who worked had once worked for Deadspin and, because of her experience, she emphasized and imprinted on us writing very fast. News posts had to be out and published within five minutes. Even on longer blogs or takes, she helped me focus on what I knew or needed and how to get that out quickly. It was a remarkable teaching experience. I'm not saying that 2000 word feature I wrote in 45 minutes is by any means good. But it's there. Then it's time to edit, which is a process I love doing. I over-edit sometimes. I'll feel like I've looked at a piece for hours, meticulously combing through it, and then a motherfucking typo or missing word will absolutely slide through to my editor's eyes.
What are 3 items you absolutely need in your workspace?
Agenda: I need to have at least two calendars going at any given time. My Google calendar where my to-do list is and then my agenda where... my to-do list also exists.
Phone: show me a person who doesn't have their phone by them in a working space????
Notebook: to physically write notes about my upcoming work as memory reinforcement.
Who is your dream interview subject and why?
Patti Smith. She seems like such an obvious answer but I adore her work and am really interested in her thoughts on not just her experiences 40 years ago but the world as it exists now. I'm envious of the people who have spent time with her because she does seem like such a great conversationalist. I've heard she can be a bit off-putting in interviews, simply because she's done a lot of interviews, and has lived the life she has, so people have likely been too pushy or nosy, causing her to clam up. But if given the chance to have a respectful and reciprocal conversation—I think conversation is an important word to use here—she would have so much to offer. Not simply in terms of music, but poetry, general writing advice, motherhood, grief, poverty, simplicity. Patti Smith has lived what feels like a thousand lives, all similar, yet still so different. I find her presence soothing. I have no idea what the story could be or if it would perhaps be like those David Marchese style interviews he did for Vultureand now for the New York Times Magazine. Just a conversation. Those are always the best.
A runner-up that is by no means is a runner-up at all would be Vivian Gornick. Vivian, to quote my friend Nourhan, is "a real G."
Tell me about the things you do to wind down and what they mean to you (specifically basketball and flowers which are things I enjoy watching you enjoy tbh)
I feel like people only know three things about me: basketball, flowers, astrology/tarot—the latter are lumped in as one big spiritual category. It's so peculiar being a person online and what things are determined about you as a person based on what is shared.
I played basketball as a kid and had two nets at my tiny suburban house: a Raptors one out front and a Chicago Bulls one in the backyard. I stopped playing when I hit puberty, soon after discovering my love of sadness and Robert Smith. I do regret giving up playing it. I loved running around and skinning my knees on the cement from guarding the other kids or trying to take a charge. About four years ago, my sister gifted me tickets to a basketball game for Christmas, which she implied I could take the guy I liked at the time (not Dan but a far unworthier man) because he also liked basketball. I didn't. I took her instead and it bonded us, a thing we could do together. My sister is my best friend but we are so wildly different. Basketball creates a nice little bridge for us. That first game we went to was against the 76ers, which I love in retrospect since we just so stunningly beat them in the playoffs.
I love watching basketball because it is dramatic. There's a narrative and firm rules. Much like musicians, there is also this space for larger-than-life personalities to exist on the court. You can and should have favourites. Refs make bad calls so you yell down to them or from your couch, which I routinely do. Basketball is cathartic if you're a sports fan who doesn't get so easily wrapped up in winning and losing. These men are millionaires, yes, and they are compensated for the entertainment they provide us, and winning is important for a franchise. But there is so, so much more to them as humans moving around on the court, making plays, stealing the ball, and creating real, honest-to-god moments of history seared into your brain.
The other thing I do that has absolutely nothing to do with my job is basking in flowers. When I was a kid, I helped my mom with her gardens every single spring. The garden centre is one of my favourite places. Looking at soil, seeds, what kind of flowers to plant. It felt like home. I don't have a garden now, though I've taken to potting plants and keeping them outside as if I do have this sort of garden, but I buy cut flowers constantly. Flowers die and they grow again and the cycle repeats itself. But in a brief period in-between, they are beautiful and smell delicious and bring a sort of brightness no one human ever could. They share their floral glory with you; unfolding petals to reveal patterns and colours. My partner doesn't see the point of buying them from a financial perspective—he a practical Capricorn. I do respect him for that. But when he sees me get emotional or giddy looking at a dahlia or ranunculus or a simple red rose (a favourite!) then he gets it. Flowers provide this space for me to exist now and nowhere else. It's so easy to get lost in my thoughts; to fantasize about a future that may never be, or a past that I refuse to let go of. In this space of picking out which colour of freesias I want to take home, I am very specifically present in and for myself.
What are you reading/watching/ listening to?
Writing by Marguerite Duras
Eve's Hollywood by Eve Babitz
On Pleasure by The Vault (With/Out Pretend)
John Wick 1 & 2 — I hadn't ever seen them before!!!!
"Everything He Needs" by Carly Rae Jepsen on loop
A Creature I Don't Know by Laura Marling
Father of the Bride by Vampire Weekend
Tell me 3 things on your to-do list right now.
Start that chapter you need to send to [REDACTED]
Book a massage
Work on autumn magazine pitches