Q&A: Music journalist Alison Fensterstock

By Barbara Harmon, Studio M staff //

Alison Fensterstock, a 40-year-old freelance music journalist who mostly writes for NPR and Pitchfork, is a Native New Yorker but has lived in New Orleans for the past 20 years. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, she started writing about music for her job at the Gambit Weekly.

Fensterstock was a music critic at the weekly until 2009. After that, she worked at the Times-Picayune and has worked as a freelancer with Paste magazine and Mojo.

Did you always want to cover music?

I guess I did. I never wanted to be like a hardcore investigative journalist or cover crime or court or anything like that. I always wanted to do music and books and film and feature writing. 

What type of stories do you enjoy writing the most?

I used to really enjoy writing live reviews, because New Orleans is such a great live music city, and that was a really big part of my job, covering concerts and festivals. Now that I’m not at the paper anymore, most of the stuff I’m doing is more like long-form profiles and features about people and scenes. I think I’ve just gotten too lazy. I don’t want to go out to shows as much.

Do you have a process?

I don’t know. The funny thing about working at a newspaper was … especially in the post-internet age of it, you had to file reviews. Even like creative stuff (like arts coverage), you had to file everything so fast by deadline. For years, my process was just getting it done really fast. I think now that I have a little more time, you know, like writing longer stuff and more in-depth profiles and features, I kind of plan things out. I make notes in my phone or I send myself emails, and I kind of have the arc of the story in my mind before I start doing interviews.

A lot of people do a lot of drafting, but I don’t. When I write something, I write it straight through, but I turn it around in my head a lot. So, I have kind of thought through paragraphs and plot lines before I actually write. Then, I do actually draft it again when I have worked with the editor after I turn it in. But, I don’t do a lot of drafts myself.

Has anyone inspired or influenced you along the way?

In music journalism, definitely Ellen Willis. I think a lot of music journalists will talk about her, because I think she was the first pop music critic at The New Yorker. I felt like she really elevated the way of writing about popular music. She had a lot of critical theory in there, and she took it very seriously. It was also very vivid, very character-driven stuff.

I really like Margot Adler. She is a longtime NPR reporter. She wrote about eccentric scenes and corners of American culture. Which, since I have stopped being a full-time music critic, it is something I would kind of like to write more about—not all music, just sort of interesting bits of Americana.

Do you have a favorite story or piece you have done?

I spent a lot of time doing a big oral history project for New Orleans rappers. We did like 50 or 60 hours worth of interviews with a lot of different people, and I wrote a bunch of different stories off of that. I wrote about how those old bounce songs have these really specific references to neighborhoods and schools that have changed since Katrina. … I went around town with a videographer and one of the rappers taking videos of all the different places he mentioned in his songs. It was a neat little multimedia thing with music and video.

Do you have advice for others wishing to pursue music journalism?

I would say take advantage of all the technology that is available now. When I got started writing for the Gambit Weekly, it really didn’t even have a website. You couldn’t report in real time. You were really circumscribed by the limits of the print magazine. But now with online stuff, you can video, you can include music (which is important when writing about music, for people to be able to listen to it), and you can cover this piece of really dynamic culture now in a way that does it justice.

Barbara Harmon is a senior in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University.

Studio M, a project of the College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, allows student journalists to be published statewide and nationwide. It’s made possible through grants and donations from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Tennessean and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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