The Hosts of Basic Folk Share Interview Tips and Karaoke Philosophy

When folk musician Lizzie No first appeared on the Basic Folk podcast in November of 2020, host Cindy Howes asked her about the trepidation she’d once felt as a Black woman taking up roots music; No says she initially had the impression she’d be an outsider in a culture that wasn’t hers. “I didn’t know enough about history to know that folk music is Black music, and it comes from the blues, and it comes from African musical forms that were brought over because of slavery,” said No. “It is this awful, awful lie and an erasing of history to believe that I would be taking something that isn’t already mine. But when I first got started, I didn’t know that.”

Before and since, Basic Folk–part of the American Songwriter Podcast Network–has set about addressing that lie. Howes has applied her extensive radio experience and talent for leading complex conversations to a more diverse array of guests, but she also offered up her platform to No, whose second appearance on the show was as a guest host. From here on out, she’ll be returning for once-a-month interviews of her own.

Her first, with Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Amythyst Kiah, and her second, with acclaimed songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Kishi Bashi, are available to stream and download now. Each one upholds the Basic Folk tradition of depth and insight, but with No’s distinct perspective on music and the press, not least as an artist who knows all too well the tedium of sitting down with an interviewer who hasn’t done their homework.

After the announcement, Howes and No spoke to The All Scene Eye about the intersection of their music media journeys and the joys of having non-musical conversations with musicians–not to mention some of the hobbies and hidden talents you might not guess from their interviews.

Cindy, do you remember the first ever interview you did?

Howes: For Basic Folk?

Just in general.

Howes: Yes, it was Erin McKeown in the year 2000. I was a freshman at Emerson college in Boston, and she was there to promote her album Distillation, which at this point, it’s considered a classic, you know? But yes, I kinda was just there assisting. I wasn’t in charge at that point, but I do remember interacting with her and her manager. I remember her being very kind afterwards, and she gave me a copy of that CD, which I then listened to, like, a million times. She’s been on Basic Folk, and I’ve interviewed her a couple times since then, and she’s just so smart. I feel so lucky every time I talk to her.

I know you were hosting radio shows for some time. When did it occur to you that you wanted to have an interview show?

Howes: I wanted something that was my own thing that I had complete control over, and also something that would foster the folk music community that I have been a part of since basically the day I met Erin McKeown, and have just really loved the people I’ve come across, from the people who work at the venues, to the fans, to the musicians themselves, the managers, and the labels. I thought I could do that, ’cause I’d honed my interview skills pretty intensely working in public radio. I thought, “You know, these folk musicians don’t always get a chance to really spread out and tell their story, so I want to try to create a platform for them.”

You really do the research and go super in-depth–you know, line-by-line in the bio. I love it.

Howes: Yeah, that’s anxiety, man. [laughs]

[laughs] How do you mean?

Howes: Well, it’s just–I feel like sometimes it takes me a minute to set up a question, and I’m like, “That’s a long time to get to the meat of what I’m looking for,” but I think that it helps save time for me to tell the story that I want to talk about as opposed to having the artist tell the story. Because then we can really get into the deepness of what that story meant, how it’s impacted them, how it’s reflected in their art, and how it’s changed them as a person. I come with an agenda. [laughs]

In the couple of years you’ve been doing Basic Folk, how has your vision for the show changed?

Howes: I definitely have done a more intense job in the past year or so to try to include different types of folk musicians from the LGBTQIA+ community. The homos–which I am a part of–and also different people from different folk music communities. You know, singer/songwriters, fiddle players, bluegrass players, old-time players, contra players, really getting deep and nerdy into that. Also doing a better job of–Lizzie, I think, hates this word. Amplify? Or do you like that word?

No: You can finish your sentence, and then I can chime in. [laughs]

Howes: Lift up? 

No: Mmhmm.

Howes: Spotlight musicians who are not white.

[laughs] So, Lizzie, how do you feel about that?

No: Oh my gosh, okay, no. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t feel like Cindy and I were on the same page about this topic. I am just sick to death of so many people over the past year that have just said the phrase, “listen to Black women, amplify diverse voices,” and they’re doing nothing. It’s almost as though saying the word “amplify” or “empower” is this magic code word that absolves you of sitting on your ass and benefiting from white supremacy. [laughs]

Cindy is actually quite literally amplifying voices of various people because she has a podcast, and she’s a broadcaster, and actually quite literally shares these voices, but I think a lot of people say that not actually thinking about what the verb means and not actually thinking about the responsibility that comes with that. Like, how are you amplifying? Are you giving money? Are you buying their work? Are you sharing it with a friend? Are you just giving lip service to something that sounds good? That’s my gripe with the word “amplify,” but Cindy and I are arm-in-arm on what it actually means in practice.

You’ve been a musician one form or other pretty much your whole life. When was your first music interview?

No: Oh, like being interviewed?


No: That’s a good question. I don’t remember, actually, and I’ve probably suppressed them. Like, I’m sure I was interviewed for the college paper. I actually remember the first time my music was written about; it was in a roast in my high school newspaper. My high school band was being teased for only knowing three chords, and I was like, “Alright, that’s fair. We do only know three chords.”

That’s what high school bands are all about!

Howes: Right, I hear that’s all you need.

No: [laughs] Yeah, and the truth. So you know what? Fair enough. But I don’t remember my first interview. I remember the first time having to record something that was going to go on air, and like, sitting in the studio just dripping sweat, and how scary and alien it felt to, you know, have no one know who you are and be sitting in the NPR studios with the headphones on. You’re not even looking at who you’re talking to, and you’re like, “Oh god, this is really happening.”

Howes: It’s scary on both sides.

When you look back at interviews you do remember, what stands out in terms of best and worst experiences?

No: So, I’m not just saying this because she’s sitting right here, but I do remember my interview with Cindy as a standout, really good one. You do so many of them just to try to get the word out about your work, and a lot of times, it feels like work. It’s always great when someone wants to cover what you’re doing, but not everyone has the time or the interest or the resources to really dig deep into your past work and your life story and other interviews you’ve given, so you end up repeating yourself over and over. It can just feel like, “Oh my gosh, this is such an annoying side of the job.”

I remember talking with Cindy, and it was immediately clear, like, “Oh, I get to skip that part.” I get to skip giving the basics of where I’m from and what instrument I play, and XYZ. “What’s it like being a woman in music?” I wasn’t gonna have to do any of that because she’d already done her research, so we could start from a place of basic understanding and go into the more interesting questions, like what was I thinking about when I wrote certain songs? Who were my influences? The deeper stuff that I think musicians are more interested in talking about. 

I think always the sign of a good interview is this acknowledgement that, “Okay, you’ve probably talked about a lot of this before, and I want to take your time and your ideas seriously. What would actually be fun or interesting for you to talk about?” Like, “Let’s assume this is your 500th interview. What’s something that hasn’t been covered?” And for me at the time with Cindy, I was starting to read a little bit about Greek mythology, and like, mindfulness, and it was these spiritual and mythic aspects of the music that nobody was asking me about, but that were really important and interesting to me. So yeah, I think you can play a fun game of, “What hasn’t this person been asked that I can get to?”

Cindy, if we can tackle that from the opposite direction, how did that interview with Lizzie come about? What do you remember about preparing for that?

Howes: Well, I found Lizzie’s music through Mickey Guyton‘s Spotify playlist, and I just liked it right away. I liked her right away. I loved her aesthetic. I loved that she played the harp, and reading about her, what I remember is how freakin’ smart she is, and it was very fun. It just felt like a very natural, fun conversation to have, and I think that’s what I entered it with. Less nerves and more excitement to talk to this very like-minded person, even though I’m, like, a hundred years older than she is.

No: We’re literally peers.

Howes: We’re the same generation.

No: We’re twins.

Howes: [laughs] We’re Irish twins.

Lizzie, you mention in the promo video you made for Basic Folk that your favorite parts of interviews are when you can talk about things that aren’t even music-related–people’s hobbies, spirituality, that second level. Is that something you can plan for, or do you just have to seize the opportunities when they show up?

Howes: This kind of stuff comes out in interviews sometimes, and you can grab onto it, you know? I don’t know about you Lizzie, but I probably read, like, a minimum of 25 articles or so, and you start coming across the same stuff, but every once in a while, you’ll read a line about how a person is, like, a very passionate kickball player or something, and you just sort of set it aside, like, “What am I gonna do with this later?”

No: I’ve only done a few now for Basic Folk, but I have found that, yeah, if someone says something about, like, “Oh, yeah, and my butterfly garden,” this or that, most interviews don’t get to sit down for an hour or more, so they don’t have time to dig into that. It might come up once or twice in a press cycle, and they haven’t had time to really dig deep, so if you read enough interviews, hopefully you can grab something that they’ve said offhand and haven’t explained fully and hope that they’ll be willing to go there. [laughs]

Howes: Yeah, sometimes you find stuff that you’re like, “Oh, this person has a feathered hat collection,” and there’s just no way to fit it into the interview.

How did the conversation start to have Lizzie guest-host the show?

Howes: I always come up with my greatest ideas when I’m running. ‘Cause I’m an athlete.

No: Mmhmm. Of course, my twin.

Howes: Right, like an Olympian athlete. Not like, Olympics as in the games, but like, Olympia, the place.

No: Oh, sure. Sure sure sure.

Howes: So I just was running, and my mind was wandering, trying to think of different ways–and I’ve tried to do this before–just to be better. Like, be a better person in the folk community and try to use my tiny little platform to do something good. And something that I think organizations should do more is hand the reins over to people who don’t look like them, you know? Lizzie was the first person on my list. I asked her, and she said yes. [laughs]

No: It really did not hit me at the time–I thought you were asking a bunch of artists to do one or two guest spots, so I was like, “Wow, cool, I’ll do this.” And then when we actually talked about it, I was like, “Oh, this is even cooler than what I imagined.” It appealed to me so much because being a musician is the greatest job in the world, obviously, and you can put a lot of research into your music, but you don’t always get to be in conversation about those ideas. It’s like a one-way flow, so the idea that I would get to dig deep into a topic or a person’s life and then lead a conversation was really exciting.

I loved the conversation you had with Amythyst Kiah. What was your first Basic Folk interview like on that side of the microphone?

No: It was so nerve-racking. Luckily, I had a great teacher in Cindy, and I really like her approach to preparing, which in a basic sense was like, “Let’s go chronologically, let’s listen to everything Amythyst has released, let’s dig into some interviews around each album.” So I felt like, “Okay, I have a sense of this person’s background to some degree.” 

And then, like, “How can I turn the fact that I’m not actually a journalist into a strength? Because I’m never gonna be a seasoned interviewer day one. I’m a musician that is interested in learning about other musicians. That could be a pitfall because maybe I won’t have some of the techniques that a trained journalist would have, but how can I actually use that to my advantage?” What I tried to do was put myself in Amythyst’s shoes. Like, “I’m releasing a new album, I’m on tour a bunch, I’ve just been in lockdown. What are the things that would be interesting to me to talk about as an artist?” And like, try to go from there.

What was your biggest takeaway from that experience after hitting stop on the recording?

No: I feel like the technique paid off in my first interview. It was really exhilarating because it’s one of those things where there’s a real human person on the other side of it, and you can plan out your questions and sequence them as best as you can, but you can’t predict how someone’s gonna react, and that’s really humbling and good. You can’t be like, “This is where the emotional apex of the interview is gonna be.” You don’t know that.

Howes: That’s totally true.

No: You just ask some questions, and the conversation goes from there. The person gradually warms up to you and kind of realizes where you’re heading with certain things, and you get a sense of how they communicate. You have a lot less control than you do performing, for instance. Because when I plan a set, I can kind of guess where the emotions are gonna go over the hour or hour and a half. With a conversation, you just have to see.

Howes: That’s totally true, and good for you for realizing that so quickly. I feel like it took me 15 years to be like, “Wait a minute. I’m not in control and conversations can go anywhere.”

No: It’s frightening.

Howes: You really have to be flexible. Agile. Nimble.

No: As a fellow Olympian athlete, I try to stay agile.

Howes: One thing I forgot to mention was that Lizzie did this great interview–it was more of a conversation between Raye Zaragoza and herself, and going back to your question about, like, why Lizzie, that was the impetus for me. Just seeing two musicians talk to each other about such intense subjects and being so articulate–it just was a very memorable conversation.

No: Aw, that’s nice! Raye is the best.

Howes: Yeah, she’s cool. She was on the podcast too. I told Raye several times during her Basic Folk interview that if she started a cult, I would join.

That’s the best thing you can hope for, is that by the end of the interview, you’re in a cult together.

Howes: Yeah, it’s not even that we’re in a cult together. Like, I’m in her cult that she’s–where we wear cowboy hats.

No: It’s important to know your role in a cult. I feel like a lot of people make the mistake of thinking they’re leading. You gotta know.

Right. Statistically, not everybody can be the cult leader.

Howes: That is so true.

But Lizzie, [laughs] was there a difference going into your second interview, the one with Kishi Bashi? Since you had your first interview behind you.

No: Yeah, I did go into that like, “I need to be aware that everyone reacts differently to different types of questions.” Like, Kishi Bashi’s personality is so different from Amythyst, and that’s what’s exciting. And his background is so different, so it’s like, where I’m gonna focus my attention is gonna be different. And he does different work. Like, right now what he’s really intensely focusing on is a film project that’s going with some music that he’s made, and he’s been traveling all over the American West doing all this research, so the landscape of the interview looks so different, and that’s what’s kind of scary and exciting. There’s kind of no template from one interview to the next.

I was also coming at it from a different perspective because the questions that I’m sure Amythyst gets asked a ton are, you know, “What’s it like to be a Black woman in roots music?” And those are questions that I get a million times a day, so there was a bit of common ground there, and I didn’t have to Google, like, “What are the major topics in this area?” Whereas a lot of what K has been researching has been about the Japanese-American internment camps and that immigrant experience, and the feeling of being othered by your government. That’s just an experience that I don’t have, and I don’t want to assume that I know about, so I had to do a little bit more digging to be like, “What are intelligent questions to ask about this work that he’s doing that’s different from my experience, but of course, there’s common ground.”

You also end every interview on Basic Folk with some fun questions–there’s always the Lightning Round. Where did that come from in your interview style?

Howes: Honestly, the origin story is really dumb, but here it is for all your readers. I was talking to a friend of mine who does underwriting at a public radio station–the podcast had been out for a while, and I was trying to find out about advertising and sponsorship. He gave me the advice of, you know, in a podcast, there’s three different possibilities for sponsorship placement. There’s the pre-roll, which is in the beginning, the mid-roll, which is in the middle, and then the post-roll, which is at the end. He was suggesting that if you want to stick a sponsorship in there, have some kind of special content after the interview. So I was like, “Cool, I’ll do this funny little question and answer lightning round,” and then I never actually put the mid-roll before the Lightning Round. If you listen to an episode of Basic Folk and there’s a promo or a sponsorship message, it’s always just, like, in the middle of the podcast. It’s just laziness that I didn’t ever do it, and now it’s an established fun thing. But you know, it’s a lighthearted way to end the episode.

How do you keep that fresh and come up with those kinds of questions?

Howes: Well, we ask the same ones basically every time. I feel like there was somebody who had been on previously that I just, like, made them up on the spot. It doesn’t ever get stale. If a question doesn’t work, then I’ll stop asking it, you know? But the one question that I keep on asking even though it’s not gone well most of the time is “What’s your karaoke song?”

No: You’re gonna get an interesting answer at some point, and you’re gonna be so glad that you kept asking.

Howes: Yeah, ’cause Raye was like, “I love karaoke!” And I was like, “That never happens.” There was another, Mark Kilianski, who’s in this band called Golden Shoals. He was like, “I love karaoke, and this is my karaoke song.” I can’t remember what he said. It was so hilarious. I think it was, like, John Mellencamp, “Jack and Diane.”

No: Stop.

Howes: He was like, “I like to do that song, but I only like to repeat the line ‘Suckin’ on a chili dog.'”

No: Ugh! Visceral.

[laughs] That’s awesome.

No: As I was being onboarded as a new employee of Basic Folk, I took a look at the long list of potential Lightning Round questions, and I was like, “I can work with this.” I take liberties on the ones that I add, which I think you will enjoy in future episodes. That part, for some reason–I delight in the Lightning Round. I’ll even look at objects in the room where I’m sitting, and be like, “Hm, I can come up with a question about that.” You know, like, “What’s your favorite sweatpants brand?”

Howes: I have asked that before and it totally flopped because I was like, “Obviously the answer is Vuori.”

No: Oh, I was gonna say Nike.

See, this is interesting.

No: Are we in a fight?

Howes: No, not at all. I’ve actually owned Nike sweatpants, but when I was younger. Now that I’m older, I need something soft.

No: Oh. Oh, okay.

Howes: For my sensitive skin. The other thing I will say about the Lightning Round is that we do ask very serious questions, but Lizzie and I contain multitudes, and the Lightning Round is a fun way to zip it up and let everyone know that we’re a good time. We’re down to hang, we love a knock knock joke, but also, like, tell us about the evolution of your religious experience.

So, Cindy, what is your karaoke song?

Howes: My karaoke song is “Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac.

No: Wow.

Howes: Yeah, it’s a very intense song. One time, and I’m not proud of this–in Pennsylvania, Western Pennsylvania, there are strip clubs where you can do karaoke.

No: I’ve done stripper-oke!

Howes: Oh, really? Out here it’s called bareaoke.

No: Oh, okay. I did it in Portland.

Wait, why is it called that?

No: Like, bare.

Oh. I got it, thank you. I just–

No: Bare-aoke?

Needed you to say it one more time. Now I’m–

No: Baaaare-aoke?

[laughs] Now I’m here.

Howes: But now I’m not into that because I’m into respecting women.

No: Can I push back on that?

Howes: Yes, I want you to, actually.

No: I respect women–I feel like that should go without saying, but, you know, people don’t know me. I respect women, and I think there’s something really interesting about bareaoke because it upends the expected vulnerability of the situation. A lot of people go into a strip club, I presume, kind of feeling like, “I am covered and the other person is on display.” But when you are doing karaoke, you are on display.

You flip the dynamic.

No: You flip the dynamic, and the dancer’s there, and they are at their job. They are in their place of power, and you are a guest coming in and singing and being a bit silly and vulnerable, so I feel like it puts everyone on an equal playing field.

Howes: That’s beautiful.

That is actually, yeah.

Howes: I respect women and I support sex workers.

No: I do–we all do.

We all do.

Howes: Yeah, we all do.

And Lizzie, what is your karaoke song?

No: I! Don’t! Do! Karaoke! It makes me so anxious. [laughs]

If you had to–gun to your head, what’s your karaoke song?

No: “Jesus Take the Wheel,” Carrie Underwood.

That’s a great karaoke song!

Howes: That’s what you said in the Lightning Round.

No: I think so. I just–to me, karaoke is like Thanksgiving dinner. There are times when you can’t get out of it, but it’s never gonna be enjoyable.

There’s a whole representational element of karaoke that I hadn’t considered. It’s stripping, but it’s also Thanksgiving. There’s so much there.

No: [laughs] I would much rather go to a strip club than Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t tell my family.

This is the Lightning Round question–would you rather go to a strip club or Thanksgiving dinner?

Howes: I guess it would depend on what strip club it is.

It would also depend on your family.

Howes: One more thing about karaoke is that it’s my total party trick. I’ll go up there and people will be like, “Oh, hey, look at Cindy. She’s going up to do a karaoke song. What’s this gonna be like?” And then I’m like, “I know I could’ve loved you, but you would not let me!” Like, hitting every note, and everyone’s like, “Wow.”

No: That’s sick.

Howes: Then they’re like, “Do another one!” And I’m like, “No.” That’s it.

No: One and done. I love that for you. My party trick is my hand-eye coordination. I almost am loath to say this, ’cause I feel like I’m gonna jinx myself, but I never practice, and somehow am always very good at beer pong or darts. Like, my sister’s party trick is being really good at throwing a football. She works in the spirits industry and I’m, like, a floaty musician, but for some reason, we have these very specific athletic skills that turn out to be useful.

Are there other interviewers who inspire you in your approach?

Howes: My three main inspirations are Terry Gross, Talia Schlanger, who is the former host of World Cafe, and Rosemary Welsch, who is the afternoon host on WYEP in Pittsburgh. She’s my mentor, my radio mother–we worked together for 11 years, and she taught me basically everything I know about interviewing. Also, Adia Victoria is quickly turning into an awesome inspiration for me. I just started listening to her podcast, Call & Response, and it’s pretty amazing. I have to step up my game, ’cause she’s like–woo. She’s very good. She’s a miracle.

No: I really enjoy Adia’s podcast. I really liked Rissi Palmer‘s show, Color Me Country. And these are also the people who are talking about the shit that I’m interested in. An interviewer who I don’t relate to at all and I don’t try to emulate but I really enjoy is Alec Baldwin, because he makes no attempt to take himself out. Like, in a way, all of his interviews star him, and I think that’s just such a fun way to do an interview show. I find that really, really entertaining.

If you could have anybody guest on an episode, who would you most want to talk to?

Howes: Eddie Vedder.

No: I’ve already told Cindy my answer, and it’s the same as my celeb crush, and it’s Lyle Lovett. 

Howes: Attainable. We follow each other on Twitter, me and Lyle Lovett.

No: [gasps] No. I swoon!

Howes: Me too. 

For each of you, what do you most admire about the other as an interviewer?

No: I admire the way Cindy sort of disguises her depth of knowledge and turns it into comfort for the person. When you talk to Cindy, you don’t feel like, “Oh, I’m talking to someone that did a bunch of research about me.” She makes it seem like, “Oh, I’m your friend. I’m your ally.” It comes across as warmth and ease, but just because I’ve worked with you a little bit, I can tell that a lot of times, it comes from a lot of work.

Howes: That’s so nice.

No: It’s true!

Howes: Even though she says she doesn’t put herself in these interviews, I really admire the way that Lizzie does become vulnerable with the person that she’s talking to, you know? And how, in the preparation stage, we had a couple of calls where we went over questions, and now she’s just, like, flyin’, coming up with really good questions, and how quickly she has become a very good interviewer. I’m really excited to hear all the interviews you do and all the different ways that you can grow, and how this impacts your day to day, you know? Like, making you think deeper about the world and stuff. Right now, I’m doing a lot of marketing promo stuff for the podcast, and I think that’s triggering a lot of my anxiety. Doing this work of digging into somebody’s history really deeply is very grounding and calming for me, and I hope that you find that too.

No: It’s a really, really, really fun job.

What are you most looking forward to about the future of Basic Folk?

Howes: I’m looking forward to a time when it sustains itself. I’d love to do some crowdfunding and have this podcast pay for itself.

No: Speak it into existence!

Howes: Stay tuned.

No: It will happen.

Howes: I’m also excited to do some in-person events and actually physically be out there in the community in different ways.

No: I would love to do a live, in-person event too, like a panel or a Basic Folk in person. I think I’m also at such an early stage of being a part of this that I’m just looking forward to digging into the work more. Just interviewing more people and getting more points of data, of like, “Here’s what it’s like to interview this type of artist, and this type of artist.”

Howes: It’s just so great working with Lizzie because I’m learning so much about what this podcast can do just from her perspective, you know? It’s exciting to have somebody else help shape what it is. ‘Cause I’m not very articulate, and I–

No: Lies.

Howes: No, it’s totally true. Like, you’re asking me to describe, “What was it like to have Lizzie on the podcast?” I’m like, “Oh my god, she was so smart and so fun and so cool,” but if you ask Lizzie that same question, the vocabulary and the articulation just blows me away, and I’m very happy that it’s in my life.

No: Thanks Cindy–I’m happy to have you in my life.

What are you most looking forward to in the future of folk music?

Howes: More sets like the closing set at Newport.

No: I’m just looking forward to all folkies–musicians, people in the industry, fans–being less square as time goes on. Like, I’m not interested in genre boundaries, and I would say most people in their heart of hearts aren’t, but for some reason, we always feel this need to talk about it like, “Is this really folk? Is it more rock? Is it more bluegrass?” Those things can be interesting to talk about if it’s about things that add, but I think at times we get focused on excluding people. Like, “Oh, this person isn’t really traditional. This person isn’t really folk.” I think if we can take a note from jazz or from hip-hop, like, everything gets to be part of it. I think that’s where the genre’s headed, and that’s exciting because it makes room for more types of music, more types of fans, and more types of personalities. Like, let’s just get more kooky. Let’s go out to space.

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