NME writers on meeting their heroes: “It’s like being sucked through the Looking-Glass”

As we celebrate our 70th birthday, our scribes relive their most surreal encounters, as those three letters provide portals to Macca, Debbie Harry and more

Words: Jordan Bassett, Mark Beaumont, Rhian Daly, Alex Flood, El Hunt, Nick Levine, James McMahon, Thomas Smith, Gary Ryan, Andrew Trendell, Kyann-Siann Williams

The good ship NME turns 70 this week. As we raise a toast to the world’s greatest music publication, we’ve recounted the tale of these storied pages (formerly print, now web) in 70 songs and revisited seven NME covers that shook the world, a journey that took us from Elvis Presley to Self Esteem. Today, writers recall meeting their heroes thanks to our three-lettered friend and benefactor: sometimes nerve-wracking, often thrilling and always – always – an out-of-body experience.

Lana Del Rey by Rhian Daly

Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey CREDIT: Press

It all feels like a fairy tale now, and likely would even without two years of mostly only speaking to artists through a computer screen. One summer afternoon in 2019, as I idly pottered about my New York apartment, some unexpected words flashed up on my phone: “Do you want to go to LA tomorrow to interview Lana?” It seemed like something of a rhetorical question.

I had fallen hard for Lana Del Rey’s music the very first time I heard ‘Video Games’ back in summer 2011. A year later, I spent hours, days, weeks with ‘Ride’ on repeat as I slumped into my sadness and being “tired of feeling like I’m fucking crazy”. Driving away from my issues – as Lana did in the song – wasn’t possible, but that track (and the rest of her music) became my comfort “to keep myself sane”.

Less than 48 hours after receiving that text, I was sat in Lana’s manager’s office listening to her sixth album ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’ for the first time. An azure swimming pool glistened in the Hollywood sun and I scribbled notes in a notepad that would form questions for my interview, along with descriptions that would colour in the outlines of my piece. As another journalist spoke with her first, I sat alone in a building separate from the main office, wired on five coffees and the adrenaline rush of an oncoming panic attack.

But those feelings all dissipated as soon as I stepped in the room with her. A warm and welcoming presence, she made small talk about California before diving into a rich and varied conversation that felt almost like talking with a friend. She gave me advice on making friends in a new place where you know no-one and, when the interview was over, lingered in the room with me to ask me about my life.

She graciously agreed to make a short video teasing the digital cover interview for NME’s Instagram, stumbling over the lines and bursting into laughter each time. It was simultaneously completely normal and utterly magical; a rare, wonderful day that I’m whisked back into every time I press play on ‘Norman Fucking Rockwell!’.

Paul McCartney by Mark Beaumont

Paul McCartney performing live onstage in 2021
Paul McCartney performs live, 2021. CREDIT: Getty

“I remember George said to me one time in Hamburg…”

There are moments, working for the NME for more years than it’s polite to mention, when you suddenly feel sucked through the Looking-Glass and dumped unceremoniously into musical legend. Moments when it feels like you could be sitting listening to Mozart outlining his Salieri beef or Robert Johnson leading you through the small print of the diabolical crossroads contract.

One such moment, far and away my most memorable, was sitting in a luxuriant, palm-festooned dressing room backstage at an enormodome in Dallas in 2009, while Paul McCartney casually tossed out anecdotes from The Beatles’ Hamburg days.

Paul McCartney. Sitting on the most comfortable sofa on the planet telling me about The Beatles playing in Hamburg. An event without which the vast majority of music I love would never have existed, and without which I – a man whose employment skills extend little further than making alliterative arse jokes about Bastille – would never have had a long and distinguished career of jetting around the world making gigantic, wine bottle-shaped dents in the PR budgets of major rock stars. ‘Unreal’ doesn’t cover the half of it. This was Wogan-level shit.

Now, they say you should never meet your heroes. But what they mean is: you should never try to conduct a far more extensive and wide-ranging interview with your heroes than your extremely tight pre-gig time slot allows for. I was on a doomed mission: Macca was there to talk about the new Beatles: Rock Band video game, about which he had a surprising amount to impart.

I was there to get an illuminating insight into each of The Beatles’ 12 albums in turn, for a special issue with 12 different covers, one commemorating each record. Out in the auditorium, 20,000 “na-na-na-naaa”-hungry Texans were in their seats before we even began. In retrospect, our allotted 20 minutes was as ambitious as deciding to binge Get Back in your lunch break.

In the end, we got as far as ‘Revolver’ (me: “The best album ever made, isn’t it?” Sir Paul: “You can come again”) before a tour manager popped his head around a velvet drape, called 10 minutes to stage time and I was ushered away, devastated to only get half the job done but still strangely euphoric.

Paul McCartney – the man who, outside my close friends and family, is directly responsible for pretty much everything good in my life – had been every bit as friendly, chatty and adorable as his legend requires. But, crucially, he’d done it directly at me. Historically speaking, sitting next to the guy failing to finish an interview will probably be the most notable thing I ever do, and I’m just fine with that.

Robyn by El Hunt

Robyn at the NME Awards 2020, where she collected the Songwriter of the Decade prize. Credit: Getty

I vividly remember the moment I became a Robyn fan. It was in a dark corner of my first ever queer club night, where I nervously shuffled about as glitter-covered revellers gleefully spun around the grotty, beer-splattered backroom of my new local. The night in question was a fabulously fun club night called Dancing On My Own – and, as you’d imagine, they used to blast quite a lot of Robyn. I did plenty of dancing – on my own, and with new friends – to ‘Body Talk’ that year.

When Robyn released ‘Honey’ eight years later, I was taken aback by her raw exploration of grief after losing her friend and collaborator Christian Falk; her honesty punched me right in the gut. When NME sent me to profile one of pop’s greatest songwriters, I wasn’t just nervous to meet a hero. I was also muddling through a painful bereavement, and resolved to put on a poker face for the day.

It evidently didn’t fool anyone. As Robyn spoke about the sad but immense privilege of being with a person you love as they leave – and the complicated impulse to try and stay in that same space to hang onto their memory – I was caught completely off guard by her openness and generosity.

Right before saying our goodbyes, she asked if I had lost somebody, too, and we talked a little longer with my recorder switched off. I’ll never forget the advice she gave me – and I can even forgive her for being a Tottenham Hotspur fan.

Beck by Thomas Smith

Beck, shortly after writer Thomas Smith caught him with his trousers down. Credit: Jenn Five for NME

The first – and only time – I met Beck, I caught him with his pants down. We were meeting in London’s Rosewood Hotel for his first NME cover in 20 years, around the release of his 14th solo album, ‘Hyperspace’. For Beck, it was a gruelling day of interviews and shoots, which – of course – was running horrendously late. The suite he’d commandeered doubled up as interview space, photo studio and changing room.

He was hopping from a glitzy shirt to a sharp suit when I was welcomed into the room by his team, his trousers still pooled around his ankles. This was the man I was just about to ask hard-hitting questions about life, death, divorce (but not the banned topic of Scientology).

Growing up, Beck’s music felt like a gateway to another more vibrant world. Like the California artist, I was small in stature and introverted – the idea that I’d end up speaking to people for a living remains quite laughable. But that quiet nature never appeared to impede him expressing the full gamut of emotions in his music: his albums could be colourful and daft (‘Odelay’, ‘Midnite Vultures’), pensive and contemplative (‘Sea Change’, ‘Morning Phase’) or mysterious and confident (‘Modern Guilt’). Perhaps I, too, could let my guard down a bit and show those sides of my personality – sometimes all in one evening.

That cover story remains a career high: the chat was reflective and thoughtful, but equally exciting and fun. Typical Beck, then. For a moment however, we slipped into old habits; if he wasn’t going to mention Trouser Gate, I certainly wasn’t going to. Sometimes being introverted works out.

Rico Nasty by Kyann-Siann Williams

Credit: Jonathan Weiner for Kyann-Siann Williams’ 2020 NME cover story

As NME’s Junior Staff Writer, I may not have interviewed the biggest names in music yet, but I was starstruck while interviewing the bolshy rapstar rebel that is Rico Nasty. Mid-2010s SoundCloud rap was the first scene I consciously kept up with from the beginning – I became invested in 2016 – and Rico Nasty’s  track‘Hey Arnold’ represented the first time I saw a woman gaining notoriety in that sphere.

On record, she was goofy and cocky with a hint of mania, and she – along with other leading ladies in the scene, such as Bktherula and Asian Doll – sparked the inner girlboss energy that I still use today. I’d briefly met her on east London’s Brick Lane in 2019 before her sweaty show at the 800-capacity XOYO; she sweetly gave me two minutes to talk and take pictures. My first NME digital cover story arrived in 2020, four years into my fandom; you always want your idols to live up to your expectations.

And Rico Nasty was everything I wanted and more. She wore a short, lime green pixie-cut and a spiky choker: her evolution to a punky queen was imminent, but she did exude a sweetness similar to the bubblegumm-y, syrupy style she encompassed when I’d first met her. Chatting about her artistry and journey to her debut album ‘Nightmare Vacation’, I fell further in love with the rapper I had loved since I was a teenager.

Charlie Watts by Alex Flood

Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts “unlikely” to join US tour
Credit: George Pimentel/Getty Images.

Most people think of the late Charlie Watts as the chilled-out Rolling Stones drummer who was too cool to be a rockstar. Those people are wrong. Charlie was a total rockstar. He just went about it in his own way.

When I met him in 2018 at a swanky hotel suite in Soho, he was dressed immaculately in a smart shirt, cashmere jumper and shiny shoes. The band were rehearsing for an upcoming slate of UK shows and Charlie had been driven up especially by chauffeur-driven car. That’s all the way from his 600-acre 16th Century estate in Devon, where he bred Arabian horses. Not rock’n’roll at all, right? He was in a good mood and we chatted at length about new album plans, never retiring and maybe playing Glastonbury again. He even let me ask about the time he punched Mick Jagger on the nose for calling him “my drummer”. “I was drunk”, he explained, with a mischievous grin.

Later, he got most excited when talking about his collection of vintage cars, worth many millions. “I can’t drive so I just sit there,” he said, before showing me how he would read the newspaper in the front seat, occasionally making “brum brum” noises like a kid pretending to ride his dad’s motor. Charlie was serious when he needed to be – a leading question would be slapped down immediately – but he loved to joke about, too.

At the end of our interview, we stood up and made small talk while the video team packed up around us. It emerged Charlie’s wife had forgotten to load their suitcases into the boot that morning before they’d left for London. He wasn’t bothered. They’d simply sent the driver right back (another 400-mile round trip) to get them. “Well, I am paying him,” he said. “Call it a rich man’s indulgence.” Spoken like a true rockstar.

Debbie Harry by Gary Ryan

Blondie’s Debbie Harry in the ’70s, New York. Credit: Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Never meet your heroes? I can only shrug: ‘Get better idols’. To me, Blondie are the perfect band: witty, subversive, cool and coating whatever genre they turn their hand at (disco, rap, reggae, French chanson) in their own Midas bleach.

I grew up in Plymouth (where it was then acceptable for the local MP to tell our school assembly he believed gay people would go to Hell) around Blondie’s post-‘Maria’ comeback in the early 2000s, and they were also the kind of band that suggested a better way of life was possible. They told you more about the world than just music, and were a gateway drug to other forms of art, fashion and film.

Some might think it’s dangerous meeting a hero like Debbie Harry because you could end up disappointed (I know a fellow hack who was so nervous about meeting his idol, he went on a five-day bender beforehand). But I think you come armed with the reservoir of memories the music has soundtracked (Harry once pointed out that when fans send her art, they’re subconsciously adding a layer of themselves to it). In that situation, you’re a journalist first, fan second – you really want to do the best interview ever.

Which probably leads you to believe I’m about to say ‘she was a monster!’ (the greatest  anecdotes are always the ones that go wrong), but actually Harry exceeded expectations in how kind, curious and keen to put you at ease she is. Since then, I’ve interviewed her multiple times for NME and you never lose that plane-taking-off-the-runway feeling of how lucky you are.

Robert Smith by Andrew Trendell

The Cure’s Robert Smith on stage with Chvrches at the BandLab NME Awards 2022. Credit: Jen McCord for NME

After about five years of angling for an audience with The Cure’s Robert Smith, I got a phone call on the eve of Glastonbury 2019. “What are you doing next Tuesday?” the PR asked of my post-Glasto plans. “Probably weeping in the fetal position and regretting all my life choices,” I replied. “How would you like the world exclusive interview with Robert Smith?” came the proposition. Reader, my heart exploded.

My pre-Glasto packing and planning was interrupted by consuming 40 odd years’ worth of The Cure’s NME interviews, but I needn’t have toiled quite so much. The Smith I spoke to, fresh from his Worthy Farm headline performance, was effortlessly open, amicable and imbued with the spirit of an artist still very much on top of his game.

Behind the make-up of the icon was a lovely chap with a dry wit and a love of what he does – just as comfortable spilling the beans on new projects and spotlighting relatively unknown acts such as The Twilight Sad as he was revisiting four decades of myth-making and magic. Our chat for clocked in at around three hours – roughly the length of a typical Cure live set – and resulted in a digital cover story and a follow-up feature, but it wouldn’t be the last.

We’d meet again when he’d grace us with his presence at two consecutive NME Awards (at last week’s, he delivered a belting performance with CHVRCHES). Backstage at both events, he jovially shared the inside scoop on the long-awaited follow-up to The Cure’s 2008 album ‘4:13 Dream’. Last week, he revealed that ‘Songs Of A Lost World’ is coming in September. Will it arrive as promised? I’m all here for chatting indefinitely about it until it does.

Beth Ditto by James McMahon

Beth Ditto at the NME Awards 2007. Credit: Getty

I’d been NME Features Editor for a week when I was asked to interview The Gossip’s Beth Ditto for the NME cover. During the 12 months prior, myself and then-Deputy Editor Krissi Murison had formed a pincer movement of sorts, plotting daily how we could get the Arkansas-born singer out of the DIY punk underground and onto the cover.

I’d been a fan since my teenage days of making fanzines, and so when the group had a genuine hit, their song ‘Standing In The Way of Control’ then ubiquitous after its use in the buzzy teen drama Skins, we saw a cultural moment in which our plan could be realised. The resulting interview would be my first NME cover. And, in truth, the best thing I ever wrote there.

I did the interview in Brighton, inside the city’s Udderbelly venue, a giant upturned purple cow that featured on the circuit of that years Great Escape Festival. Beth spent a lot of the interview explaining to me how best to cook a squirrel. When the issue came out – which featured Beth naked on the cover, a statement about what women’s bodies really looked like – it became apparent that many UK newsagents were displaying the issue back-to-front to hide the image.

I spent the week of sale walking around newsagents turning the issues front-to-back. In future years, I’d interview other countless other bands and artists. Some I liked; some I didn’t. But either way, it often felt like part of the cycle of press and promotion of their new record. With The Gossip it felt different, like I was part of something countercultural; something important.

Liam Gallagher by Jordan Bassett

Liam Gallagher
Credit: Tom Oxley for NME

When I was an aspiring music journalist, people used to ask me: who’s your dream interviewee? There was only ever one answer: LG. Except Liam Gallagher didn’t go by two letters back then – his career was at something of a nadir in the mid-2010s, following the collapse of Oasis and the implosion of his spin-off band Beady Eye. It seems inconceivable now, but he wasn’t widely thought of as the greatest living rock’n’roll singer in the world; detractors claimed his best ways were behind him.

Before Liam’s enormously successful solo comeback in 2017 booted that idea away harder than his beloved former Manchester City striker Sergio Augero, people would scoff as if he were some kind of ranting yob; I was convinced he was touched by genius and blessed with sky-high emotional intelligence.

By the time I finally interviewed Liam Gallagher for the cover of NME in 2018, he was about to be crowned Godlike Genius at the NME Awards and his debut solo album, ‘As You Were’, had recently gone Platinum. He was hilarious, warm, thoughtful, sweary company, admitting Beady Eye’s failure (“The gigs were getting smaller. That’s why we knocked it on the head. There was no point doing a third [album] – we’d be playing fucking pubs”) and ruminating on his aversion to yoga: “I done it once and I got stuck. The little geezer was laughing at me, so I thought, ‘I’m taking my mat and I’m off.’”

I’d only heard about the interview a couple of hours beforehand; someone else had called in sick. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the London studio – where he’d just been snapped for said NME cover – to discover that Liam and I would be on camera throughout the filmed encounter: mind blown emoji. He still had a reputation as a prickly interviewee, which has since been eroded, and so it would be an understatement to say I was nervous. I needn’t have worried: Liam Gallagher pretty much interviews himself. You just have to keep the Dictaphone running. And since it was filmed, I didn’t even have to do that!

Afterwards, outside the venue, I breathlessly called my mum: “You’re never gonna guess what’s just happened. Liam Gallagher’s getting into a blacked-out car and he’s waving goodbye to me…” She was more impressed that I’d done a phoner with Robbie Williams the week before, mind.

Lizzo by Nick Levine

Credit: Mike Prior for NME

When NME sent me to interview Lizzo in late 2018, she wasn’t quite a superstar yet. No one had any idea that her 2017 single ‘Truth Hurts’ (“I just took a DNA test – turns out I’m 100% that bitch“) would become a sleeper hit a few months later, having gone viral on TikTok. But even so, it was abundantly obvious that the wildly talented singer-rapper-flutist was about to go supernova. She was one of a handful of musicians I’ve met over the years who can change the energy in the room when they walk in. We weren’t in an Islington hotel lobby anymore; we were in Lizzoland.

She flirted outrageously with our videographer Paul, spoke movingly about wanting to connect with Black women who look like her and shared her empowering message of self-love without being preachy. “If I feel worthy and wanted,” she said at one point, “then everybody gonna want to eat my pussy.” Given that we had been talking about cucumber sandwiches a few minutes earlier – “disgusting” was her verdict – it was quite a flex.

By the end of 2019, Lizzo has topped the Billboard Hot 100 with ‘Truth Hurts’, delivered an instantly iconic Glastonbury set and duetted with Ariana Grande on ‘Good As Hell’. She deserved all of it, and I feel lucky to have caught her just before she conquered the world.

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