Kurt Cobain and Erica Ehm: The Story Behind the Interview that Went Viral
In April 1993, I was sent to Seattle to interview Kurt Cobain for MuchMusic, nine months before he died. I had no idea my interview with Kurt Cobain would go viral on YouTube twenty years later. Over 5 million views and counting.
To set the scene, Nirvana’s album In Utero had just been released and I was one of many journalists invited to interview the band in their hometown. Each of us was asked to set up our cameras in a nondescript hotel room, and assigned a short window of time with each band member. As soon as one interview would wrap, they’d be escorted to the next. It’s an impersonal grind. For alt rockers like Nirvana, it must have been a mind-numbing process.
I knew I’d have to stand out to get a decent interview with Kurt. My hope was to make him see me as more than another faceless media type.
Kurt and the record company dude arrived at our drab hotel room fifteen minutes late. I introduced myself and my camera person and asked, “Would you like to do the interview in bed or on the balcony?”
He looked up at me shocked and uncomfortable. He shrugged his shoulders and replied nervously, “The balcony I guess.”
“Perfect” I said with a smile. He relaxed and we connected.
The balcony was ideal. The light was just right and Seattle was spread out behind us.
Rather than making the first question about music , which was obvious, I surprised him by asking about a favourite book. It broke the ice. If you watch the interview, you can see how animated he is describing the novel Perfume, opening up about it inspiring a song on the album.
I could sense he was enjoying the conversation, letting his guard down. I expected an arrogant rockstar. Instead, he was extremely sensitive, polite and unabashedly genuine. When I asked him why he would bring a baby into the cruel world he described in his lyrics, he was pretty candid. He responded by exposing his softer side, telling me he was madly in love and was looking forward to raising his baby girl. This was not the kind of answers I was expecting from the prince of grunge.
All I kept thinking was, “He’s such a sweetheart.”
The camera stayed on Kurt, occasionally panning off to get a shot of the Seattle skyline or a closeup of his hands for future b-roll. You can hear me asking him questions, occasionally catching a glimpse of the back of my head. Once the interview portion wrapped, the camera changed angles to shoot me re-asking the questions so the editor would be able cut them into the interview to recreate the conversation.
Unfortunately for me, it was the unedited tape of Kurt answering my questions which made its way to YouTube. The interviewer is never seen, only heard. It has been fun for me to troll the thousands of comments on the YouTube video, so many people wondering who the mystery woman asking the questions behind the camera is. Occasionally I’d read a comment like, “That sounds like Erica Ehm’s voice.”
Reining in rock stars is not for the faint of heart. My interview with Kurt Cobain is one of hundreds I’ve conducted with fascinating individuals throughout my career. One thing I can tell you about interviewing, good ones don’t just happen. There is an art to it, a skill I am continually trying to master.
If you are ever in the position of having to conduct an interview, here are some things I’ve learned along the way which may be useful for you.
To put your guests at ease, show them you’re in control and are adept at guiding a conversation. When they realize they’re in capable hands, they’ll relax and drop their guard.
Prepare questions that allow your guests to talk about subjects they’re not usually asked about. For my interview with Kurt, I came prepared to talk about his album, touring and other standard questioning the record company expected. However, it was the quirkier ones like “What are you reading?” or “Why would you bring a baby in a world that you hate?” that allowed him to reveal a bit of himself to us.
Listen. Listen. Listen. There is nothing worse than a guest baring their soul while the interviewer’s eyes glaze over, already thinking of the next question. The gold is when a Q & A becomes an authentic two way conversation, which only happens when a guest is being heard and responded to.
On April 5, 1994 news broke that Kurt Cobain had died. Dead at 27. I was shocked. He seemed at peace when we met. I’m just happy the world has a chance to see the sweeter side of Kurt Cobain he usually kept well hidden.