Words by Toyah Hoetzel
If, like me, you’ve spent the majority of your life listening to triple j (over twenty years in fact), you probably also feel a strong affinity with the longer running presenters. The ‘J’ has been a go-to for all things music, art and politics for the youth of Australia since its birth, and played a significant role in mine and many other’s youth.
Throughout my adulthood though, I’ve become accustomed to hearing the comforting tones of one Ms Zan Rowe, who – in my opinion – is the most powerful woman in Australian music, and I’m about to give you a few good reasons why.
“I’ve always been a big believer in making my own opportunities, never resting on my laurels, and asking people if i can try new thing. I reckon it’s the best way to sustain a long, creative life.” – Zan Rowe
What may be construed as mere beginnings has proven, at least for Zan, to have been just the right recipe for success. Rowe attended high school in the inner north of Melbourne where music was a highly encouraged curriculum. The grunge era was well underway, punk had make a resurgence and Zan spent weekends cutting her teeth on the music scene at the usual haunts and one of Melbourne’s, now lost, iconic band rooms; The Arthouse in Melbourne. The Arthouse was host to some of Australia’s most influential artists and also a place where Zan boldly declared to Paul Dempsey of Something For Kate that they were going to be famous after they’d played to a room of only twelve people. Little did she know then that she was right, and also that she was going to become a hugely sought after interviewer for music artists all over the country. Zan, a master of trusting her gut, knew what was what from very early on.
“When an artist is doing their own thing, has self-belief, you can hear it.”
With a strong sense of community from the get go, Zan worked hard as a young adult to build a now well know community radio station in Melbourne called SYN FM. Zan along with a small team, who are now all stalwarts in the Australian music industry, pushed for the channel to receive it’s radio license helping pioneer the great station that it is today. Zan was running a new releases show and honouring her love for giving new musicians a fair go. A mentality that Zan still thrives on. Hard work paid off and as a twenty four year old she was awarded the drive slot on Triple R. If you’ve never lived in Melbourne, but wanted to, you should spend some time listening to SYN and Triple R to understand the awesome grittiness that is the Melbourne music scene.
Over time a natural progression for Zan was the step to Triple J and with it Zan took her great sense of humour, grounded personality and continued to honour her love for great new music and artists.
I can’t give you a step by step of how Zan did it, but it’s clear to see that Zan simply asked to be given a chance, put the hard work in always, was passionate about what she was doing and said yes to the opportunities that were presented to her.
From the dead set legend herself, Zan Rowe responds to questions from Stoney Roads in the interview below which touches on the experiences that drove her to become the most powerful woman in Australian music and humbly attributes her success to those that helped her along the way.
STONEY ROADS: Looking into what you’re up to at the moment; you’ve got your own show: Mornings with Zan on Triple J, you’re also on ABC News Breakfast and The Mix, you’re a science fan and had Dr Karl appear on your show for years, your new and very entertaining podcast with Myf Warhurst Bang On got to number 2 on the podcast charts within days of starting it and you’re on The Critics on ABC iView. Firstly have I missed anything and secondly, how do you manage all of this and your life outside of it?
ZAN ROWE: I keep busy, that’s for sure. There’s a common thread to a lot of what I do, and also to what I’m interested in beyond my working life, so it all flows pretty well for the most part. Presenting a daily music show is my great passion, but a little while ago I was looking for different challenges and wanted to show people who didn’t know me that I had a lot of interests beyond music. Hosting The Critics on iView was such a wonderful way to exercise my film muscle; when I went to uni at RMIT I actually majored in radio and cinema so it was so much fun to be able to deep dive into screen culture in a critical way again. Similarly, The Mix gets me outside of the studio and into some unique situations with musicians and artists. I loved strolling the boardwalks down by Sydney Harbour with Kate Tempest last year, and having the opportunity to have a private concert with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings; artists who I have loved for many years. I’ve always been a big believer in making my own opportunities, never resting on my laurels, and asking people if I can try new things. I reckon it’s the best way to sustain a long creative life.
SR: You’ve been at Triple J for the last twelve years. What are some of the biggest highlights or experiences you’ve had there and how has your role evolved over that time?
ZR: I’ve been in the front seat for some incredible experiences, including our annual One Night Stand concert. Nothing compares to that event, it’s such a blast bringing Aussie musicians to a place that doesn’t see a lot of live music, as well as becoming part of that close knit regional community over a weekend. The first time I went, to the Tumby Bay ONS in South Australia, I felt the strong connection that triple j listeners beyond the capital cities have with us. What a great privilege and responsibility to be gifted with. I’ve got to sit down with some of my musical heroes too; David Byrne, Kelley Deal, Brian Eno and Adalita, I even skyped Tom Waits once. Having conversations with them about their love of music has made a lasting impression on how I think about it too. I began at triple j as the Weekend Lunch host, making content for the new releases show and doing crosses from gigs into Home & Hosed. I filled in for Lunch a bit, then took up my current role as host of triple j Mornings for the last decade. At triple j there’s always been an expectation that everyone on air can create what’s happening off air as well. When I’m out of the studio, I’m cutting my own audio and publishing everything online, and always have. These days, I’m just juggling a few more roles in the orbit around triple j.
SR: You grew up in Melbourne and went to high school in the inner north. During your teen years which artists were influencing you at that time? Were you a part of a ‘scene’?
ZR: I was very into the punk scene when I was a teenager. My bestie and I would go to the Arthouse on Queensberry Street every Saturday night and see whoever was playing. Up the road, a nightclub called Dream (which doubled as Hellfire on Sundays) had a regular Britpop night and we’d kick on there after seeing the bands. We were regulars at the Punters Club and The Tote too, seeing bands doing their first shows in small venues. Thrown into the mix, a good amount of rave’s too. So my taste has always been broad, and I’ve never been bound to one scene. What I loved very early on was seeing, hearing and experiencing music with others and usually very loud.
SR: What sparks your interest when you hear new music, what are you looking for if anything?
ZR: I trust my gut feeling when it comes to new music. It’s always wonderful to hear something that doesn’t sound like everything else, but most of all I want to believe in the song. Believe that it’s a d-floor filler, a confessional ballad, an unashamed shredder. When an artist is doing their own thing, has self-belief, you can hear it.
SR: How much input do you have at Triple J when it comes to music that gets played on the station and your show?
ZR: Quite a bit! A huge part of my job is listening to new music (you’ll rarely find me without headphones on) and every week a handful of music presenters and staff gather for a weekly music meeting where we talk about what we’ve discovered and hash out our feelings on any and all of the songs that are in contention to be play-listed that week. Within my daily show, I work with the Music Director and his assistant each day to craft what it’ll sound like, plus throw in a couple of my own choices on the fly, each hour.
SR: Which female artists in the Australian electronic music scene do you think will be really making waves in the coming future?
ZR: Melbourne producer Alice Ivy is one to watch, her production is really exciting and every song she’s uploaded to Unearthed has been stronger than the last. Ninajirachi continues to make really playful, crisp sounds and is still in high school. Vallis Alps wooed me from their very first song and have backed it up time and time again; they have a wonderful ability to make music that really gets under your skin and Parissa’s voice is a dream.
SR: Looking at your journey since your SYN FM hosting days. What was it that drove you to push so hard to get to where you are today?
ZR: I love what I do. Every single day, I love getting up and coming to a place where I can share the art I’m passionate about with a huge community of people equally keen to hear about it. I never thought about “dream jobs” or “five year plans” when I began, I simply wanted to make opportunities where I could do what I loved, as much as possible. So I asked. And some wonderful people gave me a chance.
SR: What do you think the Australian music industry could do today to make the playing field more balanced and inclusive for female artists?
ZR: Be more woke, basically. I think unconscious bias plays a huge role in the booking of festivals, the selection of music, the billing of artists. No one wakes up in the morning and says “I just think men play music better than women”. That’s ridiculous. But there are plenty of outdated ideas about women and men in music that linger on in people’s subconscious. It’s high time we were all more self-aware.
On the flip side, the artists emerging now and dominating are women. Not only that, but there’s no apprehension in the way they’re approaching the music industry. More than ever the young women I speak to are ready to smash it and have the kind of self-belief I’ve seen in young men, for far longer. The future is female.
SR: If you were to give some advice to women wanting to get into the industry as a music journalist what would that be?
ZR: Get as much experience you can, that’s the best way to learn. I volunteered at SYN FM and 3RRR FM, and interned at Radio National and Dig (before it became Double J) well before I got a job at triple j. That’s how I learned my craft. From doing. From successes and failures, but also finding my voice and an understanding of what an audience wants. I also made lifelong friends and built an incredible network of legendary people.
SR: If I was to tell you I believed you were the most powerful woman in the Australian music industry today, would you have anything to say to that?
ZR: That’s a big call! I really believe, with everything, it takes a village. What I do every day is possible because of shared knowledge and passion from a community of people who share both of those things with me, and vice versa.
SR: Will it be the world next, and can we come too?
ZR: Who knows? Here’s hoping! I’m always looking for new opportunities, new adventures, new beginnings. I’d be nowhere without my audience though, so of course you guys have to come along.
Zan Rowe is a pioneer, a critic, a reviewer, an interviewer, a lover of great music and film. She’s intuitive and respectful, experienced and still pushing boundaries. A strong feminist and viewed a protagonist to artists and journo’s everywhere. Zan Rowe is the most powerful woman in Australian music and you should be watching her very closely.
If you’d like to get a regular dose of laughter, the podcast Bang On is hosted by Zan Rowe and Myf Warhurst(also a dead set legend) and is out weekly on your favourite podcast service. See more on that right here.