Emma Robertson is a journalist, author, and podcaster with a remarkable amount of strings to her bow. Her podcast AIR is an audio space for unique conversation and serene deep-dives. It’s also a member of the Bear radio family! We got coffee with Emma to talk about the podcast’s genesis, her passion for baking, and the crooks of a good interview.
First things first, could you introduce yourself and tell me the podcast you have within Bear Radio?
So I’m Emma, I’m 32, and I’m Canadian. I’ve been living in Berlin since 2014.
And where are we getting a coffee today?
Well, my go-to coffee shop is Isla, I actually just came back from there! They have very good flat whites and really nice cakes if that is something that you’re into. The atmosphere there is super chilled and it’s within walking distance to Tempelhof – what else could you want?
How long have you been living in Berlin?
I guess I’ve been living here for seven years now. It goes by so fast. I can’t believe I’ve been here for that long!
I’m actually moving flats at the moment, so I’m currently doing this interview from the comfort of my own bedroom. It’s crazy, I’ve accumulated so much stuff now. Every time I think I’m making progress with packing I turn around and an additional million things have just appeared that I have to think about, pick up and pack away.
Much of your career has weaved through almost all modes of journalism, from digital articles to podcasts and books, do you remember when you first became interested in journalism?
I don’t remember a particular moment no, but it all really took off when I moved here. When I lived in Canada, I was working for an online luxury retailer as their fashion copywriter and later, in their creative department. We launched this in-house magazine that featured some of the clothes we were selling and I guess that was my first real journalistic experience! While I really enjoyed creating the content for their magazine, I realized that the fashion industry just wasn’t inspiring me anymore. I wanted to try something new. When it came time for me to leave that job I decided to move to Berlin and applied for an internship with The Talks, which is the magazine I still work for today, so it actually worked out pretty well!
However, I don’t know if I’d necessarily call myself a journalist. I mean, I guess I am, but I don’t really know if I am one in the strict sense of the word. I’m not a news reporter. I don’t work for a newspaper. My focus is really on interviews. I guess when people ask me what I do, I either say I’m a journalist and an editor or I say, I work for a magazine and I have a podcast. I keep it pretty vague. I can be quite shy about actually explaining what it is that I do. Some people that know me would have no idea that I have a podcast or that I write for magazines and things like that because in my personal life, I don’t really talk about it that much.
Your work has been featured in both niche and beloved magazines and you’re currently the executive editor of The Talks magazine. How do you find working as a creative in Berlin?
Well in my capacity at The Talks I work full time, which for me, is a good thing. I’m very stupid with money. Therefore, when I have been freelance, I’ve always been like “Oh, I just made all this money. Let me just immediately go spend it and not plan at all for the future.” This mentality made exclusively relying on freelance contracts quite difficult. I didn’t like having to chase money and ‘the next project’ all the time. I found that I couldn’t give anything creative my full attention when I was constantly thinking about all these other projects that I had to be working on to have money.
Now, even though I do still have a lot of projects going on, I just feel more stable. I’m able to be more creative when and where I want to be because I have a full-time job that I know I can rely on if my creative projects ebb and flow a little.
Between your work as a podcast host and journalist, you’ve interviewed an incredible variety of characters such as Nelly Furtado, Elijah Wood, Masie Willians, Jon Ronson, Nina Kravitz – the list goes on and on! What was the first interview you ever did?
I guess the first notable one would have been for Beatport. This would have been in like 2011 or something. I interviewed Loco Dice who’s a DJ and producer. At the time I honestly thought that this interview was the coolest thing I was ever going to do.
He was so nice and I think we spoke for over an hour, which is rare these days. It was a very special chat. I admired him so much and really loved his music and what he was doing with his label. I just remember it being very, very exciting and feeling really nervous. I just couldn’t believe my luck, I couldn’t understand that it was actually happening, you know?
And do you still get nervous?
Um, it depends. I don’t know if I’d say that I get nervous, but there are some interviews that I feel a little bit on edge for more than others. I remember when I was interviewing Jeff Mills for my podcast and I was nervous just because, well, it’s Jeff Mills. I mean no offense to Jeff Mills, but he can be hard to interview sometimes because he’s pretty brilliant. He kind of already knows what he wants to talk about. But generally speaking, I don’t get that nervous anymore.
I guess after a while you just begin to sort of weirdly accept that this is your life, and you’re here to do a job, and then eventually it just becomes second nature. Like the other evening, I attended this press film screening and afterward I interviewed the director of the film that was shown. Sometimes when I’m doing things like that it does occur to me that this is actually quite wild, you know? That it’s actually just become very normal for me to speak to people that I admire and respect.
So I think that while you definitely get more used to it, which is good, but it doesn’t get any less cool, which is also good. I still love the experience of talking to somebody who’s doing something they’re passionate about or something really different or creative. I don’t think the joy of listening to someone talk about the one thing that they love will never get old to me. If it does then I guess that’ll be the day I stop.
Do you remember the moment you discovered podcasts?
I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I actually don’t listen to that many podcasts.
I guess the first one I enjoyed could have been Resident Advisors Exchange, but I don’t remember a particular moment when I became obsessed with them because, well, I’m not obsessed with them really. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy them a lot! I love true crime ones like My Favorite Murder or human interest podcasts like Ear Hustle or This American Life, but I always kind of forget they’re podcasts because they’re so much more to do with storytelling than discussion.
I do love Ira Glass though. I actually got to interview him once which was one of the greatest things ever. He was amazing. I actually think that was the last time I was genuinely nervous, but only because he is also a journalist and it’s strange, as an interviewer, to interview another person who is also an interviewer. We actually spoke about this and he told me a story about how he once interviewed Terry Gross, who hosts Fresh Air on NPR, and was incredibly nervous when speaking with her because you know, she’s like the Michael Jordan of interviews. I thought it was funny because that’s exactly how I felt speaking with him too.
So what inspired you to begin your podcast AIR?
I was doing a lot of freelance work for different magazines and I found that nobody was interested in the artists I was suggesting for features in the same way that I was. Nobody thought that they, or my ideas for stories, were as interesting or cool as I thought they were, so I figured, if nobody else wants to publish these interviews, then maybe I’ll just do it myself!
Around the same time, I was at Loop festival in 2016 and they had a dedicated talk with Robert Henke who spoke about an installation of his for over an hour. I found it so interesting to hear him speak about this one project of his at length, like being able to exclusively focus on listening to him and this one story for the whole time was so fascinating to me.
He told us this story about how the first time that he made this installation, he incorporated a special light element that would come through every three seconds because he was scared that people would get bored of his art if they were just sitting there if nothing happened. As he continued doing the installation over the course of a number of years, he began to increase the time in between the light element, first to six seconds then nine, then fifteen, and so on. I like that he got to the stage that he didn’t feel that people would get bored of his art and even if they did get bored, that he felt ok with that. This story really resonated with me had had a pretty focal role in my genesis of AIR.
I wanted AIR to be a space where I spoke to my guests at length about one particular subject, topic, or theme for the entire conversation. In part, I decided on this format because when I’m reading or listening to an interview and it jumps around a lot, I lose interest really quickly. I try to give people the space to get really deep on something that they really love because as a consumer, I would rather hear someone talk passionately about one big, important thing than give tidbits of a million little things. To me, that is infinitely more interesting and also gives the guest an infinite amount of time and space to open up properly.
Air has featured the most incredible and well-seasoned spectrum of guests, from Chris Watson to the DJ Call Super. Does its eclectic repertoire reflect your own personal taste?
Definitely. I care much more about whether I enjoy what someone does than whether or not it’s popular. Pretty much the only criteria of how I choose someone to be on the show is whether or not I love what they’re doing. For example, I’ve had artists like Evelyn Glennie, who’s a solo percussionist that nobody really knows, but who I think is absolutely amazing, and therefore she was on the show regardless of how many people would know her.
In 2019 you published a book complete with many of the conversations from your podcast. Tell me about the process of writing this book and how it differed from creating shorter forms of content.
After the first year of the podcast, I decided I wanted to do something to mark its first 12 episodes, to have a tangible, physical, keepsake to commemorate the past year of work. I spoke with my friend and designer Grant Gibson and together we decided we would create a book.
My advice to anyone who is thinking of writing a book is to stop writing the book unless you have a publisher. I did not have a publisher. I financed everything myself and I had my friends helping me with everything from editing and photography to printing transcripting. While it was an amazing project to work on, it was an incredible amount of work. So to summarise, I’m really proud of it, but I don’t know if I could do it again.
Who would be your dream interviewee?
My dream interview guest would be Lady Gaga. Everybody’s going to judge me for saying that because people think she’s not cool, but I think she’s so freaking cool.
I recently saw this interview she did with Oprah and she just had this way of being so vulnerable and I think that’s so important. You don’t meet a lot of superstars who talk about topics like sexuality, body image, and mental health in the same open way that she does. I’d way rather hear her talk poignantly about mental health than someone else.
It all sounds very cheese now that I’m saying it aloud, but I think it’s really cool that she’d just so authentically herself. I also think she’s a great musician.
I hear you’re talents also extend to baking! Tell me about what inspired you to start your baking side hustle Stewy Cakes?
Yep. That is my baking side business! I’ve always loved baking, but I only started taking it seriously in the past two or three years when lockdown happened. I kind of just thought, ‘Well what else do I have to do with my life?’
I love food so much. I genuinely believe that baking is just the most gratifying thing ever. I mean, you spent all this time making something that is beautiful and also delicious, and then other people eat it and they’re happy so in turn, that means you’re happy.
What kind of music do you like to bake to?
Oh, well, I love Sam Cooke. That makes me sound like such a loser. Oh my God, but I really do. I just love singing along to him when I’m baking you know? I also really love ambient music right now too. I think it’s nice to have a little something that you don’t have to give your full attention to, but that provides a good backdrop. I really love Imaginary Softwoods who I’ve had on my podcast before.
And finally, how has being a part of Bear Radio helped your podcast?
Well, aside from Jill and Julia, teaching me a lot of things that I did not know how to do, I think it’s just nice to have a community of people who are doing the same thing that you are.
I have a lot of friends who are journalists, but before Bear, I didn’t have a lot of friends who were doing podcasts. Now I do. It means that there’s always a group of people on standby who are asking the same questions, wondering the same things, and thinking the same thoughts as you. It’s great.