The Space Between: Laina Dawes – Metalhead/Music Writer

I’ve wanted to do this interview series for about a year now. The Space Between, for me, refers to the space between passion and profession, where hobbies turn into careers and fan activities become a lifestyle. Thanks in part to online culture, we are seeing more examples of “big name fans” who steer their fannish love into a career path and live in a space between fan and creator that’s really interesting to me. Personally, I think some of the best creative work comes from a place of fannish love for what you do, and I wanted to talk to people who actively walk that line and wear their fandom with pride, while being a professional.

My first interview is with someone I admire a lot and a dear friend, writer Laina Dawes. Her book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, comes out this month, and I’ve been happy to know her since we initially connected about the book years ago. We have a shared love of music and writing and a deep interest in race and gender issues, and I wanted to talk to her about her path to music journalism and her identity as a fan. Enjoy! – KDC

What was the moment where you decided to make the jump from being a metal fan to being a music writer?

I’ve wanted to be a music writer since I was 11 or 12, as I was a great lover of metal / hard rock music magazines. I just never thought that anyone would hire me! I started taking writing seriously in university, and moved from ‘rants’ and op-eds to hip-hop and R&B in 2000. I wanted to write about black women rock musicians, as I was fascinated with their representation within the live format and wanted to investigate it further, and when the opportunity arose I started writing about alterative music and later, metal. I became more enamored in wanting to talk about music, and to investigate the musicianship behind the music that I loved.

Do you consider yourself a music fan or a music journalist first? Do you think being a fan impacts the metal writing you do differently than writing about genres that you may not write about as much?

I’m a fan first, but within the past few years I’ve found myself formulating a review in my head while I’m standing in the audience, even at shows that I’m not working at … which is sad. You do start noticing things and becoming more critical. But I listen to a lot of music – especially this year when I haven’t been doing many reviews or interviews – outside of working, because I love it, there is so much good stuff out there, and so many bands to investigate.

I do think being a fan affects how I write about metal. I know what I like and I know what is important in the making of a good song and / or album. I pay attention to the production value and the mixing, more than I would in another genre of music because I like textures and the symmetry between the instruments and vocalist. I don’t think I pay that much attention to pop music, because I rarely listen to it and don’t really like a lot of what is popular in mainstream culture.

You do a lot of writing about race and ethnicity for BlogHer and your book talks about the intersection of race and metal fandom. Are there issues that have yet to be explored about race and music fandom that you’d like to cover or see other writers cover?

Yes and no. No in the sense that I would like to think that I have covered it all! But there are aspects that could be fleshed out and investigated much more. One of the areas is the resistance within this generation of black youth in accepting that some black folks are into alterative music and cultural scenes. I am still finding a lot of consternation, even though we have a bunch of kids who are simply soaking up music and culture from their neighborhoods, their friends and what they see and hear on TV or find on the Internet. There is still this thought that for black kids to like something other than hip-hop, there is something wrong with them.

Music writing (especially metal) can be kind of insular. Do you think music writers should take the approach of assuming the reader is a part of the fan community or rather serve as a “guide” and educate readers through their writing?

That is an interesting question. In relation to metal, it is probably easier to write to someone who is a metal fan, as you can do comparisons to the artists’ previous work or refer to an earlier metal album from another artist so the reader knows what sub-genre you’re talking about and really look out for the similarities in tone, etc. On the other hand, in order to reach out to a broader audience, there is a need to simplify things. I think that if you can serve as an educator without being condescending, it is great!

I know a lot of people whom as soon as you say ‘metal’ they wrinkle their nose in disgust, but you can play them a track from Lesbian, Horseback or Ufomammut or hell, even Baroness and they would feel the different layers of aggression, and the thoughtful application of sound and texture will expand their notions of what ‘metal’ really is. These days I would argue that metal is more of a philosophy than the screaming, pounding noise that a lot of people think it is.

Who have you interviewed that you are personally the biggest fan of?

Years ago I did a phoner with Rob Halford from Judas Priest and that meant a lot to me, as I’ve been a lifelong fan. I really admire him, not just for his singing but also because he is an out and proud gay man who doesn’t give a fuck what people think of him. And he has garnered a lot of respect because he is a ‘metal god’ who is extremely passionate about the scene and the culture. I really do not think that his sexuality really mattered to a lot of true metalheads, because it was his phenomenal talent that really encouraged a lot of people to get into the music, and to start their own bands and create music. For me, it showed that despite the stereotype of the amount of ignorance within the scene, there are people whose main interest is the talent and musicianship of the artist, and not who they sleep with or the color of their skin.

Do you know anyone who lives/works/plays in the space between? e-mail me at

Comments (3)

Really enjoyed this! I like your blog, it was a great find!

Thanks for reading!

[…] The Learned Fangirl: This interview was conducted by my dear friend, Keidra, who runs the site and was interviewed for my book. […]

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