Zan Rowe on interviewing Keith Urban, Guy Pearce, Missy Higgins, Tori Amos and Tony Armstrong for Take 5 on ABC TV

How to get someone who is in the public eye to open up, to show their true self, to share a new insight? It’s an ongoing challenge for journalists interviewing high-profile people who’ve been asked pretty much every question imaginable.

But 15 years ago, ABC broadcaster and national music correspondent Zan Rowe came up with an innovative approach. Using music as a scaffold and a particular theme as the focus, Rowe created a segment in her Mornings program on triple j, now heard on her Mornings program on Double J, called Take 5, which asks her interview subjects to nominate five songs that have shaped who they are.

It’s become a popular, award-winning podcast, taking out an Australian Podcast Awards Gold (2020) and Bronze (2021), and winning international acclaim with a Silver award at the 2022 New York Festivals Radio Awards. Now Take 5 has evolved into a TV show.

“I’ve always been a big advocate for music on television, it’s not something that happens enough in my opinion, and Take 5 felt like a perfect offering for a TV show,” says Rowe.

“It’s not just about music, it’s about life, it’s about our experiences and it’s something everyone can relate to. No matter what your music tastes, everyone has songs that mean something to them.

“And it’s different to your average ‘just pick your five favourite songs’ idea because every week it’s a different theme, for example ‘renewal’ or ‘heartbreak anthems’, so that every week we have a different look into someone’s life.

“People who I’ve done Take 5 with two or three times, like Paul Kelly, each time you give them a different theme, you’re getting a different insight into their life,” she says.

Higgins and Rowe sitting next to each other looking at the camera.
Rowe says music often undoes people and Missy Higgins broke down while listening to one of her chosen songs.(ABC TV)

“I think also it’s a great leveller. All the people that I’ve had Take 5, and I’ve had some really big names, they’re all sort of brought down to fan level in a beautiful way.

“They talk about the music that they love in such an open and vulnerable way that you’re reminded that these people that we look up to as superstars are actually just like us.

“They’ve got the same connections to music, and they’ve had the same experiences in life as we have, the good and the bad, and this is a really great way to explore that.”

Rowe and Kelly standing together in a foyer.
Rowe, seen here with Paul Kelly, has interviewed about 700 people for Take 5.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

‘Missy just started crying’

The five-part television series certainly features some big names and each guest’s chosen song is a powerful vehicle to explore the challenges and triumphs of their lives.

Legendary country artist Keith Urban talks about addiction and the struggle to make it in Nashville.

Actor Guy Pearce recalls being a young boy learning of the sudden death of his father and the enduring impact of that loss.

Missy Higgins opens up about her marriage breakdown and mental health struggles.

News Breakfast’s Tony Armstrong tells of the pain of failure and unfulfilled dreams, and Tori Amos shares her experience of sexual assault and fighting to be heard as a woman in the music industry.

Rowe and Pearce sitting at a table looking at each other.
Guy Pearce opened up to Rowe about the shock death of his father when he was a child.(ABC TV)

At times, the emotion overflows.

“When you press play on a song and people are hearing it, talking about what it means to them, it just undoes some people, you see someone unravel, you see that vulnerability, the pure emotion,” says Rowe.

“The other reason why I wanted to bring Take 5 to TV is that I’ve been enjoying the experience of sitting in a room with these people, watching them react to the songs and talking about them in depth, and I knew that it would make magical television for those who trusted me, so now the audience can see what I’ve been watching for 15 years and it’s pretty remarkable.”

Woman in radio studio looking at mixing desk.
Since joining the public broadcaster in 2006, Rowe has hosted Mornings on triple j and Double J and also reports on music on News Breakfast and ABC News Digital.(ABC )

The interview with Missy Higgins was the singer’s first since separating from her husband, and she broke down when listening to a song that was played when she walked down the aisle at her wedding.

“In the initial interview with Missy Higgins, I could tell that she was holding some stuff in, but she said she was fine,” says Rowe.

“But as soon as we went to film her at the listening station, and as soon as we pressed play, I could see that she couldn’t hold it in anymore and she just started crying.

“I’ve known Missy for 15 years and at that moment I was thinking, from a pure respect point of view, I can’t just leave her out there with cameras filming her.

“Then the camera operators just took a step back and gave her some space and I came in and held her for the length of the song.

“I didn’t want her to feel as though we were filming her and exploiting her in an incredibly vulnerable moment. So, I just held her until she was ready to let go.

“I think music unlocks something in us that sometimes we don’t realise it has the power to, and that’s one of the things I’ve come to understand in the time that I’ve done Take 5.

“Music is a sensory memory, just the same as smelling something or tasting something can completely transport you back to a moment.

“People often walk away from Take 5 conversations feeling as though they have had a therapy session as do I, I’ve learned a lot about myself and the human condition through doing Take 5.”

Rowe prides herself on having worked hard to build a good reputation in the music industry and develop trust with her guests.

TV camera filming a woman interviewing another woman in a studio.
Interviewing Lauren Mayberry of CHVRCHES for ABC TV in 2016.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

But even with music’s power to disinhibit, interviewing is still a delicate balancing act.

“Keith Urban is quite protective of his personal life, understandably.

“He’s in a very high profile relationship and he’s on a level of super stardom which is quite scrutinised and I didn’t want to be exploitative and ask him the same sort of questions that others had asked him about his experiences with addiction, but he went there of his own volition and I was kind of like, ‘oh, okay, he wants to go there, he’s trusting me to go there’.

“But then I did ask him a couple of questions about love. I asked him about a guitar that Nicole [Kidman] had bought for him and I could see a flicker in his eyes, and he put up a wall that went ‘don’t go there’.

“I thought, ‘okay, got it’, I picked up on the body language and thought ‘I don’t want to lose you here’ and I respected that.

“Similarly, with Tori Amos. She has documented her experience with sexual assault, she’s written a song, a very powerful song, about it. And I thought a lot about whether or not I would speak to her about that assault but again she took the conversation there, and when she did, I just gave her the space to explore that.

“But, still, at the very forefront of my mind I’m thinking I don’t ever want you to feel as though I’m exploiting you or using you in this moment. I want you to feel this is a safe space, while also understanding that the story she’s choosing to share holds incredible power for people on the other side of the screen. So that was a real moment and Tori was incredible.”

Discovering Paul McCartney’s big fear

Over the years, Rowe reckons she’s interviewed around 700 people for Take 5.

Choosing her favourite is like asking a parent to choose their favourite child she jokes, but interviewing Paul McCartney was a career high.

Rowe and McCartney sitting on a couch with microphones on stands in front of them.
Paul McCartney revealed his fear of running out of songs to write.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

“I got to do face to face Interview with Paul McCartney in 2017, backstage before his Melbourne concert.

“It was the first time he’d been to Australia in 25 years, the first time I’d seen him live, and that was remarkable,” says Rowe.

“It blew me away on a number of levels but hearing one of the greatest songwriters of all time talk about wondering every day, ‘am I ever going to write another song?’

“That fear, for him, never goes away, he worries that one day he’ll wake up and go, ‘oh, I’ve just written all the songs, there are no more.’

“That was very grounding for me.

“As we were reaching the end of our time limit, I turned to the publicist and said, ‘I’m conscious of time, I know Paul has to perform tonight’ and Paul said, ‘No, I’m enjoying myself, let’s keep going!’ So, that’s one of my all-time favourite conversations – career or life!”

The music that has meaning for Rowe

Rowe always wanted to be a journalist and has been a huge music fan since childhood.

After leaving school, she studied professional writing and media studies and started out in community radio, SRA FM, in Melbourne, volunteering for three years and landing her own show.

She also volunteered for and worked part-time at 3RRR FM — as the Talks Producer and host of the Monday Drive show, interviewing high profile guests including PJ Harvey.

Woman in radio studio behind a microphone.
Starting out on community radio, SRA FM in Melbourne.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

In 2006, Rowe joined the ABC, hosting the Mornings program on triple j and then in 2018 she moved to Double J Mornings.

She’s now the public broadcaster’s National Music Correspondent, appears regularly on ABC News Breakfast, co-hosts the weekly pop culture podcast ‘Bang On’ with Myf Warhurst and has co-hosted major live TV programs, including this year’s ABC 90th birthday celebration program and New Year’s Eve broadcasts alongside Charlie Pickering.

Rowe and Pickering looking to camera with Sydney Harbour Bridge lit up at night behind them.
 Rowe and Charlie Pickering hosting the ABC’s New Year’s Eve live broadcast.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

“I’ve always loved music and I’ve always love communicating and I was able to find a way to combine them both and now pretty much have a dream career,” she says.

“I think there are so many stories in music.

“If you ask a political journalist why they chose political journalism they’ll say because they’re obsessed with politics and they find the machinations of politics so fascinating.

“I find the machinations of music incredibly fascinating, both on an intangible, magical, creative level, and on an industry and analysis level and on a purely human level.

“Songs are stories, they are just communicated differently, it’s just another way that we tell the stories of who we are and what our culture is, how we understand ourselves and it’s something I’m really passionate about.”

So, if we Take 5 with Zan Rowe, what’s the music that’s shaped her and been the soundtrack to her life?

“First, I think I would probably pick a song by Midnight Oil, probably something from the Diesel and Dust record because that was pretty much the first gig I went to, my parents took the whole family along when I was 11.

Rowe and brother and parents with stage in background.
Zan Rowe and her family at Melbourne’s final Midnight Oil concert earlier this year, three decades after she saw them for the first time.(Supplied: Zan Rowe)

“The Oils have been a big part of my musical story because that gig was the start of my love of live music but it also gave me an understanding of music’s power to deliver a message, to change the conversation, to use the platform to change the lives of others and also, on a really personal level, to go from listening to the Oils and seeing them and idolising them to later meeting them and having conversations with the band [as a journalist] was a great honour and privilege.

“Talking Heads would be in there as well – that’s to do with my first experience of falling in love – with an American – which led to a change in my understanding of music.

“I used to be a real Anglophile in the ’90s, lots of Britpop and PJ Harvey and then I’ve sort of switched over and discovered the whole world of American music, which has stayed with me to this day.

“I now have much more of an inclination towards American music and all the incredible genres that have been born out of America.

“Kylie Minogue would be on the list because she’s been such a force through 35-40 years of making music and I feel like I’ve grown up with her.

“She’s been this incredible chameleon, a resilient woman who’s done things her own way- phenomenal.

“And then Nina Simone, who, interestingly, is one of the most picked artists on Take 5, because she’s one of those artists who I knew a bit about when I was growing up but I’ve come to appreciate her so much more fully in adulthood, truly understanding the world that she inhabits and what she gives in fully embodying a felt experience – you can hear everything that she’s feeling performed with every note. And also, because, like the Oils, she used her platform as a civil rights activist.”

“And, finally, I’m probably choosing this artist because it’s at the front of my brain, but I just spent an hour speaking to Björk who is releasing a new album and she’s one of those artists who ever since I first heard her just blew my mind.

“She’s such an innovator, she’s an incredible producer, she arranges all kinds of wild arrangements for strings and woodwind instruments, she invented instruments, she makes apps, she’s got an incredible voice.

“I’ve watched her grow throughout my life and having the opportunity to speak to her she’s made me believe in the possibilities of life, that the only rules are the ones that you impose on yourself.

“She’s always pushed the boundaries of expectations, possibly even her own, and I think she is the epitome of run your own race and I find her inspirational.”

Watch Take 5 on Tuesdays at 8pm on ABC TV and iview

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