…You’re very kind. I am in fact a grandma-millennial who produces old-school radio programs and podcasts and TV shows and books and articles. I don’t know how much influence any of that really has. But thank you: I obviously want to do my best and be a good ancestor. The climate emergency, social inequality and the toxic divisiveness of our political moment keep me up at night. I’m deeply anxious about our future. I sometimes (often) feel totally despairing, especially when I think of kids and what legacy we’re leaving them. But I’d use whatever influence I have in the areas I know best: storytelling and connection through the arts and music. I’d like to inspire a movement that enables us to not only hear each other but to truly listen; to know that what connects us is way more powerful than what divides us; and then to act accordingly.
As a part of my series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Clemency Burton-Hill. Clemency is Creative Director of Music & Arts at New York Public Radio and the Creator, Host and Executive Producer of the chart-topping podcast The Open Ears Project from WNYC Studios and WQXR. Before moving to New York she was a leading television and radio broadcaster in the UK, and she has been a frequent contributor to publications on both sides of the Atlantic including the FT Weekend, Economist, Guardian and Wall Street Journal, writing about everything from the arts to artificial intelligence. She is the author of two novels and the bestselling book Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day By Day (Harper). She lives in downtown New York with her husband and two young sons.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Thank you for having me! Um — it’s a little complicated. I’m the product of an illicit love affair; I was born in London in the early 1980s and raised by my mom Gillian, an indomitable single mother of three, alongside two of my older half-brothers, Perry and Elliot. (I have many other half-siblings on my father’s side.) I only really got to know my dad in my twenties, although we’re close now. I grew up near central London. My mom didn’t have a ton of money and we always had students staying with us to earn her some extra cash, but she really cared about us having access to things like books and theater and music. That was always her priority. Like, we would eat spaghetti hoops basically every night but she’d take us to concerts and plays religiously. She’d been an actress when she was younger and I think she believed that, ultimately, the arts are their own form of spiritual nourishment. On reflection, I have to agree: my entire life and career has been about finding ways to connect with other humans through the sharing and telling of stories, on one platform or another.
Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?
I suppose it goes right back to when I was tiny. We were watching TV one Christmas (I mentioned that this was the early 1980s: my mom had a pretty chill approach to screen time). There was a show featuring a young girl playing the violin. Neither of my older brothers played an instrument and my mother, by her own admission, is tone deaf. So we were by no means a ‘classical music’ household. But something about that kid playing the violin really spoke to me on some profound level and I became obsessed, as only toddlers can, with wanting to do the exact same thing. I badgered my mom to let me learn, and eventually she found out about a method called Suzuki that teaches really young kids how to learn to play musical instruments. A few misplaced calls to various motorcycle dealerships later and she finally got through to an incredible teacher who remains one of the most important people in my life, Helen Brunner. I started the violin shortly after that, and in a way, it’s been the key to my life. Although I realized in my teens that I didn’t want to pursue professional violin as a career, music is the DNA that pretty much runs through everything I do (even when it doesn’t look like it). I have learned so much through music-making and my violin has been a passport to many unexpected adventures around the world, from Africa to Asia to Europe and beyond. Nothing breaks the cultural ice like a jam session.
Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’m an incurably curious person: pretty much everything and everyone is interesting to me, but one story that springs to mind is when I was making a television documentary about the first ever women’s driving school in Bangladesh. The story I went out to tell was nominally a straight-up, feel-good story about women’s empowerment; we were following the lives of three incredibly courageous young women who had been cast out of their families and were determined to bust one of Bangladeshi society’s taboos by learning to drive. (Cue lots of funny B-roll of cars stalling, parallel parking mishaps, etc.) But while we were in Dhaka filming, major protests broke out around Islamist pressure to — among other things — scale back women’s rights even further. Our story swiftly took a much more political turn. I found it fascinating to be right on the ground, in the center of an unfolding political drama, and to have to figure out in real time how we could honor with the greatest integrity the reality of what was happening on the ground whilst still telling the story we wanted to tell. It was humbling.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first ever TV hosting gig was on live television at the BBC Proms, which is this iconic, summer-long music festival taking place at the Royal Albert Hall, a massive auditorium near Hyde Park in London. I was doing my first ever piece to camera — to a TV audience of millions — and I was concentrating so hard on delivering my words right, I didn’t realize that I was doing this weird, nervous, swinging thing with both my arms, kind of pumping them back and forth. My mom was watching the broadcast live on TV and afterward, when I asked, “Was it ok?” she was like, “Um, you did really well, but… you might want to watch it back.” I watched the replay and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It looked as though I was doing some complex arm-dancing move and I was clearly completely oblivious to the whole thing, my face was so earnest and trying so hard. It was a great lesson to learn that the adrenaline and nerves of live television can make your body react in crazy ways; I never did the weird arm-pump on live TV again.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m super excited to have recently launched a new podcast called The Open Ears Project from WNYC Studios and WQXR. It’s a brief and soulful daily dose of classical music, delivered everyday via an intimate, personal human story as told by a range of amazing guests including Alec Baldwin, Esther Perel, Jon Batiste, Aminatou Sow, Eva Chen, Wynton Marsalis and Ian McEwan, as well as regular folks such as teachers, firefighters and members of the US military. It’s partly about creating a gateway into the often-closed world of classical music, but it’s also an exercise in human empathy and what I see as the lost art of listening. We live in an era of supposed hyper-connectivity, but in reality many of us often feel disconnected all the time. The Open Ears Project is about creating a short daily ritual of calm and connection, and the response has been incredible. I’m really proud of it and my wonderful team.
We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?
It’s not just important, it’s everything. We are one humanity, and we need biodiversity in our stories just as we do on our planet. If we don’t give voice and validity to all human experience, irrespective of skin color, background, race, class, gender or any other supposedly ‘defining’ characteristic, we will be at risk of creating further division precisely at the moment we most urgently need to come together to combat the thing threatening every single one of us: the climate emergency. Classical music and the arts are overwhelmingly patriarchal, white, male, heteronormative industries. My own white privilege has of course helped me towards a certain recognition, and I view it as a serious personal responsibility to advocate for other women and minority voices to work in these supposedly ‘universal’ fields.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You’ve just graduated. For about the next decade, people will be confused by the fact you do more than one thing and can’t be put into a box and they will mask this confusion as concern: they’ll tell you to ‘make up your mind’ or say things like ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Ignore them. Times are a-changing and soon your kind of ‘multi-hyphenate’ career will become a legit aspiration, even a practical response to the reality of the world in which we will come to live.
- Those older white dudes aren’t actually more talented than you and they don’t actually have any more right than you do to be at the table, so don’t let them make you feel so small and insignificant.
- Only you can see the world in this particular way; your voice matters; leave your impostor syndrome at the door and do the thing that’s calling you.
- If an opportunity arises that seems to be entirely unconnected to the last thing you were doing but your instinct is still to do it, then do it: no experience is wasted experience; everything is connected.
- Your heartfelt instinct that power and money and prestige and status are not the right things for you to chase is absolutely on point: keep doing you, and one day those things may start to happen anyway, because you’ve authentically clung to what you believe matters: people, stories, human connections.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Well obviously I’d tell them to tap into the widespread scientific and anecdotal research that proves that a daily dose of classical music can be really good for the soul, and to subscribe to a certain podcast called The Open Ears Project (!) Seriously though, I’m probably not the person to ask: I’m a pathological workaholic and, as my colleagues or anyone close to me will tell you, I have zero work-life balance. I know it’s not ok. I have to work really hard on this. I’m actually looking forward to reading other people’s tips, ha.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
You’re very kind. I am in fact a grandma-millennial who produces old-school radio programs and podcasts and TV shows and books and articles. I don’t know how much influence any of that really has. But thank you: I obviously want to do my best and be a good ancestor. The climate emergency, social inequality and the toxic divisiveness of our political moment keep me up at night. I’m deeply anxious about our future. I sometimes (often) feel totally despairing, especially when I think of kids and what legacy we’re leaving them. But I’d use whatever influence I have in the areas I know best: storytelling and connection through the arts and music. I’d like to inspire a movement that enables us to not only hear each other but to truly listen; to know that what connects us is way more powerful than what divides us; and then to act accordingly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people to whom I owe so much, but if I had to single someone out it would have to be my mother, who sacrificed a lot for me to live my dreams. My story is her.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Is it cheating if I give you two? I have always loved a line by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Love the questions and maybe you’ll live your way into the answers”. That’s relevant to my reality every day: I’m not someone who has a life plan, and I often feel like I just have to take the plunge and things will later become clear.
And my journalistic hero is Martha Gellhorn: I stole this line from her biography which I basically have tattooed on my soul: “Be brave, learn quick, laugh, and also remember the human race.” Word.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Um does everyone say Michelle Obama? Hi Michelle, I love you.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m on Instagram and Twitter at @clemencybh
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!
Thank YOU, it’s been my absolute pleasure.