Eighteen-hour days are not uncommon. It’s a work ethic that 43-year-old Jian Ghomeshi inherited from his father, a civil engineer—who, incidentally, wished his son would become a doctor or an engineer. (If all else failed, a lawyer would also suffice.) It was thus not surprising that when Ghomeshi and his high-school friends from Thornhill, Ontario, formed a band called Moxy Früvous in 1990 and started busking, it didn’t go over well.
“We started thinking, wouldn’t it be fun if we just did vocals with some street theatre,” Ghomeshi recalls. “I tried to explain this to my Iranian father. ‘It’s called busking—you perform on the streets.’ And he said, ‘Yes, we have a word for that in Iran. It’s called begging.’ My parents were a little freaked out, but fortunately they had enough trust in me to let me do what I wanted to do.” Moxy Früvous would eventually record seven albums and sell more than 500,000 copies between 1993 and 2000, and they even made an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien.
A perusal of Ghomeshi’s curriculum vitae underscores his reputation as a man of diverse interests. He graduated from Toronto’s York University with a bachelor of arts in history and political science—which, he says, comes in handy in his current career. “I use my political science and history degree every single day,” he says. “I use my experience as an artist, my empathy I bring as a musician, every single day.” He has written opinion pieces for periodicals including The Globe and Mail, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and the International Herald Tribune. And as if to ensure his calendar has no holes, he manages pop singer Lights, and he writes and produces music through his company, Wonderboy Entertainment.
His energetic work ethic and myriad interests extend back to his days as a student. While attending York, he served as co-chair of the Ontario Federation of Students and fought the provincial government on tuition hikes. A pro-choice advocate, he occasionally stood toe to toe with opponents of the Morgentaler Clinic in downtown Toronto.
Admittedly, his activism sometimes stretched the boundaries of peaceful protest. “The wildest thing I did to the Man—and I say this now that I have met the Man, and know his son, and they are very nice—I threw cooked macaroni at Brian Mulroney,” says Ghomeshi. “He was Prime Minister at the time. It ended up as the lead story on The National. I was helping fight for lower tuition and there he was, shaking the macaroni off him.”
Ghomeshi looks at those years as essential background material. “My experience as an activist for causes—all those things I was so scared of, that I lamented in university—have created the conditions where I can be good at my job today,” he says. “And if I had tried to manufacture this career arc, I would never have been able to.”
Born in London, England, Ghomeshi immigrated to Canada in 1975 at the age of eight. “My parents left Iran because they were truly interested in the West,” he says. “My father had studied in the U.K. and my mother had done some studying in the United States. They first went to Scotland when they got married in the early sixties, but then ended up in London. But then they decided to pursue my dad’s long-time dream to come to Canada. He came first and got a job here and then we followed.”
Their decision to come to Canada and start a new life was difficult for Jian and his sister, Jila. There wasn’t much of an Iranian community in Canada at the time, and Ghomeshi was extremely self-conscious of his appearance and his East London accent. Despite his father’s repeated attempts to convince him otherwise, he felt different. Adding to the culture shock, Iran became the focus of world news reports after the shah was overthrown in 1979. And when Islamic militants took 53 Americans hostage inside the American embassy, it sparked a crisis that further alienated Iranian expatriates.
“I was living somewhat of a lie because I didn’t want people to know what my background was. I didn’t want terrorist jokes,” Ghomeshi recalls. “If they said my name sounded French, I would shrug, hoping they would think I was French. It wasn’t until I got to York that I really began to embrace my background. And that is one of the reasons why, though I am a profoundly proud Canadian, and I wear my Canadianism on the air every day, I always talk about being an Iranian-Canadian, as well. Because if there is any kid out there who can benefit from my first-generation experience—I’m here to say it’s okay. It’s okay to know where you came from and to know where you are going.”
In 2002, after Moxy Früvous starting winding down, Ghomeshi was hired as host of the television show Play on CBC Newsworld. “I was always interested in the media, and I’d appeared in a cable TV program called Talk TV,” he says. “I was one of several co-hosts—the others included Seamus O’Regan and Ben Mulroney. It was sort of a nod to what I was interested in. I was also writing for the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. All this led to some CBC producers seeing me, and I was called for an audition for a new arts and culture program, which was Play, and after three auditions I was hired.” Although it won a Gemini Award, the show was cancelled in 2005. In 2007, Ghomeshi started hosting Q, a new CBC Radio show.
“At first I thought [Billy Bob Thornton] was kidding … When I realized he was serious, it became about finding the moment to look into his eyes and find out what was going on.”
Over the years, Ghomeshi has conducted in-depth, compelling interviews with myriad authors, musicians, actors, and playwrights. The list of notable guests is long, and includes former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, actor Morgan Freeman, rapper Jay-Z, and Police guitarist Andy Summers.
Interviews with both Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison are particularly memorable for Ghomeshi. The Cohen interview was postponed several times; then, with only two days’ notice, Ghomeshi received confirmation that it would finally take place—not in the CBC studios, but at Cohen’s house in Montreal.
“We were read the riot act before: ‘Get your cameras ready—you’ve got 20 minutes with him and that’s all you got.’ Of course, we get in there and I am thinking, ‘If this interview sucks, it’s going to make a lot of people angry,’ ” says Ghomeshi. “Well, Leonard was incredibly generous and a giving soul, and we spent three hours at his house and interviewed him for 48 minutes.”
The Q host had his work cut out for him when singing legend Van Morrison agreed to an interview, which was to take place at a Toronto hotel. However, the singer’s management warned Ghomeshi that they could only guarantee the singer would stay in the room for five minutes. “They said, ‘He may get up and walk away—he hasn’t done any interviews for two years,’ ” recalls Ghomeshi. “We ended up doing an interview that was at times challenging, at times cordial, not particularly warm—but the longest and best interview he has done since the seventies.”
There have been a few occasions, however, when his eloquence as an interviewer couldn’t draw the best out of his guests. But actor Billy Bob Thornton, who famously appeared with his hillbilly rock band, the Boxmasters, on Q in April 2009, belongs in a category all by himself.
The actor became incensed when, during his introduction of the band, Ghomeshi mentioned Thornton’s “other job” as an Oscar-winning screenwriter, actor, and director. Thornton claimed that Ghomeshi had been instructed to not talk about his acting career. What followed was a sometimes unbearably awkward exchange.
“The script was thrown out after the first question,” he says. “There was no point. My perception was that the bandmates were mortified. At first I thought he was kidding and that he was doing a ‘Joaquin Phoenix’ [referring to the actor-turned-musician’s infamous performance on the Late Show with David Letterman]. When I realized he was serious, it became about finding the moment to look into his eyes and find out what was going on.
“The great irony of this whole thing is that if he had played along, he would have got exactly what he wanted: a half-hour interview on a national program about his band—who are not exactly Radiohead in terms of quality,” he adds. Reaction to Ghomeshi’s professionalism and the manner in which he handled the situation was swift, as the show received more than 100,000 e-mails with almost unanimous praise for the host.
By now, the restaurant has virtually emptied of the lunchtime crowd. Ghomeshi is a bit behind schedule, but he’s not concerned. Time enough for one last question.
Having interviewed so many incredible artists, who would constitute the ultimate interview subject? “Well, the short answer to that is Bowie,” he says. “I haven’t interviewed him. But I almost don’t want to interview him, because I wonder where I am going to go from there. It’s like, I would like to interview him on my deathbed so I can finish the interview and then die—and I have my Bowie interview. Although he is a little older than me so we will see who gets to their deathbed first.”
Ghomeshi rises, and heads toward the exit. Under the weather or not, he has a busy schedule. As always, there are questions—thoroughly researched, as is his style, his skill—to be asked. And answers to be gleaned.