Anthony Mason ’74 has worked for CBS News for 32 years, reported from 40 countries around the globe, interviewed presidents and covered elections worldwide — but it may just be his interviews with world-famous musicians that have made him one of the nation’s best and beloved reporters.
Those interviews — with dozens of disparate singers and musical artists from the likes of Keith Richards and Aretha Franklin to Sam Smith and Kesha — have connected him most with his audience – and, he says, become some of the most meaningful work of his life.
“I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I love your work, but I really love your music pieces,’” he said.
Now the co-host of “CBS This Morning: Saturday” and CBS News’ senior national correspondent, the multiple-Emmy-award-winning Mason has worked in the network’s London bureau, served as chief Moscow correspondent, a business correspondent, and even for a time interim weekday anchor for “CBS Evening News.” His foray into music journalism began with a random assignment in 2005 that Mason said he “raised his hand for” one day in the newsroom — a story about Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils & Dust” solo tour.
Never particularly interested in doing celebrity profiles, Mason said working with musicians was different. “Music had always meant a lot to me and I’d never really seen it covered the way I wanted to see it covered — at least not in television,” he said. “In magazines you could read great profiles in the New Yorker and in Rolling Stone, but television never seemed to want to take music seriously — and I took music really seriously. It’s had an incredibly important role at various times in my life.”
Venturing into new reporting territory, however, wasn’t easy. “People had a certain perception of who I was and I had a hard time shaking that image,” he said. “I’d been doing business and had to walk around in suits all the time. People just couldn’t process the business guy interviewing rock stars.”
Still, the joy and job satisfaction he had gotten from those first musician interviews was unlike anything he’d ever experienced. “People really responded to them,” he said.
“I also saw a side of myself come out that I hadn’t been able to show anywhere else. I felt more and more myself doing them, so I said I’m going to ride this as far as I can.”
Mason could get people who poured their hearts out in their songs, but not often to reporters, to talk. He created an intimacy in the reporting process that seemed to make the lights, the microphones, cameras and crew disappear — and he believes that came about because of what was going on inside himself.
In 2008, Mason’s parents died within a month of each other. “It was sort of this inward-looking period and … figuring out where I was and what all this meant,” he said. “What I realized in talking to musicians was that I was starting to process my own life.”
Mason said he’d also reached a point in his career where he was re-evaluating. “I was like, I’ve been telling everyone else’s stories for decades now. Where do I fit into all of this? Do I have a voice in any of this and if so, what is it?”
At that time, Mason said he began to see the arch of life very clearly. “I’m like OK, here’s the end — and here’s where you are in relationship to the end. All of a sudden time became [a] very concrete thing to me.”
“So, all these things were working together and suddenly I was like ... why did I just ask that question [in that interview]? I was getting very intimate answers from people and I realized what I was really doing was asking questions of myself.
“It became this really personal thing and it created a texture in these stories that I had never been able to put in anything else ... and people felt it even if they couldn’t necessarily identify what it was.”
Mason soon began to reach an audience that appreciated music as much as he did — and who may have been surprised and awed at his ability to, in a respectful way, draw some of the most intimate personal details from his subjects. Keith Richards talked about the death of his child;
Dave Grohl revealed what it was like continuing his career after the suicide of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain.
Looking back on the last 13 years, Mason says he’s come to learn a lot about himself through his interactions with musicians: that he has an artistic side.
Mason’s mother was an interior designer and his father was an investment banker, though the two separated early in Mason’s life. Mason grew up with his mother and his stepfather, an artist, in an art-filled home in Manhattan.
“I can identify … with musicians, even though I’m not musical at all,” Mason said. “I’m tone-deaf. But I understand the creative process,” he said, “and I’ve always loved the magic — that a song becomes something that people can’t get out of their heads and lives with them through the rest of their lives. In some cases, it also helps them through crises and it’s how they define themselves and understand themselves.
“And all of that, you know, when you’re doing a business story, just isn’t there.”
When we spoke with Mason in the spring, it was the week before he was heading back to the Hilltop to receive the John B. Diman Award, the school’s highest alumni honor. He was getting ready to interview Billy Joel about his 100th concert at Madison Square Garden and had just completed a story on Kesha that was to air that Sunday.
“Artists by and large are pretty vulnerable people and a lot of them think of themselves as outsiders,” he said. "Even if they’ve been successful, they still perceive themselves to be outsiders and they can’t believe they’re as successful as they are.”
Kesha, he said, is a classic example. “This is a woman who completely feels like she’s from another planet ... and who’s beaten herself up and is incredibly vulnerable and wears it, unlike some people, right up on the surface, which is part of what her appeal is to an enormous section of her fans — people who feel the same way.”
In his dozens of interviews with musicians over the years, many of which have aired on “CBS Sunday Morning,” Mason said he wants to produce stories “where you feel like you’re really seeing somebody.” And that takes a lot of work and investment. “I had coffee with Norah Jones three times before we even sat down for an interview,” he said.
When Aretha Franklin died in August, CBS rebroadcast Mason’s 2011 interview with the Queen of Soul and Mason posted a picture of himself with Aretha on his Twitter account.
Mason recalled the day, when, at the end of a long interview, Aretha said she wanted to go to the park in her hometown of Detroit. “I was going to say, ‘no we don’t really need the park, we’re great’ ... but I had asked a photographer who’d worked with her what’s it like working with Aretha and he said, ‘Well the first thing you have to remember is that Aretha is the queen, and she’s going to behave like the queen — but she will give you something.’”
Mason went along. “And we’re just crossing this open street and I say to Aretha, ‘When did they name the park after your father?’ and she doesn’t answer and then I look over at her and I realize it’s because she’s crying. ‘I’m really glad they named the park after him,’ she said.”
“It was one of those little things where it’s nothing and it’s everything. You see how much her father means to her in that moment. That’s what she showed you — and how powerful his memory is and that just this little thing — having a sign with her father’s name on it — can get her to tears.”
Mason lives for those moments. “You need to put yourself in the
position to receive that stuff. When those moments occur, you need to be ready and understand what they are and what you’re being given, and know how to handle them,” he said. “But when they come, they will literally change the dimension of the story.”
The day that Aretha died, Mason received over 300 likes and 22 comments on his Twitter post.
“Great segment Anthony. Your smooth approach to interviewing people brings out the true person,” one said.
Another wrote: “Anthony Mason, you’re the coolest man on television who knows good music and has interviewed some of the greats.”
These days Mason continues to land some of the best veteran and up-and-coming musicians in the nation. He recently interviewed John Prine and Lindsey Buckingham. And “CBS This Morning: Saturday” now features a segment in which musicians perform called “Saturday Sessions.” The Boston band Tall Heights, who just released their second album, and model-turned-musician Karen Elson were recent guests.
Still there are a few musicians Mason would love to sit down with: Bob Dylan and Bobbie Gentry.
“Bob Dylan for the obvious reasons,” he said, “and Bobbie Gentry because she hasn’t talked to anybody in something like 35 years — and she was an enormously influential singer for a whole class of great female singers.”
Gentry disappeared from the public eye in the late 1970s.
“For people [like] Roseanne Cash and her generation, [Bobbie Gentry] was like ... she kicked ass,” he said. “This woman, you look at her and you see she wrote her own stuff, she’s beautiful, she managed her own career — and then she decided to go away.
“It’s just ... can you imagine doing that story?”