Arts & Science alumna, board member of Canada’s Polaris Music Prize and rising star in journalism — interviewing household names like Jessie Reyez — traces her love of music and writing back to her formative experiences at Hart House as editor-in-chief of Demo magazine.
Writer, editor, producer and strategist Melissa Vincent has taken the world by storm, just five years after she graduated from the University of Toronto, double majoring in urban studies and book and media studies as a member of St. Michael’s College.
Her 2020 cover story on Jessie Reyez, commissioned for Elle Canada, captivated readers across the nation. Her writing has also appeared in high-profile American publications such as Billboard, The Fader and Pitchfork, as well as in Canada’s foremost media giants such as CBC, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Business and Vice.
In 2019, she joined the board of directors of the esteemed Polaris Music Prize. This remarkable storyteller has also led content platforms operated by Banger Films, Blue Ant Media and Universal Music Canada; and produced a podcast to support the launch of the music docuseries “This is Pop” on Netflix.
The genesis of Vincent's career in music journalism can be traced back to Hart House where she was editor-in-chief of Demo, a student-run publication launched by the Hart House Music Committee in 2006.
U of T helped solidify her thoughts around music
She thinks of music “like the first love of your life” — a statement that rolls off her tongue and, without poetic intention, takes your breath away. Her words, sublimely curated, hit home, such is the hallmark of an exceptional writer.
When Vincent was younger, she was curious about and engrossed with music, but it felt somehow unattainable. Then over time, she developed her own voice for writing and determined what it was about particular albums that compelled her.
“In essence, I started to develop my tastes. Then coming to U of T really helped clarify my thoughts about music, culture and art,” she explains.
Vincent was introduced to Demo during University College’s frosh week. “A friend mentioned the Hart House music magazine and said I would love it.”
Her friend was right: “It was an immediate and obvious home; I’d found a community. A lot of people I met in Demo are now my lifelong friends. To find a group of people that wanted to get into the weeds and have conversations around 30 seconds of a track on an album — this gave me a space to feel like I wasn't alone. It built a lot of intimacy, trust and safety. That community was crucial for me to gain confidence.”
What she learned from Demo informs her career
Vincent credits Demo for many things — most specifically, for teaching her about the importance of being a clear communicator, using the tools of journalism and determining a good pitch. At Demo, the editors help to train the new writers, making themselves available to talk through the pieces and check in at various points during the writing process.
“One of the most brilliant functions of Demo is its built-in system of passing along situational, institutional and generational knowledge,” she says.
It is the norm for someone to start at Demo in first year as a writer, watching how editors produce the magazine. Then in third and fourth year, they can advance to becoming an editor.
“I gained an understanding of the importance of setting up a good process for creative work. It's a system to make sure that editors are not going in cold; that they have resources and support. It sets up incoming editors for success.
“What I learned with my co-editors at Demo still serves me in my career today,” she emphasizes.
Fondest Memories from Hart House and the Arbor Room
Some of Vincent’s most cherished undergrad memories are from Hart House, sitting with friends in the Arbor Room, chatting about Demo. This was an important creative working space for her. “It was also a space for us to reflect on how we were doing in general — academically, emotionally or personally. We could count on chatting and then coming out of the conversation in better shape. I am so grateful that Demo was a conduit for us to do that.”
She loved the excitement of seeing the first proof of Demo magazine: “Running to the office, getting it, then going to Hart House, sitting with a coffee across the table from each other and flipping through it, catching typos, getting the kinks out. It’s like you’re a midwife to this project."
Reflecting on this, she says, “We’re living in a cultural moment in the city where space is scarce; it is difficult to create. When I think back to the pleasure and freedom of having access to a space like Hart House as a student, I realize there’s a lot of value and importance.
“My time at Hart House — a beautiful, historic spot with a lot of narrative depth — working in the Demo community taught me just how valuable that is to the creative process.”
Tips for aspiring student writers
Vincent has some valuable suggestions for budding journalists.
Tip 1: Have faith in your own opinion
“When you’re involved in cultural criticism, it’s important to discover and believe in your own taste,” she says. What she means by this is feeling comfortable with having a set of opinions around the things that you’re engaging with and consuming, figuring out what’s exciting to you. “When you say something’s brilliant, what do you mean? What’s unique about your opinion?”
She believes it’s also very important to be in an intimate conversation with yourself, to have a private place to reflect. “Let yourself be playful and explore this,” she urges. “When you listen to an album, be curious about its origin, its history, so you have some knowledge that will also help inform your taste.”
Tip 2: You can be in the big league while you’re still in school
“Don’t feel you need to graduate to start your career,” Vincent says. She began writing for The Globe and Mail in second year. “A lot of editors are willing to take a chance on an eager and enthusiastic writer that shows a lot of promise. You can be in the big leagues while you're still in school. You don't need to wait.”
She suggests writers build a program or a kind of mix of institutional study and extracurricular activities to gain practical experience. “You have to let your academic study blend with some early professional experiences while you're a student.”
Tip 3: Community is everything
Vincent emphasizes the value in developing a community to brainstorm; discuss deadlines, the validity of feedback or the size and scope of an article. “This community really comes in handy for you when you face big challenges.”
With many projects on the go and a day job in creative strategy work, Vincent was just asked to write liner notes — the highest compliment for a music journalist — for Seance Centre, a record label, publisher and distributor that “conjures timeless music from the past, present and future.” She is, truly, one to watch.