Mary Phillips-Sandy, Lizzie Jacobs - Conversations with Artists
What is the art of what you do?
Lizzie: We’re the creators of a podcast called “Let’s Talk About Cats” and I hope the art of what I do is helping people tell a story in a way that feels really true to them and hopefully new to the listener.
What technique do you use to help make it new?
Lizzie: We try to make sure that the questions we ask our guests frame things in a slightly “off” way. The show is generally "off" - our humor, the angle, our cuts are off. Once the interview is done and I'm editing, I trust that if I'm really interested then it’s right. We try to make stories as clean as they can be, but with just enough grist that they feel real.
Mary: I think some of the art of what we do is to construct a world that we’re in charge of but that other people feel welcome in. We create a space where anything can happen. There are rules that we have constructed for it so that there are boundaries and the guest can feel comfortable knowing that there are parameters and someone is in charge of them. Once that’s there, anything can happen.
Tell us a bit about the podcast world.
Lizzie: It's a really interesting time. Everyone is jumping in the space, so much money is coming into it. It used to be very independent, you could do it anywhere — and then it got a little more professional, like what we do — really well crafted. But then Hollywood and everyone else got in there too. So it's a really funky space because it still has that independent artist and creator piece to it, and it also has sponsored content and that whole thing.
Mary: I'm kicking myself because I had the idea for this show in 2014 and I sat on it for four years. It's a weird time to be an independent show unaffiliated with a major network or platform or source of money because your competition is not just other people like us who have a show - it's multi-media conglomerates with millions of dollars and the landscape is saturated. There are 500,000 active podcasts on Apple right now.
Mary: There are lots of people who want to listen to podcasts, and it's harder than ever for us to find each other because there's so much out there and there are so many big players. The way you access podcasts is so up in the air — everybody uses a different app. We know there are people out there who would listen to our show, and our big challenge is, how do we let them know that we're here? How do we convince listeners that of all the 500,000 podcasts they could listen to, they need to give us a chance?
Are you finding that it’s money calling the shots - or does the independent with an H4N still have a shot?
Lizzie: They have a shot, but it's narrower than it used to be. There have been some interesting exposés recently of the shows that get to the number 1 spot before they even have one episode out. Obviously there's something else going on because how else would that happen? It's a weird world, defined by money — and in some ways it makes it more exciting.
Mary: Our impulse is just to make the show. You don't need a lot of money to make a great podcast. We don't spend a lot of money. But where the money comes in handy is having the power to get in front of people; marketing and distribution.
What's your dream vision — what do you hope for?
Lizzie: I hope we can make the show sustainable so we can keep producing it. I want someone to be trying to get on our show. I want Kate McKinnon, to ask “how have I not been on Let's Talk About Cats by now? I've got to get on there.”
Mary: I think getting an audience to the point where we can justify making more shows -- we're working on our second season right now and if it can't reach a certain point then it's going to be the last season. That sucks, but that's the reality of it. I would love to be able to make merch. I know that seems like a crass thing to say, but I love the idea of coming up with stuff that I would want and making it for other people . We wouldn’t do it in a way that's not cutesy or super gendered, but something that's objectively a cool thing that you'd want in your house or to wear. We want to make a 'zine. To have an audience the size of which lets us do stuff like that. Making a little empire.
Describe the world that your podcast shines a light on.
Mary: The secret of the show is that it's not actually about cats. Don't tell anybody — it is a world where cats are there, but they're just sitting next to the people. Much the way they do in real life.
Lizzie: Ultimately you're almost always with your cat in your home - so it's a very intimate space, and our show embraces everything you're not quite supposed to say. We both have an off-kilter sense of humor. The other piece of the world is that it's very precise. You can hear the way Mary speaks -- it's also part of the show. There aren't multiple takes. She doesn't blabber on. Everything is so well prepared, and that makes the guest feel very comfortable.
Mary: Although sometimes it throws them off at first, because people are used to podcasts where you're sort of rambling on and that's why you get hour and a half shows. There have been people who, when I show up with the index cards, they're taken aback. But I love that. Because now they don't know what's going to happen and this is great.
Lizzie: By the time we get to the ‘Let’s Talk About Your Cat’ portion of the show, they're ready to go there with you. We also do a lot of research. That's another part of the precision. People can't believe what goes into making the show, and if you're prepared then people respond.
Mary: People don't realize the research that goes into the show. That's the other part of the art of what I do. I do have clinical OCD, I'm not using it as a cutesy term. I will spend hours and hours researching guests. The other detail in the world of the show is I do think of it as a performance, even though I am just being myself. I think of the show as the kind of place where you can come and work stuff out.
Lizzie: The show is more about the reality of the fact that cats are really important to people — and we want to know those people and how much they love their cats.
Why do you think talking about cats is cathartic?
Lizzie: It's just incredibly intimate. This is the being who’s around you when you’re naked, when you're fighting with your partner. When you're sad on the couch. All those things. That makes the bond incredibly important to people. When they're talking about this incredibly important bond, they're talking about some of the most raw and meaningful elements of their lives. I think when people come in to talk about their cats, they are really excited because they have a chance to talk about this important relationship.
Do you think human relationships with cats are deeper than with other animals?
Mary: People who are cat people in the way that our guests are, myself included, ascribe meaning to cats and to our relationships with our cats in a way that's different than with other animals. I think that has something to do with the nature of cats. There's something about cats that is intimate and familiar, but also unknowable. With a cat there's always going to be a little element of not knowing. The cat is operating at a level that you're never going to quite reach. I think that's part of what makes it so interesting because you can let your guard down in front of a creature that is almost greater than you in some way. I think that's part of why people feel very grateful when we offer them space to talk about it. When a cat cares about you, it means something. When you surrender to a cat it means something — it’s otherworldly. There's something about them that's not of this world.
Mary: There are moments in the show where people reveal things about themselves almost unintentionally in a way that they wouldn't if we were just having an interview. They would otherwise be guarded. But when it's filtered through a conversation about your cat, it's safer to reveal that stuff.
Why do you want to keep making the show?
Mary: It's one of the most fun things that I do.
Lizzie: The thing about making this show is that it’s what we want it to be. If it's not right to us, then it doesn't go out. And that’s really special.
Lizzie, what's your role on the show?
Lizzie: ‘Producer Lizzie’ as Mary likes to call me. Mary and I are definitely a team. I like to think Mary is the front of the house and I'm the back of the house.
Mary: You're the executive producer, I promoted you!
Lizzie: I forgot, I got a promotion! I help record the interview and help Mary choose the guests. We go over the questions and I take the tape and it's mine. I sit with it and I cut it and bring it back to Mary. Usually she has a few questions and that's how it goes. Part of what I really wanted to do with the show is make hard cuts, in essence, hard turns. Our show has a lot of hard turns. That's been a fun piece of it. When your'e done with an idea you an just cut it off.
Lizzie: We don't do segues. It's very cut and paste. You can almost see the pieces of tape.
Mary: Lizzie's other job is to talk me down from ledges.
Who are your dream guests?
Lizzie: I really wanted Keith Hernandez. We're going to get him eventually. We want Barack Obama to get a cat.
Mary: I also really want people who you don't ever normally hear on podcasts. Everyone hears comedians and actors on podcasts. There's an NFL player that I really want to get. He has a cat.
Lizzie: The guests I'm most excited about are people who you don't usually get to hear from, at least personally.
Mary: The whole reason I started the show was to have the conversation with Choire Sicha, the style editor of the NY Times, whom I had never met, but I had written for his website for a while. Once we recorded that one with Choire I was like, ‘I was right, this works.’ Choire would be horrified to hear this, but he was the muse of this show. He's very mysterious, catlike. He's one of those great, super smart , funny New Yorky people.
If you could go back and speak to 12-year-old you, what would you tell her?
Lizzie: I'd tell her something that would not work —which is ‘don't worry. Don't worry and let your hair down a little bit.’ I try to realize that worry is just wasted time. So if I could get some of that time from worrying back I would really like that.
Mary: I would probably tell myself not to go to college, not to sit on ideas when I have them and to just do them. And to not listen to the guidance counselor in high school who told me I shouldn't move to NY. Also, not to get that horrible short haircut in 2001 because it was terrible. It was really bad.
Are you guys having fun?
Lizzie: Mary and I always have fun. We're the fun machine.
Let’s Talk About Cats (LTAC) Podcast, Lizzie Jacobs, Executive Producer and Host, Mary Phillps-Sandy. “Asking people about their cats is a unique way to understand their perspective on life, love, loss and important things.”