Behind the Music Critic: An Interview with Selena Fragassi

Photo: @selenafragassi
Photo: @selenafragassi

Café Mozart is quiet at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday morning – especially considering the fact its biggest competition just up the street is closed for renovations – but the hush is broken in the front corner of the room by the clink of coffee cups as Selena Fragassi stirs her cappuccino. Fragassi, 30 (“31 – well, almost. I have a birthday coming up!”), is a music critic for Chicago Magazine and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the fledgling Boxx Magazine, an online publication that “aims to balance gender inequality and give female artists the coverage they deserve.”

Fragassi initially worked as a copywriter for an ad agency before realizing, after a few years, that she simply hated the job. From there, she says, the reinvention started.

In 2007, Fragassi began freelancing for the now-defunct Venus Zine, a women’s culture magazine based in Chicago. “I just took every assignment I could get,” she remembers. That attitude worked out to be quite the blessing – Fragassi ended up writing one of the first American pieces on pop sensation Adele, long before she was crooning a James Bond theme song at the Oscars. “Everyone gave me cred for that,” Fragassi says with a laugh.

She worked her way up from there at Venus, as concert editor and then music editor. She now works as both a freelancer and, as of last fall, the pop and rock music critic for Chicago Magazine. “It’s weird,” says Fragassi, “because now I can’t write for any other local publications. But I can still write for national publications, so I do that.”

A love for all things creative seems to run in the family. Growing up in nearby Glenview, Ill., Fragassi had parents who worked corporate business jobs by day, but had an artistic streak a mile wide. Her father loved photography, and her mother would play guitar and sing. And, although her mother had some influence on her interest in music, Fragassi says she owes much of that love to her grandfather, who could play accordion and piano – “and even yodel – he was German.” The creative bug also bit her younger brother, who is a painter.

Music makes its ways into many of Fragassi’s memories, from the “cheesy Christmas sing-alongs” instigated by her mother to her father’s “Motown Sundays” – “We’d wake up and have a dance party and make pancakes,” she says, smiling.

Fragassi’s creativity took the form of studying fiction writing at Columbia College in Chicago. She recalled a class, on women in writing, that examined the difficulties of managing a family and creative expression. “I’ve always had an empathy for women like that,” she explains between sips of coffee. Her artistic approach to writing, however, has not always been appreciated. A few publications for which she has freelanced have told her they will not want her to write for them again, because of her literary style, but Fragassi simply shrugs that off.

“My writer’s voice is my gift,” she says. “I’m not giving that up.”

Not all of Fragassi’s work, however, focuses on music. Last fall, in what she describes as one of her proudest moments, she had the opportunity to lead a discussion with Damian Echols about his book “Life After Death” at Logan Square Auditorium in Chicago. Echols was one of the “West Memphis Three” accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys in some type of Satanic ritual in 1993.

Nevertheless, Fragassi says the pinnacle of her career up to this point has been Boxx, which launched last October. Jordan Young, her friend, publisher and co-founder, first met Fragassi when she interned at Venus in 2010. They both cite the film “Hit So Hard,” a documentary that follows Hole drummer Patty Schemel’s struggles with fame and addiction, as a catalyst for the magazine.

“There was this poignant, infuriating moment, when Patty was kicked off a recording, and they brought in a session musician instead,” says Fragassi, recalling the screening she and Young attended together last May. “We were mad that Venus was gone, mad that women were treated this way.”

“We both felt so strongly that we had to do something to improve the coverage of women in the music industry,” said Young in an email. “So we decided to jump in and take a risk.”

That risk is starting to pay off – this past International Women’s Day, March 8, Fragassi and Young found out their project had been selected as one of the winners of the McCormick Foundation’s New Media Women Entrepreneur’s grant, which will earn then $12,000 over the next year, with the potential for an additional $2000 if they can raise $2000 on their own. According to the McCormick Foundation’s website, 100% of the grant’s winners have launched, and 72% are still “going strong.” This money puts Boxx well on its way to achieving what is has set out to do.

“Our initial goal is to give women a place to be heard, which is Boxx’s tagline – ‘where women are heard,’” says Fragassi, “But in the long run, we’d like to be the catalyst to make it so we don’t have to use that tagline anymore.”

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