For many musicians, interviews are part of a promotional process - they've got a new album out, so they agree to speak to the press, who they trust will impart great news of their latest wares to readers and beyond. Too often, journalists are complicit in that arrangement - they avoid asking tough questions, leading to encounters that can sometimes lack substance and add little to our knowledge of an artist.

As its name suggests, the BBC World Service's HARDtalk doesn't treat its interview subjects with kid gloves. It's a programme on which politicians, economists, diplomats and sportspeople are asked to explain and justify their place in the world, often against their wishes. And don't think for a second that music stars are invited onto the current affairs programme to provide light relief. As these seven interviews prove, we can learn a lot of an artist in 30 minutes when the lines of enquiry aren't soft.

1. Brian Eno

I wanted to make music that didn't demand continuous attention
Brian Eno

The wonderful thing about this wide-ranging discussion is that it finds interviewer Stephen Sackur, not in a disrespectful way, trying to work out exactly what it is that Brian Eno does. His point is that when we saw him in Roxy Music, he was a visible member of a band, along with Bryan Ferry. But, although we know he worked with Bowie on his Berlin Trilogy, it's less clear what his precise role was. So Sackur asks. Elsewhere, Eno is quizzed on the purpose on his ambient albums, like 1978's Music for Airports, which was intended to be incidental music. "I wanted to make music that didn't demand continuous, focussed attention," says Eno. But why bother making songs that, deliberately, you don't want people to intently listen to?

I wanted to make music that didn't demand continuous attention
Brian Eno

2. Henry Rollins

If Bill and Tom get married, half of America goes crazy about it
Henry Rollins

How hard is it to swim against the cultural tide in the United States, as Henry Rollins always has, and can you still have a punk mindset in your 50s? The former Black Flag singer is sharp with his answers, explaining that he's as angry now as he was when he started out ("I live in America, if Bill and Tom get married, half of the country goes crazy about it - that makes me angry"), and he talks articulately about Bowie, who he calls "a sovereign nation", and who, he was surprised to find out when they met, was a fan of his. The key difference between the two is that Rollins is overtly political. Does he despise his own country, as some people think? And what's it like being a solitary animal, as Rollins always has been?

If Bill and Tom get married, half of America goes crazy about it
Henry Rollins

3. Hugh Masekela

Nothing much had changed in South Africa, except that we vote
Hugh Masekela

Why does South African afro-jazz trumpeter and political activist Hugh Masekela describe his country as "fast turning into a rubbish dump and becoming removed from its authentic African culture"? It's both a fascinating opening gambit from interviewer Zeinab Badawi and a devastating statement in itself from a musician who grew up under apartheid and once said, "I know my place and look forward to getting nowhere in the world." Masekela explains how music managed to thrive under oppression, but opportunity lay elsewhere. He lived in exile in the US, and remains intensely critical of South Africa in the 21st century. "Nothing much had changed, except that we vote," he says. "Economically, we don't own the country."

Nothing much had changed in South Africa, except that we vote
Hugh Masekela

4. John Cale

Did Lou Reed say to you, 'John, I've had it with you, you're out?'
Stephen Sackur

Stephen Sackur calls John Cale's music "challenging and bleak" and sets this interview up as a challenge to find out if that is a reflection of the man himself. Cale's time in Wales before he left for New York to form The Velvet Underground is covered well, with Cale saying his local library was a lifeline to an inquisitive young mind in the Valleys, then Sackhur goes straight for the jugular when asking about the collapse of his relationship with Lou Reed: "Did Lou say to you, 'John, I've had it with you, you're out?'" But perhaps the most revealing part is from 13 minutes onwards, when Cale is questioned on "not seeing much point to life" in the 70s. He reveals an interesting (partial) cure for the addictions he suffered then: taking up the game of squash.

Did Lou Reed say to you, 'John, I've had it with you, you're out?'
Stephen Sackur

5. Don McLean

Everyone has to fight against going insane
Don McLean

This interview with Don McLean was recorded in April 2015, before he was arrested on a domestic violence charge in January 2016, and it sees journalist Tim Franks challenging the singer-songwriter on the modern American music industry and the American dream. His 1971 song American Pie is iconic, yet wildly misinterpreted. What is McLean willing to tell us about it more than 40 years after it was written, and why did he put the original manuscript of the song up for auction (it sold for $1.2m)? McLean is a cagey sort, making for an intriguing discussion. "Everyone has to fight against going insane," he says at 11 minutes, suggesting his personal struggles are far from unique.

Everyone has to fight against going insane
Don McLean

6. Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses)

My guest today nearly drank himself to death
Sarah Montague

"My guest today nearly drank himself to death," says Sarah Montague at the opening of this interview with Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses. As he puts it, his "pancreas exploded", leading to him sobering up and forging a second career as a writer and CEO of a wealth-management firm. How does a bad boy of rock become a businessman? How indeed. McKagan says he went from drinking a gallon of vodka to 10 bottles of wine a day when was "trying to taper down", by which point he was "close to insanity". His recovery story is extraordinary and noble, but he has much to explain about his time in Guns N' Roses, including accusations that lyrics he wrote were misogynistic.

My guest today nearly drank himself to death
Sarah Montague

7. Hans Zimmer

That's a question I didn't expect, but I shall answer it truthfully!
Hans Zimmer

Hans Zimmer is the Oscar-winning soundtrack composer and producer who wrote the score for The Lion King, 12 Years a Slave, the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Gladiator, Inception and some 150 other films. He's a Hollywood titan and a charismatic man - a German by birth, who was educated in Britain and has always been a champion of technology. Despite his extraordinary success, he remains a divisive character - inexplicably accused by ivory-tower critics of not being a true, classical musician. "How much do you think is revealed of you by the music you produce?" asks interviewer Shaun Ley. "Ah! That's a question I didn't expect, but I shall answer it truthfully!" says Zimmer. His response is fascinating.

That's a question I didn't expect, but I shall answer it truthfully!
Hans Zimmer

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