INTERVIEWS CHINA FORBES|
JUGGLING ACTFor over a decade, CHINA FORBES has fronted the acclaimed Oregon-based, jazz orchestra PINK MARTINI. As soon as FORBES was able to get some down time, she pulled out the acoustic guitar and began writing the songs that would become her second solo album ''78'. Anyone expecting ''78' to be filled with latin rhythms, lounge vibes and the classical flourishes that make up PINK MARTINI's signature sound, should be warned! CHINA has eschewed her cocktail dresses and has let her hair down for this set of "autobiographical" songs. On''78', the jazz diva of PINK MARTINI gets a rest and CHINA FORBES demonstrates that she is a confessional singer/songwriter in the vein of CARLY SIMON, AIMEE MANN, or ALICE PEACOCK with a breathy delivery that is not too disimilar from SUZANNE VEGA's. "I've never been one thing." says FORBES. "It's very natural for me to do many things and my identity has multiple aspects to it. I think that's why PINK MARTINI, being so eclectic, feels so natural to me and doing a singer-songwriter thing feels very natural to me but trying to do both of them at the same time is confusing. I've just released the album (''78') and I've just done a solo show with a band that I put together for that, and then I did a show for PINK MARTINI the next day and put on my gowns and did this whole Hollywood - glamour style thing and then I go on tour with my cowboy boots and my guitar, with my band. It's a lot of back and forth. You see how confusing it is?"
CHINA FORBES TALKS TO ROCKWIRED
ABOUT HER NEW SOLO ALBUM ''78'
EXPLORING AN IDENTITY OUTSIDE OF
AND GETTING FOLKS TO DANCE AROUND
IN THEIR UNDERPANTS TO HER MUSIC
INTERVIEWED BY BRIAN LUSH
ROCKWIRED spoke with CHINA FORBES following a show. Here is how it went.
How was your show tonight?
It was great. It was a lot of fun!
Where were you playing?
We played in Portland Maine at the MERRILL AUDITORIUM. Its a really beautiful theater with great acoustics; the perfect kind of theater! Every city needs that kind of theater!
Your album ''78', took me by surprise!
I think it's taken everybody by surprise.
It is for me, because I'm not terribly familiar with PINK MARTINI at all, so I did have to research that a little bit. But, I have to say that the songwriting itself blew me away.
The song '78 is this really unassuming track with an even more unassuming title and when you listen to it and it's like an exposed nerve pretty much. It's an autobiographical track, I'm assuming. What inspired you to write this one?
Well, it is totally autobiographical. I had a very unusual childhood. I think I became a songwriter as a way for me to make sense of some of the emotions that I had that I didn't know how to deal with. I wrote that song at a time where I was sort of between phases of my feelings toward my childhood and my mother leaving Cambridge, where I grew up, to go to New York. My mother left my sister and me to live with my dad when I was eight and my sister was ten, because my mom wanted to go to graduate school and she got into Columbia. At the time, I sort of acted like I didn't care and I was sort of tough and defensive towards the world after that and made excuses for my mom. It was a very difficult choice that she made to leave her kids but years later, I kind of swung the other way and I was very angry and I wrote '78 right before I swung towards the angry, when I was just coming to terms with it. My father was bipolar and he raised us and having the responsibility of raising two young daughters kept him from having a manic episode for years and then he died pretty young of cancer at age 59, so I'm really grateful in a way for those years that I had with him, but I feel like I was deprived of that day-to-day relationship with my mother, but thats what divorce does, unless you're one of those kids that shuttles back and forth every two or three days between houses, which also sounds kind of horrible to me. That was a long answer!
It was! I was just sitting here and taking all of it in.
I love that writing affords me the ability to sort of speak about these things because they are pretty heavy and I think alot of my songs end up being pretty heavy and sad a lot of times. I'm not all that comfortable with the sadness. I always sort of put a positive spin on my actual life and my relationships and look at what good can come out of something bad. My way of dealing with those uncomfortablly sad issues is through my writing.
''78' is your second solo release.
It is. I released a solo album in 1995.
Did that pre-date your work with PINK MARTINI?
It did. It basically coincided with PINK MARTINI. I recorded it before PINK MARTINI and it came out right around - I can't remember what month that was. 1995 was the first time that I ever sang for PINK MARTINI but PINK MARTINI was in it's infancy then and it was a completely different situation. I was living in New York and I would travel to Portland Oregon and I would fill in until they could find someone in Portland and when that didn't happen, THOMAS LAUDERDALE, who started PINK MARTINI, would call me in New York and beg me to come back for a couple of weeks. I was being a singer songwriter at the time and had that flexibility where I could go out there. That album (the first solo album) was unfortunate because by the time it came out, I didn't like it and I felt like I had changed artistically. I felt like I really couldn't back it up or promote it.
Obviously, PINK MARTINI became the primary interest.
Right, and that was exciting because I had these albums that I was really proud of, with PINK MARTINI and that was a completely different feeling.
And the sound of PINK MARTINI is a million miles away from anything that's on ''78'. There is no similarity at all and I think that's amazing.
It's quite confusing actually!
I didn't realize how confusing it would be. I made this album while I was on my down time from PINK MARTINI tours and it's very much in the style that I naturally inhabited before I was with PINK MARTINI, so it's the most natural thing in the world. PINK MARTINI was a way for me to adopt a different persona and learn all sorts of styles of music from latin rhythms to classical jazz; things that I hadn't had a lot of experience with. It wouldn't have been something that I would've come up with on my own. It was an amazing accident that I ended up in PINK MARTINI and it fits me very well but I never would've known that. I'm from a biracial family. My mother is black and my father is white and part French.
Yeah. So I've never been one thing. It's very natural form me to do many things and my identity has multiple aspects to it. I think that's why PINK MARTINI, being so eclectic, feels so natural to me and doing a singer-songwriter thing feels very nautral to me, but trying to do both of them at the same time is confusing. That's what confusing to me. I've just released the album and I've just done a solo show with a band that I put together for that, and then I did a show for PINK MARTINI the next day and put on my gowns and did this whole Hollywood - glamour style thing, and then I go on tour with my cowboy boots and my guitar, with my band. It's a lot of back and forth. You see how confusing it is?
Yes I do. When did songwriting begin for you?
I would say, pretty young. The first song I remember writing was when I was fifteen. I picked up a guitar that was in the corner of my dad's apartment that had three old strings on it, that were out of tune. I got a book and taught myself chords and started writing simple little songs. I continued to play guitar and took lessons in high school and did sort of coffee house songwriting and performing in high school. It began then. In the song '78, which was the year my mom left, the first album I bought was the DONNA SUMMER: LIVE album. It's interesting, because the pictures in that album were so similar to what I do with PINK MARTINI, because she's wearing these really elaborate gowns and costumes and I sort of fantasized about being a singer at that age. That was a real turning point for me, when I discovered music. From there, I just decided that I wanted to be a performer, but the songwriting developed through the high school and college years and the songs definitely got better later. The early songs are pretty bad! There are a lot of young musicians that just blow me away because they are so incredibly insightful.
Like FIONA APPLE when she started.
FIONA APPLE is amazing! She was nineteen years old.
Explain, if it's explainable, the creative process. How does a song go from something you hear in your head to something that you hear over the speakers.
It seems like it takes me a really long time. I don't have an assembly line factory situation in place or a home studio. When I had a home studio, it was quick. I would think of something, record it and then it would be real and then it would become something. Right now, songs sort of stay in my head for years and years. Sometimes I hear a melody. Sometimes, I think about lyrics. Sometimes, I write them at the same time, like the song HEY EUGENE, which is inspired by real life events and it unfolded simultaneously where I just started singing the details of this night that I had in this melody. It was kind of inspired by SUZANNE VEGA and the way she writes, like the song TOM'S DINER. So the song HEY EUGENE wrote itself in five minutes. I wish I could figure out how to write everyday, but I'm not good at that. I'm not good at discipline. I'm more sort of whimsical. I like to wing-it. I'm not big on practice and I'm not routine-oriented, but I sort of thrive on the danger of winging it.
Are there any other songs off of ''78' that stand out for you,personally?
The song WHEN THIS IS OVER was the only song that I co-wrote. I spent a few years writing with CHARLOTTE CAFFEY of the GO-GO's and we wrote a lot of songs. As a matter of fact, recently she just sent me a CD of all of the songs that we had worked on together. It's kind of cool to listen back because we worked together back in 1996 and 1997, and there are some really good songs there, and maybe they'll end up on another album. That was really fun because I had just started a relationship and in a morbid way I was thinking, 'when this is over...'. I was being cynical and thinking how sad it would be when it was over, knowing that it would never last, even at the beginning. I liked that concept and then CHARLOTTE and I finished writing it together and I like the way it came out alot. I like EASTER SUNDAY, which is the last track on the album. I really like that song! It really captures how confusing it is to be without tradition. I wasn't really raised with religion, yet there are these family traditions around holidays that you grow up with, but when they are not really deeply rooted, you don't really know why you're celebrating or what a holiday is about. When you're older, these holidays come and go and it's so isolating and alienating when you're away from your family and you feel like you should be doing something meaningful that day and instead you're just going to rehearse with your band and going home alone. That was my experience when I lived in New York. I always found the Fourth of July and Easter very depressing. I think that song kind of captures that feeling of family fragmentation and alienation.
What do you want a person to come away with after listening the ''78'?
The whole album?
I like the idea that people are moved. My favorite reaction to music for myself is to have my heart sort of split open. For me, listening to certain songs has been my religion. I've never been religious, but listening to music has always been the most religious feeling that I've ever had. There is a song off of SINEAD O'CONNOR's 'UNIVERSAL MOTHER' album called 'IN THIS HEART'. It's an accapella and she sings it with an Irish male choir. Not a choir, really - maybe about five men. It's so beautiful because she starts it alone and then one man joins her in a harmony and another man joins in and it's the most achingly beautiful song. I listen to different music at different times for different reasons. If I'm exercising, maybe I'll listen to DONNA SUMMER's greatest hits and be all energized, but my favoirite feeling is to feel spiritual. I would love for anyone to listen to my music and feel that. I can't presume that they would feel that, but I guess just to feel moved at all, would be great. Some people tell me that when they listen to my album, they dance around the dining room in their underpants. I would like them to do that! I find that satisfying too!
What about the kitchen?
The kitchen too! They can be making pancakes with real maple syrup, on a Saturday or Sunday morning!