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The true art of Steve Forbert

Steve Forbert’s backstory could easily pass for the great American novel.
Steve Forbert. Photo by Rowland Scherman

Steve Forbert. Photo by Rowland Scherman

By Lee Zimmerman

Steve Forbert’s backstory could easily pass for the great American novel. An aspiring young singer/songwriter, he left his home in Meridian, Miss., to seek his fortune in the big city. After trying his luck at busking in New York’s Grand Central Station, he eventually got his big break in Manhattan’s teeming club scene, playing such venerable venues as Max’s Kansas City, CBGB and other nightspots that were more akin to hosting the punk posers of the day as opposed to travelling troubadours. Bands like the Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads dominated the scene, making it not exactly conducive to a folk-oriented minstrel like Forbert. Regardless, his winsome melodies and amiable approach allowed him to work his way up the ladder of success, scoring both a record contract and a hit single in “Romeo’s Tune,” while making him a singular sensation all at the same time.

Forbert’s early string of albums further affirmed his abilities, but even after he parted ways with the major labels, he continued to release records. His audience is more specific now, and his flirtation with the airwaves seems to have ceased, but the quality of his craft continues to flourish. His new album “Compromised” may be his best effort yet, although as Forbert describes it, it was also rather cumbersome experience in terms of its recording. In addition to John Simon, one of his earliest mentors, he worked with no fewer than four producers in varied locales. However, the effort clearly paid off. Songs such as the title track, the fanciful “You’d See The Things That I See (The Day John Met Paul),” and an unlikely cover of “Send in the Clowns” find Forbert at the peak of his prowess. And yet that drive and determination that first set him out on his way nearly 40 years ago remains as keen as ever.

Goldmine recently caught up with Forbert while he was in Wales as part of a tour through the British Isles. At age 60, he still retains the soft spoken, small town cadence of his youth. If one was unaware that he was a veteran artist of considerable distinction, it would be easy to imagine that the voice on the other end of the phone belonged to a simple southern boy whose greatest joy might be sitting on a back porch entertaining the neighbors with a quiet voice and a supple strum.

GM: It’s pretty amazing that after all these years you still have a knack for writing great original songs. How do you keep your music so fresh?

STEVE FORBERT:If that is true, then I have to say I just love this art form or idea or concept or what have you called the song. Fortunately I’ve had the inspiration I’ve had for all these years. 

GM: Is it ever a challenge, though? How do you avoid repeating yourself?

SF: I don’t ever go, “I’ve written this one,” but when I do decide to work on a song, and I make the commitment to myself with the subject and a melody and what I think is the so-called groove, it is a commitment. If it takes a week or it takes a month, it is still a commitment, and I have to take that amount of time to get something that I’m happy with. It’s not like it was when I was in my 20s and I could write a song in 45 minutes without even thinking about it. These days I know it may take considerably longer. So I’m making a commitment to the song and the idea. 

GM: Do ideas come to you naturally, as if they’re floating through the ether, or do you purposely sit down and set aside the time to write in order to focus on an idea?

SF: It’s the former. I don’t purposely sit down and say I’m going to make an album. I make an album when I’m able to, when I have 15 or so songs and I know there’s an album there. Sometimes I’ll go back and re-record something that’s older, too, or one from the past that’s remained unrecorded. But there’s usually 10 or 11 songs that I have written. But no, I don’t sit down with a schedule. I habitually work on songs in my mind. When I can stop running, I usually sit down to work on a song.

GM: The songs on the new album seem so inspired. One listen and they’re already ingrained. The song about when John met Paul puts such a great narrative spin on one of the most important introductions in musical history, when Lennon met McCartney.

SF: Exactly. I was taking the liberty of retelling that tale. I visited Mendips a couple of years ago, the home John Lennon grew up in in Liverpool with his Aunt Mimi, famously on Menlove Avenue. After that visit, I was pretty moved, and so I took the liberty writing a song that imagined what went through John’s mind when he went home that day. You know he was thinking about that hotshot kid he had just met, so I kind of thought I’d make a song about that.

GM: It’s a very moving piece. It touches the emotions of anyone who hears it and it really resonates. You also take a nostalgic turn on “Welcome The Rolling Stones.”

Steve Forber-Compromised-cover

SF: Well, you hear those records about every day, The Beatles and the Stones. Lately Ihear more Rolling Stones than Beatles. I love the whole legend and lore surrounding the Stones. One of those chapters was Altamont of course, and it just took over the back of my mind. What about the young couple who found out that there was a free concert in the area headlined by The Rolling Stones. This young guy imagines how great it would be taking his girlfriend Trish to this concert. Then we all know what happened next.

GM: Have you ever thought about trying your hand at literature, in the form of either a novel or a biography?

SF: Well, I’m just about finished writing a memoir. Everyone else has done it. I got started on one a couple of years ago, but I’m just about finished with it now. A lot of it centers on my early days in New York City, because that period has kind of turned into Rock 101. So I have been taking a crack at that, and it veers into songs, and my thoughts on songs and things like that. But I’ve never thought about writing short stories about any of these rock-related scenarios of mine. They just turn into songs. It sure is fun to get up and sing them in real time, and I happen to love that part of it.

GM: What do you recall of your early days in New York City? Does it bring back fond memories?

SF: Oh yes. I basically loved all of it. I was able to do everything I wanted to accomplish within a year and a half, and fortunately, it moved along well enough so that it was always forward motion. I went to New York because I knew if I had to sing in the streets I could do it there, which isn’t true of L.A. or many other cities. It turned out that I couldn’t just audition and get into clubs. It took awhile to get the lay of the land and to get any kind of recognition just to get a paying gig. So I wound up singing in the streets. Fortunately, things moved along quick enough so that I didn’t feel like I was stranded or not making any progress.

GM: Still, it must have been quite a culture shock for a kid in his early 20s from Mississippi. Was it intimidating or scary at all for you?

SF: The “folk scene” was not intimidating. It was exactly what someone like me was looking for. There were kids there from all over the country trying to see if they could get started as performers or songwriters. That was just fun. It wasn’t intimidating. But when I tried to move into more aggressive areas like Max’s Kansas City or CBGB, that was a little more intimidating. I was the odd man out just by having an acoustic guitar as my means of performing. It was weird. David Byrne played acoustic guitar back then, too, but he was clearly in a rock band.

GM: Yours is the perennial all-American success story. A small town kid goes to the big city and makes it all on his own. That’s the dream. So how were you discovered?

SF: Danny Fields heard me at CBGB when I managed to get some shows there. He and Linda Stein were managing the Ramones and when they said they were interested, I said sure. So they became my managers. John Rockwell saw me at Kenny’s Castaways and wrote a very favorable review in the New York Times before I had any kind of record deal. So those two things helped cut through the jungle and get me a major label contract.

GM: Your second album propelled you into the stratosphere it seemed, and “Romeo’s Tune” more or less clinched that success for you. Did those first two albums, “Alive on Arrival” and “Jackrabbit Slim,” set such a high bar that all of a sudden you felt like you had some kind of expectations you then had to meet?

SF:Clearly, I never did follow up that kind of success. I only had one bonafide hit. I did my best, but I didn’t match the right song with the right recording after that. But I’ve been able to keep playing because I’m doing the kind of music that’s developed into Americana. You could call it folk music if you like. I can play solo with this sort of thing. I don’t think the Ramones could have ever considered simplifying their show, but I could in the field I’m in. I have been playing solo for most of these years. I’m occasionally with a band, but I’m usually solo and I happen to love it.

GM: People were throwing the “New Dylan” label at you, and, in fact, there were a lot of parallels between you and Dylan. What did that feel like?

SF: I tried to make it clear whenever the subject came up that I sort of bristled at it and thought it was silly. I also knew it was kind of a working cliché by then. They said that about John Prine and they said it about Bruce Springsteen and maybe Elliott Murphy, too. It wasn’t a joke, but it was a cliché. It was a nice working thing in print to say something that implied an emphasis on the lyrics. But I always wanted to make it clear that I didn’t take that sort of tag literally.

GM: Still it must be nice to be compared to the all-time gold standard. That’s quite a compliment.

SF: That’s the Sally Fields syndrome. I did my best to make the best records I could and I always try to stick with a song until I’m really happy with it. I’m not trying to be evasive, but that’s what I set out to do coming up in rock ‘n’ roll bands in Mississippi – trying to write and contribute some really good songs and maybe convey an idea or two in there lyrically.

GM: You have such an immense catalog. Do you have a stash of unreleased tunes that might some day see the light of day, perhaps on an anthology of some sort?

SF: There are a few along the way. But I’ve put out quite a few things of that sort. “Young, Guitar Days” was outtakes from the first record, and then we finally put out the fifth album with extra tracks. There’s one out now called “A Safe Past Tense,” with demos and other things that didn’t make the album. But there are some other things, and if I can ever quit running, just get away from all the other distractions, I’ll do something like that. As it is, my mind kind of gravitates to songwriting.

GM: The new album finds you reunited with (producer) John Simon. How did that come about?

SF: I wanted to work with John again and to get him to come out to California to work on “Over With You” in 2012, but at that time, he couldn’t make it. So I kept on about it and when I saw that I was going to start recording this record, I tried again. And as you can see, we were able to make it happen.

GM: Was there any kind of readjustment period, or did it just flow like in the past?

SF: There was some getting reacquainted. I went to stay with him and his wife, Caroline, for about three days in the Catskills and it was fantastic. So he and I were able to get reacquainted, We went over songs one after another and we really worked out what the production values were going to be, checking out tempos and that kind of thing. So we had a great time doing that. It might have been the most fun part of making this record. And then we recorded with a band I was touring with at the time, which included (bassist) Joey Spampinato (NRBQ) and friends, so I brought them to Woodstock and that’s where we did a whole lot of work on the record. And John goes to Florida for a certain amount of time every winter, so he went on to Florida and I finished the record in Cape Cod with a fantastic co-producer who is also a studio owner and musician, Jon Evans. So that’s the way it happened.

GM: Is there a backstory to the song “Compromise?” It’s such a powerful tune and it’s got a great hook. After all, it’s a pretty common theme these days.

SF: I think it came about through whatever my songwriting filters are. I started it in one of those “we’re gonna shut the government down” periods because they couldn’t reach an agreement on raising the budget ceiling, some sort of point where the congress was doing what it does, and not doing what it’s supposed to do. I think that kind of started it and it became, in terms of a folk pop song, more of a love song, a relationship kind of thing. It’s still pretty broad.

GM: What prompted you to do a cover of “Send in the Clowns?” You really do a different take on that song.

SF: There’s about six or seven or 10 songs that I’d like to do along those lines. I’ve never done an entire record of well known songs, giving them my interpretation. But I didn’t want to wait any more on that one. I’ve wanted to do “Send in the Clowns” for about five years. I ran it by Joey (Spampinato) in some band rehearsals and he was very encouraging, so we ran ahead and did it. There wasn’t really any thought to it other than I thought I had that groove for the song, and that it didn’t necessarily have to be a “ballad.” The lyrics could be a little more jabbing. They’re kind of sarcastic.

GM: The song “A Big Comeuppance” has a kind of latin groove, a south of the border feel. It appears that you’re integrating some new ideas into the groove.

SF: That’s right. We put a lot of work into it. I have to tell you, it was a long process in the making of this record. It took a long time to chip away at it. That first phase with John Simon was followed by several recording weekends with Jon Evans, and I was still working on it when Steve Greenwell was mixing it. I did some further work on it with Anthony Crawford in Mobile, Ala., and there’s a multi-instrumentalist on the Jersey shore, Marc Muller who did most of the music on “Devil (Here She Comes Now).” So there’s a long story involved in making this record. It was completely unlike “Over With You,” which we made in four days in Silver Lake. This time I set out to make a rocking record. I was going to take my time and get it the way I wanted it. So that’s what we did. I’ve never worked harder on a record and I’d never want to do this again on the next one.

GM: So why was this so different than your previous albums in that regard?

SF: Well, I always work them until I get them where I’m pleased with them. But this was just a long process. John Simon couldn’t finish it, so I had to go elsewhere and one thing led to another. And I was just kind of angry, too. I was approaching 60 and I wanted to make a rocking record, and I wanted to make it competitive. Which is a little bit of a joke. I certainly don’t see this record on Top 40 radio or competing with anything out there now. But I did want to make it good and energetic.

GM: You said you were angry, and I’m curious why you felt that way. Were you angry because the previous records had not performed the way you hoped or were you simply trying to emulate the insurgent rock ‘n‘ roller?

SF: Well, I think all of that. Like I said, I wouldn’t want to make another record like this because it took so much work, just trying to get so many details. Fortunately, I don’t think it sounds completely labored over, but it took a long time, and I was touring at the same time, etc., etc. I was hellbent and angry ... to get some kind of aggressive result. This isn’t going to strike anybody who listens to Metallica as aggressive, but for me, it’s not just a complacent folk record.GM