When I heard that Steve Forbert was going to be coming back to Norfolk on Oct. 27, this time singing his songs on the stage of the Attucks Theater, I immediately pitched my editor at The Virginian-Pilot on a piece about the man who brought us, among many, many other fine tunes, a certain one about a guy named Romeo. The pitch was accepted and the interview was set up, but then, with all due apologies, my editor pulled the plug because there wasn’t enough space after all. Fair enough…except that I was already kind of excited about talking to Mr. Forbert by that point. So I decided I’d go for broke and see if his publicist would still be cool if the conversation took place anyway, except that I’d run the interview on my blog instead. I mean, I’m no newspaper, but I’ve got a lot of Facebook friends and Twitter followers. Surely I can inspire at least a few folks to read this piece, right? (For Mr. Forbert’s sake, I’m certainly hoping so.)
News Reviews Interviews: So you’re coming back to Norfolk…
Steve Forbert: That’s right! Although I believe I’m playing someplace new this time. Where am I?
NRI: The Attucks Theater. It’s an old theater that’s been renovated. It looks great, and, at least based on the shows I’ve seen there, it’s got great acoustics.
SF: Okay, that helps. I just did a show in London that, uh, really didn’t.
NRI: I imagine that’s a bit of a problem when it’s just you and your guitar onstage.
SF: Well, you know, it’d be a lot worse to bring drums into some of these rooms. I’ve played them and I think, “My God, if you had a typically loud drummer in here…? Whoa!” [Laughs.]
NRI: Your latest album is Over with You, which came out earlier this year. What’s life like for an independent recording artist such as yourself, given the current environment in the industry? Do you go into an album with certain expectations of how much you’re going to sell, or do you just do what you do and hope people enjoy it?
SF: You know, I think if even Paul Simon went into his last album with certain expectations of how much he was going to sell, he probably was seriously disappointed. [Laughs.] We could check those figures, I suppose, but even someone like that…well, he probably might be in for more of a shock than me, because I haven’t sold a lot of records, anyway, over the last 30 years. So I’m not looking at a big drop-off, man. But I am pleased with this record. I do wish more people would hear it in the light we’re talking about, of record sales. But to me it’s all about those songs, and then I think we got with the right people to make this record. That’s the other part. It’s, “Okay, it’s the songs, but how are you going to bring them to life in a recording?”
NRI: Do you find that your fanbase has expanded at all because of the internet? Because, y’know, theoretically, everyone who’s ever bought one of your records in the past can now find you online and find out what you’re doing.
SF: Well, I think it’s really helped me sustain things. I would say it’s not a major vehicle for me, but, then again, without it… It’s probably helped me maintain the base I have.
NRI: Chris Goldsmith produced Over with You. Had you worked with him prior to this?
SF: No, this was the first time. I wish I had worked with him before. I wish he’d done the previous album! [Laughs.]
NRI: How did you guys cross paths?
SF: It’s real simple: I got new management and he is affiliated with the new manager. I met him in California and liked him, and as time went by, he seemed to be the man for the job.
NRI: What do you think he brought to your sound?
SF: Well, the situation dictated that we do the whole record in what was three days, so the scenario that he put together was, like, “Ben Harper has booked a month in this studio, but he’s going to be busy for a week doing something else, if you want to come in.” And it was, like, “Well, can we make a record in a week?” “Well, it’s not gonna be a week.” [Laughs.] So that was the deal. But beyond that, Chris made the calls and got the musicians that he brought in, and my manager had been telling me about Ben Sollee for several months, and…that’s the way it was. We didn’t even really have a bass player! Ben played some bass, and so did the engineer. So that’s a lot of it, really. The instrumentation was really sparse. I think there’s a good, honest song on the instruments, particularly the drums. It’s an improvement over my last record. So there’s some good life in it, and a lot of really obvious simplicity.
NRI: As far as the sparseness of the music goes, it helps bring out the lyrics of the songs. Is that by design, or is just a matter of going with whatever seems to work for the song at the hand?
SF: You know, it’s good to have a record producer. [Laughs.] I am aware of it, and I agree with it, and I can hear that this new record is better for it. But it’s nice to have someone who knows what you just said and is kind of making sure that’s the way it goes. There’s so many ways to make a record, and there’s just a few right ways and so many possible ways to overdo it.
NRI: How did you first find your way into music? Did you come from a musical family, or was it just something you picked up on your own?
SF: I just picked up on it on my own, because I just loved songs. And when I say “songs,” I just don’t mean hit records that impressed me and moved me. I grew up in the church, and I liked some of those old great hymn melodies down in the Baptist church as a kid. I’m just saying this because those were songs, not, say, “Turn Turn Turn” by the Byrds, which is a great record, or “Tracks of My Tears,” by Smokey Robinson. So much of that is in the performance. So I can say that I’m a person who just always liked songs, and then when folk rock came out, man, I just got hooked because of something in that particular genre. Maybe it’s more accent on the lyrics, maybe it’s more of a poetic slant, maybe it’s more of the tradition in folk that’s between the lines that you wouldn’t necessarily find in, shall we say, the Strawberry Alarm Clock. [Laughs.] I don’t know. But I got into the folk rock thing. I liked it all, of course. Creedence Clearwater Revival made as good a records as anybody. But that’s when I really got on the train, was with the Byrds.
NRI: A lot of people look back at their early work and all but disavow it, saying things like, “Oh, I was just a kid back then.” How do you look back on Alive on Arrival? Do you think it successfully set a tone for your music for the audience?
SF: Oh, absolutely. You know, the proof is in how many of the songs you’re doing in the show, and the other night…I think the last show was in Manchester, and I probably did five of them. So the record’s still very much a part of my life.
NRI: How did David Sanborn end up in the mix for that album?
SF: That was a deal where the producer… well, (guitarist) Steve Burgh knew David, we wanted a saxophone on “Big City Cat,” we didn’t want it on anything else. That record was pretty simple as well and benefited from that. But they called David and, to tell you the truth, I didn’t know much about him. I was just told, “He’s famous, he’s David Sanborn, get ready.” So I said, “Oh. He plays saxophone, right?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” [Laughs.]
NRI: When you ended up scoring the hit with “Romeo’s Tune” from Jackrabbit Slim, was that a surprise? How high was your profile going into that album?
SF: It was pretty good. It was very promising. Also, that was among my goals. I wasn’t just trying to play a few folk festivals. I wanted to make hit records like the ones I’d grown up with! And hit that large audience, if I could. So at least for once we got it. We got the cat in the bag. [Laughs.] And we were going for it! You know, we recorded “Romeo’s Tune” three times to get the one we wanted. So it wasn’t a surprise. It was a deliberate attempt. And it worked.
NRI: Were you surprised, then, that “Say Goodbye to Little Jo” didn’t match its success?
SF: I think “The Sweet Love That You Give (Sure Goes a Long, Long Way)” would’ve been a better choice. I mean, it’s a pretty long title for a song, but I thought it would’ve been a better choice. But CBS wanted to go with “Say Goodbye to Little Jo,” even though I had a four-letter word in there that we had to kind of censor a bit for the single.
NRI: Given your commercial success during that era, is there any particular “rock star” moment that you recall experiencing?
SF: Well, I don’t know, man. I was touring with the band and doing the whole thing. I never was Steven Tyler. [Laughs.] Or David Lee Roth. But we sure got around! We made it as far as Japan.
NRI: I’m sure you did your fair share of time as an opening act during that early era…
SF: Oh, hell, yeah.
NRI: Did you ever find yourself paired with any unlikely artists?
SF: Nothing really strange. I mean, it was just so vast. It was everybody from Joan Armatrading to the Kinks. There was a lot of that during the early period, just getting started. One night it might be Robert Palmer, and then another week it might be…y’know, we might’ve even done a show with Heart. I can’t remember.
NRI: Were there any occasions when you were just geeking out at who you were getting to play with?
SF: Well, I’m a pretty big Kinks fan. [Laughs.] So that probably would’ve been the main one.
NRI: How did you end up in the video for Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”?
SF: I was a friend of hers. I knew her when she was in the group Blue Angel. So when she went solo…I don’t know, it crossed her mind to see if I would be in it. I was pretty visible at the time, and I guess she thought it might be of some help. I was a bit of a name. So I said, “Hell, yeah!” It was easy.
NRI: Along the same lines, how did you find your way into the movie Bad Manners?
SF: That I…I think the director just wanted to…I don’t know, he liked the records and was, like, “Oh, here’s a place, let’s put Steve Forbert in there, he’s one of my favorites.” I think that’s what it was, anyway. I mean, anybody could’ve been singing in that bar. It was just, like, “Okay, be yourself. Sit here and sing.” Not a big stretch. [Laughs.]
NRI: Streets of This Town came out on Geffen, and while it wasn’t necessarily a huge commercial hit, it got a fair amount of critical acclaim. What was the Geffen experience like for you?
SF: Oh, I enjoyed it. They didn’t let me go. I thought I could do better working with something else. And I was wrong. Eddie Rosenblatt’s one of the best record executives there ever was, and he was running the label at that time. He was very good to me. And the two records I made for them, I’m proud of them. They’re sort of…I don’t know, now they called it Americana. At the time, we didn’t know what to tell radio it was. Y’know, we were going to…not necessarily top-40 radio, and we needed to kind of say, “What is this?” And there just wasn’t a term “Americana” then.
NRI: You had Nils Lofgren on Street of This Town. Was he someone you’d just crossed paths with at some point over the years?
SF: Well, Gary Tallent produced that record, and Nils was in the E Street Band, and we needed someone that could play something a little different, a guitar to add to what we had nailed down. Nils, I think, is quite possibly the best electric guitar player in rock.
NRI: You’ve had several people record versions of your songs over the years. Do you have a favorite?
SF: Well, I like Rosanne Cash’s “What Kind of Girl.” That was a pleasant surprise. I mean, imagine you wrote a song called “What Kind of Guy.” You really wouldn’t expect Rosanne Cash to sing it. [Laughs.] So that was a surprise.
NRI: Did she approach you before she did it?
SF: No, I found out recently that it was mainly Rodney Crowell, who was producing that record. I think I owe that one mainly to Rodney.
NRI: Quite a few of your records could be described as underrated, but is there anything from the more recent crop that you’re particularly proud of and that you think people should check out?
SF: You know, I promise it’s not just the nature of the moment, but…I think this new one is a really good record. To me, I think you can put this record on and listen to it all the way through. It may not have a blockbuster smash on it. I don’t know if Mark Knopfler’s new record will, either. Y’know, I don’t know if Rickie Lee Jones has had one lately. We’re all getting a bit older. [Laughs.] But I think this is a record you can put on, and before you know it, you’ve listened to the whole thing. And I think that’s a very good thing.
NRI: You just threw out a couple of names there, which begs the question, who do you think of as your musical peers? For instance, to me, Loudon Wainwright leaps to mind.
SF: Well, I relate to a lot of people who are in this so-called world of folk. But peers…you have to be careful there with “peers,” because it’s kind of a loaded word. There’s a lot of good talents out there. But, y’know, I like everybody from Cheryl Wheeler, who I think is fantastic but isn’t as known as she should be, to a guy named Michael Hurley, who’s been around since 1962. So who are my peers? Y’know, let’s not use that word. [Laughs.] Because I don’t know. But people that I relate to…? I relate to the people who do this sort of folk thing and really aren’t such limousine type people. I like a lot of spontinaeity, and I like to really interact with the audience. I know this sounds kind of clichéd, but I like it to be pretty quote-unquote real, and a good audience…I guess what I’m saying is that a night can be very spontaneous if you just let it.