Margaret Cho gave me some of her time recently to discuss the August 24th release of her new album Cho Dependent. News Flash: Girlfriend can sing, and really really well. The thirteen songs here cut across quite a few genres; hip hop, girl group, country music, rock & roll, singer-songwriter, dance-pop. Margaret enlisted a stellar group of compadres to help write and perform the tunes -- Ben Lee, Tommy Chong, Tegan & Sara, Grant Lee Phillips, Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Fiona Apple, Brendan Benson, Garrison Star, Patty Griffin, Jon Brion, Meghan Toohey, Diana Yanez and Kurt Hall. Rachael Yamagata also appears on a hidden Easter Egg track.
Cho had been wanting to do something like this for a long time. "I wanted to create a comedy album with really great music that would endure beyond the jokes, so the songs would have some value after the fact... something that was not just comedy music but also great music." Admitting she needed some help in the composition department, she explained, "... I'm a musician but I am not a great composer, so I don't really know how to put notes together. I just enlisted people I know who did do that really well and those happen to be some of the greatest musicians out there."
Everyone she approached was interested in the project and some (Ani DiFranco, Grant Lee Phillips, John Brion) were long time friends. "It was the desire for me to do something with comedy that is more expansive and I'm really excited, I think all comedians want to be musicians and I think all musicians want to be comedians. It's a natural desire and affection that they have for one another so this was a wonderful manifestation of that desire and it was really great."
Personally I love the whole record and foresee it living on my CD player for quite some time. I admitted to Margaret that for me, the stand-out track (pun intended) was "Your Dick." It recalls the best of 60's girl group records with a lavish, glittery, dreamy Righteous Brothers-y production. The lyrics include lines like "your dick, your dick splits the wheat from the chaff, its like a giraffe - especially the neck part" and winds up to a big finish (pun intended, again). "Oh that's a good one, it was quite a production," Margaret told me. "That one I wrote with Karl Newman from the New Pornographers, and it was produced so beautifully by Ben Lee."
She plans to mix live performances of the songs along with stand up comedy on a three month tour of the U.S. and Canada starting in late August. "I'm kind of into the process of deciding what it will sound like live. Ultimately I'm doing a stand up tour - I don't want to jump out of being a stand up comedian, that would be really jarring for me so I really think it's still comedy...Hopefully some of the people who wrote songs and performed songs with me will do it on the road." She is quite adamant about maintaining the integrity of the recording, "... So I'll probably do it to track or have a very small band."
For "Baby I'm With The Band," a track written and performed with Brendan Benson, Cho recently shot a video at Bonnaroo. She issued an open invitation to all the musicians at the festival to participate in cameos. "Quite a lot of people jumped into it. I had the Gossip in there and of course Brendan Benson, and Jack White did something and Conan O'Brien did something and OK Go was in it. We did a big thing with GWAR, who I love."
One of the songs on the record, "I'm Sorry," is a country ballad about a classic country music subject: murder. The tune is actually based on a true story from Cho's life, or more accurately, her past life. "When I was very young and I was doing the television show All American Girl, I really fell in love with one of the writers on the show and he did not like me back. It was not a good thing, it was an awful situation like when you have a crush on somebody and they don't care, and it's horrible." She held a torch for 17 years, one of those 'what if" situations we all have tucked away. "I always had him somewhere in my heart, like I think when you're really young you sometimes idealize a person and I really loved this guy. But I never thought to find him because I was sure that he was married and living in a lighthouse somewhere with five kids and super successful -- I just envisioned this perfect life for him."
When she turned 40, Cho decided she would look her old crush up and just see where he was and what he was doing. As one does. "...So I googled him and his name came up and it said American screenwriter / producer and worked on All American Girl with Margaret Cho, and in 2007 was convicted of the murder of his wife. He bludgeoned her to death and then stuffed her body in the attic of their house for a month until it had partially mummified... Finding this out I was really destroyed by it -- it was a very complicated thing because, OK, it could have been me but then it couldn't have even been me -- it was so awful and I felt so bad for this woman that he killed and I felt so awful for her family." In a catharsis of sorts, Cho decided to write a song about the pure selfishness of domestic violence, an all too common topic in country music.
Cho also noted that singers like Billie Holiday and Etta James were famed for this theme in their music, "You would consider these women very powerful people but their songs are often about dealing with domestic violence and their acquiescence to it... Sometimes the only way that we can endure some of the darkness in life is through a very dark sense of humor and so it was me trying to exercise some kind of control over what happened." She called the song "I'm Sorry," "...because he never said he was sorry. Because all these people do not say that they're sorry when they commit these crimes and commit them in the name of loving somebody, it's really just disgusting to me. So the song turned out to be very much a kind of classic murder ballad, you know, it's a very sort of Americana staple of country music. I'm proud of the song, something that came out of it that was creative and helped me deal with the very complicated emotions that I had towards this person and this situation."
As we spoke, Cho was in the process of wrapping up the second season of Drop Dead Diva, the hit Lifetime TV show she co-stars in with Brooke Elliott. The show has been described by creator Josh Berman as "a cross between Freaky Friday and Heaven Can Wait." Cho plays Teri Lee, the crackerjack legal assistant to attorney Jane Bingum. Teri is about to be revealed as a private eye, confided Cho. "It's a lot of fun." A recent episode had her introducing her family -- mother and cousin -- "wonderfully played by Aaron Yoo who's a great Korean American actor, and Emily Kuroda, who's awesome." The episode included a helicopter, laughs Cho, "so it was these Korean people and a helicopter - it was real M.A.S.H."
She also enjoys spending tine in Atlanta, where the show tapes. "I have a good time here, I have a lot of friends here now, it's my second year here... it's different to live in the South, it's a different feeling. Although Atlanta itself is a quite liberal, it's a very queer city. It's always called the San Francisco of the south, because it is quite gay, and the neighborhood that I live in is really gay."
Cho's home base is L.A. and she grew up in the Bay Area, where her father had a bookstore near Polk Street. "It was in the early 80's so there was a lot of punk rock and goth, the very beginnings of goth." And lots and lots of tattoos. "I always wanted to be tattooed," says Cho, who now has them pretty much everywhere. "I don't think I can get anymore because I don't have any space. It's hard if you're an actor, I can't get them on my arm anymore and I can't get them on my legs, so I don't know where to go." Ed Hardy was one of the artists who did some of her early tattoos, as well as Kat Von D, Chris O'Donnell, Mike Davis, and Nathan Kostechko.
We finished up our conversation by grousing about attitudes towards gay marriage and the Gulf Oil Spill. Regarding gay marriage, Cho is at a loss. "I don't understand why people feel that they can dictate what is equality -- to me it's so cut and dried, I don't understand what the problem is that people have with gay marriage. I just don't understand why this needs to be fought over because it seems so plain.... it's very frustrating." I asked her why she thought Americans, for the most part, seem so subdued in their anger about the oil spill. "If gays were involved people would be angry, if the ocean was trying to marry another ocean, people would be angry, but now -- nobody cares. Its really not discussed, it's a major tragedy, it's the worst environmental tragedy in history, and so I don't know why people are not enraged about this. I don't get it... I talk about it a lot, in my work, I'm so furious. The best thing that we can do is discuss it and talk about it and write about it, and not let it go, because I think so much time is spent on things that don't matter, and this is something that really really matters."
*Note: The lyric referenced in the title of this piece, "I'm a friggin' rockstar superhero bitch" comes from "Captain Cameltoe," Cho's collaboration with Ani DiFranco on Cho Dependent