MEET SEAN FORBES AND HIS "MOOD SWINGS"
The Bass Brothers discovered him, Eminem took him under his wing. Marlee Matlin is a huge fan and friend, and at his NYC show last month, NYC Mayor Bloomberg's famed interpreter Claudia was there.
So what's all this about? Dude's name is Sean Forbes. He's a deaf rapper, and the man has something to say about his latest, the video exclusive, "Mood Swings."
Mike Ragogna: Sean, you're a moody kinda guy?
Sean Forbes: I am who I am, I'm moody, I can be the nicest guy in the world, or I can be a real piece of work, you never know what you're going to get. There are moments when the little stuff irritates you, and times when they don't, this was my way of venting.
MR: Uh, be a pal and gimme more, will ya?
SF: "Mood Swings" is an autobiographical song that opens up with me discussing the six years I spent in college, partying all the time, not focusing on my schoolwork, changing my major frequently, and quitting college 2 classes shy of obtaining my bachelors degree. At that moment, I didn't care, then I did, then I didn't again..... I guess you could say I knew what I did was stupid because I did eventually go back and finish those last two classes and get my bachelors degree. I'm the type of person that is never satisfied. When people tell me that I've accomplished something extraordinary, I always want more.
MR: Can you go into the clip a little?
SF: For the music video, the idea was to have a bunch of crap being thrown at me, I pretty much ate confetti for lunch that day.
MR: Something about this song that, I don't know, you like more than anything else?
SF: I love moodiness of the song, I'm happy, then I'm sad, angry, then I'm mad, pitching a fit, satisfied, then not caring about anything at all, and back again.
MR: I see a pattern here. Any thought about the song?
SF: "Mood Swings" is about my demons, I can be very indecisive about what I want, then I know exactly what I want and will stop at nothing to achieve it.
A Conversation with Spencer Day
Mike Ragogna: Spencer, you have a new album, The Mystery Of You. How did it come together?
Spencer Day: I think there were a lot of happy accidents that happened as we were doing this. I end up pulling so much from what's around me, like I think a lot of people do. In a way, every record is going to be incredibly personal and more telling about you than maybe you realized at the time. We had some budgetary restraints at the beginning, and we had some changes in production--and then I went ahead and kind of took the reins. So we had to be really creative about the way we did some things because we were taking some tracks from the old session and then combining it with tracks from the new session. There are some instances where we use a drum loop because we didn't have access to a studio, but then I ended up really liking the way it sounded because we had the organic instruments in there as well. I really wanted to create a fusion where we could be paying homage to this great music from the early '60s, but at the same time, have it really sound like it was made in the year '12, which it was.
MR: It does have this retro surf meets film noir feel.
SD: I'm kind of nuts for a baritone guitar. I think as a kid, I was really into any music that was about escapism. I grew up in a really small town in Utah, and pretty much all we could get access to were MGM musicals, so I think maybe I learned it from there. I loved the soundtrack to The Good, The Bad And The Ugly as a kid. I loved any kind of music that transported me to another place. I think I always kind of come from that standpoint when I'm creating something. I feel like I'm creating something iconic and otherworldly, ideally.
MR: Can you take us through your history?
SD: Yeah, I grew up in Utah. My parents had a pretty rough marriage and they split. I lived with my grandparents and then with my mom and I finished high school in Arizona. My family is all Mormon, and I am no longer Mormon, but I am very proud of the way I was brought up and a lot of the values of the church. After high school, instead of going on a mission, I opted for throwing all my stuff in a car and going to San Francisco. Then I kind of bounced around on a very itinerant basis, taking odd jobs and sleeping in my car on occasion. Eventually, I kind of pulled it together and went to Los Angeles City College, which was the first place I took formal music lessons of any kind.
I went to Cal Arts for about one semester, and then I just dropped out and started playing piano bars and retirement homes in Palm Springs, and I feel like that's really where I learned so much of the great American songbook and really fell in love with that. At the same time, when I wasn't at these gigs, I was listening to Radiohead and a lot of electronica music, and that's probably how my whole schizophrenic approach to making music got started. From early on, I never thought anything of listening to The Doors or Zeppelin and then going to Judy Garland. I never saw the problem. It was all good music, and they were all singing with soul, so who cares?
After that I went back to San Francisco and started working a couple of dive bars there. The owner of one of the places signed me up as a joke for Star Search when I was twenty-two. So I went to the audition, never thinking that I'd actually get on the show, and then I got on the show and the judges never liked me because I don't do a lot of vocal acrobatics when I sing, but the home audience kept voting me back on. I kind of wanted to get off because if you won, you were signed into this mandatory recording contract with no creative control. I fortunately lost, and I kind of went back to playing these dive bars in San Francisco as if nothing had changed, but all of a sudden, someone had started a fan club for me in the middle of the country.
It's been a very slow building career. My first album was originally a demo and then we released it independently and got some good press. We went on to play the Monterrey Jazz Festival, and that's where Concord Records saw and signed me. Then, I put out Vagabond, which I had actually produced and raised money for on my own. It's been a really slow and steady build, which has been great for me because it's given me time to slowly adjust to it and overcome some of my own demons, which is a lot of what the record's about. It's been a lot of years doing it, a lot of doors slammed in my face and a lot of "No's," but it just keeps building. The fans that we have are really devoted, and we're just getting good feedback. I've had the really good fortune of being able to write for some other artists and do some music row writing down in Nashville this upcoming year, so the musical schizophrenia continues.
MR: I read that you're a fan of artists like Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell so it doesn't surprise me to see you writing from the personal perspective, though you're more universal topically and musically.
SD: Thank you very much for noticing. I really feel like the most successful songs and the ones that resonate the most are the ones that find that sweet spot between being incredibly personal, and at the same time, speaking to some universal truth. I think that's what all artists, whether consciously or not, are trying to go for. I love both of those people, and I think that they are two prime examples of that. For me, I wanted to document my recovery from this breakup because I really went into a deep, clinical depression. I've struggled with depression for a lot of my life and it kind of just came to a breaking point with this relationship. As I was writing these songs it was more out of catharsis and needing to do it than it was thinking about an album at that point. I started realizing that they were all really specific phases of this relationship. I kind of started writing from the back forward. I wrote the sad songs first and then the happier songs later, as I wanted to document all of these different stages of this relationship, and really have it be a love letter to this time and place. I think from here on out, I'll pretty much only write concept albums, even if the concept isn't apparent to other people. It just gives you a great framework and focus. Perhaps its because of my love of musicals and that kind of story telling, but I just really love it...it's inspiring to me.
MR: Let's get into a couple of the songs, starting with "Soul On Fire." It seems like that was maybe an expression of what was going on with that relationship.
SD: Well, it was wild and passionate and completely unsustainable. [laughs] That song was kind of about that head over heels level when you already realize you're in too deep.
MR: "Love And War" really shows the journey of that relationship.
SD: That was the goal. They all kind of fell into place. I don't want to impose all of my views about how the songs spoke to me onto the listener because I really want everyone to come to their own conclusion, but hopefully, the heart and the spirit of it comes across.
MR: "I'm Going Home" is a beautiful way to end the album because it seems like you've worked out what you needed to get through on the record, and now it's time for going "home" in all that implies.
SD: That's exactly it. I think "home," of course, is a place inside yourself. I have nothing but gratitude for every tear I shed and for all the joys that this relationship and this time brought me. As painful as it was, and it was one of the most painful things I've gone through in my adult life, it's been the most positive character building experience I could have had overall. So I really wanted to leave the record with a profound sense of gratitude and say thanks, then turn my eyes to the road ahead and to look forward at whatever that is that may be coming down the road.
MR: From your last album Vagabond to your new one, The Mystery Of You, the creative jump seems obvious.
SD: I think if there's nothing else to look forward to in life there's growth. That's the biggest compliment you can get. I just want to feel like my skills as a musician continue to grow for the rest of my life.
MR: You're very welcome. What advice do you have for new artists?
SD: That is a great and difficult question. I suppose the primary thing I'd tell any new artist I meet--it might sound cliché--but it's really to stay true to what you want to do, and to check in with yourself to make sure that you're living your life authentically. Do a lot of self-examination. I think therapy or working on your own psychology is incredibly important for everyone, but especially for artists because after doing this for ten or twelve years, you really realize how many people will try to pull you in different directions, and how the ego can get in the way of making the best art possible. So check in with yourself regularly to make sure that you're expressing yourself in an honest and true fashion and not writing or performing for other people. It looks really grim out there, but most of the artists that have lasting success and really touch people are the artists that come from a dangerous and authentic place that is not diluted to fit into the confines of what we think the industry wants.
MR: What's the best advice that you've ever been given?
SD: Probably about the same. When I was signed to a major record development deal--which is basically artist purgatory--I had a great singer-songwriter hired to be my performance coach. This record label would say really vague things like, "We need you to be a star. Don't joke, just be a star." I'm very goofy when I perform. I tell a lot of jokes and I'm very off the cuff, and I think they wanted me to be very slick and polished--maybe more like Michael Bublé or something. This performance coach's job was to whip me into shape, and the first thing that she said was, "Screw 'em. Nobody knows what you want and need to do more than you do." Her first lesson was to ignore everything they were telling me and to check in with myself and do what feels right to me. I had to learn it the hard way. I spent a lot of years writing songs and singing just to impress other people or do what other people wanted me to do. I think she really inspired me in that some small way, I could be making the world a better place, and that changes everything because then you're not thinking, "Was I pitchy? Did they like me?" Just know that you're putting something beautiful out into the world, and you're being part of the solution and not the problem. That, in and of itself, will inspire you for the rest of your life.
MR: You just inspired me. You may not be able to answer this question, but who was the coach that you had?
SD: I can definitely answer. She's a fantastic singer-songwriter based out of Chicago. Her name is Susan Werner. She plays banjo, guitar, piano, she's a killer singer-songwriter, and I would love to give a shout out to her. I was in a really bad place because this record label ended up dropping me and telling me I didn't have what it took. Even though she was hired by them, she just stood beside me and encouraged me to believe in myself. What I really had to do was to get out of my own way because everyone is going to tell you, "No." Putting yourself out in any public sphere you have to prepare yourself for the people who are going to criticize you. There are people that will say cruel things because they can, and on the internet, they can say it anonymously most of the time. If you're not your biggest cheerleader, who's going to be? She said that to me at a time when I really needed to hear it because I was ready to throw in the towel.
MR: How old were you?
SD: I think I was twenty-four maybe.
MR: I don't know how anybody gets through the years from seventeen to about twenty-five.
SD: Yeah, twenty-five is a rough one. [laughs]
MR: If anyone can make it past that number, they've gotten over the biggest hurdle they've ever had to. My two cents, anyway.
SD: I'd agree. The thirties so far for me has been an incredible sense of knowing myself and knowing what my strengths are and knowing in what ways I need to improve, but twenty-five was a year of hard knocks.
MR: And twenty-five is about when you start having to really figure things out.
SD: Yeah, you feel like "I'm not a kid anymore. I should be an adult and have it all together." You don't necessarily have it all together--some people do, and God bless those people who have it all together at twenty-five. I was not one of them.
MR: Blame it on myelination, I say. Anyway, I have to tell you that I interviewed Susan Werner, and she's no stranger to Fairfield, Iowa. She's performed here a few times and she's always entertaining.
SD: I think I may have actually come through there with her once.
MR: You've been through Fairfield?
SD: Susan did a show in Fairfield, and I know I opened for her, but I'm not sure I remember where. One of the gracious things she did was that she was doing some solo dates and let me sing three or four songs to open for her, just to introduce the people in the audience to my music, which was really great.
MR: Spencer, I wish you all the best of luck. I called your label to get an interview because I really enjoyed it.
SD: Mike, thank you so much. I really appreciate that, and it's been a total pleasure to talk to you.
2. The Mystery Of You
3. Here I Go
4. Love And War
5. Soul On Fire
6. Something Wicked
7. I Don't Want To Know
8. The Answer
9. Shadow Man
10. Somewhere On The Other Side
11. A Long Way (Black Rock City)
13. I'm Going Home
Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney