IPaintMyMind Exclusive: John Forte Interview
From our John Forte Interview, it appears he’s once again headed in a positive direction, as the gifted musician/producer has seen his share of dark days. A lengthy prison sentence almost stopped it all for him. Since being released, he’s started releasing a new evolution in his musical presence, he’s started a production company (Le Castle), and he’s doing what he can to help those less fortunate than himself. We sat down with John to talk about the documentary, The Russian Winter-which is playing at this years Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows John as he tours through Russia shortly after his release back into the world. You can check out the review (here), but read ahead for some enlightening insight on life, music, and second chances, from John Forte himself.
– – – – – – – – – –
IPMM: Obviously, no one would ever wish to go through such an experience as you have, but you are who you are today, because of it. In some odd way, are you able to look at your time in prison as a bright spot in the cracks?
JF: I think that I have to. We’re in a world where in any given day, opportunities present themselves and I don’t think that a person has to go through an experience as–I won’t say tragic but as harsh as mine was, being away for so many years in order to be able to take those opportunities for granted and make the most of them. I have to exist within a belief system that everything happens for a reason and hopefully through that thinking we’ll get to the other side of whatever the seemingly adverse situation is. While I was away, I had to give myself pep talks, “this is happening for a reason, it’s beyond your immediate vision, just keep trying to work and keep trying to improve on yourself.” These are the things I’m telling myself, and even now that I’m on the other side of captivity everyday is still worthy of a pep talk. I know I wasn’t thinking like this before I took that tragic fall, and we all have our crosses to bare, so that was my really, really big wake up call.
IPMM: During (and since) your time away, your music has evolved. I found it funny that in the film when you play Spaso House (a US government performance space), you’re introduced as, “finally bringing hip-hop to Spaso House.” While it’s obvious how anyone could come to this conclusion is understandable, but your sound has moved into a more R & B phase. Even I don’t want to categorize the sound as anything specific, I don’t like boxing things up. Does this practice of having to have a label for things become bothersome?
JF: I think people are comfortable with labels. For a while, I was very, very…not disheartened, but dissatisfied with being thrown into a box, but it is what it is. It would be different if I just agreed to be whatever someone labeled me, but as long as I can see my self as more than just this one thing, or belong to just this one genre, then I’m okay with that. People can call me whatever they want to call me, because at the end of the day, I have to live with myself. I’m not offended by being called a hip-hop artist by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice when people are pleasantly surprised that maybe I exceed their expectations.
IPMM: In watching the film, it seems that you have a special relationship with Brian [Satz, the band’s Bass player]. Throughout the movie, he is an obvious support system, but if you go looking further, he is a big part of your company [Le Castle]. How important is it to have someone like him around?
JF: Brian has been on my personal team almost since the day I came home. We had a chance encounter–and that’s just a saying, I really don’t believe it happened by chance–but we met at a video shot for Blitz the Ambassador. Brian came up to me and he introduced himself and said, “I’m a fan, I’ve been listening to your music, I’m glad you’re back. If you ever need someone to play upright bass for you, I’m your man.” The next thing you know I’m getting a call from Joe’s Pub saying, “Hey, would you like to do a show in a few weeks, maybe an acoustic thing,” and I had a friend who is a cellist and I thought, “An upright bass would be really nice on this.” We did the show and it was great. At the end of the show I said, “You’re really awesome,” and he said, “Well you know, I also play electric bass, so if you ever need anyone to play electric bass for you, let me know.” It just kind of kicked off from there. We were always cool, and we became fast and good friends, but it was that experience in Russia, when I went through that stressful period where I felt that I was just managing this whole thing on my own, Brian tapped into that and he said, “Look, you don’t have to carry this weight alone. If you need someone to help you delegate some responsibility, I can help you with that.” By the end of that trip, I looked at my business partner and said, “This could not have happened without Brian and I would have lost my mind had it not have been for having a wingman like that.” When we solidified Le Castle we knew that Brian had to be right in there with us, in order to build this thing.
IPMM: Now, before you left for the tour, you selected a handful of Russian artists you wanted to collaborate with. Did you find yourself surprised with how well those collaborations turned out?
JF: I didn’t go into it with too many expectations–and I don’t mean I had low expectations, but I think I’m probably more existential then I’m not and as opposed to setting myself up for existential disappointment–like investing a lot of energy in something like, “Ooo, ooo, my whole world will be better when I get these new pair of jeans.” You then get those new pair of jeans and their great for an afternoon and then you realize the world is still the same. I think that is how I approach my creative process. I don’t go into it thinking it should be this, or it should be that, but I do hope for the best; so was I pleasantly surprised? Absolutley, because I went in with the cleanest slate of thinging as I possible could and we walked away with some real gems. All of it didn’t end up or won’t end up making the album but everyone we collaborated with, without exception stepped up to the plate and made me feel better about what I do as an artist.
IPMM: Can you talk a little about the difference between working as you did here, where people are coming to collaborate with you, compared to your work as a producer. Certainly, you were a very important part of the works you produced, but it still was, “Here’s John to come work with the Fugees,” not the other way around.
JF: That’s a great question, I don’t know if I ever thought about the approach like that. To be perfectly honest, I’d probably say yeah. There is a different approach to showing up to the studio and knowing that your contribution could be a verse on a song or 16 bars of a rap, knowing this is the job I have to do; to show up and just deliver that. For this, it wasn’t so much the approach in the studio as it was the live approach to things. For me, I never was in a position where I was a band leader. Not to say that I wasn’t a solo artist at one point, but I was never, up until just a couple of years ago responsible for getting a band, responsabile for rehearsals, responsible for deligatin parts, I’ve produced stuff before, but band leader, it was a new thing for me and again, Brian helped me out a lot with that approach. So when it came to me collaborating with the artists thoughtout Russia, we had to fuse forces. We had Alina Orlova as a solo artist and Sunsay as a solo artist, but we were working with bands as well. We had to utilize the personalle as best we could. Billy’s Band for example, Billy the lead singer plays an upright bass and here’s Brian on bass in my band, so now we sort of have this jigsaw puzzle of, “how do we all get in this mix without stepping on each others toes.” It was kind of like an I.Q. test, but a fun one, and I think we made the most of it.
IPMM: Are there similarities between knowing when you write a good song and knowing when a collaboration really works? Do you feel that same spark when you connect with someone else, the same way you might when you write a great hook?
JF: Yes, although I think one is a yellow spark, one is green, one is blue, and they’re all sparks, but sparks of a different color. There is a certain highlight of walking out of the studio knowing that you have something good, and I don’t mean good as in, society’s standards, but by your own. Then there’s something really great about walking off stage knowing that you had a great performance, again, not because the agilation of the crowd as much you personally know that you put your best foot forward that night and maybe you didn’t play perfectly, but you felt really good about the show. All of these experiences, whether it’s song writing, collaborating in the studio, or a live performance, whether it’s just having a conversation with an artist, these are all moments to be cherished, independent of the other moments. The other moments are apples, to oranges, to pears, but their still all good pieces of fruit.
IPMM: Do you see yourself pushing your musical boundaries in the future?
JF: I have to, I have to. I would not be happy with myself if I didn’t want more from myself as a person and myself as an artist. That’s what I strive to do, quite literally everday. Even if it’s simply just waking up and having that morning meditation about, “Okay, this is what I have on my plate and this is what gives me joy and how can we strive a little bit harder to go a little bit further.
IPMM: Finally, apart from your own works, what do you see Le Castle coming. Will you look to spread your business across other mediums apart from music and film?
JF: We call ourselves a multimedia production company. I don’t want to ever limit ourselves to music, I don’t want to ever limit ourselves to film. We might find ourselves supporting something that’s going to the theater, we might find outselves supporting a visual artist, a photographer or a painter in hopes of presenting an exhibition. I want us to be about beautiful art. By beautiful art, I don’t mean seeing the world through rose colored lenses. I think there are ways to show truth, even if it’s a wretched and horrible truth in a beautiful way that compels people to action. That’s what I want, that’s my dream of this company, that’s our dream of this company, we want beautiful art with staying power. I;ve said recently to a friend of mine, “The desire of the artist is to basically prolong his or her shelf life, on the rack of cultural relevance.” When we put something out there, I want it to be evocative, I want people to love it or hate it. My worst nightmare is, we put something out, and people are indifferent. I don’t want them to see it and say, “That’s cool” and then walk on by, I want them to see it and either throw up on the floor where they stand or jump for joy, because it just moved them to action.