Guy Forsyth has busked on the streets of New Orleans and played guitar atop a mountain in Nepal. He doesn’t remember the first LP he bought, but he can name his first 78: Little Walter’s “Blues with a Feeling,” backed with “Quarter to Twelve.” He calms his brand new baby with the sound of Tibetan prayer bowls ringing. He quotes Leonard Cohen in his e-mails. Since moving to Austin in 1990, he has recorded four solo albums.
That’s quite an accumulation of unique pursuits, special memories and fulfilled dreams. But another big goal – making the live album his audiences have been craving – was left to simmer slowly on a back burner. Until now.
And after 17 years of gigs performed all over the world, Forsyth was bubbling over with so much material, he couldn’t contain it on one disc. Unrepentant Schizophrenic Americana is a two-fer that flips from “Tails,” an anthology of songs from just-happened-to-be-recorded shows captured during the last few years, mostly at Austin’s Saxon Pub, to “Heads” – recorded live at Austin’s famed Antone’s (aka Home of the Blues).
As Forsyth’s fans already know, he’s a force to be reckoned with onstage, a musical huckster who learned to work a crowd as a young actor. Whether he’s channeling the spirit of Louis Armstrong in his vocals, blowing a bad-ass harmonica or strumming a guitar – or playing a saw – he’s always full of passion. It’s a passion that should be experienced live, but this is undoubtedly the next best thing.
Americana, the follow-up to 2005’s acclaimed Love Songs: For and Against, could be considered a little schizophrenic in that it embraces so many musical idioms, but that’s what makes it – and Forsyth himself – so intriguing. Though he’s thoroughly imbued with the blues, Forsyth’s style is an amalgam of influences: folk, rock, jazz, punk, reggae, even Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley – and whatever obscurities he was exposed to via the legendary syndicated radio program, The Dr. Demento Show. He absorbs it all, then filters it down to its essence – what he calls its medicinal roots – where it contains the most power. For Forsyth, that’s really what music is all about – the power to communicate, to heal.
His observations of the human condition might be funny, sad, eloquent or even a little subversive, but they’re never merely cynical treatises about how badly the world sucks. There’s hope in his music (even in “Long Long Time,” the brilliantly scornful and infectious centerpiece on Love Songs). That comes partly from the joy of making it, and partly from a refusal to succumb to the evils that threaten to swallow our souls.
Do not mistake him for a Pollyanna, however. Being in the music biz, the founder and ex-member of the all-acoustic Asylum Street Spankers understands quite well how the world works. In fact, many of the cuts on this album were included because he underwent the classic label experience of signing away his rights to the original versions. Fans have been requesting copies he couldn’t sell any other way. This time, there will be no ownership issues: Forsyth is releasing the album on his own Small and Nimble Records (not a bad name choice for a Tai Chi instructor, though he’s not referring to his stature).
Independence is a recurring subject with Forsyth, who easily could have shortened the album’s title to Unrepentant American. It’s also one of the themes that resonate throughout his music – even in the covers on “Tails,” which range from Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads” and Muddy Waters’ “I Won’t Go On” to George Gershwin’s “Summertime” and fellow Austinite Jon Dee Graham’s “Laredo.”
“Freedom, autonomy, home, love, traveling and coming back … there’s a balance in it,” he says. “I can’t be all purely optimistic. You can have a cup, but my cup has a chip in it.” (Maybe that explains another inspired cover, Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money.”)
Though he’s not a native Texan, Forsyth’s mother was a Houston debutante (her father was president of the University of Houston). His dad worked for an airline, so the family moved from Forsyth’s Colorado birthplace to Kansas City, New York, Connecticut, a couple of California locales and back to Kansas City, where he first discovered the blues. He lasted for one semester at the University of Kansas before realizing the kind of music he wanted to study – earthy folk and gritty blues, “from a practical, hands-on, gears, joints and joists level” – couldn’t be found in classrooms. So he hit the highway. By then, he’d adopted his parents’ love of show tunes and Western songs (cowboy, not country), discovered “the immediacy and honesty” of punk rock and started playing harmonica.
Listening to Delta blues players, he learned an important lesson. “The thing that’s being transmitted is not in the notes, it’s in the mojo,” he explains. That discovery inspired him pick up a guitar. By then, he was already living in Austin and performing anywhere he could, drawing his sound from a virtual history book of musical perspectives.
“I love Tin Pan Alley music from the 1930s, when America was trying to escape the Depression,” Forsyth says. “I love the playful music of the 1920s, where America returns from World War I with looser morals from Europe. I like the music from the ‘40s where America struggles from World War II and finds strength through sentimentality. Swing. I love the sound of Harlem of that period. Shackled not with chains but economic boundaries. The music of the ‘50s, the big beat, the back beat, starts shaking loose the American pelvis. And the sound of Chicago, where sharecroppers moved North to find jobs and discovered the sound of electricity. And the wailing sound of Mississippi gets electrified. There’s all these different things that have been going on.
“I don’t want to limit my palette,” he asserts. “I want to use my colors to take people in different directions.”
Unrepentant Schizophrenic Americana certainly does that. It’s quite a collection – even though only two songs are previously unrecorded: “Teeth,” by his friend Sick, and “Alligators in the 9th Ward,” which he co-wrote with his sometime band the Dixie Dicks (Josh Gravelin, Rob Hooper, Colin Brooks and “Tails” producer Mark Addison) while touring Europe.
“Those are our musical responses (to Katrina),” Forsyth says. “Disasters like that have happened before, and they’ll happen again. Music is one of the ways we deal with that.”
The latter appears on the “Tails” side, which Forsyth says is literally the best of thousands of shows. Paring it down was such a challenge, they considered including a third disc.
“The reason for a live record is that I’m way more of a live performer than I am a recording artist, because since 1990, I’ve been making a living playing music. I’ve traveled around the world making music, not recording music.” That is, he’s lived these songs, not simply stood in a sound booth and sung them to a wall of glass. As every performer knows, there’s a completely different level of immersion when you’re in front of a crowd, putting your soul on the line.
“It’s all medicinal,” Forsyth says. “All of these songs provide something for me. Sometimes it’s telling stories and sometimes it’s the late-night voodoo drum sex ritual” – the elemental beat, the heartbeat, that defines our lives.
“We’re all connected, whether we know it or not,” Forsyth adds, in one of his frequent philosophical moments. “As technology extends our reach and chops off our arms, if we don’t connect and realize that we are all part of the same thing, we’re going to destroy ourselves. Or at least destroy the part of ourselves that I love the most. Art is how we learn empathy, and empathy is what makes life enjoyable.”
Spoken like a man who plans to transmit that mojo everywhere he can – including a stage near you.