20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published November 6, 2020
In Part 10 of our series, Forest Sun —songwriter, record maker, label owner, visual artist—shares deeply about his passion for all art.
Join us for a while and enjoy as Forest regales us with stories about his name, creating art, touching words he has received from those affected by his music, an unforgettable road story, and much more.
Forest Sun | Photo by Jason Rugalo | Photos courtesy of Forest Sun
20:20 with Forest Sun
NWM 1): Tell us a little about your music and/or yourself as a creative artist.
Forest: I play with color, feeling, sound, melody, rhythm and words. I write songs. I like to record those songs in the studio and flesh out the skeleton of a song with the instruments and sounds that help it be more of itself. I sing. I paint and make art and write poetry. If I am not creating I get cranky.
NWM 2): We’re sure you are often asked about your beautiful, unique name. We hope you’ll indulge us in asking you to share about it.
Forest: My parents were back-to-the-land folk-singing hippies. A lot of us hippie kids ended up with nature names. I have friends named Bluejay, Blossom, Lake, and Hickory. … There was a time as a kid when I wished for a more common and normal name… like John or Henry. I’ve since embraced my name. Walking in the woods and seeing the sunlight through the trees brings me back to myself and recharges my batteries when I am feeling low, so I think they named me well.
Walking in the woods and seeing the sunlight through the trees brings me back to myself.
NWM 3): We love the story on your website about how Painted Sun Records got its name:
I was renting this dimly lit room in a flat on third avenue in the almost always foggy Richmond District in San Francisco. That’s where I recorded my first album Not Afraid in my bedroom that was also my music studio and my art studio. I had only one window and it opened onto a wind tunnel and gray wall of the house next door. I painted a sun on a big piece of white card stock and nailed it to the neighbor’s wall so I would see the sun when I looked out my window. And that’s how Painted Sun Records got its name. ~ Forest Sun
Tell us a bit about your record label.
Forest: I’ve run my own label for 21 years by necessity. I love that I have the freedom to create the music I want to hear when I want to hear it and share it when I want to share it.
In addition to my own nine albums, Painted Sun Records has also released Songs for Laura Volume One and Songs for Laura Volume Two. Over forty artists contributed songs to raise funds and awareness for people with cancer and their families. My mother’s name was Laura, and these albums are dedicated to her memory after she passed away. Wonderful friends whose music I love all came together for this project … folks like Anaïs Mitchell, Brett Dennen, ALO [Animal Liberation Orchestra], Jolie Holland, Sean Hayes, Peter Bradley Adams, and Samantha Crain.
Photo by Cheryl Alterman
NWM 4): Name three things that make you smile.
Forest: Swimming. Breakfast. Mr. Bean dancing to “Boombastic” by Shaggy.
NWM 5): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Forest: I was in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest. I flew home on a nearly deserted plane the night before lockdown and stopped at the grocery store to scrounge what I could from mostly empty shelves on my way home from the airport. It was surreal and apocalyptic. I was a little sad to come home. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be touring again for a while. Grateful to be somewhere safe, though.
NWM 6): What in particular fuels your inspiration? Tell us about your space or what is most necessary for your writing.
Forest: Travel, nature time, and solitude fuel my creative process. I do my best to be available to the muse and all the emotions that push towards that creative moment. Not always a comfortable feeling.
A new painting or the birth of a new song is a magic that still astounds me.
A new painting or the birth of a new song is a magic that still astounds me. That moment when blank canvas or a few chords starts to take on a life of its own, and again in the studio as the song becomes alive. Even more so when the music is released into the world to find its way to people’s ears and hearts.
Declaration by Forest Sun | www.forestsun.com/art
NWM 7): What was your most memorable performance and/or venue?
Forest: I would hope my most memorable performance is still yet to come. Though I suppose this time at home is a good time to reminisce.
The Strawberry Music Festival in the Sierra mountains was one of my first festivals and one of my favorites. We played right as the sun was going down over the treetops. So delightful to see all those people just loving the music in such a beautiful place. Mountains all around. And lining up by the hundreds for me to sign CDs afterwards.
So delightful to see all those people just loving the music in such a beautiful place.
Jamming on the porch of my cabin till the wee hours with my band, members of Hot Buttered Rum, and legendary Beach Boys producer Van Dyke Parks playing pump organ. That was a great time.
NWM 8): What instrument holds the most fascination for you and do you play it?
Forest: So many! Instruments are like colors on my song palette. I do love the dobro. I play some slide [guitar] but not on my lap with a square neck or with picks like they do for bluegrass style. I love that sound. Especially in the hands of a maestro like Jerry Douglas.
NWM 9): I’m sure there are more names than you have time to list, but who jumps out as the biggest influence on your music or career?
Forest: If I had to choose one … I’d say Paul Simon. I love the way he has continued to collaborate, explore and create throughout his career. I love the way he uses different musical styles and genres all in service of the song and touches the universal through the lens of the personal.
The Key by Forest Sun | www.forestsun.com/art
NWM 10): What not-so-obvious aspect of your life has been changed by the pandemic?
Forest: I am not thinking about the future much. The music business requires things being planned way in advance—album releases, tours, publicity, hotels, plane tickets, rent-a-cars, festivals, conferences. … There is no planning right now. I have been able to go deeper into my meditation practice and daily exercise routines.
NWM 11): Favorite of your songs?
Forest: Whichever song I am currently working on always has my attention and is what I want to hear.
It’s always fun for me to hear from people which are their favorites. I’ve heard from veterans who told me my album Walk Through Walls helped them get through the Gulf War, from new parents whose children were born to my music and now jump around to my song “Trampoline,” from a fan who got down on one knee and proposed to his wife while my song “Tumbleweed” was playing, from someone who’s dad passed away while my song was playing and they played it at his funeral.
I am grateful for the power of music to indelibly mark these moments and help us celebrate… or heal… or remember.
“Morningbird” has been requested for first dances at many weddings, and I also heard from a family whose child was stillborn and that song helped them grieve. I am grateful for the power of music to indelibly mark these moments and help us celebrate… or heal… or remember.
NWM 12): Do you think 2020 will be looked back upon as a songwriters’ renaissance?
Forest: I have heard from many songwriter friends that they are writing a lot, and I have been, too. I am a voting member of the Recording Academy and do a lot of listening to new music. There were some really great records that came out this year. We need it. Music is healing in troubled times.
Photo by Cheryl Alterman
NWM 13): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Forest: I’ve been listening to Toots and the Maytals for my whole life. The seminal album Reggae Got Soul is still one of my favorite albums of all time … so joyful and soulful and always makes me smile and dance and sing. For a while it was tradition to listen to that record in the van at the start of every tour. The same van that made it back the 10 hour straight drive home from Portland on the last day of the tour to collapse in my driveway and never start again. I had Toots on a homemade cassette with Peter Tosh on the other side.
Amazing how the early music we hear as a baby can so influence our souls’ experience.
I also loved The Harder They Come soundtrack from the year before I was born. That album has deep roots in my pre-cognitive psyche. I used to ponder deeply the lyrics to “By the Rivers of Babylon” and wonder why they wept when they remembered Zion. Amazing how the early music we hear as a baby can so influence our souls’ experience. Toots just passed away. He will be sorely missed. He brought a lot of love and joy.
NWM 14): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Forest: I can’t choose just one! I’d love to see Aretha Franklin back in the day in her church. And Sam Cooke. And Bob Marley. Oh, and Django Reinhardt. And Louis Armstrong. And Elvis Presley on his first tour when he was just starting out. So many more.
Youtube feels like a time machine to me these days.
Youtube feels like a time machine to me these days. I love Tiny Desk Concerts and Live From Here and going down the rabbit hole of obscure live early footage of artists I am interested in.
NWM 15): Has anything positive come out of the COVID slow-down/shutdown?
Forest: I’ve had a chance to paint more. To write more. To get in the studio and record new songs. To finish projects like a Songbook of how to play all my songs. I am working on a book of my artwork. I have gotten to know my neighbors more. On a global scale I think we are more aware of each other as a whole planetary society.
Cat Tails by Forest Sun | www.forestsun.com/art
NWM 16): What are your non-musical gifts/talents?
Forest: I am a visual artist—a painter and sculptor. And a gardener. I will do the dishes. I speak Spanish and some Romanian and French.
NWM 17): Prince or Bowie?
NWM 18): Tea, coffee, or hot chocolate?
NWM 19): Strangest road story?
Forest: Back in the days before smartphones and GPS, I once drove my Honda Civic from a show at the Colony Cafe in Woodstock, New York, to play the Vermont SolarFest. I arrived in the middle of the night in a downpour. I was supposed to sleep in my tent, but the camping site was up to my ankles in water. I drove around for hours looking for a hotel, but ended up trying to catch a few winks in my car before my early morning soundcheck and 10:30 am set.
I was the first performer of the day and the rain was still dumping. I played my songs getting splashed under a tarp to an empty field. Just me and the sound guy. No-one dared get out of their tents in the deluge. It was a surprisingly lovely moment. Just me singing my song “Morningbird” to the rain and the morning and all the people still in their tents. One person in a rain poncho did stumble through the knee-deep mud right up to the stage for the last few songs. Turns out he was still drunk from the night before and just wanted to ask me if he could play my guitar.
It was a surprisingly lovely moment. Just me singing my song “Morningbird” to the rain and the morning and all the people still in their tents.
After my set, I grabbed my mapquest printed-out directions and hit the road. I was sent up a dirt mountain road that quickly turned into a narrow rocky creek. There was no way to turn around. I had to keep driving, trying not to cringe at every scrape and thump of the rocks on my car’s undercarriage, till I reached the top of the mountain. There was a sort of perverse joy in my sleep deprived state at the ridiculousness of continuing on as the road became more and more impossible. Sometimes you can only go forward.
I made it to the top and there were some hunters there in a huge wheeled 4 by 4 jeep just shaking their heads and grinning at me. They said there was no way out but the way I’d come. I somehow made it down again. My muffler did not. My Honda sounded like a Harley roaring down those Vermont back roads. So much for short cuts.
NWM 20): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about which we might not know to ask?
Forest: I’d like y’all to know how grateful I am that I get to make music and art and share it with you. It really wouldn’t be the same without you.
Please join me on Patreon www.patreon.com/forestsun
I am releasing a new song every month! New videos, too.
The monthly songs culminate in a new album Stubborn Breathing Heart releasing on New Year’s Day 2021.
Till we are all in motion again and I come play near you, please reach out and say hello. I like hearing from you.
Clarity by Forest Sun with Gawain Mathews and Lara Louise
Forest Sun was born in upstate New York to folk-singing back-to-the-land hippie parents. His dad used to chop wood with neighbor Garth Hudson of The Band and literally built the floor that Bob Dylan stood on at manager Albert Grossman’s Bearsville studios in Woodstock, New York. His mom heard Pete Seeger and Joan Baez play in her uncle's living room in Boston and dated one of the Chambers Brothers before she met his dad.
Forest wrote songs with Rory Block when he was six years old, learned to juggle with Wavy Gravy when he was nine, and studied drumming with the late African master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji as a teenager. In college he played in a band with SNL star Maya Rudolph. They opened for No Doubt at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz before Forest left to study art in Spain. His original paintings and prints have been in exhibitions at The Sebastopol Center for The Arts and the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art.
A pioneer of the DIY movement, Forest recorded his first record in his bedroom in San Francisco with bassist Seth Ford Young (Tom Waits, Edward Sharpe) and toured Europe for the first time, including playing at the Rally on Dam Square in Amsterdam for the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
With over 68 million plays on Pandora, troubadour and award-winning songwriter, Forest Sun, enlivens audiences around the globe with his wealth of songs and stories, all sung and told in a laid-back California style.
To learn more and to buy stuff, visit https://www.forestsun.com/
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