Musical Energy

For more than twenty years, roots- and blues-rocker Guy Forsyth has remained one of Texas music’s most accomplished musicians, singers, and songwriters. In this sit-down interview, Forsyth discusses technology’s impact on his music, the theme of art versus commerce throughout his career, his personal interests, and how hard work and determination can bring out the best in a person’s creative output. In full swing, Forsyth continues to tour and perform to high regard and is gearing up for his September 11th release, The Freedom To Fail.

You’ve mentioned that you were a loner as a kid and that music served as an outlet for personal freedom. What do you feel is so liberating about your music and how can struggling children out there find value and meaning in music?

What I find liberating in my music is that it’s nice being a songwriter who is able to travel with an instrument and perform anywhere with no set up or precursor; that is really valuable. For example, in 1990, I traveled to the Himalayas and performed there with no outside support. Also, as a traveler, if you are bringing something, you are received much better than a tourist. I met other musicians and got to play with them that way.

Music is a universal language. We are hardwired with a lot of rules that humans have come up with music the same way that we are hardwired for language. We are all far more alike than dissimilar. That is a great lesson that the world can benefit from. We are all part of a family. I would hope that for kids, that if there’s an example, and I’m definitely a musician because I was a fan of the people I saw play live and was exposed to music that was inspiring, I would like to inspire people and give something back. I think people are at their best when they’re doing something they love, whether that’s making food, writing, or playing music. If you follow that, there is some type of success involved and that makes life have value.

What are your views on the impact of the digital world on your musical recordings and live performances?

In the last hundred years, there was a huge change in what it was to be a musician. Technology made it possible to sell and disseminate music to a larger audience than was ever possible before. You could be the best guitar player or piano player, but still you were going to be limited by the sound you can create. Louis Armstrong is probably the best example of the musical superstar, someone who wrote their own music, played their own music, performed their own music, called a lot of their own shots. Probably the most important musical artist of the 20th century. But now, digital recording and the ease and perfection of the replication of music has left the genie out of the bottle and made it possible for almost anyone who has access to computer technology to replicate and disseminate the intellectual property of music. Rock ‘n’ roll, for example, was built on the discretionary income of teenagers. Now, less than half of American teenagers have ever paid for music.

So there’s a huge change that has happened in the past 10 years where now big music companies like Sony and Polygram, all the big labels, don’t have any money anymore and are collapsing. There are still pop stars and gold records but the sales are not what they used to be. The desirable life of the rock star won’t come back again. Now, the reality is it’s becoming much more like it was a hundred years ago because if everybody has the same tools and no one can control them, you won’t have the same superstars like The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or Ray Charles because there is no way to enforce the ownership of intellectual properties to the degree that it is being stolen. I feel fine using that term “stolen” because I’m someone who has paid money to create a recording, I’ve paid for the engineer, for the studio, for the musicians, I’ve spent the time and investment in learning how to play, writing the songs, having the instruments, so all of that is money that I’ve spent. But I put out a record and instantly there are BitTorrent websites that are offering that music up for free. People like Google make money from the advertisements such as BitTorrent websites. They are going to impoverish the class of artists that are trying their best to make the best content. It’s troubling, especially for the next generation of musicians. With all of that being said, musicians are still doing better than a hundred years ago. At that time, there certainly was nothing like a retirement plan nor a health plan.

There’s a sacrifice that artists make in order to create. Most artists can spend their whole life giving and don’t get much back except spiritually and emotionally. You hope that there’s a payoff where you don’t end your life saying, “That was a f*cking waste of time.” I’ve spent my life doing the thing I love. There’s a really good quote, “let the thing we love be the thing that we do”; my life is an extension of that.

As a highly-regarded instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter, what are some hobbies or interests that help keep you balanced and help put on a great show?

I just got done teaching a tai chi classic at the Ruta Maya in Austin, Texas. I’ve been doing this for six years. I’ve been doing martial arts ever since I was 16 or 17. I like tai chi because it has free health benefits. It’s a type of preventive medicine that should be free to everybody, very similar to yoga and all of the body arts. I try to make it accessible to anybody. It feels good. It keeps me centered. I’m 43 years old, and I’ve seen a lot of people in the music business get done in by cheap beer and constant cigarettes, and lots of traveling in cramped vans and weird hours. It’s not the easiest way to keep yourself healthy, so you need to have something to balance that. There are a lot of different types of exercises. I also play video games at home just as a way of turning my head off; you need to turn off your head every now and then.

As a solo artist and as a former member of the Austin-based band Asylum Street Spankers, you’ve covered Elmore James’ “Done Somebody Wrong,” The Coasters’ “I’m A Hog For You,” Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” and Prince’s “Delirious.” How have these songs impacted you and why?

I think the “why” would be obvious to anybody who listens to those songs, especially in their original format, and although we’re not all exposed to it, anybody can find and hear this music today. There is such a wealth of entertainment options, which also works against musicians because there’s just so many different ways to spend your time and your dollar. There’s trash in any age, and I’m defining trash as something that I have no use for, and you may have a totally different definition than I do, and that’s as it should be. But right now you can get the best music that has happened in a hundred years just by doing a Google search. People are getting used to experiencing music through earplugs and mp3’s, which doesn’t really serve the music as well as it could. I used to listen to music on 78’s; I don’t think that the quality of the sound is as important as the thing being delivered. Content is much more important than platform. I feel like I was lucky to get exposed to music the way that I did, which was really an accidental process, but I feel nourished and excited by it and I like feeling that I’m part of a musical river. You can trace it back to the dawn of recording and documents of history, as long as people have been around. Music is usually at the core of every religious experience because music is a tool for transcendence, to survive difficult situations. At its highest, it provides people a resiliency in the worst of situations. Now it’s kind of used to sell trucks and everything else and so we’ve developed a callous to it. People now use recorded music to cover up the sound of the mechanized world the same way that people burn incense to cover up the stink of a cat box. You can use music as a tool to make money and to make business move quicker, but only at the cost of the value of that music to people. I’m conscious of that because it’s my job and I want it to have that value; I want there to be something sacred in the music.

You’ve played at many venues in the US and abroad in an over 20-year musical career while at the same time being a father and a husband. How difficult has touring been for you, and what advice would you like to give aspiring musicians about these obstacles?

Raising kids is hard. It’s also the greatest thing you’ll ever do. So no matter what career path you’re taking, don’t miss your kids. There’s no amount of money that you can make that would be more important than to miss the process of your kid maturing. It’s hard to be a traveling musician period. It’s hard to be the partner of a traveling musician because your partner is gone a lot. Getting to travel and go do things is its own reward. I’m really glad to be a musician and to get to travel and see parts of the world. The best advice is to be empathetic. See from your partner’s perspective, from your child’s perspective. A lot of artists end up being “tunnel vissioned” in pursuit of their art. I hope others are able to find balance in that so that they don’t miss out on life because you’ll be a better artist if you’re in touch with life anyway.

Any future musical projects we can hope to look for?

I have a brand new record coming out August 28. The title of the record, which sort of fits into the theme of art and commerce of the 21st century, is called The Freedom to Fail. As an artist, I’m small enough to fail, and I’m trying to do other things that are practical, wearing a lot of hats, such as being a small businessman, a publicist, maintaining vehicles, taxes, and payroll. It’s usually complex. You have to bust your *ss constantly to try to make a living as a musician in this highly competitive, oversaturated market. Some people are lucky and have a lot of talent. But even if you have a lot of talent, there is constant work required to make it work.

Sharing the stage with Ray Charles, B.B. King, Dr. John, Lucinda Williams, and Robert Cray must have been a thrilling experience. Any other artists or producers you would like to work with and why?

Tom Waits. But I’d love to work with him in any context because he as an artist has been constantly inspirational to me since I’ve first encountered him 27 years ago. He was unafraid to reinvent himself a number of different times and was someone who has really struggled to keep his music valuable to people without exploiting it through selling it for commercials. Now I’m not saying that people shouldn’t make a living; I got a kid, I certainly understand people trying to provide for their families. On the other hand, people who are cashing in and making huge amounts of money by watering down music and making it matter less, f*ck you. You’re doing damage to yourself. It’s a shame. There are a lot of things people feel strongly and passionately about, romantically about, that get washed away by money because money acts as a universal solvent.

From performing in the Austin City Limits Music Fest to the BBQ & Blues Festival in New York to various festivals in Europe, what do you feel the power of a music festival holds?

I think that the right music anywhere, whether it’s three people sitting around with acoustic guitars at 3:00 in the morning, or 20,000 people or more in a massive tent with a million-watts sound system, have the same possibility of an ecstatic experience. Some of my favorite musical experiences have been very intimate. But there’s nothing like going to a huge festival with 20,000 of your closest friends and feeling like you are in the center of the universe. There’s a scale to it which is very extreme; you can’t really live your life like that. There’s a toxic nature to fame that we see played out time and time again and the effect that it has on our heroes or anti-heroes that are superstars, so it’s important to ground that and realize that even when you’re on stage in front of 20,000 people that it’s not all about you. It’s hard to not think about it as not being all about you because as an artist, you have to be really ego-driven because you have to feel like you have something that is worth giving, that is worth listening to, to get up in front of 20,000 people and perform. But the music comes through us, it’s a river, and if we’re lucky, we get to enjoy it, we get to partake of it, but we don’t own it, it can carry you around and drown you; that’s what happened to Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain. And that’s what will continue to happen to people if they’re not paying attention to what they’re going through. Balanced people tend to have good roots, whether that is in their family, their own personal practice of grounding, etc. But it’s always about humility.

What do you feel makes the Austin music scene so vibrant?

The reason why the Austin music scene exists as it does today is because in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a very fast turnover of a lot of different people that came to Austin. You had the colleges bringing in new kids every year and the seat of government here where lobbyists and convention people came into town and partied at night. It used to be really cheap to live here and a really neat place to live, so a lot of things came together nicely. Culturally, it was a town that combined African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Latino roots, a collision of cultures that made a good exchange of ideas. It was a great place to be a musician back then. Now, the cost of living has doubled, tripled. When I moved here on January 10, 1990, I could still live here very cheap. The meals were cheap, and house rent was only $80 a month. But from the time that I moved here, it was one of the fastest cities growing in the ‘90s with all of the tech industries taking advantage of the quality of life and the artistic scene and being much cheaper than places like Seattle or California, so people moved here. There wasn’t any real effort by the city to try and take care and protect the people that already lived here at the expense of giving tax breaks and there being lots of incentive for the growth of the city. The people who made Austin the city to move to have been run out of town because they cannot make a living doing the same thing that they used to. It was the same in Harlem and Haight-Ashbury. I don’t imagine Austin going back to its roots. I like to see a community that tries to protect its roots and doesn’t put growth as its primary motivator. I can imagine that a young musician with the same sort of drive and coming from the same sort of place like I did 20 years ago would probably have a very different experience and I wouldn’t suggest this being the place that they move to. It’s a lot harder to make a living here now. But I still like living in Austin. One of the best things about the Austin music scene, which continues to be true, is that it’s not a genre-driven scene; it’s not all one flavor of music. The music gets really interesting. There is a lot of creativity in this town. The music that you generally hear on radio is the absolute middle-of-the-road, designed to offend the least people and to ask the least questions. You don’t make money necessarily by changing people’s lives; you make money by keeping people in a box and selling them more of the same. There has been a theme of art versus commerce throughout this interview; I’m still trying to make a living as a musician, I’m still a businessman, but also I see that it’s not all about money. If I was just doing things just for money and I had no other concerns, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

Any other words you’d like to tell your fans?

Thank you, because without people listening, what difference does it make? You might get a lot of satisfaction from playing and making music, and you should, but you should also have fun and be yourself.

by Jeff Boyce