Steve Forbert is a writer too modest to draw attention to his accomplishments. Instead he gives the listener the option to decide for himself as they listen to his body of work. At one point in our conversation he commented on his years of material with the offhanded, “If this sort of thing interests you.” And truth be told, it’s extremely interesting. He has written songs for some of the biggest names in music and performed all over the world. His fan base is loyal and it still shows at any given performance including tonight in the Grand Ballroom of Congress Hall in Cape May, where he played to a sold out crowd while demonstrating enthusiasm and stage presence not seen in players half his age.
Thirteen studio albums, 10 live discs and numerous DVD releases document his American journey leading right up to his current status of being out on the road and taking back the recognition he so truly deserves. His new box set, Down In Flames, is a signed, three-disc retrospect of Forbert’s work that includes over 39 live and studio tracks as well as DVD club appearances and other merchandise. In the middle of changing strings and tuning guitars, Steve Forbert graciously took a few moments to answer some questions before his show at The Cape May Singer Songwriter Conference on March 26.
Your new three-disc set, Down In Flames, is much more than a retrospect of the Steve Forbert that America knows about. What surprises does this set offer to fans?
Well, this is the record that was never released so… if this sort of thing interests you, this is that whole missing segment of mine down through the years. There’s a lot of unknown stuff from the years of songwriting and a lot of songs that were written on disc two are just demos and that’s as far as they went. And there’s 14 songs that are unknown to anyone at all. And there’s also a couple of other unknown songs on the third disc, which is live from clubs at the time. So this is 1983 through 1985 and you’re probably looking at least 23 or so unknown songs from that period, maybe 25.
Your history with major labels has been tumultuous. What kept you out there making music when the label people were just messing things up?
Well I really separate that sort of stuff. I mean I like songs and I’m still doing what I want to do. There may have been a time where I couldn’t afford to do it but I got through. I was actually touring around with a band (The Rough Squirrels) during some of those times and you can here the results of that on the Here’s Your Pizza CD, which was recorded live back in 1987. A record company contract is not about writing songs to me, it’s not about singing. Those are all separate entities. It didn’t stop me from performing my trade. It wasn’t as if you were a union worker in a strike and you couldn’t bloody do your thing at all.
Has the success surrounding ‘Romeo’s Tune’ affected your continued career?
Well yeah, it has definitely allowed me to continue doing this and it’s an identifiable song so…I mean the guy who introduced me today at this festival said to the audience that they might know me from ‘Romeo’s Tune.’ People look at that as an identity and that’s fine with me.
What other artists have you written songs for?
Rosanne Cash recorded one of my songs (‘What Kinda Girl’), Keith Urban did one (‘Romeo’s Tune’), and Marty Stuart recorded one (‘All Because Of You’), Carolyne Mas recorded two (‘Listen To Me’ and ‘You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play’) as well.
Who has been your favorite producer over the years?
I’ve had great results with Gary Talent, I think I made the most records with Gary but John Simon (Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel) was certainly real good and there’s no doubt that Steve Burgh was the right guy for the first album. John Simon was a really good producer and I should have made more with John.
2009’s The Place And The Time had you working with Nashville session guitarist Reggie Young (Reggie played with Elvis on ‘Suspicious Minds’ and ‘In The Ghetto’). What was it like to play with an A-list guy like Young, and did he ever spill any good stories about the king?
I met Reggie for those sessions and we just got straight to work. He might have told me few things here and there but he was really just all business. He’s a great guitarist who really knows the trade. And while we might not have done a lot of reminiscing we did do three tunes in as many hours. I mean he’s Reggie Young so (laughs), just a great player and I think he’s finally making his own solo record now which will be really interesting to hear.
Is there any one great musical memory of playing New York’s folk scene back in the ‘70s?
One of my favorites was I was singing on MacDougall Street one hot summer night. The crowd was going by just like a parade and all of a sudden there’s Ravi Shankar! He smiled right at me and I went, ‘Right!’ and then you know I just kept singing and he was gone. Some people would know him today as Norah Jones’ dad (laughs).
You were friends with Hilly Kristal from CBGB’s. What was he like when you were there?
Hilly was a very generous person. He helped many a famous musician that no one knows about. You know, there were a lot of people—that guest list (laughs), I mean so many people got into CBGB’s and got free chili and had burgers and ran bar tabs and all that—and the man must have lost a fortune on us (laughs), but he never complained.
Are you a fan of digital downloads or good ole fashioned vinyl and CDs?
I can’t even do a digital download (laughs) so I travel with something I can hold in my hands and quote unquote ‘collect’ and you know, in the end you can’t take anything with you but I like the physical feeling of vinyl or something I can hold onto. I still use CDs, it has some sort of artwork and some kind of expression of itself in packaging. A generic file or even an iPod is just lacking something.
As a guitar enthusiast I’ve noticed you wielding a Gibson SJ in a lot of pictures. Is that your favorite instrument for recording and live or are there others?
It’s one of my favorites, I had a D-18 early on and you see that and I currently own a 00-18 also but I usually just use this old SJ in the studio. I’ve got a 1941 J-100 that I’m going to use a bit more, not traveling but certainly in the studio. It stays in tune and just sounds right for me.
What can we expect to see from Steve Forbert in 2010 and beyond?
Well I hope to keep on performing for people. I’m heading to California and then I’ll rush home before heading to Texas for a weekend and so, and I hope to keep that active schedule going. I might make a little record this year. Maybe. But I’m not feeling like it’s a necessity. If it happens that’s great. If I do I really wish I could make a record at least 75 percent as good as Astral Weeks by Van Morrison, that’s what I’d like to do (laughs), how about that? But as far as right now I’ll just keep on playing.