Guy Forsyth, a blues/Americana/roots/singer-songwriter, got his start in Austin, Texas, over twenty years ago, playing guitar and harmonica on the streets for tips. Since that time, he’s become one of Austin’s most beloved performers, electrifying crowds with what he dubs his “late-night voodoo drums sex ritual.”
A year ago this past fall, Forsyth released The Freedom to Fail, his first studio album since becoming a father six years ago. The album—his most intimate and arresting songwriting yet—is in many ways a letter to his daughter, and adds to a body of work that has been stretched in a variety of directions from traditional blues to southern gothic to backwater Delta romps. He’s mastered an assortment of instruments—guitar and slide guitar, ukulele, harmonica, and most interestingly, the musical saw—eking out old, forgotten songs and crafting a sound that has become uniquely his own.
I’ve been seeing Guy perform since his early days in Austin at the famed blues club Antone’s, where he used to hold court on Sunday nights. His live performances have the ecstatic feel of a dusty tent revival and revolve around his commanding voice, which he can project over the noisy din of whatever crowd he’s playing to, even without a microphone.
For this interview, we met in a coffee shop in south Austin where he used to teach weekly t’ai chi classes. (Shortly after our interview, the coffee shop, Ruta Maya, closed its doors. Like so many other long-standing businesses in Austin, the café was forced to relocate due to the rising cost of rents in Austin).
Forsyth talked about his latest album, his time with the much-storied Asylum Street Spankers—an Austin band that he founded and fronted—and his David and Goliath-esque legal battle against his former record label.
The Rumpus: What does the title of the new record, The Freedom to Fail, mean?
Guy Forsyth: Well, one thing I’m sure about is that everyone who’s reading this interview—they have the have the freedom to fail. You, I, almost everybody that you’ll meet in your life—other than perhaps like Rupert Murdoch or a major corporation—we all have the freedom to fail. You know, people talk about banks being too big to fail and stuff like that, but you and I—we have the freedom to fail. This record is the first record that I’ve written since becoming a father. And one of the most important things that I figured I could do for my daughter is to provide her the freedom to fail. That doesn’t mean that I want her to fail, but she can only grow to the extent that she reaches for things. And that means being willing to catch her when she falls. But she has to fall. Because you learn more by falling than you do by not falling.
The opposite of creativity is control. And so, to make something new, when you look at that blank piece of paper, you have to not know what’s gonna be there in order to create something. If you’re gonna be like, “I’ve got this thing I’m gonna do and I’ve got this plan,” that’s not the same thing as not knowing. And starting anyway. So the album—it’s not a children’s record—but it’s all the stuff that I want her to know. And it’s not all positive, because another real important part of this is being optimistic and realistic at the same time. You have to have your eyes open. Although the fool on the tarot card has his eyes closed as he steps over the edge.
Rumpus: To me, your new album feels like your most personal yet. I was wondering how some of the songs came about, especially, “Thank You” and “The Things that Matter.”
Forsyth: I have found that being happy is the result of being grateful for the things that you have, so this is me doing the work to be happy. I hope that it is useful to the listener in the same way as it is for me. Both of these songs are trying for the simplicity of early spirituals or gospel songs.
Rumpus: I also really love “Sink ‘Em Low (The Holler)”. It sounds like it’s 300 years old. Can you tell me a bit of background about that song?
Forsyth: This is a work song from 100 years ago or more that you might sing on a chain gang. I heard this song at least a couple of ways before hearing Bessie Jones sing it on Southern Journey, Vol. 1: Voices from the American South, part of the wealth of music recorded by the Lomax family. On the recording, Jones talks about work songs and the way this song was sung to give cadence to the work of chain gangs during long days of hot work digging embankments or highway roads in the age before mechanized labor.
Rumpus: Do you ever have writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Forsyth: Yes. Don’t be afraid to write a bad song, or rather, write a bad song on purpose, just to keep yourself flowing. You don’t have to share your bad songs, but you just might accidentally write a good one.
Rumpus: So the t’ai chi class—you teach it here every week and it’s a free class?
Forsyth: It’s by donation, which means free (chuckles). When I first moved to Austin in 1990, I met this totally new class of people that I had no idea existed, which were people who had a practice for themselves. And it was yoga more than martial arts at that time. My friend, Patrice Sullivan, would just throw a mat down at the park—same place every day—and at the end of class she would say, “It’s by donation,” and I thought that was great. And probably the best model for community health that I’d ever seen. Because that sort of stuff is a great investment. You do it a little bit over a period of time, and you save a lifetime of physical ailments and trouble.
I think that this sort of technology should be available to anybody. And it helps to have a teacher. I got a lot of information for free, or almost for free, and I just figured that that was the right way to do it. It certainly grounds me, and I try to make the class available and accessible to people who walk up and have no prior experience, no prior knowledge, no real expectation of it. People who are like, “I gotta do something!” (laughs).
It’s not gonna make me rich—I usually walk out of here with enough money to get a whole big bag of coffee. But the reason that martial arts existed before kung-fu movies and people made money buying and selling it, was because that’s what kept kings in power, or what kept a person free.
Rumpus: What do you mean by “kept a person free”?
Forsyth: Well, there’s an old Chinese expression: “Someone who has a sword on his back and knows how to use it can go anywhere.”
Rumpus: That sort of ties into something I wanted to ask you. It seems like you have incredible discipline as an artist. Have you always had that? Has t’ai chi helped you with your way?
Forsyth: I don’t know if I have incredible discipline or not, because I know a lot of people who have some really great discipline skills and stuff like that. I would say that it has definitely helped me. And this is a really weird business where you can do lots and lots of excellent work and still starve. Even though we talk about Austin as being the “Live Music Capital of the World” and the city claims that live music brings in two billion dollars a year—if you think about all the money that comes into town because of the music scene and how little of that ends up in the hands of musicians—that’s a reality that no one can argue with.
Rumpus: Is that right? Two billion dollars?
Forsyth: That can’t be right, but somebody quoted that number to me recently. (Note: According to the Austin Music Office it’s one billion dollars a year, but still.)
The last time I played at the Continental Club, I talked to people from Holland, Germany, Japan; from New York, LA, and Canada who were in town for the music scene. They had made a pilgrimage here; they had bought a car or rented motorcycles and were driving across the US to come to Austin because it’s the live music capital of the world, and pumping money into the economy because of the music scene.
And you know, a lot of people make money off the “thing” that makes Austin cool—whatever that “thing” is. Big companies attract workers to come to Austin because it’s a cool place to live, a great place to work, and the city gives out tax breaks saying it’s the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
A lot of the music that made me wanna play was country blues, slide guitar, and harmonica—music made by people who worked all day long and then took their strong, but torn, calloused hands and put them on cheap guitars and bent harmonicas and made music that made them feel like it was okay. That made it all okay. And now, those sounds that they worked so hard to craft, those are the sounds that people use to try and sell you the new Ford F-150. Because Ford wants you to think that their truck is just as durable and as honest and as strong and resilient as Muddy Waters and Little Walter.
Rumpus: That’s a creepy thought, but it’s true. It reminds me of a quote of yours about how “music is used like incense to cover up the scent of a cat box” or something like that.
Forsyth: People use recorded music to cover up the sounds of the modern age the way people burn incense to cover up the odor of the cat box. ‘Cuz if there wasn’t music in here right now, we’d be listening to the condenser and the grind of the coffee and traffic outside.
Rumpus: Austin is so different now than it was when you first moved here. There were the old venues—the original Antone’s, the Electric Lounge, the Outhouse… Do you think the development here and the artistic community can still mesh and thrive, or do you think artists are going to get pushed out? I mean the rents have become crazy.
Forsyth: I would say that already artists are getting pushed out. But there’s still enough of a tradition here, and there’s still people who are willing to sacrifice everything to do it. And to give up any version of the future that includes any sort of retirement because they are still so called by their artistic DNA to do it that they’re gonna do it anyway. And it’s too bad that the elected officials who are in charge of the management of the city don’t see this as a wealth. They would rather let it all be chopped up and divided and worn out. Because we will have a tragedy of the commons and that “thing” will go away.
Harlem today doesn’t have the same artistic thing going on that it did in the 1920s and 1930s. And that’s true of San Francisco, Greenwich Village—all of these places that were artistic nurseries where people could live cheaply, where you had lots of immigrants and people thrown together in a situation where they had to make their own culture, and they had to make it all right, and they had to use art to make it all right, and that’s the best thing about humans. If you go to San Francisco or to Greenwich Village now, you’ll find lots of great boutiques with really great products, and you’ll find lots of really nice housing that people have spent a lot of money on, but there’s no holy fire. There’s nothing that you could brag to the aliens about if the aliens came. And that’s too bad.
The thing about humans that makes me really proud to be a human is not retail!
People are at their best, I assert, when they are making something that they love and sharing it.
I think I that I was lucky that I moved to Austin at the time that I did. I moved here January 10th, 1990, from Kansas City and was able to get by living very, very cheaply. Living off the sort of subsistence level of income you get from playing on the street corners to get a foothold in town. And I went from playing on street corners to open mics, and Monday nights down on Sixth Street, and then I was getting to play at Antone’s, and then I was going to Europe. Now I travel the world, I’ve got my own record label—which means I do all the work but it’s still something I can control—so I’ve built a niche for myself in this town and as a touring musician. Now, I don’t know if I would be able to do that if I moved here now.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little about your legal battle with your former record label? (Note: Forsyth was first signed with Antone’s Records, which fell on hard times and was later acquired by Texas Music Group. During this period, he was bound by a three-record contract that largely benefited the label. Forsyth was unable to get copies of his albums to sell at his live shows, and the record label kept all of the royalties from online sales).
Forsyth: I went through a very long legal battle and was unable to get the records that I recorded for the label. I wasn’t paid for them, I couldn’t get the records to sell; they were selling them on the Internet and I wasn’t getting any money. So despite all my work, they were just taking the money and not keeping records, and just living off of it, just taking it. I had a contract with them, but the contract was nothing about what they had to do. It was a horrible thing. Kids, if you want to be a musician, get a business degree. If you’re an artist and wanna do anything like that for a living, trust me on this, they’ll do whatever they can to get everything from you that they can, and there will be no sense of right or wrong. They’re just predators. You can’t hate the wolf—he’s just a wolf.
Rumpus: So what was the outcome of that?
Forsyth: The outcome is that with the help of some wonderful lawyers—two words you don’t hear often together—who volunteered their time, work, effort and skills, the case was won against the people who owned Antone’s Records. And they lost control of the catalog. Because they had declared bankruptcy. So in a federal bankruptcy court, the judge said—you can’t be responsible for these assets because you’ve proven you can’t be. You haven’t kept records, and you just spent the money that came along. So my albums, along with all the other stuff that was owned by Antone’s was bought by New West Records, a reputable and excellent music label that is going to put the records out. So finally, these records of mine that have been “collector’s items” for years (laughs) are going to be released. They’re going to put them out on vinyl, which is very neat.
But the money that they paid doesn’t go to the musicians who made the records; it goes to pay the legal fees of the lawyers on the other side, because the law is set up to pay for itself.
Rumpus: That’s unbelievable!
Forsyth: I know and we’ll never know how many they sold, because they didn’t keep any records. They just spent the money! Ha ha ha! And so there’s a couple of years that went into that whole process of trying to get these recordings away from these people who were doing nothing for them and who were just taking money away from artists.
Rumpus: But did you always own the songs?
Forsyth: Yes, and that’s why I was able to re-record Calico Girl, the songs off of Can You Live Without, because I had written all the songs. And they did not own the publishing; I kept my publishing, which thank goodness I did. And so I re-recorded that record and I think it’s interesting because those are still songs that I like to play and feel that there are things I want to say.
I have been really lucky as a musician in that I have been able to make the music I want to make, the way I want to make it, with my own hands. I haven’t been able to like, bring in an orchestra, or to say, “you’re gonna play this exactly this way.” But I wanna work with musicians, not at them. But still, I’ve tried to make the art I want to make without compromise and I’ve been lucky with that; not everybody gets that same possibility. And just like the t’ai chi class, I am trying to make my art accessible, because I think that art is about service. You know, it has to be useful to you. It should answer questions. It should, and it may not necessarily provide answers, but it should ask the right questions.
Rumpus: Speaking of Can You Live Without, I remember hearing that when it first came out and being blown away because it was like, “Where did this sound come from?” It was the blues, but it wasn’t. How did that record happen?
Forsyth: That was a real interesting record for me because I had done a very traditional blues band, and had made a live record in Holland, and then I’d done Needle Gun. And then Antone’s Records had trouble—they were basically bankrupt—but I was still under contract with them. So there was a period of time where I couldn’t really do anything. They ran out of money right before Needle Gun came out. But they really couldn’t do anything with it. I couldn’t get copies of the records, they couldn’t publicize it, but I had a contract with them for two more records. They didn’t let me out of the contract. They didn’t say, “Well, we’re broke now, so you should probably go and do something else.” No, they held onto the contract. They were like, “No, no, we’re gonna try and sell this contract to somebody.” Which they weren’t able to do because it’s hard to sell a contract on somebody who nobody’s ever heard about. For them it was just another asset. Well, eventually they got another source of funding. Somebody else bought Antone’s, and so they were like, “Okay, we’ll make this record.”
In the meantime I had started a band called the Asylum Street Spankers. And that was a lot of fun. We had a great time and made some good records.
Right after Needle Gun came out and Antone’s went bankrupt, my original blues band broke up. The musicians in my band were like, “No, this isn’t working out.” And I can’t blame them, because it was a horrible situation to be in. I had signed the contract, and my name was on the contract so I stuck with it. I kept playing music, because that’s why I moved to Austin. The Spankers started as just being something we really wanted to do out of love. And that was, I think, one of the reasons why it was so great. Because—like the theory that I’ve said earlier—I believe people are at their best making something that they love and sharing it. And that’s exactly what we were doing. We didn’t have any illusions that it was gonna be a career, or make money, or that people would give a shit at all, you know? Our first gigs were showing up to things that didn’t pay, and we were just gonna do it because it was fun and we didn’t know how, but we were just gonna try anyway, and it was this wonderful accident of egos and abilities that made for something people really liked. It was old-timey Tin Pan Alley, roots, blues, jazz, swing, folk, country, and gospel at a time when there weren’t many examples of that. At all. And there was no real grand design, other than to play the music that we really loved.
To lead us back to your question about Can You Live Without—those were the songs that I was working on during that period. Which were not Spankers songs. And there weren’t blues songs, but those were the songs that I was writing. Things like “Heart of Sawdust.” The blues band, you know, were like, “this song isn’t right for us.” So when I made that record, I made a conscious decision which was—I’m not going to do a band that can’t play the music that I’m hearing. I’m just gonna try and do this the best way that I know how, without trying to fit into somebody else’s expectations about what music is supposed to be. So I was writing a lot of different stuff that did not fit into a traditional bag.
Rumpus: Like “New Monkey King.”
Forsyth: Yeah, those are weird.
Rumpus: They’re amazing still, and it’s your own sound. Why did you leave the Spankers?
Forsyth: There were only so many Friday and Saturday nights in the week, and I was making a living playing already with my own band. And the Spankers were like, “We don’t want to have to go do a gig and have to explain why you’re not there. Ya know, so you have to choose.”
Forsyth: And so I did. I was like, I’m gonna do my band because I like to sing, I write a lot of different songs, etc. And the Spankers—I loved it. It was like my child. It had gone from being us hanging out at Mick D’Arcy’s apartment, smoking dope, and listening to tapes and going, “Do you know how to play that? Let’s try and figure it out.” We were just running at stuff and not knowing how we were gonna get there. And then there were like twelve people in the band it was this massive thing, and it was a great thing. We were an overnight, home-grown, hometown success and we didn’t look for it. And it certainly surprised all of us.
Rumpus: Who had the best record collection? You guys came up with some pretty obscure tunes.
Forsyth: We had some great record collections between Wammo and myself, and Kevin Smith. And even though Mark Rubin wasn’t in the band, we did raid his record collection viciously. Also, Christina Marrs had some great records.
Rumpus: When I first heard you guys, it was like you had been together for years, even though that wasn’t the case. And in the early days of the band, there was this great spontaneity on stage.
Forsyth: And here’s why I love interviews, and love tying things around because at that time, we had the freedom to fail. At that time, anything could happen, and would happen. And the band just said yes to everything. Nobody was scared of falling on their face. If we fell on our face, it was the funniest pratfall that anybody had ever seen, and we laughed harder than the audience did. There were times when that band would fall out of their chairs laughing so hard. So hard it made your ass cheeks hurt. It was great that way. And it was really magical. And when something is working that well, the intellectual part of your head, the ego part of your head is like, “I gotta keep this going. I gotta find a way to control this.” And that’s the opposite of creativity.
Rumpus: Your website is incredible. How did that come about?
Forsyth: My old manager, Nikki Rowling, set it up. She makes great things happen. We had very little idea what it would look like when we shot in front of a green screen in a studio in Austin, just having fun.
Rumpus: One final question: What exactly does the “late night voodoo drums sex ritual” mean?
Forsyth: I would have to show you.