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Stomping Through the Tulips

Carmaig de Forest Makes the Ukulele Blitzkrieg Bop

Tom Erikson

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Carmaig de Forest

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted

When Carmaig de Forest performed at the Roots Café in December, he looked like a high-school science teacher. A slim man with thinning brown hair and a well-worn face, he wore a dark tie and a white shirt, a shiny dark blazer, and thick amber-frame glasses. And he played the ukulele, the four-string instrument that resembles the result of a science experiment called "The Incredible Shrinking Guitar."

De Forest, though, didn't play the ukulele in the sweet Hawaiian style of all those beach movies; he played it with the choppy rhythm of an Elvis Costello or Johnny Ramone but moved up an octave. He sang "Leavin' It All to You" in the deadpan, nasal snarl of Lou Reed with the same sort of streetwise wordplay:

There's an uptown lover with a downtown dad
There's a parrot, there's a kitchen sink
There's a rock shaped like a bow tie
There's a cherry-lemon-flavored drink
There's an asphalt court, there's a plywood fort
There's a pistol, there's a tube of glue
C'mon, baby, take a walk with me
I'm leavin' it all to you

Spitting out syllables as quickly as the rapid-fire plink-plink-plink of his uke, de Forest seemed to be saying, Here it is, all the detritus of Western civilization. You can have it; I'm out of here.

Well, he's out of California at least. De Forest moved last year from San Francisco to Baltimore to join a local alternative-cabaret scene that boasts such acts as the Diana Froley 3, Anne Watts and Boister, the Tinklers, Radiant Pig, the Pupils, and more. It's a scene that is far more active and vital than anyone outside Maryland realizes, but it may be getting more notice now that it has been joined by de Forest, one of the genre's top figures.

After all, de Forest's 1987 debut album, I Shall Be Released, was produced by Big Star and Box Tops alumnus Alex Chilton and broke into the college-radio top 100. His 1992 single, "George Bush Lies," was released by Bob Mould's Singles Only label. De Forest's 1994 disc, DeathGrooveLoveParty, featured members of the Violent Femmes and the dBs. And his latest album, El Camino Real (St. Francis), was produced by Bob Wiseman of Canada's Blue Rodeo and features Ben Vaughn.

De Forest came here for love ("Diana Froley brought me here," he confesses, explaining that their friendship blossomed into a romance after she recorded one of his songs, "Talk to Jim," for her Lauraville album, after which "either she had to move west or I hadto move east"), but he's enthusiastic about the artistic community that he's joined. He hopes to play here often between his tours and looks forward to collaborating with local musicians.

"I had lived in California all my life and was ready to try something new," he says. "San Francisco is a very expensive place to live, and it skews the substance-to-pretension ratio the wrong way. Plus, I'd always liked Baltimore. I first came here in 1998 to do a show at the 14-Karat Cabaret, and a monologist and a dance act were on the same bill. That eclecticism appealed to me. Plus, it's a cheap place to live."

Alternative cabaret takes the classic cabaret format of midcentury Berlin, Paris, and Manhattan and retains its minimalist instrumentation, its intimate setting, and its roots in art song and vaudeville, while cracking open the polished style to incorporate the irreverent humor, twitchy rhythms, and the surrealism of garage rock.

"I wouldn't call myself a cabaret artist," de Forest says warily. "But cabaret is certainly one arena where my work fits. It's a pleasure for me to work in a small room where people are playing close attention. I love to work in that environment, but I'm just as happy to play at the Vancouver Folk [Music] Festival before thousands of people or at a rock club with all those people pressed right up against the stage.

"But I will say this," he continues. "A common element that Diana, the Tinklers, Radiant Pig, myself, and the others all share is a real understanding that irony and sincerity aren't mutually exclusive. A lot of people in folk music or rock music don't get that, and either they're sickeningly sincere or they're smart asses without substance. In this scene, you can have something to say, and that something can be funny and serious, tender and mean, at the same time. Our music is hard to pin down, so that's why people call us alternative cabaret."

De Forest's roots are in the theater. As a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he thought he wanted to be a stage actor and director, but a directing workshop led by Spalding Gray in 1978 changed de Forest's life.

"Spalding was just breaking away at that point from being an actor," de Forest recalls. "He was looking at his own life as a way of finding texts, and he encouraged us to create theatrical material from our own lives. I realized I didn't have a knack for playing a character and what I really wanted to do was to create work based on my own experiences. Once I realized I could be myself onstage, I wanted to perform."

De Forest started out doing performance art and environmental pieces before finding his own niche. "Because I was in love with rock 'n' roll and because the whole punk thing was breaking at the time, it made sense to move in that direction," he says. "Elvis Costello was a big eye-opener for me. Like many young men, I had rock 'n' roll dreams."

There was only one problem. The only instrument he knew how to play was the ukulele. He had bought one for $12 to play in his dorm. With just four strings and a narrow neck, it's an easy instrument to learn, but it's not exactly the stuff of rock 'n' roll dreams.

De Forest gave it a shot anyway and found its simplicity strengthened his songs. "The ukulele is so minimal," he says. "You're just scratching out the barest harmonic accompaniment. It forces me as a writer to make sure that every word counts, that the melody is strong. Because if there's something that would make you cringe, you hear it right away--there's nothing to cover it up."

So it was that de Forest found himself armed only with his tiny uke as the opening act for the Ramones at San Francisco's Kabuki Club in the early '80s. He endured the predictable taunts and abuse of the skeptical crowd but eventually won many of them over by playing his ukulele as hard as the Ramones played their instruments. It went so well that he was invited back the following year when the Ramones returned.

Through it all, de Forest honed a style that suggested what Jonathan Richman might sound like if he ever adopted an adult persona. Or what They Might Be Giants might sound like if they played a ukulele like a punk-rock guitar. Or what Spalding Gray might sound like if backed by the Talking Heads. He recently recorded his fourth full-length album in the Yukon with singer-songwriter-cellist Kim Barlow and producer Bob Hamilton. Baltimore's Serious Records, run by Froley, plans to release it this fall.

"When you're doing underground music, it doesn't always pay the bills," he says. "In San Francisco, New York, and even Los Angeles--where I lived for many years--there's a kind of resentment toward people who are still struggling to get their work heard or seen, and that affects the quality of people's work. It's really easy to become bitter if you see people who are less talented than you get a break. But that's a trap, because you become a real whiner.

"Here I don't notice a lot of that," he says. "I see people happy to be doing their creative work. Baltimore has a good substance-to-pretension ratio."

Carmaig de Forest plays the 14-Karat Cabaret Feb. 15 with Cameron Wolf, Audrey Chen, and Robert Darlington.

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