Folk Hero Forest Sun Talks His Hippie Lineage, Acting in Marin and Music’s Healing Power
Plus, the exclusive premiere of the video for the title track, "Brighter Day", from his new album.
Local legend Forest Sun has played festivals from California to Europe and has opened for such well-known acts as Lyle Lovett, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Keb Mo, Brett Dennen, and The Beach Boys. We caught up with the musician just before the release of his ninth studio album, Brighter Day, which explores themes of loss, grief, resiliency, and redemption.
In advance of the October 11th release date, check out the world premiere video of the title track “Brighter Day” below:
Brighter Day is your ninth album. That’s pretty prolific! Is there a way to begin to describe your journey as a musician?
My parents were back-to-the-land hippies who met playing folk music; they were my first musical inspirations. There was always music around growing up. I heard my dad play Townes Van Zandt’s song “Poncho and Lefty” before I ever heard the original. Likewise with my mom playing Elizabeth Cotten’s folk tune, “Freight Train.”
I spent my first six months living in an orange tent in upstate NY with no running water or electricity, while my Dad planted a garden and began building a house out of recycled materials. I have no doubt the crickets and the birds were a big part of my musical education.
I feel like my job is to be available to the Muse and bring into existence the songs that ask to be born. That’s the magic. That’s creating something where there was nothing before.
Can you tell us more about your mother and father?
My father chopped wood with keyboardist Garth Hudson from the Band. He was housemates with fellow musicians Maria Muldaur and Geoff Muldaur. He literally built the floor that Bob Dylan stood on in Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Music Studio near Woodstock, NY, but missed out on meeting Bob Dylan because of an untimely case of excessive flatulence brought on by his home-cooked and home-grown garden picked beans.
He was my first guitar teacher. He studied Buddhism in Nepal, lived on the Navajo Reservation and worked on a farm that was still run with Clydesdale horses. He was an epic gardener who grew his own food. He hitchhiked by himself to Alaska to plant trees when he was 16. He was an artist and a carpenter and a mechanic, and practiced Aikido and Tai Chi. He lost three older siblings to cystic fibrosis and his father to a brain tumor by the time he was 12. He had a great laugh and twinkle in his eye. He never hurried. He was a wizard, beard and all, with a hawk feather in his hat. He played every Sunday for over a decade of his final years at the same coffee shop in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the town where he grew up.
When I was 14 we drove together in a 1954 Chevy pickup from New Mexico to Vermont. The truck couldn’t go over 45 miles per hour. We had to leave it running when we got gas, and park on a hill so we could get it started again. The huge red wooden box he built on the back carried all his worldly possessions; later was turned into a coop to raise turkeys.
My mother heard Joan Baez sing at a live taping of Pete Seeger’s TV show filmed in her uncle’s living room when she was 17. She was totally entranced and plunged deep into folk music, especially Bob Dylan. I remember her singing Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” to me when I was still very small. She loved art and poetry. She was also a dancer and studied with modern dance icon Martha Graham. As a little girl, she was enthralled with the stories of her great grandfather who was Ernest Hemingway’s publisher in Paris in the twenties. He lived scandalously together with Peggy Guggenheim and his wife till his wife left him for James Joyce’s son. My mom was fascinated with this connection to the bohemian world of the 20s.
Later she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico and became involved with Native American rights, working as a manager for Dennis Banks, the founder of the Americana Indian Movement. She was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and inspired the “Songs for Laura” benefit. Over 40 artists contributed their music to raise funds and awareness for people with cancer and their families, including luminaries like Brett Dennen, Sean Hayes, ALO, Jolie Holland, Anais Mitchell and many more.
I miss my Dad. I miss my Mom. They both taught me a lot.
There were several tremendous losses in your life that fueled the inspiration for this album. Can you share more with us about what happened?
This last year saw the end of my marriage and the death of my father. I’ve never known such grief and loss. To become an orphan and have the marriage run its course so close together brought the awareness of the temporary nature of our lives home in a very real and heartbreaking way.
Did creating these songs help you find a way out of the darkness? Do you believe music heals?
Music was absolutely part of my healing process. I heard every song in a new way. I cried a lot. I sought out music new and old that understood what I was going through. I began writing new songs because I had to, in spite of the fact that there is so much about the music business lifestyle that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
You shared a new song every month on social media leading up to the creation of this album – can you tell us more about that process?
As an artist, I love the immediacy of writing, recording and performing a new song each month. I am grateful for my Kickstarter backers who made this last year of songs possible. There are more songs to be born and I can’t do it without my audience.
I’ve read that you have a DIY approach to your music – what does that mean? Do you think your desire to remain autonomous to some degree inspires other musicians?
I recorded my first record in my bedroom on 3rd and Clement in the foggy Richmond District in San Francisco. My window opened on to the wall just a foot or two away. I painted a big colorful sun on a piece of card stock and nailed it to the wall of the house next door so I could wake up and see the sun shining each morning. That’s how my record label Painted Sun Records got its name.
Later I learned of the infamous Sun Records in Memphis but the name stuck. I am a visual artist and painter as well as a songwriter and I feel like the name Painted Sun Records speaks to that. I recorded that first record in my bedroom/art studio/recording studio with upright bassist Seth Ford Young who later when on to play with Tom Waits and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
The unavoidable creative urge comes first. The DIY part is about finding a way to allow that creative expression to come to life and reach people. The art demands to be made. I have to find a way. So many people contribute to making a great record. I’ve worked with wonderful producers, engineers, drummers, horn players, harmony vocalists, keyboardists, bassists, percussion players and collaborators over the years.
For this new record, producer Gawain Matthews was instrumental in the recording process. We brought in a cast of fantastic musicians to add their magic to these songs, including harmonies from my ex-wife Ingrid Serban, Kelly McFarling, Lia Rose, Noelle Hampton and more. I love harmony, and I feel it adds so much to this record. Former Austinite and current Bay Area bastion of the local music scene Rob Hooper lends his irrepressible swing and groove to these songs on drums. Old friend and current LA session cat Alex Budman plays horns. Alex has played on sessions from D’angelo to the Simpsons and we used to play in a band called SuperSauce at UCSC with Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live fame. We opened for No Doubt at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz back in the day.
Your music has appeared in several film scores and soundtracks, and it sounds like you’ve appeared in front of the camera in a few films as well?
I’ve had a number of placements in film and television including several surf documentaries, MTV, Showtime, PBS and the Sportsman Channel. I recently composed my first feature film score “Free Trip To Egypt” which screened last week at the Oakland International Film Festival and in theaters internationally for the Day of Unity this past June. Working on that film soundtrack brought me all over the USA and then to Egypt for production, and then post production in Lugano, Switzerland, and Paris, France and then back in the Bay Area to finish. All these places influenced my writing.
As an actor I played a fireman in Director Cassie Jay’s narrative short film “Who’s There?” That was filmed here in Marin County and premiered at the Tallgrass Film Fest in Wichita, Kansas, as well as a cameo in the short-film “All Sales Final” directed by my ex-wife Ingrid Serban. I even grew a mustache for the fireman role. My fireman suit was the real deal on loan from the San Rafael Fire Department.
What’s next for you?
Keep creating! I feel that is what I am here to do. Being an artist can be a deeply strange and difficult road and can also be deeply meaningful and satisfying. I love that connection with a live audience. I am continuing the Follow the Love Tour this fall in support of this new record, with shows coming up with Mason Jennings and the T-Sisters.
Bringing this music to people who truly love it is so rewarding. I will continue to endeavor to do so. I invite your readers to drop me a line. I love hearing from people who have been touched by music.
Forest Sun’s ninth studio album, ‘Brighter Day’, will be released on October 11, 2019 by Painted Sun Records and will be available on numerous platforms, including Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music, and Amazon.
Emilie Rohrbach has taught music and theatre to grades pre-school through 8th in San Francisco and Marin counties for the last twenty years. She has been a freelance writer for Divine Caroline for five years, and her writing has appeared in Narratively, Hippocampus, Common Ground, Travelers’ Tales, and Marin Magazine, among others. She is passionate about Room to Read, Shanti Bhavan, and Destiny Arts and serves on the board of Knighthorse Theatre Company.