Jerome Forde Talks Songwriting Traditions And Self-Recording His Debut Album

Jerome Forde has been making music from a young age, but steered away from music for a number of years before getting fired up to do some more songwriting and pitching some demos to Toronto’s Weewerk Records. Phil Klygo took a shine to what he heard and plenty of hard work later, Forde has his first album out, a self-titled collection. Even more recently, he contributed to a series of covers of Art Bergmann’s music for Weewerk, too. What Klygo no doubt heard, and what audiences are experiencing is music that sounds like it’s been carefully crafted for a particular sound and mood, and that’s one that captures a wealth of musical tradition as well as universal human emotion.

Now performing a great deal live around his home state of Michigan, Forde is also in possession of quite a backlog of songs both from his earlier phase in music and his later burst of songwriting after discovering varied Americana and singer/songwriter traditions. The peek we get at what Forde has in store on his self-titled album suggests powerful imagery, uplifting, layered vocals and strings, and plenty of reflection on the challenges we face in life and in relationships. I spoke with Jerome Forde about this first batch of songs and his experience recording them.

HMS: I noticed that you recently released a cover of Art Bergmann’s song “Death of a Siren” which was a really cool rendition. What led to that?

Jerome Forde: Phil Klygo at Weewerk was the one who received my demo and liked it so much that he responded immediately and said, “Let’s just record an album and see where it goes.” Afterwards, he was putting together cover songs of Art Bergmann stuff from other artists on the label. I think Great Lakes Swimmers did one. He let me choose whichever one I wanted, so I chose “Death of a Siren”, which is a beautiful song that I think is about his wife who just recently passed. I think his album, ShadowWalk, is pretty much that same thing. Weewerk liked my cover and put it out as a single a few weeks back.

HMS: That’s a sad context for that song, but it’s an interesting one, for sure. It’s a great choice to perform. When you sent the demos to Weewerk and got signed, how did you then record this album? Was it something that you worked on at home?

JF: I just recorded it in my basement in my house on some pretty shabby equipment, to be honest. It was an old 16-track with a built in CD player. I’d make mixes, go into my car, listen to it, then go back in. I did that for a couple months. I got the point where I was finally relatively happy with it. It’s a little lo-fi, but I kind of like that style anyway.

HMS: It certainly doesn’t sound deficient in any way. You did a great job on it, especially after being away from music for a time. To what extent had you done recording before, in your earlier musical years?

JF: We recorded songs back then, messing around, but never in an official way. I played a lot of music when I was young, just with friends. Of course, my future goal was to pursue music as a career, but I got caught up in other things and abandoned the idea in my early 20s. In the last few years, I started getting into a whole new range of music. I consider myself a huge music buff, but I hadn’t heard of Townes Van Zandt until I was 36 years old. I started listening to Blaze Foley and Jason Molina. I was just blown away, and got kind of inspired. I started writing a ton of songs. It’s kind of overwhelming because I want to record them all. I need to catch up.

HMS: It’s a great problem to have, in many ways. Did you have an established experience of how to write songs from when you were younger, or is writing in this way new to you?

JF: Well, some of the songs on this record are from when I was young, like “Marigold”, “Sleepwalking”, and “Only.” I was 19 to 21 years old when I wrote those. Then I just kind of revamped them. I never know how a song is really going to turn out until I record it.

HMS: That’s awesome because you didn’t throw those songs out. That person’s perspective it still valid. I try not to throw out my old writings, thinking, “That person was an idiot!”

JF: No, I do that, too! I’ve thrown out much more than I’ve kept.

HMS: It’s nice to make a gesture towards your previous music. You’re creating continuity by doing that.

JF: It was a weird experience to see those songs on Spotify for the first time. Those songs had been living in my head for two decades.

HMS: Because you were the person playing all the instruments on this album, there must not have been any problems updating the songs to whatever you want your sound to be these days.

JF: My songwriting style, and the experience of writing a song for me, has always been pretty much the same. I always kind of have the same sounds in mind. There are certain chords, certain patterns, and the Americana style, like a combination of Folk, Pop, and Country music all blended together. Even my early stuff was like that, and I think I’ve embraced it even more now.

HMS: It’s so hard to articulate where a sound comes from and what it is. But one thing that’s true about all these songs is that they have lots of layers. You’re clearly comfortable adding multiple vocals, multiple instruments, so I can see why that’s more of an Americana thing. Layers of strings and vocals are more common in Americana traditions, for instance, than Rock and Pop.

JF: Even when I wasn’t recording so much, I was listening to a lot of music. Getting into The Beatles and The Beach Boys affected me. I know it’s cliché to say that you like them, it’s so obvious, but to really sit down and listen to the deep tracks is amazing. To me, The Beach Boys are the best. Like Brian Wilson, when he started doing Americana style stuff later on, like Pet Sounds, and the SMILE project that they ended up throwing out, that recording style is the sound that I really like the most. It has lush harmonies and melodies that go in unexpected directions. To me, Brian Wilson is the king of that approach.

HMS: I think there are some major reasons why people like The Beatles and The Beach Boys, but the thing is that you can excavate the tracks, and keep going further into them, and that’s how you know how awesome they really are.

JF: They just never stop amazing you.

HMS: What’s interesting about Brian Wilson is the balance between control and allowing more natural elements in. He’s so controlled in orchestrating, but when he starts to allow that energy in, it’s very exciting.

JF: Definitely. There’s a very experimental side to him, very original. It’s also so tightly orchestrated. His inspirations are all like that, tightly composed music.

HMS: When you mentioned Folk music earlier, it made me think of your song “Dear Misery” because there is a really old world feel to it. It really resonates with me because it feels like a connection with generations past. Were you aware of Folk influences there?

JF: When I wrote that song, I was actually trying to do those things. That’s a very old song, too, and I’ve always been fascinated with Folk elements. When I was learning the guitar, I was about 12 years old, and my teacher would have me learn all those old songs like “Greensleeves” and traditional songs.

They are “traditional” because they are anonymous and I always found that fascinating. You didn’t even know when they were written, necessarily. I wanted to write a song where you wouldn’t know whether I was covering a song, or what time period it was from. I wanted something in a minor key that could sound like an old Irish ballad.

HMS: Was recording the album yourself at home difficult in the sense that you could overthink things and continually tweak things?

JF: It did kind of drive me nuts because when you’re recording alone, you’re hearing a lot more detail than someone who’s just listening to it for the first time. You hear everything that you recorded. I remember every track, doing the banjo, for instance. And some people don’t even know that banjo is on some of those tracks. I sometimes hate recording because there’s so much detail. But the end goal, when you’re relatively happy, is also a great feeling.

HMS: It’s like building a house. There’s so much there that’s not visible to the eye that has to be there. The audience doesn’t ever see the other stuff.

JF: Yes, it either works or it doesn’t. All the time and labor is spent on things that nobody sees.

HMS: You’re out there playing a lot lately, so I imagine that you are having to play very stripped-down versions of these songs, given they have so many layers.

JF: Big time. It’s very stripped-down. A lot of times it’s just me, and the acoustic guitar, and occasionally the harmonica. The shows have been going really well. I’m new to social media but I’ve had some pretty good feedback at shows. I’ve had a lot of invites back. Playing live is where I focus a lot of my attention. I’m hoping to eventually play a few shows in Toronto, too, where my label’s based.

HMS: I noticed that you’re music has been called “Dark Folk”. What do you think of that? Does that work for you?

JF: I’m not opposed to it. I think there’s a mix in my songs. They are kind of bitter-sweet. I try to write happier melodies. Some of the lyrics are sometimes dark, but there’s always an element of hope in them. That’s one of the reasons that Phil liked the songs, because he felt that they were ultimately hopeful. People use “dark” and “haunting” a lot to describe my songs, but I don’t necessarily see that.

HMS: That’s interesting, because “Dear Misery” starts rising towards the end, in a hopeful way. The instrumental solo parts are really energetic. They don’t remain dejected. I think you’re bringing in real emotions and relatable feelings rather than trying to be artificially upbeat.

JF: Exactly. Yes, I hate that, too. I hate artificial sadness, too! I don’t like “trying” to be sad or “trying” to be happy. You have to do what comes naturally.

HMS: You mention things from the natural world in some of your songs and that may cause people to associate you with Folk music. You also live in a more rural area, so you’re probably inspired by what you see.

JF: Yes, definitely. I’ve always liked lyrics that draw analogies between the physical world and emotions. I think there are a lot more connections there than a lot of people realize. Long ago, people used to think that the world was basically our insides turned outward, so there was a natural harmony there. It’s easy to transition between talking about a tree to talking about loving someone.

HMS: Yes, for sure. In that older song, “Marigold”, the thin ice is a very strong image that becomes a very good way to talk about uncertainty and danger.

JF: Yes, exactly. That’s good to hear.

HMS: “No Good at Goodbyes” feels a little more modern, but you still have that image of the sun hanging low. That’s a darker song, in a way, but it asks some more positive questions.

JF: It ends on a hopeful note. That one was written probably two years ago.

HMS: The song “The River Is Wide” really taps into a lot of old imagery in the sense that many cultures, Western and Eastern, use a river image to talk about the barrier between life and death. It’s also a sweet song, it’s somber and interesting.

JF: I like taking songs from my own experience, but I try to universalize them as much as I can to make them more relatable. There’s the idea of crossing a wide river and it’s going to take a lot of time, and cost you things. The trials that it takes to get there are hard. But there’s a beauty that shines through it, hopefully, especially on the chorus. The verses are a little more of a downer, focusing on the passing away of things, and the choruses are trying to bring back a sense of hope and instill some courage for the long journey to where they want to be.

HMS: Part of what works so well is that there are two characters in the song, and one of them is speaking to the other. That sense of relationship kind of lifts the song, too. The speaker wishes good and positive things for the other person, so by repeating these positive things, it’s uplifting. Can I ask about the multi-cultural sound to the guitar on that track?

JF: Yes! I was just kind of messing around and when I play it live, I can’t play it like that since I’d really need two guitars. It has a mariachi band feel to the solo! I really wanted to have a video for “The River’s Wide” with a bit of a budget where I’d be in a boat going across a river and there would be a Grim Reaper taking me across. And at that solo, the Grim Reaper would take a guitar out of his cloak and start playing a mariachi solo.

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