Unbreakable China: An Interview with China Forbes

| March 1, 2012 | 0 Comments

China Forbes, front woman of world-renowned, Portland-based band Pink Martini, is many things. She’s smart (Harvard graduate), beautiful, has a voice like silk and is mommy to a curious, musically inclined nearly 3-year-old boy named Cameron.

After over 15 years of never missing a Pink Martini show, even touring while pregnant and shortly after giving birth, last year China received the news that she had injured vocal chords and would require surgery. A forced year off to heal and rehabilitate after years of touring the world gave China plenty of time to examine her priorities, identity, motherhood and her love of singing.

She’s been re-entering her life as Pink Martini’s songstress over the past few months and with this emergence has come a renewed passion for the craft of singing. A conversation with China revealed that through a very difficult time, an opportunity presented itself to rediscover who she was, separate from Pink Martini and from being a singer. Recently, China shared her thoughts about where she is now …

J: You have such a beautiful voice. When I listen to Pink Martini music I always marvel at how many languages you sing in. Especially French. It’s so fluid and authentic. Do you speak French?

C: It’s rusty. My dad was half-French. I’ve always said that if I could live in France for a year, I could probably become fluent because I have such a strong foundation. I studied it from 7th grade though 11th grade. My grandfather was French so I heard it spoken all the time. You just have to live there. You can’t learn the conversational element in school. Growing up, my dad had French nicknames for us. He called my sister pamplemousse which is grapefruit. I told him ‘I want a name like that.’ So he called me chou-fleur, which is cauliflower. It sounds better in French.

J: Everything sounds better in French

C: Pamplemousse and chou-fleur.

J: You know a few other languages, don’t you?

C: I studied Italian in high school because I thought I was going to study opera, so the last year of high school I took Italian. I went to Italy when I was in college. I met a family when I was there on spring break. They’d been living in Rome. I was playing with their kids on the beach. They said ‘You are so good with our kids. Where do you live?’ I told them I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts and they said ‘So do we! We’re professors at Harvard.’ And I said ‘I go to Harvard.’ Serendipitously, they needed a babysitter for three months the following year and so they invited me and I spent six weeks in Rome. The plan was to travel by Euro-rail at the end of that time but I had started get homesick. I was 20 or 21 and missed my friends so I cut my trip short and left. I flew home and the next day I didn’t feel well. I ended up in the hospital to have my appendix out. It was a good thing I left! Can you imagine being that sick and alone traveling on the Euro-rail?

J: Talk about a major blessing in disguise … that could have saved your life …

C: That was good intuition. Psychic. My son is psychic like that. It could just be that he’s so aware that he’s thinking what I’m thinking and making the same associations that I’m making.

J: Do you think kids have a naturally ability to tune into their intuition because they don’t have all the ego-driven filters and social mores? At what point do kids start to lose that purity or that innocence?

C: Puberty of course … when they start noticing girls and boys, don’t you think? Talk about when distractions happen. I don’t have a child that age, but my niece is about to turn 13 and it’s interesting to see. Though her parents shielded her from technology much longer than other kids she now has a phone and is more exposed to T.V. She seemed so innocent for an older kid but now she has crossed over, she wants to be with friends, she worries that her best friend doesn’t call. Puberty and girl social politics, right?

J: When kids enter school, things change. From the time they’re born until they’re five, their world picture is based on what’s around them in the moment; once school enters, life becomes about the external world that needs filtering. There are learning requirements. You start to read. Expectations become a bit different.

C: I like how Cameron’s Montessori school doesn’t have homework. Homework is a drain; there’s something good about it, I know, I just naturally gravitated to the Montessori methods. I didn’t do my homework a lot. I didn’t want to learn that way.

J: You were obviously gifted in many areas. How were your parents about your educational process?

C: Both my parents are really creative and so is everyone in my family. My mother’s dad was a doctor but he played the violin and sang. My mom was a theater producer. My dad was a lighting designer.

J: They understood the creative process …

C: They knew that money isn’t always made in those fields, but they wanted us to pursue what we wanted. Luckily I was good at math. I was in advanced classes and did well even though I didn’t do all my homework. I wasn’t a big reader. I might have had some undiagnosed reading disability like an eye tracking problem because I just couldn’t sit there to read. It was torture.

J: What is your nearly 3-year old son showing interest in?

C: He’s totally into music and it’s no surprise. He was in my womb for a lot of touring so he heard all of that music on stage. He was tour with me until he was 15 months old, so he was in the wings during sound checks. I don’t want to force music on him. But now, at this stage, all he wants to do is play drums. He has congas, bongos, tons of instruments. My little vintage 1985 Casio keyboard allows voice sampling. He plays that a lot. We do family band where I play piano, Adam plays the conga and Cameron plays the percussion or whatever he wants. He can understand when he hears jazz, that’s the bass, that’s the high hat, that’s the drum, that’s the trombone … he’s been able to do that since he was two. My husband Adam taught him to listen for the sounds. They listen to the jazz radio stations.

J: So now, how are you feeling after your whole recovery period? Not singing must have been difficult.

C: It was the hardest year yet aside from the year my dad died. It was very strange. Isolating. Confusing. Ego-challenging.

J: Was it humbling?

C: Completely humbling, in terms of the band, too, and my place in the band. Feeling like ‘maybe they don’t need me to go on.’ It was an amazing and hard thing to discover that I’m replaceable. Everyone is, I guess, well maybe except Thomas (Lauderdale) {laughter}. At the same time, I don’t have all the pressure on me anymore. Pink Martini can go on without me, so I can be a mom and choose that too, and not have everyone lose their career or particular job. I love that the band can function without me. Now that I’ve gotten through the entire ego stuff about that … it’s amazing.

J: Did a year of not singing impact your identity or prompt you to wonder, ‘What am I without this aspect of my life or my voice?’

C: It was weird. I’ve always been someone with so many interests. I felt I had to choose one or two and that I couldn’t pursue them all. But during this experience over the summer, I had all this time and I couldn’t think of one thing I wanted to do. It was emptiness.

J: How did you start to find yourself again?

C: A lot of therapy. I don’t like the word ‘soul searching,’ per se. Time passes and things don’t seem so important anymore; things that seemed huge and scary aren’t. So that was a lesson.

G: You’re identity and career were dependent on the strength and success of your voice …

C: In some ways it was a nightmare come true. To me, that was the worst thing that could happen; I always wondered, ‘What if, what if, what if, oh my god what if?’ Fearing things all the time and then asking myself ‘So what if this occurs, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Will you die? Will you be embarrassed?’ Then it happened.

G: Even though vocal injury wasn’t your fault, was there an element of embarrassment for you?

C: I felt like I wanted to hide away. I didn’t want to walk around Portland, have people see me and ask what was going on. I definitely felt like this town is small. I felt like people were looking at me everywhere I went. Actually they were not. People were supportive. What was interesting was that somewhere inside I knew I needed a break. But it was hard. We had so many bookings. I figured I’d finish the year and then take a break. Then my voice went out.

J: What does it take to get a voice back? What did rehabilitation require?

C: First, I had to not talk a single word for two weeks to let the wound heal. With a toddler, that was scary. I couldn’t be alone with Cameron because it wasn’t safe. I couldn’t yell or instruct him to not do potentially harmful things. I had the surgery which was followed by a lot of speech pathology work with a speech therapist. I learned how to speak in a way that wasn’t as hard on my voice. As a singer, you talk all the time; do interviews, sound checks, you talk to everybody about whatever and just talk because in life you talk. Then you do a show, sign CDs for two hours and talk to every person that comes in line. There’s no time for vocal rest. I was hard on my voice and I really didn’t realize it. Now I’m much more aware. I need time to not talk before a show, after a show. I don’t talk over loud music at restaurants anymore. I took voice lessons with a couple different teachers to learn new techniques to make it easier on my voice.

J: Where are you now, with yourself, and looking ahead with Pink Martini? 

C: I feel really good about Pink Martini. Thomas and I are always working on our relationship and finding new ways to communicate. A lot of our issues came from just not communicating and letting things fester for a long time. We had a break from each other. He has had different experiences working with other singers, both the pluses and minuses of that. I’ve had an amazing time being home with Cameron. But I’m ready to go. Pink Martini is doing a tour in March and April in Mexico then we hit a few Southern states, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Austin.

G: When are you back in Portland?

C: We’re playing the Oregon Zoo in August. We’re looking at getting in a few other shows locally sooner than later.

J: You were so used to traveling and always being on the road for years … What were some of the positive things that came from being home with your son and husband for an extended period of time? 

C: I had a chance to bond with Cameron in a way that had eluded me because of my travel. We really got to know each other. I’d been a nervous new mother. I had postpartum depression. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I felt scared; I was taking him on the road when he was only 9 weeks. I had to get a nanny and I didn’t want a nanny. I was insecure. I kept thinking, ‘I’m not a good mom.’ With the time off, I actually feel we’re two peas in a pod. He gets me and I get him. I love being with him. He’s so delicious and delightful. I wouldn’t have gotten there if I kept up that schedule. We would have been like two roommates who kind of knew each other.

J: None of us controls how life ultimately flows. The discovery of oneself through change is what really tells our stories.

C: Right. Things happen whether you like it or not. It’s weird to be on the other side of this. I thought I’d never be happy. Yet, I now know happiness because of the darkness I have to compare it to.

J: Singing now must take on a whole new excitement. The time off seems like it brought back the love and spark of singing for you.

C: It feels so good. It’s amazing, really. During my hiatus I wondered how I’d go back. The whole performance thing seemed insurmountable since I’d stepped away. The thought of putting on a gown, putting on makeup, getting back on stage. Then suddenly singing was feeling good. I was taking lessons with someone I clicked with. I realized I could enjoy singing like I never had before. There were no emotional limitations. I was excited about performances, whereas before, I’d dread them. I’d be stressed about stupid things that weren’t important.

J: That sounds like you’re liberated.

C: I’m excited. I know I will miss Cameron again now that I’ll start to travel again. But Pink Martini’s schedule is set up with more breaks. I’ve had a lot of time to think about my life, my happiness, my family. I don’t take the gifts I have for granted. I’m going to try and keep that balance.

 

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Category: 2012_March, Arts and Culture

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