October 22, 2012

John Forté Endures The Russian Winter

By Cassandra Momplaisir

John Forte

John Forté

From a past that includes a Grammy-nominated album, to his new production company, Le Castle, the evolution of John Forté continues to empower, inspire, and exceed the ordinary. After experiencing the highest of highs and lowest of lows, Forté could've easily dissolved into the abyss of pop culture. Instead, he took a journey from rock bottom to a holistic reinvention of self.

Forté began his professional music career as a producer and songwriter, finding his break penning and producing hits for The Fugees. In 2000, Forté was arrested for drug possession and given a 14-year minimum sentence after being found guilty. President George W. Bush pardoned Forté in 2008, giving him the opportunity to be artistically reborn. Forté no longer felt the need to fit into a category of music, and wrote because his story had to be told.

Since his release, Forté has more than made up for lost time. He's released albums, recorded a number of songs, and played hundreds of shows around the world. Forté also began his own film production company, Le Castle. The company's most recent release, The Russian Winter will be available on VOD on October 23rd, 2012.

Forté recently spoke to Playback about his unapologetic creativity, humble brilliance and his vow to forever remain a work in progress.

How did growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn impact you as a musician?
Brownsville was and remains a war zone. It was definitely trying, being a little kid, eight years old, walking through the hood with the violin, it wasn't necessarily the coolest thing to do. It taught me that it's okay to be different. It was a life lesson. It's okay not to fall into what is considered as the norm. It's okay to follow what your heart and your passions are. That's the one thing that Brownsville taught me from a very early age.

Many songwriters have to travel to a vulnerable place to be able to create. What factors play in reaching a place where your songwriting is most potent?
Notwithstanding the collaborations that I've done, songwriting is a very intimate and lonely process. I'm comfortable with that. I don't sit around with a bunch of people in a room and ask people if they like this idea or that idea. I'm most comfortable when I'm left alone with my thoughts. I think it's similar to writing, I think the best books are the books that come from the most vulnerable places, the most truthful and authentic places. As long as I feel like I can let that wall down and be vulnerable and be authentic, then I think that process is going to lend itself to me creating something that I value. At the end of the day, it ends and begins with me. I don't make songs for the masses. I don't make songs, thinking, "Hey, how is this going to be received?" I make songs and think, "is this something I can listen to?" That's my process.

You have used your life experiences as an avenue to teach and speak out to young minds. In your life, what has been your biggest teacher?
Living. I wasn't born into a world of privilege, but I was born into a world of love, support and encouragement. I've had many people, from a very young age, take a look at my life and guide me with no expectation of a return, but just a belief in my potential. Some of these people are no longer with us, but I remember their words everyday and I value their insight and guidance. I think a lot of that has to do with humbling yourself to understand that the more we learn, the more we know that we don't know that much at all. Life is a learning process, and hopefully I'll continue to learn as an artist, as a thinker, a friend, as a businessman and everything else in between.

Le Castle has many things under its wing, one of which is film. What was the journey of creating Le Castle like, and what do you see for its future?
Sky's the limit. I have an amazing business partner, Christophe Charlier, who is a business wunderkind. He is my 50/50 partner, but I have 100% creative control. It's unlike any business arrangement that I have ever been a part of. But it speaks to the fact that, we were friends from high school, we came to the table with respect, trust, love and admiration as our foundation. It's not as if we agree on everything, but the fact of the matter is that we know we can disagree and still get back to one, and keep moving with our forward progress.

That is a great beginning and we've had a great initial year with two films, The Russian Winter and Brooklyn Castle. Brooklyn Castle, which has its theatrical release next month, won the audience award at SXSW. We have The Russian Winter, which is coming out to VOD on October 23rd, 2012. We are very, very excited about that. We also have announced another couple of films that we're involved in, one of which is Twist, which is a remake of Oliver Twist. Another one is The Jesse Owens Story, which we're also excited about. These are full feature films, as oppose to documentaries. These are projects that we believe in, that have a story to tell, whether it's historical or has an entertaining component - we invest in quality. We have a ton of music coming out, some of which has already been produced and others which will be produced rather eminently. We won't stop there. We want to really engage in the arts, we want to support artists, whether they're photographers or painters.

The final icing on the cake for us is that we find a way to add a philanthropic component to what we do. I think the best form of charity is showing up. We want to show up. We want to let young people in particular know that their voices are valid and that they should be heard. We found many ways over the past year and there are some ways on the horizon that will allow us to be present in the lives of young people. Today, mentorship is not as apparent as we all might like. There are so many young people out there who just want to be heard, so I do a lot less talking and a lot more listening when I show up to schools or city programs that support young people. We have the blessing of being able to give back and that's something that I don't take for granted.

What can we expect on The Russian Winter tour documentary?
It is a really honest portrayal of what it's like to be in a strange land where you don't understand the language. It is part tour documentary, and part biopic. What you see is what happened; we didn't contrive anything. I like to think of it as an objective portrayal of what that experience was like. People have responded so positively towards it to the point where they have said, "Well, what about the Moroccan summer, or the Japanese spring?" The Russian Winter was what it was. I don't want to get caught in the cycle of trying to repeat that experience, because it will not repeat again. I want it to be a tool of empowerment and of inspiration. I want little kids in Brownsville to say to them selves, "If John can do this, then so can I." We are extremely excited about it!

What is the biggest difference between the Brooklyn audience and the audience in Russia?
Language. When I was performing in Russia, it was clear to me that half - if not the vast majority - of the audience probably did not understand the bulk of what I was saying. But that was a lesson to me that music really does transcend language and cultural differences. If the person does not understand what you're saying, but they're feeling the music, they will keep coming back for more. Maybe they'll understand 15% the first time around, but then they'll listen again and they'll understand 20%, then 25%. It was just beautiful. With my audience in Brooklyn, it's the same sort of thing where they keep coming back but we don't have language as a barrier.

Having been exposed to the music industry very early on, what advice would you give to young producers, songwriters, artists, etc. who are now on the come up?
The one thing that I tell anyone who is entering the game right now is that you have technology on your side, which is something that we didn't have. We had to spend exorbitant amounts of money in order to make projects. You can actually produce and write at a speed that is greater than ever before. It can be a good thing if you're a prolific artist or a bad thing if you're not producing qualitative content. I would encourage anybody whose striving to make an impact to invest more in quality than quantity. Although we have the technology and we know that we could turn out thirty songs in thirty days, if it takes you thirty days to focus on one song, do that. Take advantage of the technological benefits but don't take them for granted.

What does ASCAP mean to you?
ASCAP has been a part of my professional life from day one. They have been incredibly supportive while I was here, and while I was away. They've always kept me in the loop of their events and linking me with some amazing writers and publishers. It's a family. It is a society that is incentivized to bring people together to create art that has staying power.