Written by AJ Miranda.
The key to being a compelling singer-songwriter is honesty. If the audience doesn’t believe you when you’re up their strumming your acoustic guitar, you’re failing at the one task you’ve been granted. Unfortunately, there are plenty of six-string-strumming songstresses who look like their goal with music is to land a spot on a CW dramedy.
And then there’s Margaret Cho. Yes, the standup comic Margaret Cho. The alt-comedy diva, who for years has endeared diverse groups of fans, from the LGBT community to Korean immigrants, with her at times raunchy and at times poignant act. Ms. Cho recently recorded an album on which she sings and plays guitar, and she enlisted many darlings of the indie world, including Tegan & Sara, Fiona Apple and Andrew Bird. But unlike other female celebrities who’ve recently attempted indie songwriter respectability—we’re looking at you Scarlett and Zooey—Cho’s effort reeks of honesty and real life experience (and pot, on one song).
Cho Dependent is Cho’s seventh album but the first that doesn’t involve standup comedy. This is the first CD on which she sings, and if you thought her standup routine was no-holds-barred, you have to listen to songs like “I’m Sorry” which was inspired by a real-life man Cho fell in love with… who years later killed his then wife and stuffed her corpse in a freezer until she partially mummified (true story). On “Calling In Stoned” Cho and guest Tommy Chong harmonize about getting so high you can’t come in to work (even though you were the scheduled carpool driver that day).
In a recent interview with Red River Noise, Cho gave us insights into Cho Dependent, as well as what’s on her docket for the coming weeks. Like a good comic, Cho seems to handle even the hardest and most awkward situations with laughter. Underlying all her tales of woe, there’s a sense of humor, even if that humor is at times morbid and/or raunchy. When recently contacted by the murdering subject of “I’m Sorry” she turned down his request to reunite in person, saying “I don’t want to be The Mummy Returns.”
Tell me about Cho Depenent. I’m guessing it has a lot to do with codependence.
Margaret: The album is a lot about dependence in its different forms. The first song is about having an intervention and crystal meth addiction. There’s songs about smoking pot. Songs about dependence on people, and dependence on ideas about who they are, which is what “I’m Sorry” is about. The whole album has the theme of that kind of dependence running through it, so I thought the title expressed that perfectly.
Cho Dependent sounds like a very honest album. Does your comedy, and the honesty of that medium, influence your songwriting?
Margaret: I hope so. That’s what my goal was—to reach a level of honesty that exists in comedy and that can move over into my songwriting. Thank you. I tried really hard to make it funny but at the same time make it very truthful.
Was the song “Eat Shit and Die” inspired by a specific relationship?
Margaret: Just in general. In a lot of relationships, the lack of control that we have, the only thing we can do is let go. So it’s an anthem about that, but it’s also trying to do it in a way that’s funny.
That sentiment is universal, but the song also has some very specific lyrics, like the line about the tranny whores.
Margaret: Well, I’ve always felt inferior to tranny whores. They seem to have it all. I always feel like I can never compete with that. [laughs]
Because they have the long hair and makeup, and a cock?
Margaret: Yeah, they have everything, so how can you top that? It’s really the best thing you could be.
As far as being a breakup song, “Eat Shit” seems like you’re the one initiating the break up. But some other songs are about you being dumped. In general, in life, are you the heartbreaker or heartbreakee?
Margaret: No, no. I’m always the heartbroken. Like always. But that’s what everybody feels like. Everybody feels heartbroken, no matter what the truth of it is. It’s a common feeling that happens. It’s selfish, defensive. You want to feel like the one being hurt.
You worked with a lot of big names on this album. Some of the musicians you knew personally, but some you didn’t. Was there any resistance from the musicians being like “Isn’t she a comedian? Why would I want to work with her?”
Margaret: No, people were really into it; they were curious about it, and fortunately they were fans of mine and wanted to get involved. So I didn’t have to push anyone.
Has music always been a part of your life?
Margaret: It’s something that’s relatively new as far as playing, but it’s always been around. Both my parents are musicians—my mother plays guitar and my father plays piano, and they’re both singers. I grew up with a lot of church in my house, so that’s always been a huge part of my life. But I could never play seriously until I made this album. It committed me to learning truly how to play guitar and sing and write songs.
Church, you said? Did you sing in a choir or play an instrument?
Margaret: I sang, yeah.
So is this upcoming tour going to be music or standup or both?
Margaret: It’s mostly standup, but there’s a few songs in there. I wrote all this new material because I was living in Georgia for the past several months, doing this show called Drop Dead Diva. And so I’m really anxious to do standup comedy.
What kind of topics are you going to touch on?
Margaret: It’s going to be a lot about my family history and growing up and who my family is and how they came to America. You know, kind of touching on immigration. It’s kind of stuff like that I haven’t talked about a lot, with who I am and where I came from. My grandparents and family history stuff like that.
That’s interesting because immigration is a hot topic in the news right now, but because of Arizona and Mexico, not necessarily the Asian immigrant experience. Do you think your family’s experience relates to what’s going on right now?
Margaret: I think so, even though it’s something that happened a while ago, they still had a really hard time coming here and there’s still quite a lot of invisibility for Asian Americans too. So the way that immigrants now are very invisible and society has a hard time with that, so I think it relates.
Speaking of politics, I guess. Your routine has gotten a lot raunchier in recent years. One of your jokes that really made me laugh and caught me totally off guard was the Sarah Palin joke.
Margaret: [laughs] I feel bad because I just met Bristol (Palin’s 19-year-old daughter) yesterday. I’m doing Dancing With The Stars with her, which is real weird. I feel real bad about it. I’m like, “I hope she doesn’t lie down.” [laughs] She’s real nice, but it’s really funny I’m so gross. I’m so disgusting.
Does Bristol know you did that joke?
Margaret: I don’t think so. Who knows? She’s very nice, though. I don’t hold any of that stuff against her. I don’t believe what her mom is doing politically, but she’s a child, basically.
Last question: You recently said that making this album was a failed attempt at getting laid by musicians. Why do you think you failed? You seem like the kind of person who gets what they want.
Margaret: Well, I kinda didn’t try, because everyone had such intense familial love for each other. It didn’t really work out that way.