It's Saturday night at Soundpony Lounge and the audience stands shoulder to shoulder, crowding around a band at the front of the club. As the evening wears on, the crowd grows, making it difficult to get in the door, much less reach the bar. Nevertheless, the audience continues to swell, mesmerized by a young, raven-haired singer who dances a fine line between passion, frenzy and anger.
The young lady in question stands barely over five feet tall, dancing barefoot, swinging a guitar and wailing with an authority twice her age. Commonly considered an indie-rock artist, her delivery crosses genre boundaries, tying together jazz-era torch crooning, classic rock swagger, folk intimacy and bluesy passion. Her name is Fiawna Forte; and although she's only 21, she is quickly becoming the new female face of rock in Tulsa.
This isn't your typical indie crowd, however. With as many females in the audience as men, Forte has definitely tapped the "girl power" crowd without alienating the guys. In fact, it's that same authority and swagger engaging the males as the female fans, creating an interesting if uncommon chemistry. It's not unusual to witness soccer moms singing and dancing in the audience next to indie-hip twentysomethings and bikers, a testimony to her boundary-less appeal.
With a maturity that belies her age, Forte's performance alternately conjures impressions of Joni Mitchell, Chrissie Hynde, Johnette Napolitano, Alanis Morissette and Jenny Lewis. And with her confessed love of Ella Fitzgerald and Kate Bush alongside Springsteen and The Clash, it's difficult to believe she's so young.
Sure, Forte's age, petite build and youthful features, combined with a lighthearted air and occasional nervous laughter could (and have) lead some to misread her as naïve. Spend more time with her, however, and it becomes apparent that Forte possesses an "old soul," wise beyond her years and comfortable with who she is.
Sorrow in Song
Although hesitant to share many details, Forte has experienced her own traumas and battled her own demons. She often speaks with astounding self-awareness. Even so, it's apparent (and she will admit) she's a young lady in transition.
Music has always been a natural outlet for Forte, even in her earliest years. "I wrote my first song when I was two and I still have it," she said. "It's just always been something I've done. I wasn't the kid who drew pictures and brought them to my mom; I wrote songs and brought them to my mom.
"I grew up not even thinking about performing or jumping around on stage and stuff. I never thought of music like that. I just wrote songs because it was something I enjoyed and really, it was just a hobby growing up ...
I went through a lot of crap as a kid and it turned into an outlet--my only outlet--that pretty much saved my life on many occasions."
By the age of 15, Forte had begun playing in coffeehouses as a solo, acoustic act. Laughing about it in hindsight, Forte said she was a disheartening artist during her teen years.
"I was just playing Shades of Brown and Nordaggio's coffeehouses and stuff, but my audience would start out as maybe 10 people and dwindle down to my mom and my dad and maybe some of my friends because I would depress the crap out of people."
During the past two years, though, Forte has turned a corner both personally and musically; and her songwriting and performing has evolved as a result. Even though her songs take on a dark or somber tone at times, the intention is different.
"If I have a sad song or a downer song, it's because it's a part of life," Forte said. "It's not because my goal is to impress everybody or make everybody sad. I want to express as much reality as I can through my music.
"I want to be able to show there are good points of life and bad points of life. We all deal with it and all go through it and we're all connected in that way and no one is alone in that sense."
Hurt by the loss of her father at a young age and later affected by a church scandal, Forte was a girl angry at the world and angrier at God, and it showed in her music. That anger affected all areas of her life, including her music. It wasn't until Forte experienced a paradigm change that she found peace.
"I like to have fun and I like to enjoy life because I lived my whole life hating life and trying to prove that it wasn't worth living," Forte said. "I was always trying to prove to everyone that God is evil and everyone's out to get you. I was always trying to prove that to everybody and then all of a sudden it was like 'What am I doing?'
"I was just in this weird world for a long time. I finally got to the point where I was just like 'What is this doing other than just destroying things?'
"There's a lot of death and destruction in the world, but what's the point if you don't at least try to find the good in it? So I've kind of changed from being the extremely negative girl to being 'Well, yeah, the world sucks in a lot of ways, but..."
A large part of Forte's attitude adjustment can be traced back to forming a band. Not only has the group format let Forte spread her wings and show a different side of her creativity, it has also provided a sense of community.
"The day I decided to get clean and it stuck was the day that I met my band members," she said nonchalantly. Backed by Hank Hanewinkle III (also of the Red Stripes/Red Alert) on drums and his uncle, Philip Hanewinkle, on bass, Forte has solid support behind her, both musically and personally. Forte's cousin, Lance Howell, recently moved from Georgia and joined the band as guitarist, thereby completing the group.
"Philip and I are actually dating and he's in the band with me, so it's like this really cool, family thing. It's funny because we're playing rock and roll music in these clubs downtown, but if we played bluegrass, we'd fit in really well," Forte laughed coyly of the family vibe and everyone in the band being related in one way or another.
From an outsider's perspective, being in a band complements Forte's style. Not only has it provided a supportive atmosphere, but it has also allowed Forte to explore her creativity and flesh out her songs more completely.
Ironically, the band's first gig almost didn't transpire. Scheduled to play on the patio at Bruhouse on Cinco de Mayo last year, the bar had double-booked and Forte got bumped. Not one to quit and go home, Forte strolled down the street, asking different businesses if she and her band could set up outside and play. They faced repeated denials. Finally, when she reached Shades of Brown, the owner agreed and the band set up to play roughly a half-dozen songs.
"I thought it was going to be a disaster," Forte said, "but I just started playing and got into it and when I looked up I'm not kidding, any type of person was there. You had your Goth kids, your punk kids, an R&B guy, an old biker guy, every type of person, even soccer moms and they were all dancing with each other and really enjoying it."
That experience marked a turning point for Forte, who still questioned transitioning to rock music in a band after spending years as an acoustic solo artist.
"I always wanted to play rock and roll, but didn't think I had the oomph for it," she said. "There were maybe only 50 people there, but just the fact that all these people were connecting because of us playing was awesome. These people who would probably never even talk to each other or anything were all dancing with each other."
There is no surprise in the fact that Forte' has connected so strongly with her audience. Her songs are emotionally charged and deeply personal, a factor that commonly draws an extremely loyal fanbase. What is astounding, however, is that an artist who never had any intention of performing these songs herself has developed charisma and an intensely engaging stage presence.
"It's funny because I never ever thought I'd be doing this. I never thought I would be performing and that people would actually want to come out and hear me," said Forte.
"I always knew I would write music my whole life, but I always thought I'd be that girl sitting in her closet writing these songs and mailing them to other artists who'd be singing them, I'd hear them on the radio, but nobody would ever know that it was me who wrote that song. I never thought I'd be the person who's actually singing."
In fact, Forte took that path a few years ago. After making connections in Los Angeles, she gathered her songs, of which she had a couple hundred at the time, and made a trip to the coast with intention of selling them and landing a staff writer's job for a publishing company. Once she arrived and showcased her material, however, she was met with a response she didn't expect.
"I flew out to L.A. to meet with these guys and let them hear my songs and every single one of them told me 'We don't want this to sound bad at all, because it's not, but you're the only person who can sing these songs. We're not going to be able to sell these to other people because they're so personally written,'" said Forte.
"I'm trying to get out of that now, but I've never been the working man's writer. It's all from a very personal point of view. So basically, they all told me, 'You have to do the [music for the] songs because no one else can do them..."
Don't expect to keep Forte' within any particular box or genre. Just as she gets comfortable with a particular sound, she's likely to change if only to keep things fresh. While the excitement and electricity still hasn't worn off from the rock band treatment of her songs, Forte' readily admits that she has lofty aspirations and wants to touch on all genres.
"That's just how I've always been," she said. "I'm not set on one thing. I want to do a jazz album in the future. I want to do a blues album. I want to do a country album... Yes, everything's going to be based in rock and roll because that's what motivates me, but I want to do everything and I'm tired of people telling me I can't."
For the time being, Forte' is still working on her first album. Originally planned for a December 2008 release, she now aims for a July date after financing fell through last winter. With nearly half an album's worth of material recorded, the band moves toward completion this summer and possibly a fall tour.
Demos and rough copies of songs that are circulating via MySpace are reflective of Forte's live show: eclectic, electric and, again, emotionally charged. Never content to sit within one genre, she continually blurs the lines, whether mixing ska beats and blues on "Mother Mary" or borrowing liberally from Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and running it headlong into a Zeppelin-esque riff as she does on "No."
Aside from the rock soundtrack, Forte's rich voice and emotional delivery make it easy to imagine her recording a jazz album or a blues disc. So long as she's working with her own songs--be it in troubadour or rocker-girl-- it's hard to imagine she won't always be able to find an audience. It's just a matter of which route she chooses.
"I hate conceitedness in musicians; but one thing I really take pride in myself is where I am as opposed to where I've been. I know a lot of people who have been through things I've been through and they just gave up. I knew people who are dead now because of it... I'm really happy where my life's come to," she said.
"I'm only 21 years old, but I am really, really blessed. I'm really lucky to have discovered what I have over my time because I feel like so many musicians go through life trying to discover all these things. Then they write about it and they become drug addicts and go to rehab and do all this stuff, and I've already done that."
So, perhaps the question is does she feel like she's learned enough from it to not repeat her own mistakes?
"I really feel I have," Forte said. "I've already been down the 'going through it, getting out of it, going through it, getting out of it' path. I've done that already.
"I'm just excited to see what happens because even if we never do anything, I'm okay. I just enjoy playing and if I get stuck playing little clubs in Tulsa the rest of my life, I'm still going to be happy."
If the growth in Forte's writing and performance during the past year is any indication, the lady has nothing to worry about. She's already turning heads amongst the rock and indie crowds alike and her following has only begun to grow. Fortunately, she loves Tulsa and has no intention of moving away, but once she really hits her creative stride (which we've yet to see), being stuck playing small clubs in Tulsa shouldn't be an issue.
Reluctant to consider herself a rock star, Forte's impassioned songs and performances may make her just that, and anyone who sees her live will be pleasantly surprised.
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