John Forte, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter-producer hails from what is considered as one of the most dangerous areas of Brooklyn, New York called “Brownsville”. He was a young prodigy who not only attended the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. But is also a classically trained violinist, and post release from prison a now self taught guitarist. Mr. Forte’s early career BEgan with him receiving acclaim as a writer and producer with multi-platinum recording super group THE FUGEES and his collaborative efforts on their award winning project entitled “The Score” for which he received a Grammy nomination. Mr. Forte has also had a very successful recording career, releasing four solo albums (Poly Sci, I,John, StyleFree, and The Water Suite). Mr. Forte was arrested in 2000 and received a 14 year sentence, but through a tireless campaign on his BEhalf that included singer Carly Simon and a pardon granted by former President George BE. Bush in November of 2008, Mr. Forte was one of eleven granted this release from his imprisonment.
Following his release, Forte embarked on a journey of personal redemption and with hard work and creative projects set the goal of building bridges that would transcend cultural divides. Mr. Forte wants to go BEyond just solely playing music. With help from Le Castle he hopes to include film projects and speaking engagements. Last year, Mr. Forte served as the subject of a 9 week documentary about his life entitled “The Russian Winter”. It chronicles him and his band’s tour of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and other stops along the Trans-SiBErian Railway. The film is set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 20th, 2012.
BE Entertained Magazine had the opportunity to sit and talk with Mr. John Forte about this remarkable documentary and hear first hand his inspiration and journey while creating this film.
BE MAG : We know you from your earlier production work with The Fugees, your work with music scores from movies like Night Catches Us, Just Wright and Stomp the Yard 2, and your albums Poly Sci, I,John and StyleFree, but with 2012 we see a re-emerged and re-charged John Forte who is now not just a Grammy-nominated artist but the focus of what looks to BE an incredible documentary entitled “ The Russian Winter” Can you share with our readers a bit about the film and what made you want to do a 9 week documentary about yourself and your journey as oppose to just releasing an album?
John Forte: I have no idea! LOL No, I have a dear friend who I went to high school with named Christof and he and I had dinner one night when he was in new York and he’s BEen based out of Moscow for the last 14 years and he extend an invitation to me cause I had never gone to Moscow BEfore but I thought at first it would just BE a travesty! To travel what felt like to me halfway around the world and only go for a weekend? That didn’t make sense to me so he went back home and made a few phone calls and this is not his world he is a business man so he had to reach a few people on the ground to find out if there was any opportunity out there for me to perform and so he called me back shortly thereafter and he said well you know I got some opportunities in Moscow but then there might BE an opportunity in St. Petersburg as well so mayBE the trip might BE a week in a half, I said ok that sounds perfect. Let’s do it. And so then he called me back 2 days later and was like well there are actually some more interest in you in some other cities as well. So by the end of the is calling back and forth an invitation that started as only a weekend had ended up BEing one that would last 9 weeks throughout 5 cities and would not only BE performing our music but collaborating with artist and then donating the proceeds of those live shows to local Russian charities and orphanages and children hospitals.
BE MAG: WOW ok. Now some may find that having cameras document you for 9 weeks a bit of an invasion of privacy. How did you feel and handle BEing recorded for such a long time? Did it just kind of natural that the cameras are around you?
John Forte: It really did. And it was the first time that I have BEen filmed for so long and it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t an easy winter there at all in fact the first day we arrived in Moscow, it was the coldest day I had ever experienced in my life and I think I lost about two layers of skin! Just by walking for 45 minutes to red square from where we were staying but it is kind of one of those things were you do forget to see that “4th Wall” or the camera BEing there. Because it’s always prevalent and you kind of drop your guard down. And you BEcome vulnerable sooner than you think. I’m a very private person even though I live a public life. So at first I felt very self-conscious about the cameras BEing there and BEfore long I really did forget that they were there BEcause they were just another part of the scenery.
BE MAG: Did you have any initial feelings upon arriving in Russia? Did you have an idea of how this may turn out? Or How the Russian people would receive you?
John Forte: We didn’t necessarily have any expectations about the outcome of the project. Uh I’m sure that there was some trepidation about how we would BE received, or how I would BE received, but BEcause I didn’t know much about the social climate. I didn’t know much about people of color existing in Russia. And I pretty much traveled extensively, not including my hiatus, but I was use to BEing looked at whether BEcause of my skin color or hair. And that was something that I’ve grown a thick skin towards, so I might have got into it expecting that but then I was actually really surprised that I didn’t get that or as many looks as I might have anticipated and that speaks very clearly to what that culture that former soviet culture and the times of the cold war, where you didn’t know who your neighbors were so you didn’t stare at people when you walked down the street and we noticed it very quickly there are two very distinct public faces of Russia. There is that social face: where people aren’t staring, it’s as almost as if they have their, I don’t want to say blinders on but they have a focus of only going from point a to b. Without diverting from that path but then there is that very generous and private that we met upon our arrival when we connected with our Russian team and helpers, they were SOOO open and SO warm and inviting to us. They were as honored to have us as we were to BE there. It was remarkable and dare I say life-changing trip.
BE MAG: How do you think fans of yours who have followed you and your career from the earlier works will feel after seeing this film and hearing the music from the forthcoming album? Will they BE able to relate it to the John Forte they’ve known? Or will this add something they may never know existed?
John Forte: I hope so, and I hope that anyone who has followed me and my career, then they would have seen this as the natural progression and this BEing collaborating with other artist BEing open to all different genres. You know from “Poly Sci” to” I, John” I think there was a big leap in terms of what I wanted to do with my music and what I wanted to do with my songwriting and we just wanted to carry on in the tradition of that and then after I came back with “StyleFree” and what I started to release with “The Water Suite” and some of the other compilations and short EP that I put out leading up to the Russian Winter, you know sometimes there would feel that hip hop foundation and you heard the rhymes that might have reminded you of yester year and other times you heard songs with melodies and my pursuit to make something BEautiful, poignant and meaningful. You know the art I attempt to produce strives to BE more than substance than just quantitative I don’t want to just throw out music for the sake of just releasing music. I want to spend time with it BEcause in my heart of hearts I BElieve that a good song is a good song in respect to the genre or the category.
BE MAG: Can we talk about a few songs from the From Russia to Brooklyn with Love project? I have two songs in particular I want to ask about and those are “Windsong” and “Let Life Begin”. Can you share what were the messages in those songs and how it felt to record those records?
John Forte: “Let Life Begin” was actually recorded BEfore we left for Russia and I think the title pretty much speaks and sums up the emotion of the song which is you know no matter where you are and at what point your at that there has to come a time when you just have to live for yourself and you have to learn to respect yourself and you have to learn to love yourself. Because if you don’t know how to BE good to yourself then there is no way that under this great blue sky that you will know how to BE good to other people and that was the message BEhind “Let Life Begin”. And we were prepared to embark under this journey where we didn’t know where it would end or how it would end, you know kind of like the Truman Show. But now with “Windsong” it was different. As far as we recorded that song in Russia, with a great artist named Sunsay who is from Ukraine. And he actually came to the table with a concept, but it needed music and I said to him wow this is BEautiful, you know what does it mean? And he said” this is a song about the wind and “how the wind can BE gentle to you” and “how if you’re not careful it can also destroy you”. And that was a great metaphor for life. And once he told me what the gist of what the song was I learned how to sing his part in Russian so that we could sing that first chorus in Russian and then I ended up writing some new lyrics in English that he accompanied me on. And the BEautiful thing about that is when we decided to shoot that video and put the song out; we didn’t have the big machine BEhind it. We didn’t have a label BEhind this per say we just threw it out there and it just caught on you know and there were people like Rosario Dawson and Estelle and I just had met Estelle a couple of months ago at the Sundance Festival so I didn’t have a relationship with her , nor did I have one with the likes of Rosario Dawson. But it just caught on and BEfore you know it we were looking at the views and the viewership just jumped through the roof! And you had people going on these sites and social networks saying here is music that’s for the soul and no one mention the fact the first half of the song was in Russian. And I think it spoke volumes that earlier notion that what I mentioned about a good song BEing a good song in respective of the language and genre.
BE MAG: The film premieres on April 20th at the Tribeca Film Festival. What would you like for people to take away from this film after seeing it? Or BEtter yet what would you like them to have taken away after viewing and what do you think they will say about John Forte that might not have BEen mentioned or said?
John Forte: You know what, I think art should transcend the artist and I know that when I say stuff like that it’s a difficult pill for certain people to shallow BEcause we live in the era of this cult of this celebrity. Where people are celebrated just for BEing seen, rather than for what they contribute artistically or academically. And I would like for this film to transcend the persona of John Forte BEyond the entertainment values I also want it to BE educational. I want people to see what life is like in Russia. I want to BE empowering! And I want little kids in Brooklyn, Brownsville, and the Midwest, little kids in China you know to really embrace this notion that the world is really ours and we shouldn’t limit ourselves. Limit our potential to think that we are only entitled to you know our neighborhoods or only entitled to our city. But this world is really ours! And I think that if people will walk away with some sort of compassion and or strength that will encourage them to get out there and see our world. So that they will know that “Anything is Possible” and that people even though they might live many miles away aren’t really that different at the end of the day. You know all kind of have the same struggles and we all have similar destiny BEcause none of us are getting out of this alive. So it’s something I want people to view again and again. I hope that it will lead to other people traveling and collaborating. I hope it opens doors to possibilities that life might hold.
BE MAG: Are there any plans for a US Tour with the “From Russia to Brooklyn with Love” album?
John Forte: Well if I get things my way we won’t just limit it to the US but we will take this show on the road. And we will hit up the world! And continue working with other artist internationally and as well as nationally. And that’s the spirit and that’s where I am at right now. I want to go out there and I want to see all that there is and what life offers and people who are like spirited even if not like minded. You know I think that a very important distinction BEcause you can have people who can agree to disagree but at the same time can learn and grow together and I think that is what my art strives to do. Hopefully this movie will BE the first of many adventures in that spirit.
BE MAG: Finally, Is there anything you want to say to your readers and fans out there that I haven’t asked you?
John Forte: Um, you know what without sounding over judgmental. You know I would never occupy the soapbox in telling people what they should and should not listen to. And I know that what were are doing might not necessarily the most popular form or mode of music young people are use to but I do realize that we are offering an alternative to what might BE prevalent and the only thing I would ask of the people whether seeing the movie or hearing the music is to watch and listen with an open mind.
John Forte website: www.johnforte.com
The Tribeca Online Film Festival: http://www.tribecafilm.com/tribecaonline/streaming-room/russian_winter-film39237.html