Q&A with Texas-based artist Guy Forsyth, compelling musician and charismatic singer, storyteller, and songwriter

"Music is a tool for transcendence. Blues shows the way there. That there is a way to turn your struggles into beauty. That by being witnessed you create the path for others to do the same. This is our (human, not just white/black) history. It deserves to be honored."

Guy Forsyth: The Journeyman of Music

Austin, Texas-based musician, singer, storyteller, and songwriter Guy Forsyth was born in the Denver City Hospital in Colorado on November 30, 1968 to Stephen and Vicki Forsyth. After a short time spent discovering that he and college didn't agree, Forsyth joined the circus – or at least the closest thing he could find, The Renaissance Festival. He got a job as a stuntman playing Robin Hood, getting beaten up by an actor playing Little John in an act that ended with Forsyth getting his butt kicked and thrown into filthy water. He has tried to work his way up in showbiz ever since. While on the road, he would spend the weekends performing and the weekdays healing. He would spend his time practicing guitar, and listening to music in the places they would go like New Orleans, New York, Memphis. On January 10, 1990, Forsyth packed anything that would fit in a U-Haul trailer and drove south on I-35 from Kansas City, Kansas to Texas to make his fortune in the music industry. He found himself playing at Joe's Generic Bar down on Sixth Street in Austin, busking on the West Mall of the University Of Texas Campus and anywhere that would listen.                                (Guy Forsyth / Photo © by Mark Del Castillo)

Blues made him want to play. Forsyth’s first works were electric, raw blues that held nothing back. Undeterred, he started The Asylum Street Spankers, an irreverent band that followed him in ecstatic, eclectic, theatrical acoustic display of American musical history, as if Rock and Roll had never happened that took Austin by storm, which was awarded best none of the above band and performed at the Austin Music Awards. While all of this was going on, Forsyth released a live record in Holland on a Dutch Label (High Temperature, Lizard disk) that made such an impact that Forsyth tours Europe almost every year, with North Europen Blues bands routinely covering his songs. Rider (2023) is the first, and also the title of this first EP. Rider is a ghost story. Guy says: "The ghosts are mine, but I’m betting they are yours too. Rider talks about being haunted by the ghosts and scars that we carry around inside, those hard to shake off unwanted guests that rattle around our heads and hearts".

Interview by Michael Limnios   Special Thanks: Guy Forsyth, Jeska Forsyth, Lara Nixon 

How has the music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

People love music everywhere, no one country or culture can claim ownership of music, but people feel a strong connection with the music that shapes them. Sitting in a small outdoor club in Katmandu, I played with an old man who played a bowed lute on his knee. We laughed as we imitated each other, my Gibson six string played with a bottleneck and his hand carved, goatskin covered, Sarangi moaning vocal phrases, finding the common musical ground between us. He was much older than me, and I had been directed to him when I had asked locals about players who I might get a chance to hear. He spoke no English, and I no Nepalese, so introductions were made by a friend. In almost no time at all we were playing together like children. And like children we pushed each other, prodded each other, and laughed at the unconventional results. He complimented me, though our interpreter, and wanted me to know that I was good. But also wanted to share the quiet intimate personal music that was special to him, his hand over his heart as he spoke, that his music, his tradition, this was his soul music. This music was his home.

And this is true everywhere. We all feel this way, if we are able to feel at all. Humans are music making animals. I grew up in the U.S., the son of a midlevel airline executive who’s job kept us moving around the country like a middle class army brat going from suburb to suburb with no real connection to a culture other than the commercial TV common to most Americans. My folks had met at the University of Arizona and had similar musical tastes and thus were married. It was a collection of pop folk music (The Kingston Trio, The Limelighters) and Western (Frankie Lane, Marty Robins) and some Broadway musicals. Both of my parents had played a little bit of music growing up, piano lessons for my Mom and collegiate ukulele and banjo for my Dad. But it wasn’t something that they did while I was growing up.  But we would sing with complete abandon in the car, no editing or restraint. And music, singing, was joy. That has stayed with me, I love to sing!                              (Guy Forsyth / Photo © by Mark Del Castillo)

I remember when I was about eight years old, and I knew all the lyrics to Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle. Such an old soul song, but I would sing it under a band shell on a playground and listen to the sound of my voice coming back to me. Knowing I could sing this song all by myself felt like I had something magic in my pocket. I didn’t get excited by most pop music. It never felt like there was much there. Novelty songs held my interest more that the top 40. I remember staying up in when we were living in California to listen to the Doctor Demento show, a radio show that featured novelty songs, comedy and strange or unusual recordings from the first days of sound recording tech. This is where I first discovered a lifelong love affair with old music.

I first heard Robert Johnson in a public library, searching through stacks of old records. Perhaps because it was so far removed from music produced by an industry that is set up to sell the Next Big Thing, with no connection to where music comes from, but it was honest and clear (even threw the limitations of the recording tech of 1936). I felt that I was being spoken to. It was like seeing a ghost. I had no mentor to tell me what to listen to, so I found out what I could on my own. The liner notes were limited, and most of the lore surrounding him was more poetic than factual, but it stuck to me. It was more human than the Beatles, harder than the Sex Pistols, stranger than David Bowie.

About this time, I received a harmonica from my Dad for Christmas, included with a book and a cassette tape, Country and Blues Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless, by Jon Gindick. I carried that harmonica everywhere, and played at every opportunity, greatly annoying those around me. The world of music cracked open a little bit, and the light came in. I started to look for harmonica records and found James Cotton’s High Compression. I saw The Blues Brothers on TV, and with it came John Lee Hooker, Big Walter Horton, Cab Calloway. The light got brighter. A friend introduced me to the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. Then another friend (Kansas City harmonica player Jon Paul Drum) told me that John Hammond was playing in Lawrence Kansas at the Jazzhaus. That was it, seeing him changed my life, that was what I wanted to do.  It had all the passion of punk without the excess, it had the sex of rock and roll without the posing, this music was home.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

The song dictates the sound, no matter what the instruments are. Play the song. Let the story come through. Tell the story. Even in instrumental music, solos, tell a story. Create tension, release tension. Take the trip. The story doesn’t have to be real, but it has to be True. The creativity comes from wanting something True.

"There is magic in working together to make beauty. Man, the music making animal has made making music so efficient it doesn’t have to make its own music anymore. That is too bad, but I refuse to give it up." (Guy Forsyth, Texas-based musician, singer, storyteller, and songwriter / Photo © by Jeska Forsyth)

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Moving to Austin when I turned 21. I had already written songs and played some shows (mostly open mikes and blues jams that I started to sneak into before I was of a legal age) in KC. But I had family in Houston, and we would spend time there most summers. But I had heard tales of Austin and its music scene, and was listening to The Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Antone’s record label. Lee McBee said that was the place to be. I went from listening to James Cotton to smoking dope with him behind Antones Night Club (Austin’s Home of the Blues). I started playing on the Main Drag by the University of Texas, and worked my way up the food chain to tip gigs on Sixth Street, started an electric blues band (The Guy Forsyth Band) that won many Austin Best Of awards and landed a recording contract and a residency at Antone’s that lasted for ten years. We toured The States, Europe and Japan. My love for old roots music and novelty song led to starting another band, The Asylum Street Spankers, an all-acoustic ensemble featuring resonator guitar, banjo, ukulele, washboard, clarinet, stand-up bass, nose flute, musical saw, fiddle, harmonica, impersonations, dirty jokes, costumes, improvised lyrics and a manifesto that refused to use electricity at all (“Music the way God Intended It! Without Demon Electricity!”). I started my own record label to record my own music, and have made my living in music up to this point.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Much of modern music has become predictable, as we share most of the same influences. Not just the artists, but the ways of making music, recording. The dominate instrument of the last century was the guitar (started slow, but finished strong); the dominate instrument in this one is the computer. Pitch correction, rhythmic quantization, the ubiquitous of compression, the sameness is deafening.  Although in some ways musical skill is at an all-time high, there is less ensemble playing, music production is mostly a solitary exercise. There is less creatively in interplay. Much of the modern approach is not about playing instruments and recording what happened, but using the computer to regulate the sound of the speaker. That can be fine, but I want to be inside the music. I want to get to play. Have you heard the expression “Traditional Music, better than it sounds”?

There is magic in working together to make beauty. Man, the music making animal has made making music so efficient it doesn’t have to make its own music anymore. That is too bad, but I refuse to give it up.

"The song dictates the sound, no matter what the instruments are. Play the song. Let the story come through. Tell the story. Even in instrumental music, solos, tell a story. Create tension, release tension. Take the trip. The story doesn’t have to be real, but it has to be True. The creativity comes from wanting something True." (Guy Forsyth / Photo © by Mark Del Castillo)

What is the impact of Blues and Roots music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Racism is the cardinal sin of America. Not that we invented it, but no other country profited off of it like the United States. And no other country has held onto its falsified history on the subject like us. My love of music connects me with other people, and it is impossible to separate the history of American music and racism. The music we call The Blues comes from the United States being not just a melting pot but a crucible, where blacks were denied personhood for profit, the worst of crimes. The fact that this brought us music is the height of irony but also speaks to mankind’s best possible quality, the ability to be resilient and grow in duress, and share something beautiful. The lesson is there for anyone to see. I can only hope that I could live up to such heroes. I never want to miss an opportunity to talk about this.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

You don’t have to stop learning. You can get better. You can have the skill you desire, but there is no short cut.

A deep dark secret about my musical path is… I was that guy sitting by the edge of the stage playing harmonica with the band that did not ask me too. I was so hungry for the music, for the experience that I would do anything for it. I wanted it in the worst way. Which is playing harmonica with a band that did not ask you to. Jokes are told about this guy. I know you want to join the party. Clap, sing along, holler! But don’t just start playing. Let others play. Listen, hold space, witness, and wait your turn. The world was kind to me, I hope it is kind to you too.

Life is more than just music, is there any other field that has influence on your life and music?

Parenting. Being married. Also, Tai Chi.

"Racism is the cardinal sin of America. Not that we invented it, but no other country profited off of it like the United States. And no other country has held onto its falsified history on the subject like us. My love of music connects me with other people, and it is impossible to separate the history of American music and racism." (Guy Forsyth / Photo © by Jeska Forsyth)

What's the balance in music between technique (skills) and soul/emotions? Why is it important to we preserve and spread the blues?

Balance isn’t the right way to think about this. Skills are good, but the soul/emotion has to be there. I would rather see people who are armatures having a ball than the master phoning it in. You don’t have to wait to be good enough. You are still worthy of music. I find the better the music the more fun it is. And that’s the reason I practice, it makes it more fun. Fun, emotion, connection is what we are going for. Music is a tool for transcendence. Blues shows the way there. That there is a way to turn your struggles into beauty. That by being witnessed you create the path for others to do the same. This is our (human, not just white/black) history. It deserves to be honored.

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