MMN Rewind: Margaret Cho: A Comedian Who’s Serious About Music!

ChoDependentLive

ChoDependentLiveTwo years ago, I got a chance to interview comedian Margaret Cho when Cho Dependent, her album of comic songs, was nominated for Best Comedy Album in the 53rd GRAMMYs. This year, she’s nominated again for her stand-up album, Cho Dependent – Live in Concert, and you can download it for free, but only for the next 2 days!

The interview originally posted on February 12, 2011, is below, and it’s G-rated, but her albums are not, as my disclaimer below explains. Enjoy!

In addition to loving classical music, I’m a big fan of comedy, and one of my favorite comedians is Margaret Cho. So I was thrilled when I saw that her album, Cho Dependent, had been nominated for a GRAMMY© for Best Comedy Album! I was even more thrilled when I got a chance to chat with Margaret via email. That’s not something a classical music nerd gets to do every day!

Cho Dependent is not a stand-up album; it’s a collection of real songs in a variety of styles. Margaret teamed up with a dazzling array of great musicians for this project, and the results are musically impressive as well as hilarious!

Now, I must issue a warning, because my Dad reads this blog: Margaret’s comedy is fabulous, but it is for mature audiences, and not for the easily offended or faint of heart! With that in mind, click Mr. Readmore if you dare! But not you, Dad! (Love ya!)

MMN: Hi Margaret! I may be a classical music nerd, but I’m also a big fan of yours. Before I was married, I used to use your Notorious C.H.O. DVD as a screening tool for potential boyfriends: if they couldn’t deal with it, they weren’t right for me. (McDoc passed the test!)

MC: Wow, that is fantastic! I love it!! thank you!!

MMN: I’m very impressed with you for pursuing music the way you have recently. Listening to your album, no one would ever know that you hadn’t been a musician all along. Oh, and I also enjoyed watching you on Dancing With The Stars!

MC: Thank you!!

MMN: Okay, on to actual questions! First of all, of course, congratulations on your GRAMMY nomination! How did you react when you found out about it?

MC: I was really excited! I worked so hard on the album, and also everyone I worked with did such an amazing job. it was a tremendously exciting thing to hear that we had been nominated.

MMN: You are in amazing company with your fellow Best Comedy Album nominees: Flight Of The Conchords, Kathy Griffin, Lewis Black, and Robin Williams.

MC: I am a big fan of Flight Of The Conchords, and their music is very inspiring to me. Kathy is a great friend for many years, Lewis I love very much; Robin is an icon! I know all the nominees and am fans of them all! It’s great company.

MMN: Something I really love about your album is that it actually kind of plays it straight most of the time. If I heard it from a distance and couldn’t understand the words, I might not realize it was a comedy album at first – and that makes it that much funnier when you do listen carefully to the words. It reminds me of the story of the theme song for Blazing Saddles: the singer wasn’t told it was a parody, so he sang it seriously, and that made it funnier in the end. Was it a conscious decision to approach the album that way?

MC: Thank you! I really thought there was a place for beautiful music that was also funny, and that could work well as pop songs in addition to being hilarious. I see this as a trend now, especially with the smash hit “Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green. I wanted to sing the songs as seriously as I could, because I think they are really beautiful, well-crafted, lushly-produced pop songs, and to me this makes the comedy more sincere and more effective. Also, the songs have deep emotional content for me. I mean what I say in every song, and so the way to sing it was from the heart.

MMN: I’ve read several reviews that compared your album to Weird Al Yankovic, but I think you know from the get-go that he’s doing parodies. As I said above, your more serious approach ends up being funnier, to me. Still, I imagine you take the comparison as a compliment. What do you think?

MC: I love Weird Al and he is a true hero of mine, and yet I don’t have the ability to do song parodies as well, so I decided to go for a different thing. For song parodies to work, you have to be as good as or better than the artist you are mimicking, and Al is the best. The comparison is a huge compliment! I’ve been a major fan of Al’s forever, and this album is my tribute to him.

MMN: Part of my mission is to contribute to cultural literacy in general, and I worry about “kids these days” not getting some of the classic pop culture references, for example, the Bugs Bunny cartoons, “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “The Rabbit of Seville.” Therefore, I want to thank you for your “Lice” video, which pays homage to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” I was surprised to read that the music was written first, before the topic of the song was chosen. How did that all come together?

MC: This song is really the only one that could qualify as a song parody, because it’s a take-off on Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” which is one of my favorites. Ben Lee and I were writing together and he suggested a Dylan parody, that the folk element was something that should be represented. So he wrote the music and sent me an mp3 demo. I had contracted a pretty bad case of head lice in Casablanca, and was traveling and itching my way through North Africa, so I thought the song should be about that. It’s an homage to the great Bob Dylan, and a wink at him too, because I have always found him to be a fantastic comedian in addition to everything else he is well-known for. He’s my absolute idol! And Ben Lee is amazing too!

MMN: I can’t quite decide whether “Your Dick” sounds like a classic Motown tune, or something Dusty Springfield would have sung. What do you think? Oh, and is that you singing falsetto at the end of the song?

MC: Oh, I love Dusty! it’s kind of a girl-group thing – which is what A.C. Newman wanted, and what Ben Lee was going for with the production. That song is not just a wall of sound – it’s a city block of sound! That is not me singing falsetto – that is wonderful Sam Shelton – and then it’s Ben Lee and Nic Johns at the end of that verse bringing it back around to prove that it’s not just women who appreciate the male member.

MMN: The songs are so well-done musically, and capture different styles perfectly, like the country ballad, “I’m Sorry,” the moody New Wave/rave tune “Asian Adjacent,” the torch song that turns into a vaudeville anthem, “Eat Shit and Die,” and others. Did you know in advance that you were going to create such a comprehensive pop music catalog?

MC: Thank you! Yes, I really wanted to have all the kinds of music that I love represented, but this was mostly all due to the wonderful artists that I chose to work with. They wrote what they heard in the lyrics, so the different genres were a conscious/unconscious thing. Some songs were obvious: “I’m Sorry” is clearly a murder ballad from the words up, and “Eat Shit and Die” is so glam and Kurt Weill!

MMN: Two of the songs come close to being quite serious, or at least tragicomic: “Intervention” and “Hey Big Dog.” Anything autobiographical there?

MC:Intervention” is a cautionary tale, for me, as I have never had one, and I really never want to. Tegan and Sara did such an awesome job, and are really great comics in their own right. “Hey Big Dog” I wrote with Patty Griffin, who I absolutely worship. She and I love our dogs, and are obsessed with country music, and we thought we should write a country song about dogs. Fiona Apple heard me do the song with Ben Lee at Largo and wanted to sing it because she loves dogs, and her dog has the same fear of the wind.

My own dog of 14 years, Ralph, was dying during the process of me making the album, and I played the song to him alot while we were writing it, and he would get really relaxed. I like to think the vibration of the guitar helped ease his pain a bit. I love the song. it remains a perfect glowing remembrance of him.

MMN: I’m sorry about the loss your sweet boy, Ralph!

Did you have any musical training while you were growing up?

MC: I played piano and my parents both sang and played guitar and piano. There was a lot of church in my upbringing, and that meant a lot of music.

MMN: When you became serious about singing did you take voice lessons?

MC: Yes, I got very focused on my voice and perfecting it. I worked with vocal coaches and practiced constantly. I also learned to play guitar and banjo and got lots of lessons from everyone I worked with. It was the best education ever.

MMN: I remember reading a post on your blog about how seriously you were pursuing guitar. What was that like?

MC: Painful on the hands and on the ears. It really was tough, and I still struggle with it, but I love playing. It’s an incredible feeling to be able to accompany yourself on songs and such a rush to play with other musicians. I love it so much.

MMN: Who are some of your favorite musicians right now, in addition to those you work with on the album?

MC: I am crazy about Gillian Welch, still trying to get to work with her. Also I love Broken Social Scene, Florence and the Machine, the Punch Brothers, Rufus and Martha Wainwright.

MMN: Do you like classical music at all?

MC: Yes, I am mad about Bach!!

MMN: Did you already know all of the musicians on your album personally before collaborating with them, or did you meet anyone for the first time because of this project?

MC: I was great friends with Jon Brion, Garrison Starr and Grant Lee Phillips for years, and some people I met through the process like Andrew Bird, Brendan Benson and Rachael Yamagata. Whether we knew each other or not, we all became very close through the writing and recording of these songs.

MMN: Was there anyone you wanted to work with but were nervous about asking, so that it was a pleasant surprise when they said yes?

MC: I was intimidated by everyone, but of course everyone said yes, and everyone was unfailingly generous and loving despite my fears!

MMN: How is songwriting similar to or different from writing stand-up material?

MC: There’s a rhythm to it all, a searching for the right word, the right way to say it. I think that songwriting and jokewriting are very similar, however songwriting is a little harder maybe because it’s newer to me.

MMN: How was making an albums similar to or different from other projects, like your stand-up DVDs, Dancing With The Stars, or acting gigs like Drop Dead Diva?

MC: It’s very different to do music, perhaps because it’s more of a communion between myself and the other artists, as I am known mostly for my solo standup work. That’s more of an isolating thing. And then when I am working on a TV show, that’s more of a larger project because so many people are involved. I love it all, and I am very lucky to work in all these different mediums!

MMN: Do you plan to make another album of songs in the future?

MC: Yes, I am working on my next project, all songs about race: the Yellow Album. I have begun writing with Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. It’s so exciting!

MMN: Thank you so much! I hope I run into you at the GRAMMY pre-televised ceremony, or maybe at the nominees’ reception on Saturday night!

MC: Yay, hope so! thanks!

MMN Recommends (if you can handle it!):
Margaret Cho: Cho Dependent

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