5/11/2011

An unabridged interview with Margaret Cho

The first time I met Margaret Cho was in a public library. Freshmen year of high school, I was really into reading celebrity biographies at the time (no friends, whoops) and arbitrarily borrowed her book I'm The One That I Want. LOL'ed my way through that during many a study hall. Failed Pre-Alegbra.

The first time I saw Margaret Cho live was my freshmen year of college. It was on the last day of those orientation weeks colleges have for freshmen. It was like our university took us on all these way formal tours of classrooms and bookstores and dorms, and then shoved Margaret at us with her jokes about drugs, sexual experimentation and hating Bush, as if to say, "Okay, but, seriously though, this is what college is gonna be like, here's a bill for $43,353,981,982." I can still see/hear her killer Bjork impression, which I can't find on YouTube anywhere (wtf, YouTube?!) so it's one of those you had to be there situations.

The first time I spoke with Margaret Cho was last month (edited version here). She has a new concert film/album out called Cho Dependent. It was on the morning of 4/20. Neither of us were high.















MATTHEW DEKNEEF: Hey, Margaret. Happy 4/20.
MARGARET CHO: Thank you. That’s…so nice. (Laughs)

For the record, I’m not high. That said, I have the most important question to ask you. In Cho Dependent, you’re wearing this necklace with a dog’s portrait in it... Who is that adorable dog?!
That’s my dog! That’s Ray who died a couple of years ago, but he was my best friend and he was the best dog ever and I wrote a song about him on my album actually that I sang with Fiona Apple where she plays his voice. He’s just the cutest and I love that necklace. Someone made that for me. It’s really beautiful.

Kathy Griffin was just in Hawai‘i. I recently read she’s going to be on Drop Dead Diva this season.
Yeah, she’s great. She’ll be here soon. She hasn’t filmed it yet, but I’m really looking forward to her coming. She’s just a wonderful person. We just had today on our show Wanda Sykes who was on set, and I’m hoping to see her later. But, yeah, I love that we got to have all these great female comics on and I love that.

Cho Dependent is world premiering at the Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival. Margaret Cho and rainbows seem to get along.
Yeah, I’m excited to have it premiere in Hawaii because I love that place so much, so it’s really great that it’s going to be there and I hope everybody loves it.

Sweet. The film incorporates a lot original music. You’re known largely for stand-up, so this is a different direction for you.
Yes. You know I wanted to do an album of really beautiful music, but at the same time was still what I do as a standup comic, so it’s just adding onto what I do anyway. The show and film Cho Dependent itself, it’s really the tour of the album. I sing in it a little bit, but it’s all standup comedy too. I really loved making the record. It was really, really amazing.

It shows in the production value. I was surprised it wasn’t song parodies, which is what I expected. I mean, the album sounds like real music – not that it wouldn’t have sounded like real music otherwise. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but it’s starting to sound rude. (Laughs)
No, no, I know what you mean. It’s very lavishly produced. It’s really all the people that I love musically that I listen to all the time and who I’m fortunate enough to be friends with, people who’ve helped me with the record. So it was just a lot of different people, a lot of different sounds and coming together and doing something funny, but had a lasting value to it. It was a really ambitious project.

I’m curious how you approached the artists you collaborated with. Did you just call up Ani DiFranco and was like, “Morning, Ani. I have this song about cameltoes. Breakfast?”
(Laughs) Yeah, well Ani I’ve known for a long time, so I toured with her and I’ve always had such a great love for her music for many, many years. Some other people I was very good friends with like Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips, Garrison Starr. They’re really close friends of mine who I’ve talked about writing with for a long time too. And then I also got to meet some new people as well and work with them and it was just kind of like that. Just calling people up and saying, “Hey, let’s do a song, and this is what the lyrics are, let me hear what you think.” It was really cool.

People know you and people have an idea of these artists, so there’s an unexpectedness that meets in the middle, which is really fun.
Yeah, it was coming together and doing something that we wouldn’t normally do. But we also had a really joyous time doing it. And that’s really cool, you know. And I think everyone really loved the collaborations and I was welcomed into everybody’s studios and really helped me along in my journey musically. They taught me how to sing and how to play.

Some of your singer/songwriter collaborators–Rachel Yamagata, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird–are known for crafting these really personal, honest songs. But listening to your album, there’s a song you wrote called “Lice” and it struck me. I’ve never been in a poignant long-term relationship, but I have had head lice three times in my life, so that shit is real. Too real.
(Laughs) Yes, it’s too real. That’s so funny.

Also too real is your singing voice. You have a really good voice!
I am from a signing family. You know, my mother is a singer and I grew up within a very sort of church-bound family, so there was a lot of church happening, so there was a lot of music happening all the time. If anything then, that’s probably more of my background than comedy, you know? But I knew that I had the physical ability to sing, but really also didn’t work on it very hard. But people always very surprised by my voice. They don’t expect to come out of my, uh, face. I’m real Susan Boyle in that way.

Since I’m the One that I Want, the undertone of your comedy has always seemed to be about self-empowerment. Is that the same message with Cho Dependent?
Yeah, well I think that the message of it is really a lot of different things. For instance like, talking about addiction, the different forms that you can have, the addiction to drugs, addiction to people, to relationships, or an addiction to an idea. So the statement of a lot of the songs are about that. You know, for me, it’s also a kind of addiction to working, or to growing and to progressing and wanting to change creatively and to challenge myself. And this album was full of challenges in terms of learning how to play and record and to feel like I could do this with all these amazing artists. It was a really amazing thing to accomplish.

That’s cool you’re still able to experiment in your career. Sounds like you’re in a great place creatively. That openness has been present in your work from the start, which makes you hard to define. It’s sort of pointless for me to sit here and ask you, “What is Cho Dependent? Is it songs or is it stand-up? Are you straight or are you gay or are you whatever James Franco is?”
Yeah, it’s everything! It’s about everything. We can be gay, we can be straight, and as a comic, we can be ambitious, we can do it all. I think it’s really all about what’s inside your heart and the sincerity you put into it, which is a big deal for me.

I love that sentiment about “everything.” Do you think we’re still a labels-driven society or are we moving past that?
I think that people are definitely want to direct towards labels or want to label themselves and I think that’s limiting. I don’t think we necessarily need them as readily, but some people find a lot of comfort in labeling themselves and they need that definition and I think that’s fine. I think it’s a matter of staying true to what you want to say and what you want to be.

Is that the case for somewhere like Peachtree City, Georgia where you shoot Drop Dead Diva?
It’s very different, you know. I definitely learned a lot living out in the south, and I really changed, you know. I’ve really come to a kind of understanding of why social conservatism exists and what it means and how weird it is in trying to change it from the inside out, you know. What’s great is that I don’t really live in Peachtree anymore, I live in Atlanta, which is such a progressive and queer and liberal city. Especially being in the south and the way that it is a very unusual thing to experience, so I’ve found a lot of joy here and a very happy experience.

Not to make a sweeping generalization, but how prevalent is homophobia there?
I think it’s totally prevalent outside Atlanta. There’s so much confusion and fear about it. There just isn’t a real community present, so gays feels very isolated in these small southern towns. Southerners all have like a real solid core of geniality, which is something I really appreciate. There is a great kindness to people. There just needs to be more sensitivity and visibility for gays and lesbians out in these small towns. It’s tough.

By talking about your experience as a woman, an Asian and being open-minded sexually, that’s sort of what you do with your comedy. Creating this visibility for those who are “different.” Do you consider yourself to be a political comedian?
I think I am political. I mean, I’m a political person, so definitely my comedy is something that I would have to say is a political statement in and of itself because of who I am and what I’m saying. You know, I think it’s my responsibility to be political as a woman, as an Asian-American, as a queer activist, as a comedian, there are a lot of different things that I identify as and a lot of those happen to be a part of the “other” category, so I definitely need to represent myself and just need to talk because voices are really limited out there.

It’s weird to me people could be so shocked a Korean woman is speaking her mind. You know, my grandma is one hundred percent Korean and she’s probably chaining herself to a nuclear power plant as we speak. It’s 10:30 in the morning here, by the way.
I love that your grandma is political! That’s really great. I think we definitely need to have more of a voice and for women it’s vital, Asian American women especially.

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