Margaret Cho: Interview

    Margaret Cho’s stand-up has never lacked a musical presence. Her earliest comedy routines in the early-to-mid 1990s featured references to ’80s pop hits, and some of her most notable routines, from her immortal Persimmons Diet routine‘s use of Madonna’s “Holiday,” or defining her sexuality on 2008’s Beautiful as “I Want You To Want Me,” are heavily indebted to pop music’s history. Over the last few years, music has played an increasing role in Margaret Cho’s career, from releasing various rap videos online, to appearing in sensational viral videos by “Kelly, to working in burlesque over the last few years.


    Cho’s status as a gay icon has eliminated the need for a pop vs. rock divide, and as a comedian who emerged in the ’90s and therefore somewhat tangentially related to the alternative comedy movement, she was a part of the attempts to have comedy reach the scale and success of pop music, a trend that has only increased in recent years.

    This put Margaret Cho in perfect position to release Cho Dependent, a collection of comedy music that is different from most previous releases. Unlike parody songwriting or the distinct folk quality of comedy acts like Flight Of The Concords or Hard ‘n Phirm, this comedy music album is unabashedly pop, heavily produced in the studio, collaborations from big-time musicians like Tegan and Sara, Andrew Bird, Jon Brion, Grant Lee Phillips, and Fiona Apple, and songs that go back and forth from being more musically or more comedically compelling.


    Either way, Cho Dependent is unmistakably a Margaret Cho product, in both lyrical and musical tone. Here, Cho discusses the making of the album, ’80s pop music, and the homoerotic tones of hair metal.

    What was the timeframe of deciding to make the album/recording it?

    The process took about a year and a half [beginning in 2008], from the first song being written to the last song being recorded. It was mostly working out schedules for people, because everyone on the album is a sought after artist. There was a lot of schedule juggling.

    It’s a little unusual to hear comedy music in a studio setting. A lot of musical comedy albums seem to be recorded live. Was there any particular impetus for this decision?

    Yes, we wanted to have it lavishly produced and to get it as good as I could and to have it sound great. That was very important.

    I remember on the Revolution tour you did a rap for the encore that you eventually left off the special. But you’ve been posting rap videos since then. Did the experience of that bit inspire you to keep going with it?

    Yeah, I wanted to keep doing it and keep growing and changing and evolving. I felt like I needed to collaborate with people who could help me and put it together in a pop setting.

    Your last tour was a little bluer and slightly less political. There’s a lot more sexual-relationship stuff on the music side than the political side. Was that a conscious choice or just part of the process?

    The new stand-up show that I’m writing is pretty political, with a lot of gay marriage stuff and a lot about immigration and my family history. There’s probably more of that in the standup. When you’re writing songs, for me at least, it’s more natural for me to write what I was thinking and feeling at the time.

    Did you go to various musicians personally or were they referred to you? How aware were the musicians you worked with of your material/the comedic process before you worked with them?
    I reached out to everyone, and there were a couple of people who reached out to me and wanted to work with me. That was Fiona Apple who I met through doing it, and she liked the dog song [“Hey Big Dog”] with Patty Griffin, who also reached out to me. Ben Lee also. He was really fantastic, and I loved working with him.


    Grant-Lee Phillips recently worked with Marc Maron when he was singing in public for the first time. Did you reach out to Grant because of his work with Grant Lee Buffalo or his work with other comedians?

    I think Grant is just such a fantastic musician to work with. I love both those guys. Marc is a fantastic blues guitar player and a really good singer but no one really knows about that. Grant actually hangs out with a bunch of comedians; he was a great person to work with because he and I have known each other for so long and it was just an very easy thing. [Note: On Maron’s podcast in February, Cho joked that Cho Dependent was a failed attempt to “fuck musicians.”]


    You’ve talked a lot your love of ’80 pop music on stage before. Is it just that you grew up with it, or is there something about that era/style of music in particular that appeals to you?

    The song styles had more to do with what they had in mind when they heard my lyrics. So that’s really how the music came about. I didn’t have the strength as a composer to envision that part, and that’s why I had so many musicians come on board.


    So the music was really more about who you were working with and less based on what you knew?

    Yeah, I mean, the artists I picked have some longevity but are more just really happening now.


    Do you still listen to new music regularly?

    Oh yeah, absolutely.


    It’s just that it seems like a lot of people sort of stop listening to new music around their mid-to-late 20s.

    Oh yeah, no I’m constantly listening to new things and always searching for new things and also reaching back and listening to roots and country stuff and trying to absorb as much as I can.


    There’s a lot of people in my age range who only know ’80s revival music but don’t associate it with the politics and context of the ’80s that helped shape it. Has that ever concerned you?

    Yeah, but I like all the music from the ’80s, even the late-’80s stuff. I think there was even something worthwhile in hair metal and all these things that I wasn’t really into at the time. Now I’m super into hair metal. I like early Guns N’ Roses, and I’ve been reading Steven Adler’s biography, and I’m super into that rock history because I never lived it at the time, I wasn’t into heavy metal at all. But now I’m really curious and getting into that. When I do another album I kinda want to do metal, because metal is a really common form of comedy music. I mean, one of the greatest metal bands of all was Spinal Tap.


    I think there’s a lot of people revisiting ’80s metal who weren’t traditionally in the masculine mold it was purported to be. Marnie Stern, Screaming Females, etc. Plus Patton Oswalt’s joked about how gay ’80s metal seems in hindsight.

    You know, it was a really gay movement. In Steven Adler’s book there was so much group sex and it was very homoerotic. It was kinda like, “Wow, I never realized how incredibly gay hair metal was.”


    What are your thoughts on the general crossover of comedy and music?

    A lot of musicians want to be comedians and a lot of comedians want to be musicians — it’s a really common tradeoff. My album really fed off that energy of wanting to visit each other’s world. 


    How was the lyrical writing process different from the joke-writing process?

    It’s a similar idea. Lyrics are just poetry, in same kind of way that comedy is poetry, really. It was easy to connect the two. You use lyricism of singing in standup and in music.