Words by David C. Obenour
Some might recognize Forest Bees’s Sheetal Singh as the bassist from the turn of the millennium shoegaze band, The Stratford Four. But Singh doesn’t quite recognize herself from that time.
Or at least she doesn’t see her role in the band as a true expression of the music that she had personally hoped to create. While the band flirted with larger success on Elektra, a series of circumstances lead to them being dropped and dissolving, only to reform for a brief reunion a decade later in support of an album that never was released.
After all that she had experienced since then, the reunion rekindled Singh’s desire to create music, but to create her music. So after the shows, she started learning, exploring and crafting what resonated with her and Forest Bees was created.
Off Shelf: You’re based out of San Francisco now, yes? How have you been keeping up throughout all of this?
Sheetal Singh: I’m actually in Berkeley, but close enough! I’ve been keeping up as well as possible. I am lucky in that I still have a job and I can work from home. And I have managed to stay healthy.
OS: After an almost decade long hiatus, your band The Stratford Four got together for a reunion show in 2015 and the release of a long shelved album. Could you talk about that experience?
SS: It was scary at first. I had stayed in touch with Andrea and Jake a bit, and I had just started speaking to Chris again. But the four of us had not spent any time socially in ten years and that felt weird. There were some unresolved issues with the break up of the band that we needed to address. And I had to re-learn, remember the songs again, but once we had a few practices under our belt, it felt amazing. I missed being in a small room and blasted by the warm fuzz of guitar noise coming through an AC30. We played two really great shows in SF and one in LA, with a short detour in Nevada City that was madness…
OS: What about playing again made you want to get back into music and what about it made you want to create music on your own?
SS: I took time off from music when I became a mother… having young children was a creative outlet for me – in a good way – and so I didn’t really miss playing music. But when my second child got a little older and more independent, I was overcome with a longing to play music again. I didn’t know what to do with this energy at first. But I happened to run into Chris, the singer from the Stratford 4, one day – we hadn’t spoken to each other in about ten years. We were ruing the fact that our last record, Keep Your Crazy Head on Straight, was never released when we were dropped by Elektra. We decided to release it ourselves and get back together to play a reunion/record release show. That show led to a few others, and a radio session for Part Time Punks in LA. And then we started trying to write new material. But, for a variety of reasons, it didn’t really work out and so we split up again. But the fire was lit and I knew that, as much as I loved the Stratford 4, I wanted to do something different musically. And so Forest Bees was born.
OS: Sorry if it’s a dumb question, but I really love the name Forest Bees. Can you talk a little about what it means to you and why you chose it?
SS: Not a dumb question! I wish I had a better story, but the truth is I saw an exhibit of a painter called Forrest Bess at the Berkeley Art Museum and played on his name.
OS: You taught yourself much of the technology that you used for this album. Were there aha moments or discovering particular instruments or software that resonated with you along that journey?
SS: Yeah, I wasn’t worried about playing instruments, I could do that. But I am not a drummer, and I knew that I wanted to use beats anyway. I started messing around with drum machines and samples and stumbling a lot. In fact, I think I am still stumbling and anything I produce is a happy accident. I started using Ableton Live, which is pretty easy to jump into along with some other apps. Maybe one day I will master the process, but for now I am happy with what I produced. I hope that due to my lack of experience, the music doesn’t sound generic or cookie cutter. I think there’s a certain beauty in naivety.
OS: It’s interesting to see some of the press that’s hitting around the album reference our shared reality with the Covid pandemic. Obviously you wrote and recorded the album in different times, but how do you personally hear the music now in light of where we are now?
SS: I have been living in a sort of socially distanced bubble for a long time and that’s why the songs on this album explore the themes of connection and isolation; anxiety and hope. Everything was written before the pandemic, but when it hit, it felt like everyone else was finally catching up to me and hopefully the songs resonate a bit more widely.
OS: The press release also talked about how you have felt like “a brown woman in what is still a very white indie rock world” – with Black Out Tuesday and the other ways that the music industry has responded to the latest egregious examples of inequality, do you feel encouraged or discouraged? Is there any more of a sense of allyship or does it still feel to miss the mark?
SS: This is a really important and complicated question, and I want to stress that my experience as a South Asian is not comparable to the racism that black people experience. A song like “Off Color” is about feeling inadequate as a person of color growing up and internalizing white beauty standards. But that discomfort is not comparable to fearing for your life or safety because of the color of your skin.
When I was growing up and still living at home in Buffalo, I was uncomfortable with the racism and homophobia that I heard from members of the South Asian community – not everyone, but overall the community was socially convervative. And since leaving home, I have had to have some uncomfortable conversations with members of that community and have been largely estranged from it. I have taken flack for that, especially as I started playing music when I moved to SF. The indie scene, especially back then in the early 2000’s, was very white. I felt like an impostor, not just as a woman – Andrea, the drummer in the Stratford 4, and I were often the only women on stage on three-band bills night after night on tours – but as a South Asian woman.
Is it any better now? I’m not sure. Most indie music publications/sites write about white artists almost exclusively. I think the mainstream music industry overall profits tremendously off black artists and does not give back to that community. I would love to see more Black, Asian, and Latino people in leadership positions at record labels, music publications, and other industry juggernauts. The leadership should reflect the diversity of the listeners and creators.
OS: Your new album is a dense listen with interweaving instruments, samples and what sound like maybe some field recordings / ambient sounds? I was wondering if you could pull a few out and talk about how you sourced them and what you felt they added?
SS: Yeah, I love field recordings and found sounds and layers of noise. I sometimes take my kids out and give them phones so they can get recordings for me. Some of the more ambient sounds you’ll hear on the album are railroad crossing bells, my son is obsessed with trains, freeway traffic, water running down drains, the SF Bay, birds, seals… Samples of myself playing the tabla on Dust and then loading a bunch of distortion on top. I even recorded a drop off at summer camp for Alone/Together because I wanted that combo of chaos and innocence that you can only get with a hundred kids running around a playground.
OS: Obviously performing live isn’t an option for the near future, but I was wondering if it was something you had considered for Forest Bees? Knowing that much of the music is about feelings of isolation, I didn’t know what your relationship to a live performance would be.
SS: I actually have played live as Forest Bees around San Francisco, and I was planning a short tour for the album release, but that isn’t happening anymore. I’m still trying to figure out the live set up though. I play almost all the instruments on the record, but obviously can’t do that live, so I had been playing to backing tracks. But I worry that it seems too karaoke. I would love to put a band together so it isn’t just me alone on stage. And I am hoping to work with a drummer on the next album. If anyone is interested, please get in touch!
OS: You’re also an executive director of an innovation lab, I was wondering if you had any thoughts about what the pandemic and quarantine has taught us about community and the ways technology has tried to recreate these gathering spaces and feelings?
SS: Can you imagine if we had to go through quarantine without the technology we have? Obviously a Zoom happy hour is never going to replace the real thing, and even a Zoom work meeting leaves something to be desired, but technology has helped. Having said that, I hope that this pandemic has made us realize that our society is very broken: lack of health care, very few protections in place for workers, economic and racial injustice, a failed education system, disordered political leadership – if any, ecological deterioration and disintegrated communities. We need to be very deliberate about how we rebuild our systems, otherwise we are doomed to keep failing ourselves and each other.