On Weathered Woes, her aptly named debut disc, Deirdre Forrest has taken the joy and heartbreak of love and created a captivating collection of folk rock gems.
Regular readers of this space would have first gotten a taste of her powerful voice with Beannacht (Gaelic for “blessing”), an Irish American folk duo she founded with her uncle Tom Johnston. Their debut album Gra Na Frinne landed on our best-of collection the year it was released.
“Beannacht taught me that I could sing,” Forrest, 25, says proudly.
“Musical theater was always more my focus and I thought that was really the only way to express myself. I was interested in acting as well and was on my way to study that in college when the opportunity to sing with my uncle came around.” You could see that in the evolution of Forrest as a stage performer. She was painfully shy in the beginning, her trademark low cut top and high heels giving her the appearance of a little girl dressing up as Tina Turner.
Over the years it has been a joy to watch her stage presence evolve into something that blends wisdom, confidence and sensuality.
“I was very self conscious in the beginning and in time, I got my confidence,” she says. “It was really fulfilling and I learned about myself working with Tom in Beannacht. I learned how to perform, and it was a great experience for me.”
After the duo parted ways, Forrest found love in singer-songwriter Michael Brett. The pair began a romantic and creative partnership once they relocated to the Jersey Shore. They played coffee houses and church basement talent showcases in and around Asbury Park and soon got noticed in the musical community there.
“I was playing ukulele primarily and I met my boyfriend Michael Brett and we started playing together under my name,” she explains.
“Then we started playing as the May Darlings in the area. People got a sense of my vocal abilities and I got to contribute backing vocals to other artists’ set lists and albums.
“I think that is part of my increase in confidence over the last few years. I am a real perfectionist with my voice, and it took a lot for me to let go and let loose.”
Brett contributes guitar, bass, mandolin and, according to the liner notes, “patience, love, and inspiration.” He adds an understated yet vital harmony on tracks like “Patty Sue,” amplifying the sweet melodic qualities of Forrest’s voice.
Their harmonies are reminiscent of the Civil Wars, an indie acoustic group whose songs find their ways into their set list. Jim Mill, a local Asbury Park native who sounds remarkably like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, adds a gravely growl underneath Forrest on the remarkable “Amends,” a song of heartbreak whose chorus states that “the only suture is love itself.”
“I love Jim’s voice and he’s a good friend,” Forrest enthuses. “All the people I sing with here are my friends, and you meet so many musicians on this scene. You get to meet someone who asks you to sing on their album and before you know it, there is this whole different band that wants to work for you.
“Michael is writing two albums now and I am playing on them. He plays on mine. I love how my sound has been shaped by these amazing musicians!”
Weathered Woes runs the gamut of acoustic flourishes, from bluegrass to alternative folk to back porch acoustic blues. Forrest credits the swirl of sounds she heard on the family’s record player as the chief influence of her sound.
“I think it’s a blend of all my influences,” she says of the album. “Coming from an Irish background, I have that influence. I love roots, country, and soul music. I’m obsessed with Led Zeppelin.
“My dad is a musician but doesn’t play out. He was really into Motown and soul music. We had everything from U2 to Aretha Franklin. He was very focused on lyrics and I remember him stopping a song and saying, ‘Listen to this.’”
Dad must be proud of the enigmatic, fluid poetry his daughter has produced.
“Your skin and bones and sunken eyes are beautiful in this demise/You're inspired by exit, dramatic and full of regret put to bed by this misery/Laid to rest by this leaving lullaby. Lay me down, oh, in this feelin'/Your lips upon my forehead scream, in unison with these waking dreams. Visions of your hungry hands tracing me in the dead of night,” she sings on the haunting “Leaving Lullaby,” the album’s closer.
The experience of being in a healthy relationship brings the bruises of a previous one to the surface yet again in the song “Morgan Avenue.” Over a deceptively sunny musical bed she sings, “You sleep in his arms, though they were so cold/You'd rest on his chest though your heart was heavy, so heavy, with the weight of knowing/He's take you down, again and again/Alone and bitter you were his only friend. He set the trap and you walked right in/ You'd have no choice but to play pretend.”
“It was important to record it so that I can talk freely about it,” she explains. “I think being Irish means you’re not always comfortable vocalizing things -- it’s easier to write that down. I sung the song at a Turning Lives Around domestic violence benefit and it was very gratifying.”
Though Forrest’s voice and demeanor is sweet, she’s not afraid to throw the odd dagger once in a while.
“‘Celestial End’ was me writing out of frustration over how women are portrayed in the music industry, how you have to be perfectly put together to get noticed,” she says.
“Even in the indie music scene they have this make and model look to them. I like to dress up but I’m not image-focused. I think it’s unhealthy, and this was my weird poetic take on it.”
Breaking up a winning combination like Beannacht is never easy, but Forrest reasons that the subject matter didn’t fit the duo’s formula.
“The things I started to write for our second album and beyond had a completely different sound from what we were doing,” she says.
“The music was more personal, more soulful. I also wanted to sing with other people and contribute to their albums as well as having them contribute to mine. It was a tough decision leaving Beannacht but the right one in the long run.”
She is bullish on the work her uncle Tom Johnston has produced. He released the excellent Highway Signs and Highway Lines last year and is currently working on his next album.
“I really like what he is doing lyrically,” she gushes. “I think he found his niche as a songwriter. We had something really great at the time and the first album was great and all. He began writing songs for him to sing rather than writing songs for me to sing. It is a whole different world for both of us and it really works.”
Since the songs on Weathered Woes are so personal, it begs the question -- how many of these songs are about her relationship with Brett, and how many songs is he writing about her for his upcoming albums?
“Michael creates these great characters for songs and puts them in hypothetical situations, whereas I write right out of my journal,” she says.
“‘Morgan Avenue’ is a comparison of two loves and he’s obviously the good one.”
Weathered Woes is the start of a new beginning for Forrest as a solo artist, and might mark an era of a new “boss” in stilettos ruling the Asbury Park music scene.
Weathered Woes is available on CD Baby and iTunes.