Margaret Cho is one comedian who will never lose her audience. Not only because gays and Koreans won't be going extinct anytime soon, but because she is, herself, an evolving artist.
She's danced with the stars and inked most of her flesh. She played a comedic, but convincing Kim Jong Il on 30 Rock and has a regular role in Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva. Recently, she collaborated with some of the great musical minds of our time -- including Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Tegan and Sara -- learned to play the guitar, banjo, and dulcimer, and created a Grammy winning album Cho Dependent.
Cho takes her newest show, Mother, back on the road this month, offering a Cho approach to motherhood in its many forms. We spoke with her about places on the body to avoid tattooing, learning to play guitar with Josh Klinghoffer, and being a smothering mother to the world.
New Times: You learned to play guitar for your album. Did you learn as an adult or did you also take lessons as a kid?
Margaret Cho: I learned piano when I was a kid. When I was an adult, when I started working on the album, I had lessons with Josh Klinghoffer, who is a great guitarist from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He's a phenomenal musician. I had a lot of lessons from other musicians and people who worked on the record, people like Grant-Lee Phillips helped me a lot in terms of understanding chords and how to make chords. He wrote songs for me specifically so that I could learn certain chords and certain progressions. Jon Brion helped me a lot. I really had a wonderful array of teachers when I was learning how to play. Some of the greatest composers, producers, and musicians in the world were teaching me.
The song you wrote with Andrew Bird, "I'm Sorry," sort of reminded me of Mink Stole's "Sometimes I Wish I Had a Gun." That same irreverence. Did you have that in mind?
I wanted to do what is sort of a traditional murder ballad, these are very old songs that mainly have to do with fear, traditional folky kind of music. A little like that Tracy Ullman, "They Don't Know About Us," those comedian songs. I keep it in this country voice, so I could pull it off. Andrew and I did that.
And it's all based on a true story. I was really in love with this guy, who ended up killing his wife. This horrible, horrible thing. I wrote that song to sort of somehow deal with my emotions around that situation. Being that close to a killer who didn't even like me. It's so weird to be rejected in that way, and then to feel like, I really dodged a bullet, literally. This song is a way to deal with that experience. Andrew and I wanted it to be really country. We did it Nashville with really great Nashville musicians. Andrew is such a wonderful songwriter, we had a wonderful time making it.
Now that you've gotten into music, do you find that there's emotions you'd rather express through music than comedy?
I'm just learning to be a better musician in general. In my tours, I'm just doing standup comedy, because that's where I am now artistically. With music, every once and a while it'll fit in with my show. But my focus is standup. I go through phases.
You put it out on your own label Clownery Records. Are you going to put out other artists? Are you going to expand on that?
Yeah! I'm going to continue put out stuff of my own, and I've also done things with other people that are on their labels. They're free to do anything. The way music is now, you really do have that freedom, you can be on other people's labels. It's different than it was before.
You've done Dancing with the Stars, burlesque, belly dancing. Is expressing yourself with your body through dance something that you started later in life too?
I think I developed that later in life. That's something that I became more comfortable with as I got older. To me, it's really important, especially something like burlesque, it's a kind of signaling a peace with my body that I never had.
I've had eating disorders my whole life, so I've always felt that there was something wrong with me physically. When you get to a point where you can be naked in front of people, that's a huge thing. That's a very therapeutic thing for me. I really love burlesque for that aspect of it. It's about women finding peace and enjoyment and happiness with their bodies.
It would have been weird if you'd have done burlesque as a child... I remember seeing an interview with you many years ago where you talked about your tattoos giving you more control over your body. Do you have any tattoos you regret, any you don't love?
No, I love them all, there are some that I need to finish that I'm unwilling to finish because it hurts so bad. I'm at the point where I'm getting tattoos in areas that I just don't want to do. I have the back of my right knee done, and I have to do the back of my left knee, and it hurt so bad. The back of your knee is the weirdest place to get a tattoo. And then also on my knee caps, I haven't finished Lincoln and Washington. I was going to do a Mount Rushmore thing, but it hurts so bad on my knees, but I have to. It's not that I regret anything. It's just when you start something, you don't realize how painful it's going to be. Everything else is covered, so now I'm at the places that hurt.
Margaret Cho. 8 p.m., January 27, at Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Boulevard, West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $15 to $100 plus fees. Visit kravis.org, or call 561-832-7469.
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