The second album by Sheetal Singh’s solo project, Forest Bees, is Between the Lines. The songs on the record take on some weighty subjects, including climate change, racial inequality, romantic difficulties and the fears of raising children in a world that seems like it’s falling apart.
“The name of the album nods to my Asian American experience,” Singh said. “A lot of the songs were written in the heart of the Trump years and the racial reckoning that was happening in 2020. Concurrently, many Asian Americans were trying to figure out their position in the racial hierarchy of America. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but it brought up questions for me and reawakened some thoughts. As a society, we tend to think in black and white, literally, but we need solidarity and advocacy among all sorts of people. [I]t’s a feature of white supremacy to pit people against each other. My song, ‘Between the Lines,’ encapsulated the themes of the album: falling in between the lines of America’s racial categories.”
Singh wrote, recorded and produced the songs on Between the Lines in her studio in her Berkeley home. “I can do my day job from home, so I have nights and weekends to work on music,” she said. “I’m a single mom, but the children are 12 and 15 and they’re happy to be in their rooms playing video games. I have a simple setup: my laptop, mics, bass, guitar, piano and a couple of synths. Most of the drums are programmed. I use software to do that. I also dropped in samples I found online and my own field recordings.”
She put the album together during the Covid lockdown of 2020, finishing her vocal and instrumental tracks and mailing them to her collaborators. Maryam Qudus added a few synthesizer parts and mixed the songs. Chris Streng played lead guitar, Anthony Georgis contributed drum programming and Chris Otchy enhanced one song with a modular synth.
“Some Cliches Are True” weaves together familiar platitudes against a bubbling rhythm track and warm synth tones. The mood changes, with long ambient notes emphasizing the singer’s warnings about abusive relationships. An R&B backbeat opens “Absolution,” a song describing the end of a relationship and the feelings of uncertainty that arise as things fall apart. Singh croons softly: “I wanted to say that I’m sorry/For being too honest/Probably should have just shut up and swallowed my alarm.” Dark synthesizer chords increase the song’s intensity.
An uplifting backbeat and somber keyboard textures open “America.” Singh’s wistful vocal expresses the mixed feelings that arise as she contrasts the promises the country makes against the realities of inequality.
Forest Bees, Singh’s first solo album, marked her return to music after a long hiatus. In the late ’90s she was a member of the Stratford 4, a San Francisco shoegaze band that found brief national recognition.
“My parents are from India, but I was born in Buffalo, New York,” Singh said. “There was always music playing in the house. My mother wanted to be a Bollywood singer, so that was the soundtrack of my childhood. In high school I listened to the Smiths, Joy Division and the Cure. I had piano lessons as a kid, and hated them, but British music infiltrated me. I played in bands that never went anywhere, then got serious about music in college.”
She continued, “I loved Peter Hook’s bass playing in Joy Division. That set me on a course. I taught myself bass. In college, I did a year abroad in Manchester. I played in a couple of bands, but my visa ran out, so I came back and finished my senior year in California. After college, I moved to San Francisco. When I saw a flyer at Amoeba Records on Haight Street, put up by Jake [Hosek, guitar] and Andrea [Caturegli, drums]. I answered it and we clicked. One day we were walking down Haight Street and heard music coming out of a club. It was the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. The place was empty, but they were awesome. After the set, they introduced us to Chris Streng, who went to high school with them. We auditioned him and he joined us as singer and lyricist.”
The Stratford 4 started rehearsing, touring and making albums. After five years they signed to Elektra Records and produced their major label debut. “Then Warner sold all their labels to an investment company and the album never came out,” Singh said. “I stopped playing music for a while and started a family. Raising kids is an all-consuming creative experience of another kind. I ran into Chris again in 2016 and we reformed the Stratford 4, but it didn’t go anywhere. I realized how much I missed making music, so I taught myself how to record and produce, and started writing the songs that became the first Forest Bees album.”
Singh said the songs she wrote for her debut, Forest Bees, were more abstract. “The sound was experimental,” Singh said. “It was purposely obscure, vocally as well as musically. On Between the Lines, I was in a different emotional space, expressing myself with more clarity and directness. At this point, I’m not sure how I’m going to go about playing these songs live. I tried putting a band together, but after we practiced for many months, it wasn’t sounding the way I wanted it to sound. We’ll see what happens in the future, but I am looking for people to play with.”
Listen to Forest Bees on Bandcamp: forestbees.bandcamp.com/album/between-the-lines. Singh’s work with the Stratford 4 is at: thestratford4.bandcamp.com. Singh is also a writer and will read from her work at SF Litquake on Oct. 16 at 7pm, Page Street Co-working, 729 Page St., San Francisco.