Kristin Forbes is a reggae soul sister from Charm City. Over the past decade, Forbes, a skilled multi-instrumentalist and a singer, backed several notable artists on their solo projects, Bad Brain's H.R., the Dismemberment Plan's Travis Morrison, Fishbone's Angelo Moore. But last year she finally made her own statement with the Scotch Bonnets' debut album, Live Ya Life.
The 10-song disc blends reggae with a rock and soul sensibility, producing a sound with groove but also strong melodies and genre-hopping arrangements. The reggae-inflected cross-pollination ranges from the spunky afro-beat slink of "Pim Pim Pim" to the bountiful funk call-to-arms "Go Adrian!" and the dark jazz-blues climate-change lament "Weatherman," which suggests Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman" by way of Traffic.
"A lot of the songs on the album came about very organically," says Forbes, whose musical sketches were initially filled out during a weekly jam session in 2008 called Reggae Sweatshop. The weekly open mic show featured a nice cross-section of musicians, including two former members of Washington, D.C. reggae greats the Pietasters. The looseness of the get-together and skill of the players produced a fun freewheeling aesthetic. "We'd say like, 'Let's do 'Tax Man' in a reggae style," Forbes recalls.
Although Forbes enjoyed herself, she didn't put a lot of stock into making it on her own until she showed some demos to producer Mark Leary. Leary, who plays drums on Live Ya Life, owns a studio space where he helped Forbes produce the album.
"I was sort of naïve when I got into this project. I was completely broke," she says. "Mark heard the songs, and said, 'I'm going to make this happen.'"
They worked whenever they could, and sometimes weeks passed between sessions. The project dragged on for more than a year. There was even a moment where Leary's basement flooded, and the mixes they'd done were lost.
"For a minute we lost the album, and I was thinking about having to re-record everything and I was just, 'No-no-no-no,'" says Forbes. "He said, 'I'm going to work on it,' and I said, 'You do that. I will pretend you didn't call me because I can't handle that right now.'"
Though the mixes were ultimately lost, they recovered the basic tracks. It was a drag, she says, but not catastrophic. Last March, the Scotch Bonnets finally released Live Ya Life, but Forbes admits she dropped the ball a bit after that.
"We have been a little slow in the promoting. I'm a chronic insomniac and there was a big period of 2013 where I just didn't really sleep, and it crippled me mentally. I just couldn't keep my shit together. And I also play in too many projects," she says. "Finally, I was like, 'Nobody is going to do this for you, Kristin. You have to do this yourself. All these other groups you spend time learning their songs or doing this, what are they doing for you?' So I hit the reset button, and 2014 is now the 'go' year."
In addition to making music, Forbes has spent a lot of time as a bike messenger. That street-level existence has inspired a jaded view of Washington politics, which creeps into the lyrics. "When you live in the land of plenty, nobody cares a bit," she notes on the terrific sidewinding, doo-wop-tinged title track. On the soul-soaked ode to ex-D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, "Go Adrian!," she notes, "It's a hustle on that hill chasing down that dollar bill, taking prisoners at will, but when it all comes down, who's representing me?"
"When you're a courier in D.C., you get a very interesting window into the inner workings of the U.S. government because you're transferring documents from one building to another. So you see how much stuff goes from say Exxon and Halliburton to Dick Cheney," she says. "I saw the paper trail because I carried it."
Looking forward, she's hoping to spend more of this year carrying her guitar. She's been contacting venues, leaning back on that old-school, DIY punk ethos she witnessed growing up in the area during the '90s. It's a leap of faith to jump in a van and drive someplace where they've never heard of you, but she's buoyed by the support of her bandmates.
"That those guys are willing to take the leap of faith with me has really bolstered me like, 'I can do this.' It's kind of how Kristin got her groove back," she says. "Things are a starting to pop. We have some things going on and different people trying to help us in different areas."
There's talk of cutting a video this spring, and later this year the Scotch Bonnets will release a digital EP they recorded last year with H.R. She's hoping that buys her some time to finish writing her second album later this year, with an eye on releasing it in early 2015.
"Someone is going to take notice. I have faith in what I'm doing, and I know it's worthwhile enough, at least based on the opinion of people I respect," she says. "That's all you can do. You just have to believe in yourself and get up every day and work and work and not go anywhere and not go anywhere, and suddenly you're going to get there, but you have to get up all those days and work."