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With a recurring role on a smash series, a sell-out tour, and a new release (she sings!), Margaret Cho hits a career high note

by Steven Foster (Photo: PixieVisionProductions)

In between riotous standup gigs and world tours, Margaret Cho has also managed to carve out an impressive career that’s as diverse and artistic as her famously tattooed skin, nimbly leaping from television (the infamous American Girl, the smash series Drop Dead Diva) to film (the blockbuster Face/Off, AIDS tearjerker It’s My Party). But with her latest CD release, Cho Dependent, she adds another role to the Cho roster: Chanteuse. Happily, the album is an impressive surprise.

For starters, the girl can sing. And not “sing” as other celebrities attempt to, turning perfectly good soundwaves into Auto-Tuned symphonies of aural agony. It turns out Cho is the real deal, gleefully hopscotching musical genres with the same playful skill she applies to her acting trade.

But Cho-bots who are afraid she’s rebooted her comedy hard drive don’t need to hit control-alt-delete. Though the tracks are impressively composed by some of the industry’s most acclaimed players, the lyrics are vintage Cho. Virtually every tune is a bawdy, racy gasp-and-guffaw-inducing number of sure-to-offend subject matter, with titles such as “Captain Cameltoe” and “Your Dick.” As you can see, Cole Porter it ain’t.

And this lewd little lark of a CD attracted a wicked troupe of guest artists eager to get their potty-mouth freak on, making the whole affair seem like an Austin City Limits coolfest with a detour through South Park. And though Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco, or Fiona Apple might not be on tour with her, Cho might sing a few of the album’s numbers when she hits the House of Blues later this month for the southern leg of her Cho Dependent Tour.

Steven Foster: Congrats on the release. Are you thrilled with it?
Margaret Cho: Yes. I love it. It took me a really long time to make it. It was a journey. I learned how to sing and I learned how to really play guitar, so it was a real triumph in a lot of ways. I’m just filled with joy on how it came out.

The diva does the tube: Cho is a co-star on Lifetime Television’s Drop Dead Diva.

Cyndi Lauper was a catalyst for the project when she complimented your voice on the True Colors Tour, but what about the creative gestation? The idea of recording an entire album of original songs?
Well, I wanted to do something that was real Bette Midler, a Divine Miss M kind of thing, with bawdy songs—a little Sophie Tucker, a little cabaret—that was comedy. I’ve always thought of Bette Midler as a comedian. But then she has this incredibly beautiful voice, and I have a good voice, so I thought I can try this and make it happen. And I’m really glad that I did. And I enlisted some of the greatest singers and musicians in the world.

The roster is pretty incredible. Tegan and Sara, Ani DiFranco, Andrew Bird, Ben Lee, Fiona Apple, Jon Brion.
I’m so glad it came out so well.

I love Jon’s shows at Largo [in L.A.], where people just hop onstage to join him. The last time I was there, Fiona and Chris [Thile, from Nickel Creek] showed up. Then we all walked over to the smaller room across the courtyard for a more private jam. I think there were just 10 of us. That group is so cool. Very free-flowing.
It’s my club, you know? It’s where I go to just chill and hang out. On Friday nights I go to Jon’s show and I love going there and just hanging out with those people. I’ve learned a lot from performing there.

He attracts so many wonderful artists, and women worship him. Fiona, Aimee Mann, Sam Phillips. Do you know Sam?
I love Sam.

These boots are made for walking . . . and singing: Margaret Cho does “a Divine Miss M kind of thing” on her new Cho Dependent album.

And now you’re in his fold of alt-goddesses. You see his touch in all of the genre-hopping you do on the record. There’s the cabaret-flavored “Eat S**t and Die.” The pop of “Intervention.” “My Puss,” hip-hop. “Lesbian Escalation” is kind of torch-y. “I’m Sorry,” country. There’s an almost Brion-like versatility to the disc.
He’s one of the major influences. He’s helped me so much. And he kind of really became my guitar teacher and my vocal coach. Last year when I lost my voice for two months he would work with me to re-train my voice. He really helped me.

I have to say, you always seemed very “rock star” to me. The rebel, the firebrand, the sexuality.
Thank you!

Did that kind of rock-n-roll soul move you to write songs?
Well, writing standup is a very similar kind of a process. Because you have to have an economy of words. You have to be sure you’re telling the story in as few words as possible. I think most joke writers make great songwriters.

Will you be singing at your show?
Probably not. Because I’m so dying to do standup. I have so much material I’ve been writing. I’ve been stuck in Peachtree, Georgia, for the last several months shooting Drop Dead Diva, so I’m dying to get back on the road and do standup stuff. Standup is what I love and what I know. The new album is almost sort of filled with “extra” content. The other album after that will be all standup.

You moved to Atlanta, didn’t you? For Diva’s shoot schedule.
I moved to Peachtree City and then I moved to Atlanta, yeah. I live in Atlanta six months out of the year. Atlanta’s real gay and real progressive. It’s a fantastic city. But Peachtree City is where we film, and it’s about an hour outside of Atlanta and that sucks. It’s the home of the Tea Party, so that’s where all that…well, you know.

Oh yeah.
Yeah, it’s sick.

I saw a blog post from, what, 2004?
You said Houston was your favorite American city besides New York and San Francisco.
Oh, I love Houston. Houston is where I spent a lot of time doing shows when I was younger. I had a boyfriend in Houston who was a comic, and he kind of ran around with the whole Bill Hicks crowd.

Speaking of boyfriends, how’s married life [with artist Al Ridenour]?
It’s good. I’m so happy we got married and so proud to be a part of his family. You know, we’re really fortunate. That’s what really made me want to fight for gay marriage. Because I saw how important having a partner and having a husband was. It’s really made my life so much better. I think it should be something possible for all of us. Gay people especially, we need family too. It’s such an important thing.

You’re featured in the new doc I Am Comic, aren’t you?
I’ve known Jordan [Brady, director] for a long time. And I love Ritch Shydner, who’s the other guy behind the film. I love those guys, so I was happy to do it.

Back to your rock star persona. Love the ink. I saw you on The View the other day and a revolted Hasslebeck looked at your arms like you were a leper. I loved it. I hate that bitch.
[Laughs]

Are you going to get any more tattoos?
No. I don’t have any space left. And with filming Diva, if I ever show my arms, I have to go through so much makeup.

You could always cover up with a crazy rock star outfit. Like Gaga.
I love Lady Gaga. Did you know she’s afraid that people will steal creativity from her vagina? Well, I’m afraid people are gonna steal creativity from my asshole.

[Laughs] One more note about the record. One of the prettiest songs—and I mean it, Margaret, it’s just lovely—is “Calling in Stoned.” For such a funny lyric, it’s really a beautiful song.
Oh, thank you.

But you can’t call in stoned anymore. I heard you recently quit smoking pot.
I did.

Do you miss it?
[Long pause] Yes!

[Both laugh]

Margaret Cho performs in Houston at the House of Blues, September 10, and in Austin at the Paramount Theatre on September 12. Tickets available at www.margaretcho.com or at www.livenation.com.

Steven Foster also interviews Nate Berkus in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Steven Foster

Steven Foster is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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