By Claire Suddath
From March 13-22, more than 1,800 acts will descend upon Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, one of the largest music, film and arts festivals in America. From seasoned veterans like PJ Harvey to unknown bands hoping to make it big, the weeklong festival is a mecca for hipster PBR-drinking music nuts. But amid all the unwashed dye jobs and American Apparel outfits will be Margaret Cho, the stand-up comedian who will appear at SXSW — as a musician? Cho talked to TIME about her sudden career switch. (See pictures from South by Southwest.)
Wait, so … you have an album coming out?
Yes. It’s tentatively titled Guitarded and won’t be out until next year. I’m currently in the writing process. I’m learning how to play music and write songs, but they’re comedy songs. Because I can’t write music or play very well — actually, I have quite a bit of musical aptitude when it comes to the guitar, but I don’t know how to write music — I’m collaborating with different artists who are giving me the music while I provide the lyrics. Two of the people I’m collaborating with will be performing with me at SXSW — Patty Griffin and Amanda Palmer [of the Dresden Dolls].
Have you known them long?
I met Patty through this album. I love her music so much and have been a fan for many years. I even traveled to Austin, where she lives, to write with her. And Amanda Palmer I’ve been friends with for years. We’ve been on tour together a few times, so she’s sort of an obvious choice.
Do you come up with the lyrics first and say, “I’m writing a song about this”?
Yeah. We all live in different cities, so what we’ll do is, I’ll e-mail them lyrics, and we’ll send MP3s back and forth and eventually get together. It’s cool, ’cause I’ve done this with quite a few people now. I’m doing it with Tegan and Sara, with the New Pornographers, with Grant-Lee Phillips, Jill Sobule, Jon Brion — it’s huge. There are a lot of songs — I think it’s going to be a double or triple album. Of course, a lot of the songs are very short. They span different genres too. It’s not your typical music album.
What are the songs about?
They’re all pretty dirty. The titles are things like, “I’m in Love with Someone Else, so F___ You” and “Eat S___ and Die.” But the songs themselves are so very beautiful. One of the ones I’m doing with Patty Griffin is an imagined duet with me and my dog. You know, if my dog could sing to me, what would he say? That one is sort of whimsical, but others are real raunchy. It’s like my stand-up comedy but in song form. (See pictures of the history of stand-up comedy.)
So now the obvious question is, Why are you doing songs?
I was inspired by Madonna. I’ve been doing comedy music in my shows for the last few years now. I saw Madonna playing the guitar and I was like, “I want to do that!” I mean, if she can do it, I can do it, right? But it’s really hard. So I came up with the idea of collaborating. But every time I meet with somebody to write a song, they give me a music lesson. Basically, I have some of the best musicians in the world teaching me.
But … why?
I just thought since the comedy scene is changing so much, I needed to do something different. I’ve been a political comedian for the past eight years, really railing against the Bush Administration and what was going on with the Iraq war and everything. Now that everything is changing, I felt like it was time for my comedy to change.
True. You can’t really rail against Bush now that Obama is President.
The country is taking a different direction. Now we can have more of a sense of lightness with our humor. We can have more fun. It’s like a chance to expand artistically. Comedy is going to change. This is my way of embracing the change.
Have you ever performed at SXSW before?
No, this will be my first time. I’ve never even been!
What are you expecting?
I don’t know! I’m excited for sure. I’m performing for the first time as a musician, which is new. I have all my little musician things to check off: bring this guitar, do this or do this. I can’t wear long necklaces anymore, because the guitar itself is a necklace. So that’s my jewelry, and I have to figure out what I’m going to wear around it.
I need to decide what my musician look is going to be. For a long time I was like, Oh, I’m going to be like Kim Deal — do a super ’90s thing, ’cause that was my heyday — but then I thought, “Well, I’m older now. Maybe I should be more like Emmylou Harris and have a beautiful dress.” I can’t decide. I have no idea what my rock look is going to be. I think I’m gonna do a different one every show.
One day you can be Dolly Parton, and the next day you can be like a ’90s rapper.
Like I’m in Run-D.M.C.
You should wear Hammer pants.
I think I have some of those!
Are you excited to see any bands while you’re in Austin?
I’m excited to see Amanda Palmer’s show, which I’m also performing in. I’m just excited to go. It’s huge — it’s South by Southwest.