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China Forbes opens up about music, motherhood and how she got her unique name

Forbes gave an impromptu home tour to KGW's Brenda Braxton and spoke about her career, motherhood, multiculturalism and the dream that led to her famous name.

PORTLAND, Ore. — What a life China Feather Forbes is living. Yes — that's her given name — and she revealed the story behind it during an interview.

The lead singer of Pink Martini invited KGW's Brenda Braxton into her home to talk about performing at TEDxPortland's 10th anniversary show at the Moda Center, and things really got interesting after the interview wrapped and the camera kept rolling. Think of it as the afterparty!

China performed in her home studio, dished about her career, motherhood, and her penchant for painting and design. She also recently recovered from COVID and talked about that, too. Plus, she shared family photos and stories that were funny, poignant and real.

This interview found China at home — wearing slippers, not heels — and reminiscing about her favorite people, places and things. 

It's an eye opening, entertaining, stream of consciousness kind of conversation with a couple bonus tunes thrown in.

You can watch the whole interview here, or read on for a preview.

On the pandemic

BB:  Okay. First I have to ask you about the pandemic-- you got COVID. How are you feeling?

CF: I finally got COVID. I mean, (Pink Martini) somehow toured from July to April with no one in the band getting COVID on the road, but finally in April five of us got it in Europe. So I'm feeling much better, much better, but I was not asymptomatic. It was kind of unpleasant.

On motherhood

BB: You're a mom.

CF: I am.

BB: Tell me about your boy.

CF: Cameron is 13. He would not want me to say any of these things, but he's adorable, hilarious. Um, sometimes annoying! (laughs) And super committed now to school in seventh grade. He kind of clicked into wanting to do well and being engaged in his classes. He studied French from the age of 5 at the French American school, so he speaks French, which my dad would've been thrilled about because my dad was part French and loved his French ancestry. And he's named after my dad, Cameron. He's just as cute as can be. He's so resilient. You know, when you go to the pediatrician, they're always like, 'Resilience. It's very important.' Cameron just naturally bounces back from emotional stresses or whatever. I can't even understand it actually. It's another awe-inspiring thing because he just has that innately. He sings... plays piano sometimes. He took lessons, but he didn't really keep it up. He likes to draw. He's kind of a great all-around guy. 

Credit: China Forbes
China Forbes and her son, Cameron.

BB: Does he ever come on the road with you guys?

CF: He does. He'll come in the summer, maybe for a week. And last summer he came and helped sell the merch and he was like, this is gonna be my summer job from now on. 

CF: I almost didn't have a child, because in my 30s I was questioning all the time if I could have a child and do my job singing, and what would that look like? Could I handle it? And then I did. I was so relieved because I'm so glad I did, but it's not been easy and it changed everything but I don't regret things. So, it's like even something hard that happens or whatever, I always feel that I learn from things and I would never change anything about my life or choices. Even some of them that I probably should regret but I just feel like it makes all of us who we are, you know? And Cameron's at a point where I feel like I can really enjoy being a mom. 

China's home studio

CF:  All I want to do is be in this space playing piano and writing songs and recording them, but I'm not here enough. And so when I come home, it's like, 'Oh my God. Do I remember how to do this?' It's always like I'm learning it again. I just have a simple setup where I have the piano, I have a vocal mic and I have all my guitars and basses and stuff. And I can make songs by myself, which is what I really enjoy a lot, because it's just refreshing to sort of have no logistics involved and just sit down whenever you want to. But there's a definitely an incredible alchemy when you work with other people in a studio, that's real. So, I love that too. But for the day-to-day, it's really useful to have this space, and it's just right here in my living room, basically.

BB: How many instruments do you play?

CF: I play piano and guitar and I can play bass. You know, I'm not like Phil Baker and doing solos and stuff. I'm just playing along. But I come up with nice harmonies, I like simple parts. I'm willing to pick up any instrument and try it. I have three different ukuleles.. a dulcimer, there's a Strat, a Fender base. There's a lot of percussion stuff, bongos, congas, a symbol. I love playing symbols. And in fact, in Pink Martini, I often go over and play symbol washes during songs. And it's so much fun, because it's like this drama that you add and it's really satisfying. 

Credit: KGW

Favorite records

BB: So I'm looking around behind you at your album covers. Are those some of your favorite records?

CF:  They're some of my favorite performers or just nostalgic, like I have Ella Fitzgerald over there. I have Linda Ronstadt on her roller skates. Jimmy Cliff, The Harder They Come, which reminds me of my parents. Maria Muldaur, who also reminds me of my parents, Donna Summer — she was the first inspiration for me to sing. That live album in the center is the album I bought with my own money when I was eight and I was obsessed. 

Credit: KGW
China Forbes shows off her favorite Donna Summer album, which she says played a large role in inspiring her to pursue a music career.

CF: (On the album cover) she is on stage with lots of people, and this was my favorite. She's wearing a white feather outfit with her daughter, Mimi. And this is the sad twist of this story that I'm telling. This song she wrote about Mimi. (Summer sings to her daughter) 'I know sometimes you ask yourself why I'm never there but it feels like the whole world needs me. So I love you, but I'm gonna be gone a lot.' I mean, it's just like when I was eight and my mother had moved to New York and I was living with my dad and then [Summer] kind of looked like my mother, you know. I was like, 'Oh my God, she's my mother and she's singing to her daughter about how she's not there.' So, it comforted me and that sort of made my wanting to be a singer all the more potent. I just wanted to be like her. And then as I grew up, suddenly I'm singing Cameron's Song and I'm never there. It's really sad actually.

BB: It's a little like a Cat's Cradle kind of thing. (Referencing Harry Chapin's 1974 hit Cat's in the Cradle.)

CF: Do you know that every day I sing that to him?

BB: Do you?

CF: He's like, 'Do you, you wanna play lacrosse? (China says) My shoulder hurts from yesterday. Can we take a break?' And then he's like, 'All right. And I (start singing) Cats in the Cradle and the Silver the Spoon. And then we laugh, it's our joke. But it's, it's not funny. It's really quite sad. So anyway, it's a really hard thing to be a mom who's gone. That was the thing about the pandemic. That was so nice for me. I mean, I was with Cameron longer than I've ever been with him in his life.

Growing up

BB: Speaking of family. The pictures that you have on the wall are amazing.

CF: Aren't they amazing?

BB: You're like the United Nations family.

CF: (laughs)

BB: Can you tell me a little bit about the backgrounds of your parents?

CF: My mother is the daughter of a Tuskegee airman and a teacher, and she's a twin. She and her brother are up there being cute as babies. My mom's black, my dad was white. My dad was a product of a half-French dad and a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) mother.

Credit: China Forbes

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CF:  They were from Boston originally. My dad grew up outside Boston. And my parents met when they were working at WGBH in Boston.

BB: What did they do at the TV station?

CF: My dad did the lights and my mom was a producer.  That's where they met. They were together and then they had my sister and then they had me, then they got divorced and they were always friends. I mean, they loved each other 'til the day he died.

BB: Boston definitely has some racial overtones. Was that a problem for your parents back in the 1960s?

CF: Oh yeah. I think we were lucky that both sets of grandparents loved both of them so that they were always very welcoming and loving. But the city — I mean, in the movie (Infinitely Polar Bear) my sister portrays my mom trying to get a job in finance. And they're like, a black woman in Boston working at this firm is not really an option. You know, it just was not an option. So, that was hard. My mom bought an apartment that was in North Cambridge, sort of next to a housing project. We were an apartment building that wasn't the housing project, but kind of looked like the housing project. And we were surrounded by all kinds of kids — Korean, Black, Irish, you know, mixed-race, half-Jewish, half-Black — all these people in our building. And we had this great group of friends and we played in the neighborhood.

BB:  You said your dad died young, but your mother is still alive?

CF: 80 years, going strong. She looks like she's 60. She's so healthy — knock on wood.

Credit: China Forbes

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House tour

CF: I took that picture of my dad that you saw upstairs when I was 10. And then when I was 21, I was taking a printmaking class in college called Monotype where you put this thick, black ink on a metal panel, a flat metal panel, and then you take a rag and remove ink to make the white parts. So you're painting in reverse. It's like you take away to create the image and then you run it through a press. (Showing off the artwork) You see how it's indented. The metal panel's pressed into the paper. It's such a fun way of working. (Points to the portrait) And I just like this eye very much, because I feel his soul is right there. I can see it. I feel like he's looking at me. I totally, I mean, it's just weird. It's kind of overwhelming, actually. I don't stand here and stare at it that much. I mean, I see it all the time, but I don't really look into his eyes, but it's like, he's trying to tell me something.

BB: He'd be proud of it.

CF: Oh my God. He didn't get to know that Pink Martini was big in France. He would've been so happy. I think that would've been the happiest thing in his life. He loved France.

BB: What a wonderful thing to be surrounded by the art and his memory and the photos.

CF: Yeah.

What's in a name?

CF: (This is artist Bess Ratliff's painting called) Feather. (It's huge — almost floor to ceiling.) She lives here in Portland. (And) my middle name is Feather.

BB:  Where did Feather come from?

CF: (laughs) Feather is... I think my parents were nervous when they were going to name me China, that like, 'Are we making a mistake?' And so for a few weeks I didn't have a name, and they called me a 'little feather' because I was so tiny. 

CF: I'm sitting here (in my family room) and these Matryoshka dolls are the Russian dolls, right? Everyone always asks me how I got my name, China. My mom was pregnant and had a dream that she gave birth to one of these (dolls). And one was named Maya, which is my sister. And then inside (there was a smaller one) China. (laughs) I've never done this before, but that's why she named me China.

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