For Berkeley-based instrumentalist Sheetal Singh — who writes and records as Forest Bees — a great song concept often can strike at the worst of times.
Take July 2020, for instance, when the Indian-descended singer was taking a much-needed weekend getaway with her husband and two children at a Clear Lake resort during the height of the pandemic. It “seemed like a very safe, personal-distancing thing to do, going camping with another family that was also multiracial like ours, that summer where everything was so crazy,” she said.
But the experience was anything but. Heading into an adjacent town to rent a boat, the party drove straight into a main-street-blocking, pre-election Trump rally. “We had been relaxed and kind of clueless, just enjoying this beautiful area, and all of a sudden, there were all these people waving their flags, MAGA hats, and anti-Newsom signs, pounding on our windows,” she said. “It was just so ugly and so jarring; it felt very much like we were under attack.”
Singh remembers the feeling of alienation that shot through her at the time, which would later snowball into the larger lyrical theme that infuses “Between the Lines,” her newly released sophomore set as Forest Bees – particularly the percussion-dusted “America,” the David-Lynch-industrial title track, and a subtly-sinister “Wolf in the Fable.”
“Here we were on vacation, and I had my two mixed-race kids with me, and the other couple were immigrants from other countries, and these people were all around us yelling, but everything just went quiet in my head,” she said. “I thought, ‘I don’t belong here — I have never belonged in this country, even though I was born here.’ That experience really hit home for me, but what — and where — is home? Because I’ve been to India on family vacations, and that never felt like home to me, either.”
Singh fell so deeply into the existential rabbit hole she began to pen essays, one for every track. She abandoned that pursuit once those essays started getting published in posh literary magazines, but expounding on those concepts proved intoxicating: She is now nearing completion on her very first novel, tentatively titled “The Vacant Night Sky,” after one of its protagonist’s favorite songs by real-life band Mecca Normal.
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During lockdown, she tried collaborating with other musicians via Zoom and in person in hopes of assembling a touring band, but nothing panned out. Forest Bees — with Singh playing keyboards, bass, guitar, and programming drums via samples and other hi-tech methods — remains a studio entity alone, for now.
“The macro theme of the album is the experience of being Asian, especially with all that heightened awareness,” she said. “‘Asian American,’ in itself, covers so many different types of people that it’s almost a meaningless term. But since 2020, people have been lining up across racial lines. So it’s been an uncomfortable place to be Asian American because, in a way, you fall between those lines.”
So while it would be easy to gloss over prejudicial incidents like a family camping trip gone momentarily awry, the artist — who has a master’s degree in anthropology — just can’t do it.
She’s not afraid to go dark when necessary, as in the title track “Between the Lines.” “I was going for an angry song, and I think that comes through,” she said. “Lyrically, you can read it as a call to arms and to stand up for yourself because it’s time to choose sides. The message behind the song is, listen to your conscience. Figure out what you believe in, and stand up for it. Just take a stand.”
Forest Bees’ “Between the Lines” is out now on Dandy Boy Records.