Families in Sheetal Singh’s Berkeley neighborhood know her as executive director at Oakland’s Early Learning Lab, where she develops new tools and methods for pre-school education, and as a mother of two children, 9 and 12.
So she was startled when, before the coronavirus clampdown, a woman buttonholed her, amazed upon hearing Singh played bass in local picked-to-click alt-rock combo The Stratford 4.
“She said, ‘I had no idea! I always thought that you were just a mom from down the street. I didn’t know that you were cool!’” says Singh, chuckling. “And I am that mom from down the street, and I still play music. So why is that such a contradiction?”
Singh has had another identity recently exposed: Forest Bees, the name under which she composes and records plush, 4AD-evocative soundscapes. Her new self-titled debut CD, released in June, includes the breathy “Alexa,” a funereal “Hollow Bones,” the clanking cascade “Off Color” and an undulating, aquatic “Fever Dream.”
In addition to bass, she played guitar and keyboards in the studio and taught herself how to make her own admittedly-primitive beats.
Yet Singh thought she had given up on music when The Stratford 4 splintered 15 years ago on the eve of its greatest triumph — getting signed to Elektra Records for its third album by The Cars’ Ric Ocasek, who also produced the disc, which, sadly, never got released.
The band fought hard to extricate itself from its old deal with Jetset, and the Ocasek sessions made it as far as a private listening party for keen-eared Elektra honcho Sylvia Rhone. But by 2004, Time Warner had purchased the imprint, folded it into Atlantic and cut loose most of the team behind The Stratford 4, which soon received its walking papers.
Disgruntled and in disarray, the members called it a day, and Singh moved to England — first Manchester at the height of the Madchester scene, then London during the mid-’90s Britpop heyday (“I’d see Noel Gallagher regularly riding the tubes there — it was an amazing time,” she says) — to earn her master’s degree in anthropology. Making music was the last thing on her mind.
But the student had a family history of unfulfilled dreams.
Her mother, who grew up in India, possessed a truly stunning voice, and desperately wanted to become a classical singer in the vein of Asha Bhosle. But after a rafter-raising performance in high school, those plans were squelched. “She had the skills, but she was from a middle-class, respectable family, and that is just not something you would let your daughter do,” says Singh. “Performing? Only loose women did that.”
Pushed into a traditional, but unhappy, arranged marriage, she moved to America, and finally had the courage to go through a divorce.
“That was unheard of in the Southeast Asian community, as well, so she was stigmatized for that,” adds Singh.
Singh got married herself, became a mom, and pursued a new career.
On a family trip to Tahoe four years ago, she checked in on Stratford 4 vocalist Chris Streng, who had retired to Grass Valley.
“He came out, we met up at a cafe, and he met the kids, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. I remember now! You’re one of my favorite people!’,” she says of the summit, which resulted in the group reforming for two shows, one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles.
That was as far as it went. “But I got this incredible urge to play music again and start writing. It all came roaring back, like a flood,” she says.
This time, she had a new roster of layered-vocal influences, from classic shoegaze artists to Portishead and Mazzy Star. It took her a year to perfect the velvety textures heard on “Forest Bees,” but she’s happy she found her own unique sound.
“There’s a dark feel to the whole thing, even though it was obviously written pre-coronavirus, but I feel like I was living in that self-isolation space for a long time before this happened,” says Singh, who continues to telecommute to her day job. ”So I kind of like being at home. That’s my dirty little secret through all of this.”