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career changes

Margaret Cho on Her New Album and the Songs That Changed Her Life

With the release of her star-studded new album, Cho Dependent, comedienne Margaret Cho is adding “for-real musician” to her résumé. This is no half-assed attempt at crossing over — she enlisted the help of everyone from Tegan and Sara and Ani DiFranco to A.C. Newman and Andrew Bird to create some damn fine tunes for her damn fine voice. “In a lot of ways, on a lot of songs, I really handed it over to the musicians that I was working with,” says Cho. “I would come to the musician with, ‘Okay this is what I want the song to be like, what it should sound like,’ but I never brought any chord progressions or notes because I don’t know about that. All I know is what I like in music and what I wanted to accomplish emotionally in the song and they would try to interpret what I was telling them. It’s really a true collaboration.”

Seeing as how Cho’s now in the biz, the New Music Seminar (NMS) asked her to be part of its events, which take place through Wednesday. NMS aims to help musicians make a career out of doing what they love — and seeing as how the old business model based on record labels no longer holds up, artists need all the guidance they can get. Cho considers herself one of those artists. “I am also now a new musician, so in a sense I’m very much starting over in a lot of ways. I’m already established in one field and up-and-coming in another one,” she says. Cho is moderating Wednesday’s panel “The Breaks: Artists discuss mentors and miracles, how they first broke through, and life-changing moments.” When Vulture asked her to talk about the songs that marked turning points in her life, the funny lady got serious.

“Vacation,” the Go-Go’s: I think I was 14 when I first saw the Go-Go’s. They were so cool, and they could play, and they were great. It showed me that girls could do everything. I was so moved by that.

“Criminal,” Fiona Apple: I was probably in my early 30s and I think that was the first time I really understood the power of female sexuality and that we can kinda really control people with our own femininity as opposed to just brute strength. That it [femininity] was something that was so powerful, womanly. And that was just a very, very important song for me.

“So It Goes,” Nick Lowe
: It was so important to me, I had to learn how to play it on the guitar. I love Nick Lowe. I love that kinda pop music. Nick Lowe is pop in a funny, eighties way. It helped me define myself as what kind of music I was gonna like. I was gonna like a kind of indie rock. It really defined me.

“Erotic City,” Prince: That was the first song that I understood was really about sex. It was a big deal because it was a dirty song, but you could still hear it on the radio. It was this idea that you could actually talk about things that people weren’t talking about. It just made a huge impact.

“Gigantic,” the Pixies: It helped me figure out that music didn’t have to be so easy to figure out, that it could be really amazingly complicated and made to be different and you could go to different levels — it could be loud and it could be soft. It was a song that really changed me.

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images