This past July, Michelle Forman perched herself atop a tall chair at the Cornerstone Gallery in the Design District, nervously swinging from side to side and tapping her guitarist to make sure he kept up with the rhythm during an acoustic set sans drums.
"I'm trying to get over a complex I have about not having the noise of a whole band in the background," she confessed offstage. In fact the Cornerstone's mission is to provide an intimate setting where artists can experiment and develop their confidence at larger venues.
But the fears, as well as the rhythm, were all in her head. Her poetic blues never lost a beat as her voice flowed like water for the parched souls in the audience.
"We got to unite through the light/We got to keep it real/Never give up your rights/We cannot live in fear," she pleaded on the political protest number "One Nation" in which she questions crooked politicians and hypocritical media sources in wartime.
Forman describes her music, which encompasses original material as well as covers of artists including Nina Simone and Pink Floyd, as "soulistic." Though Forman has yet to release a demo CD, she has gained plenty of recognition on the local scene this year. In April she competed in the Latin Funk Festival's Battle of the Bands, and her three-year stint as a back-up vocalist for just about every group on the local scene helped her create a cadre of back-up musicians now that she's going solo.
Forman's new band includes Latin Funk colleagues from Suenalo Sound System and De Fonce; Haitian reggae artist Jean P. Jams; and Latin Grammy-nominated rocker and guitarist Jorge Correa.
"At one point I was singing in seven different bands because I knew I didn't have the money for school and I had to get my knowledge somewhere," said the 30-year-old Forman, who decided to make a career of singing in 2003 while hanging around the now-defunct world-beat music community house in Little Havana known as the Monkey Village.
"That was my school. A lot of things I learned there sitting on the steps playing guitar," she said.
The desire to sing was evident from childhood, when Forman would record herself singing along to the radio, but stage fright kept her working behind the curtains on theater and television production during most of her twenties.
"I always wanted to study music when I was a kid, but the money wasn't there, so I think it was harder for me to believe in myself because I worried about my lack of training," she says.
Forman's stage debut took place at a film wrap party when she jumped onstage to sing karaoke. Shortly thereafter she answered local artist Cleveland Jones's newspaper ad for a vocalist. He led her to the Monkey Village, where she collaborated with dozens of Miami's world-beat and fusion artists and began recording a few of her own songs on their compilation CDs.
"The Monkey Village was always challenging me, always opening me to new styles: reggae, hip-hop, funk, soul. I'm in love with all of it," Forman said. Members taught her all kinds of multicultural rhythms and genres, and even had her singing in Spanish and Kreyol.
But Forman is mostly a bluesy soul. "I'm an R&B kind of girl," she said. "As one friend put it, I use a lot of nonconventional chords. In fact I don't really know the chords I'm playing, but they tend toward the jazzy side."
Moving in that musical vein allows her to connect with her audience on a more reflective level. But it also means finding venues where crowds will sit and listen rather than slosh beer to a ska-spinning mosh pit.
"Clubs make money when people are dancing and drinking," she explained. "I need a captive audience, because I want to let people know what's going on in my mind."
Those who have paused their dread-banging long enough to cock their ears mike-ward often end up singing along.
One of her most popular numbers is "Traces of You," a bluesy pop song about wistfully counting the days it might take to crawl back into the arms of a former lover. "I can't let you go," she scats to a melodic horn section.
"It's easy for me to write about my feelings for a man," she reflected. Writing about men is one thing, but playing with them can be another, especially when you're the only Jane in the musical jungle.
"I've heard some guys say they hate performing with women because they think they're out there and can't get ahold of their emotions, but I enjoy showing that side of me because it's real," she said.
By taking that attitude, Forman is finding plenty of fellas who'll offer respect for the drama queen. During a full-band performance at Transit Lounge in early June, the boys were tweaking the electric guitar and pounding out conga rhythms according to the emotional fancies of Forman's multioctave voice as it skanked to a Haitian reggae one minute and groaned to a hard-driving blues the next.
Following that show, she offered a second, more self-assured interview.
"My advice to other female artists is don't hold back," she reflected. "Attack that microphone, because once you close your eyes and take hold of it, anything can happen."