B Forrest And Maggie Vagle Join Forces As Cousin
Written by Morgan Ciocca on May 20, 2021
Brendan “B” Forrest and Maggie Vagle aren’t just a musical duo — they’re actually literally cousins. Well, by marriage anyway.
From Columbia College acquaintances to forming a genre-fluid duo appropriately named “Cousin,” B Forrest and Maggie Vagle have come a long way together musically. With Forrest’s folk and soul roots and Vagle’s vocal-centered, multi-genre influences, the duo meld their styles into a sound distinctly their own.
Cousin’s first single “The Mountains” was featured on our Poised to Break Through playlist for April, and we spoke with both artists about their musical histories, experiences in Chicago and what it’s like to collaborate on a musical project with family.
Tell us a little bit about your origin story. Did you both grow up in Chicago, and, if not, how and why did you end up here?
Maggie Vagle: I’m originally from Minneapolis, and moved to Chicago to go study music at Columbia College. Brendan is from Chicago and also studied music at Columbia for a time, where we met through the music scene. Our relationship would evolve from passing hallway peers, eventually to cousins — by marriage, more on that in a second.
When did you each first start pursuing music professionally, and when did you meet? How long after that did you decide to make music together, and why?
MV: After college we both started pursuing a professional career in music. Whether through gigging, teaching, touring, licensing or producing, we have our hands dipped in many pots of the music profession. Not too long after college I fell in love with Brendan’s cousin Ryan, and soon after we became family.
Brendan “B” Forrest: Our family gatherings are centered around singing and playing music with each other. It is in the fabric of our traditions. We have collaborated on each other’s projects for years but during COVID-19 lockdown the idea of “Cousin” as both a literal and figurative inclusive concept came to fruition. I moved into Maggie and Ryan’s home for a few months during lockdown (“the pod at the lodge”) and we spent the days making music. During this time of isolation we leaned on each other to express, create and make music together. It was nice because there had already been years of a foundation, but this time we got to take a real deep dive into the music.
One of the best things about art is its fluidity and ever-changing nature. In a similar vein, your individual styles are pretty distinct from one another, but blend together beautifully to create a new sound. Who are some artists that influence you both, either in your respective styles or as “Cousin”?
MV: We have so many influences! It’s hard to even start. And lots of crossover influences, but we’ve both had our own kicks over the years. For this project, I hear little influences of James Blake, Sade, Thundercat, maybe some Anna Wise. I am obsessed with voices. The textures, styles, quality, tone and expression. In listening to so many different types of voices it inspires me to find my own voice and love the sounds that I am able to create.
BF: I’d say for me this was a nice opportunity to sculpt around the song structures, and the intention of it, more than going for “sounds like.” Also because we were truly collaborating, with Maggie’s voice at the center, I reveled in the opportunity to get lost in production. I spent years on the laptop and then pulled away, being more drawn to acoustic music lately. It was a great way to engage my mind by going back into that production headspace, but honestly, aside from the obvious head nods here and there, it’s hard to try and categorize the EP.
Break down briefly for us what it’s like working together on such a collaborative project. Do you prefer working with other artists or working alone? What do you like most about working together on this project? Any difficulties you’ve had to overcome?
MV: Honestly, we love both aspects. There is beauty in working solo and also beauty in collaboration. This collaboration drew elements out of each of us and pushed us in a way that wouldn’t have happened without intense collaboration. We have such a strong foundation as friends and also as family that even through the arguments and annoyances love was always there, love and humor. We laughed so much making this EP. The difficulties mostly came in lyric writing, where we butt heads a number of times, but we got through it!
BF: I think Maggie said it great. We came up with all sorts of jokes to make light of things, even when COVID felt dark, and the music at times felt intense. Our “rippies” became a way to break up the day (coffee, beers, buzzing things, etc.). But yeah, at the same time, there was some head-butting, but both of us have made so much music with other folks by now that, at least for me, I’ve learned to not be too attached to some ideas. At times I might fight for an idea and just as quickly say to myself, “Is it really the music or the ego hearing this as ‘right’?” I’d say there was and is a lot of trust in the process and I think we try, as family — which extends itself to friends, coworkers, etc. — to learn to communicate better as much as we can.
Tell us a little bit about your single “The Mountain.” Where did you draw inspiration from when writing it? It was your first release as a duo, but is that the first song you’ve worked on together?
MV: “The Mountain” came from a chord progression B was working on spontaneously one day after we started getting into a creative flow. The lyrical inspiration initially came from the Greek mythological story of Eros and Psyche. As the song unfolded we took our own liberties in the storytelling. We have collaborated together numerous times in the past but never on the songwriting so much. I have sung backing vocals on Brendan’s album and Brendan has worked on production for some of my songs, but never collaborated on the full writing process from start to finish. “The Mountain” was the first song where that really happened!
BF: Yeah, it was super cool to watch that tune go from the ground to the sky, for all the reasons Maggie mentioned. I also have to mention that [our other song] “Botanical Gardens” was interesting in that I found a Logic session I had started years prior, for Maggie’s already-written tune, and it was super exciting to find this seed that was ready to sprout after years of being on an external. And bam, I just doubled down on the production ideas and it was good to go — of course, with the help of [Andrew] Vogt (bass) and Larry (keys) laying it down on top of my pre-production.
Coming from fairly different musical styles, what has been each of your experiences in the Chicago music scene? Have you always kind of been a part of the same musical circles? Do you feel like the community is fairly welcoming and supportive or more individual and isolated?
MV: In the beginning, I think we ran in many of the same musical circles and had a lot of the same friends in the music community. A big part of what brought that community together was The Gala. It’s kind of a strange question to think about after the year we just had. I don’t believe I’m alone in feeling disconnected from a wider community. Part of it, I’m sure, is getting older, people moving and all the things that come with life.
BF: Yeah, on that sentiment, I too feel pretty detached as the scene had been fragmenting for some time, and yeah, young cats come up and make their own scene of it, too. But also, genre-wise, I think we were all drinking from the same fountain for a bit. The whole Dilla-influencing-Glasper-influencing-jazz-nerds had a profound effect around the time we graduated. We were drawn to that richness of harmony and feel, but music is always evolving, as are we, and I think we just found ourselves drawn to different demographics, which is why a lot of our friends have moved away. Not even that they wanted to “give up” on Chicago, but there are different ecosystems across the American musical landscape.
What’s your favorite thing about Chicago?
MV: The people! And also I can’t deny that gorgeous body water, Lake Michigan. One thing I am really looking forward to doing again is going to the concerts in Millennium Park. It’s a magical experience. I miss that place!
BF: Same. And being “from” here, I think the whole “City of Big Shoulders,” a la Carl Sandburg’s poem Chicago. It’s all real. There is an ethos about Chicago that penetrates the people and their culture. One that I think folks who come and don’t stay sometimes take with them. Each city has that kind of spirit to it, and the Chi has hers.
Who was your favorite artist growing up? Do you think they have any influence on your musical style today?
BF: My older brother was and is kind of a hippie, and I got into 60s and 70s blues rock, soul, funk, fusion and folk by way of him. The Allman Brothers were my favorite band — Greg’s vocals and Duane’s guitar playing can still be heard in my playing — which led me to Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane, and the rest is history. All of American music is seemingly intertwined, and I think students of music on the whole find themselves trying out going for a dip in all the pools, especially now in the information age where so much is accessible and fusing.
What is one thing you’d most like people to take away from your music?
MV: I would love this music to be of service to people in some way. Whether just to make you smile, hold your broken heart, get you through that run, inspire a song, feel good, feel love. Be of service in some small or maybe big way.
BF: Samesies. As a creator, I also just want to inspire folks to be bold and speak with their voice, no matter what the medium. For us it’s clearly music, but Maggie is inspiring to me in who she is as a person, just as much as a musician. We like to believe in championing the individual through the art, if that makes sense.
Describe in a few sentences the best concert you’ve ever been to (or if you can’t narrow it down to just one, top two).
MV: Hands down the most incredible show I ever saw was Moses Sumney opening for James Blake at The Cadillac Theatre. It was a transformative show that left me breathless. The use of lights and visuals was on another level. Unreal!
BF: Too many. Seeing James Blake tour his first record changed my life too. But a majorly impactful one was Wayne Shorter at the Symphony Center in 2016. I think at the time I knew I was witnessing something from another dimension and I knew music was this portal to it, but I hadn’t been able to witness a giant like Wayne — and his all-star band — whose presence transcends nearly a century of musical evolution and invention. I’d also say one of my most fond memories was seeing Chris Thile play a solo set at Telluride Bluegrass festival.
Now that live music events are starting to get scheduled again, do you think you’ll play shows again in the near-ish future? How do you feel about live music beginning to return?
MV: I can’t wait to play live shows! We actually just hit the stage at FitzGerald’s Patio last month, which was super rad! Summer is such a great time for outdoor music shows and festivities and I am feeling hopeful for the return.
BF: It’s weird because the indie music scene was already dog-eat-dog, and there are even less venues now, but it’s the nature of the beast and you can’t take it personally. Just got to find ways to cut through the noise.
Do you have anything else coming up on the horizon people should know about?
MV: More music will be coming! We are wanting to get some music out soon with more of a live band feel, or acoustic vibes. And lastly I want to thank Vocalo and all the folks who have shown us love. We appreciate it so very much. We love y’all!
BF: I just dropped a bluegrass-folk EP called Oihana. I’d love it if folk — pun intended — would be keen to check it out. But that aside, I’m excited to get back to making music with Maggie and collaborating with more folk far and wide.
Stay up to date with Cousin on Instagram and stream the Cousin EP below.
Interview edited for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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