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“It was the first time I’d heard real rock ’n’ roll, classic rock, with a female singing front, singing like that,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

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When seen live, Fiawna Forté is a force to be reckoned with, an energy to be experienced. With a voice slightly lower than the average female, soft, breathy notes can and often surge to a high pitch sometimes conveying a message, other times only a sound, but always drenched in emotion.

The 27-year-old’s musical foundation is strummed from the thick tones of her Gibson Hollow Body guitar and anchored by her band, whose bassist, Phillip Hanewinkel, is her husband. Her life, both personally and musically, is one of transition, an existence filled with life-changing moments composed of triumph and tragedy, and Forté uses her creativity to make sense of it. Her chords are her joy; her words are her therapy.

Her fourth and latest album, Deciduous, is set to be released Nov. 14. (She said she’ll announce an Oklahoma City metro release party soon.) Forté often uses these moments as lyrical themes and wraps them in a sound straight from Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Notes of Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley are present among the rockabilly and spaghetti-Western tones of the record.

Guitars, heartaches

To truly understand the Fiawna Forté of Deciduous, you must understand her transitions.

Forté was born in Lake City, Florida, in 1988 to a family who held music close.

“I grew up in a major musical family,” Forté said. “Both sides of my family, everyone plays, sings and writes.”

She quickly displayed promise, reflecting her family’s talent.

“I wrote my first song at 2 years old. It was called ‘Jesus Setteth Me Free.’ My mom still has it on tape,” said Forté with a laugh.

At age 7, her mother bought her a guitar, an instrument many of her relatives play. By the end of the first week, through watching her relatives and experimenting, she learned four chords and wrote a song.

By that time, Forté was in the middle of her first transition. Her family owned and ran a sporting goods store in Florida when she was 5 years old. In a nine-month stretch, both her house and family business burned down and her father died in an accident at age 30.

Forté’s memories of the tragedies are foggy, though they often enter her thoughts and dreams, especially since she is closing in on age 30 herself. She still struggles with the negativity of the events.

“Your brain kind of develops the idea that that’s normal, that things are supposed to go wrong,” she said. “It’s literally taken till the last two years to understand that that’s not normal.”

Four years after her dad’s death, her mother remarried a traveling minister and youth counselor. The family moved to Tulsa, though at times, it was more of a home base than a home. Her family joined her stepfather in the traveling ministry.

From the ages of 12 to 16, Forté’s family crisscrossed the United States, visiting churches in New York, California, Hawaii and the Deep South. They called on numerous congregations, each with their own unique qualities, particularly in music.

There were predominately white churches that sang hymns in angelic choirs, contrasts to the more soulful and lively, predominately black churches, and everything in between. Forté made the most of the adventure that still influences her to the day.

“I love that old-style church music,” she said. “There wouldn’t be rock ’n’ roll without it.”

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Gospel truth

About that time, Forté experienced another transitional moment. She was not allowed to listen to secular music. However, one day, when no one was home, she walked to the radio and reached for the dial. After searching frequencies, she heard Ann Wilson of Heart singing “Crazy On You.”

“It was the first time I’d heard real rock ’n’ roll, classic rock, with a female singing front, singing like that,” she said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

The only mainstream artists she was exposed to previously were Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, but only their gospel works.

That day changed everything.

From the ages of 16 to 17, Forté and her brother, a musician and artist, created and toured in a folk-rock duo named Silence Dogood. The two developed a following and found themselves the recipients of a five-year contract from a label associated with Warner Bros.

The situation is one many musicians dream about. However, Forté felt uneasy.

“Looking at five years on a page was terrifying to me,” she said. “I knew in my gut it really wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

Forté also said the project, though enjoyable, was more her brother’s and she felt a need to express herself. The duo turned down the contract and disbanded.

Breaking free

Throughout the first 16 years of her life, Forté was extremely shy. She sang and performed in the background during her family’s church travels, usually quietly, with her hair in her eyes. Her actions were similar while in Silence Dogood.

At age 17, she said, something in her mind snapped and she decided she would no longer be secondary.

“Everyone wants to be the lead role in their life,” she said about the change.

She put together a band and went full-steam into her solo career, touring regionally.

Her eagerness came with a price.

“I got too much power too fast, and I actually exploded,” Forté said.

Caught up in the whirlwind of touring and constantly writing and performing music, she found herself turning to cocaine.

“I got to this place where I didn’t want to live but I didn’t want to die. The drugs were a way to balance that out,” she said.

One day, the 20-year-old was exhausted, frustrated and strung out while loading her vehicle with her gear. She looked into the sky and began to scream.

“God, if you exist, you are going to have to help me,” she yelled.

That night, her fortune began to change. She met Phillip Hanewinkel, who would one day become her husband.

“He wasn’t even supposed to see me,” she said. “I tried to leave after the first act but was stuck in the crowd.”

Liking her performance, he came to her next show and brought 11 people with him.

Forté went cold turkey and attended rehab. During the stay, she wrote half the songs that would appear on her first album, Transitus, Latin for “transition.” The 2010 record has an overall indie rock feel, and its lyrics reflect the atmosphere where many were written — rehab — and her mindset while there.

“I think it’s about coming to terms with reality,” she said.

She added that the experience taught her to speak up, ask for help and become a leader.

The band’s composition changed. Hanewinkel took over on bass with his nephew Hank on drums. Another friend took lead guitar. Within six months of joining the band, Hanewinkel and Forté began dating. Within a year and a half, they were married.

She credits Hanewinkel and his family with helping her stay clean and sober.

The 2013 acoustic record The Album To Fund The Album produced funds to help Forté create the 2014 experimental release mi-MOH-suh pud-EE-kuh. The name is the phonetic spelling of the Mimosa pudica plant.

“Whenever you touch it, it closes up. There’s something about that symbolism that worked for me,” she said.

The lo-fi project was produced using old equipment, including a digital hard drive from the 1980s. Forté said the songs are more theatrical in nature.

“I did things instrumentally and musically in a way that you wouldn’t want to do on an album you wanted to sell a lot of,” she said.

With Deciduous, Forté returns to the melodies of her youth, but this time, it’s more on the secular side.

On the track “So Darn Cute,” the unmistakable influence of a young Elvis can be heard through the instruments and in Forté’s versatile vocals. The opening track, “Stella,” rings in the ear like a song from a Western movie soundtrack or a Quentin Tarantino film.

Though guitar vibrato and reverb are present throughout the project, the real star is Forté’s voice. It’s sometimes intense, sometimes sultry, but always pure emotion.

The songs have received an amazing response in live shows, but what truly satisfies Forté is the process of writing music.

“I want people to love it, and I want people to connect to it, but I want to create,” she said. “If that gets me across the world or next door, I don’t care.”

Print headline: Heart, strings, Death, destruction, drugs, rehab and redemption transformed Fiawna Forté’s life and her powerhouse rock ’n’ roll music.

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