By Margeaux Watson
Updated December 20, 2019 at 09:54 AM EST

The afternoon following his SXSW debut at rapper Talib Kweli‘s Blacksmith Records showcase headlined by Reflection Eternal, musician John Forte invited EW to his hotel for an intimate chat about getting his career back on track after former president Bush commuted his 14-year prison sentence halfway through serving a lengthy drug-trafficking conviction last November.

EW: Last night was your first major solo show since your release from prison. How did it feel to be back on stage in front of so many people?
JOHN FORTE: The crowd was incredible. I really felt a lot of love up there last night and they made my homecoming that much easier. I got emotional.

EW: How many songs did you perform?
JF: I did “Breaking of a Man,” “Nervous,” “So I (The Harmonic Song),” “Hanging on the Surface,” and “I’ll Give You Me” with an introduction of “Life Has Just Begun,” so it was kind of like six songs. I was in prison at the time of writing those songs, but most of them aren’t about being in prison–they’re about the time before I was away and what I’d like to see happen when I come home. Some people smoke cigarettes; I wrote songs to cope.

EW: Have you been writing a lot since you’ve been home?
JF: Not a lot. I’ve just been downloading the material from my brain to the studio hard drive because I didn’t have an opportunity to record those songs over the years. There was a fear that I wouldn’t be able to write once I got home because the inspiration would somehow vanish. But I still got it!

EW: How many songs did you write while you were in prison?
JF: About four albums’ worth. That’s the unofficial number. In the past two weeks, I’ve recorded 24 songs.

EW: Wow. How are you going to transform that vast body of work into one album at a time?
JF: I’m not sure. The functioning title of the album is Water Light Sound. It’s a three-word metaphor for birth. I see this album in stages–its water stage, its light stage, and its sonic stage. It’s about bringing all of this stuff together because the tapestry of the music is so broad. There’s an acoustic guitar sounding like a folk song one second, next it has a reggae feel, and then it has a rock feel, almost like [my last CD, 2002’s], I, John.

EW: Are you collaborating with any other producers, songwriters, or guest artists?
JF: Thisis my first public admission to wanting to work with Lisa Hannigan.She’s an Irish folk singer who used to sing with Damien Rice. I really,really, really want to do a duet with her super badly.

EW: Who else is on your wish list?
JF: There were other artists over the years who totally inspired me–Jose Gonzalez, Regina Spektor, Chan Marshall from Cat Power. That whole singer-songwriter anti-folk movement did something to me. There were moments when I’d hear that music when I was in [prison] and I just felt so proud to have some sort of a connection as a musician–identifying from one musician to another.

EW: Is your heart more connected with that style of music than hip-hop these days?
JF: I actually take umbrage when people in this press say “rapper John Forte” because my mother could rap. Call me a musician. I think I’m a musician who happens to rap. I’m no rapper, not to say I’m writing important music. No, I just think that what I’m writing happens to make more sense than not.

EW: Did you experience any personal changes while you were in prison that affected your approach to music?
JF: I’ve gone through a personal metamorphosis. I don’t curse in my rhymes anymore. I also don’t use the N-word or the B-word. I don’t think it’s necessary for me anymore, not that I’m upset when I hear other people who do. But for me, I’ve been there and done that. I don’t want to be that type of guy.

EW: Beyond not cursing, how else has your sound evolved?
JF: I actually learned and taught myself how to play the guitar while I was away. In the absence of recording devices, I had to find a new way to write songs. I began to gravitate towards singer-songwriters and to develop my own skills. Here were people who could walk into a room with just a guitar on their back and leave a lifelong impression. I said, “I want some of that.” So even though I’m not the best guitarist or the best singer, there is something that I can bring to the table lyrically and marry those elements to make as much of an impression as possible. That’s what I strive to do.

EW: When do you expect to release your new album?
JF: I have so much content that I’m giving music away. I could probably give a song away every two weeks from now until the winter and still be fine with albums’ worth of material. What I’d like to do, however, is finish this album by spring and tour immediately thereafter. The release could come in the summer or early fall–I don’t know. But I know that I wanna be on the road late spring, early summer.

EW: Have you inked a deal with a record label?
JF: I’ve worked out a co-music publishing deal with Primary Wave to facilitate and administer a percentage my music publishing as an artist, John Forte, and as a producer/writer for stuff that I do for other people. In a nutshell, it means that I don’t need a record deal. It’s given me enough of a cushion that I’m okay to just do me. That’s not to say that I’m not speaking to labels, or labels are not speaking to me. They’ve actually been pretty kind and forthcoming since I’ve come home. Look, if somebody comes at me with a deal that makes sense, we can make it happen. But I’m not gonna sell myself short.

EW: Before we wrap this up, is there anything else you want to mention that I didn’t ask you about?
JF: Yes! I’m happy, happy, happy to be home, and I say it a number of times a day. I’m probably gonna be annoying a couple years from now saying, “I’m so happy to be home,” because people are gonna be like, “John, you’ve been home for two years.” Yes, but I’m so happy to be home. I know that there are plenty of good guys who haven’t made it home yet and they travel with me. So I don’t take it lightly when it comes to enjoying this moment right here, right now. I don’t take this for granted.