While in the throes of a pandemic, social distancing, and virus-imposed isolation, so many have been faced with new levels of contemplation and introspection. San Diego-based artist Alfred Howard was one of those people. The longtime performer and songwriter, who was a member of multiple bands and prolifically wrote lyrics for other artists as well as for his own spoken-word performances, had reached a proverbial crossroads pre-coronavrius and had very seriously considered stepping away from music entirely. Howard found, instead, that the pandemic and other headlines compelled him to start writing again in earnest, and, not only that, but writing in abundance. Faced with more lyrics than he’d written in a while, Howard decided to invite fellow artists to collaborate on songs with him remotely, asking them to create the music and vocals for his words.
From this, Alfred Howard Writes was born in June 2020. Howard sees the project as a means of documenting an unprecedented time in our history — a music time capsule of sorts. “AlfredHowardWrites.com is the home of collaborations with artists I’ve known for a long time and always wanted to work with, some familiar folks I’ve worked with for ages, and hopefully some people I meet along the way,” says Howard. “Together, we will figure out a way forward in this brave new world.”
Howard’s project is ambitious: his plan is to release 100 songs total over the course of a year, with two new songs released every week on Mondays and Thursdays. His mom, Marian Howard, who is a renowned watercolor artist, provides the cover art for each single. Some of the participating artists thus far have included Brad Barr (The Barr Brothers), Nicki Bluhm (Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers), Dani Bell (Dani Bell & the Tarantist), Nathan Moore (ThaMuseMeant, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, The Whole Other), and Goodnight, Texas (featuring Avi Vinocur, backing vocalist for Metallica), among many more. All of the songs can be heard for free online on Howard’s website, but fans/listeners are encouraged to subscribe so that the artists involved can earn some money from the songs during the pandemic; Howard is splitting all of the money with the artists who collaborate with him in an effort to help them earn additional income while touring has had to pause.
So far, he’s released 37 songs since he started in June, and track number 38, “Balanced On the Edge Of A Blade ,” a collaboration between Howard and Trevor Garrod, is set for release tomorrow, October 15th (PRE-ORDER). Glide Magazine is excited to premiere the track for our readers today. Says Howard of the track: “There’s just a lot of feelings of adaptation to all the new tenets of society. The concept of everyone wanting a little more time in their life was an interesting one to think about. Because as much as we wanted a little more breathing room for our days, this wasn’t the way we saw, nor wanted, it to come. It’s a very literal song, no deep metaphors, the new reality of our lives was fascinating enough, stranger than fiction if you will. I heard it in my mind as this John Prine, folky, country kinda song, but when Trevor read the lyrics I think he heard it through a Bowie, Elton John kinda lens. I try not to give anyone guidelines or references. I feel like the words generally dictate where and how they need to reside. I love Trevor’s approach, there’s this really playful piano line that comes with the walking lyric that gives it some hope and whimsy. I’ve been a big fan of his for a long time, and he’s actually the first person to ever write a song with one of my lyrics. Hearing someone who I was a fan of doing one of my songs really gave me the belief that I could do this. That was probably 12 years ago, and I’ve been writing songs since.”
Glide Magazine sat down with Howard recently to discuss his unique and creative endeavor, some of his favorite collaborations thus far, and how it has been working with his mom on such a special project.
Your new project, Alfred Howard Writes, is quite unique. Can you tell us in a nutshell what it’s all about? What was the genesis of this project — why did you decide to do it?
This is a project born from learning how to navigate this brave new world that we’ve inherited. Prior to the pandemic binding us to our homes and keeping us off the midnight stages, I was playing in six bands, writing for eight projects, and working full-time, with chronic Lyme Disease. I was tired. Burnt out would be a more accurate way to describe it. I wish it came any other way, but Covid-19 provided me a break that I desperately needed. I caught a little bit of rest and stillness until my drive was replenished, and I wanted to do something creative. I started posting daily musings, one song a day, and inviting people to do versions of them. There were some really great versions that came back to me. At some point, I decided that there was something there, but I needed to refine it. As opposed to making it an open invite, I decided to curate it.
I started reaching out to every singer I ever met over 20+ years of touring that I wanted to work with to see if their downtime coincided with a mutual want to collaborate. I got enough yeses to turn it into something. I wanted to make it interesting, so I invited my mom to participate. My mom is one of my biggest influences. She’s an incredible watercolor artist. I asked her if she’d create a painting for each song. She’s one of the septuagenarians who believes in science, so she’s at home and happy to spend her time creating; it’s much better than any alternatives. I also figured this could be a home for my short stories, and that I could pair the stories with the songs and the art and it would become this dynamic, three-part presentation. I decided to release two songs a week, every Monday and Thursday, 100 in a year. I launched it as a subscription platform, $10 a month, but free if you needed it to be. I know that this year has been financially difficult for so many, so I wanted this to be a place of beauty and entertainment for anyone who needed it, no matter what. At the same time, all the money goes to the musicians who aren’t working now.
Releasing 100 songs — two per week — over the course of a year is no tiny undertaking! What has needed to come together to make it all happen? How do you juggle all of the moving parts?
I’ve never had a problem writing in quantity. The way I started off my career was reading a poem at my friend’s birthday party. The party was at a vegan Indian restaurant, art gallery, bar, and jazz club named Galoka. After I read the poem, the only poem I had ever written, the owner asked me if he could book me for an hour-long spoken word performance in two weeks. I said sure, then I got home and realized I had to create a spoken word set. I was in way over my head, but I like an assignment. I actually write about five songs for each song that makes it to the site. I have songs out to singers I never hear back from, songs that are options people are considering but haven’t committed to, and songs that I write to try to stay ahead of the game. I like a challenge. It involves a lot of moving parts and wrangling, but it’s also a lot of fun reconnecting with folks I haven’t seen in years. I’ve also been meeting new folks; I’ll hear a song online and just reach out blindly, and every once in a while it turns into something really beautiful.
Given that the songs are both timely and timeless in both their lyrical content and their musical vibe, how has writing and putting together everything during a pandemic colored what you’ve done and how you’ve done it? How much are the pandemic and other headlines so far this year informing what you are writing about?
My favorite part about this project is the immediacy of it. Releasing songs at this rapid clip allows them to be reactionary. After the George Floyd lynching, I wrote a piece called “We All Breathe the Same Air.” I sent it over to Nathan Moore, and within a week we had a song together. If this was an album, it could take upwards of two years before the idea is raised into a physical piece. At the same time, this year has provided so much to react to, and it’s been a matter of finding beauty in the darkness on top of just singing into the darkness. The pandemic has definitely crept into the lyrics. Certain lines or entire songs. There’s one song called “New Unknown” that is just a rumination on the stillness and the uncertainty of this moment in history.
The songs that have been released so far are a really great sonic antidote for the tough times we find ourselves in. Can you tell us a bit about some of the musicians you’ve partnered with to make these songs a reality? What have they brought to the table?
I’ve been able to work with some really stellar players, some of whom I’ve never met. Some songs have been cross-pollinating different folks who play together regularly with new sonic friends. It was funny. I didn’t realize how many folks I had met over the 20 years of playing until I started reaching out and realizing I had an endless amount of beautiful resources. I have my session guys that I work with here in San Diego — Ian Owen, Daniel Schraer, Jason Littlefield and Jake Najor. I get those gentlemen on as many tracks as I can, but there’s also been a litany of collaborators I’ve never worked with before: Francis Blume, Nicki Bluhm, Brad Barr, Anais Lund, Annie Ellicott, Trevor Garrod, Nathan Moore, Goodnight, Texas, Jenn Grinels, and a lot of others. I’m very fortunate to say that these folks return my calls. Well, return my texts.
Any favorite collaborations or stand-out tracks that are part of the project so far? Why do you feel they resonate most for you? Which songs have gotten the best fan feedback? And, can you name-drop any artists that you have songs coming from down the road?
The Brad Barr song, “Coauthors,” really hit me. I’ve been fan of The Slip and Barr Brothers for a long time, so I was really excited that he was down to work on one with me. It came together really quickly. I wrote it when people were rioting in Minneapolis and the city was on fire. I was with the love of my life, and she was just keeping me calm in the tumultuous times. So it opens: “Honey did you see the headlines, are you following the wires, stitching up the nation, with conversation.” There was just something in the thought of conversation healing. The Francis Blume song is another one; he’s got a timeless voice, classic. I could listen to that song on repeat for an eternity. I was really excited to work with Nicki Bluhm, since I’ve been a fan of hers for a while. I’m hoping that as the project gets bigger and I have some more reach, I can start ensnaring some larger artists, but I also really want it to be a platform for great musicians, regardless of where their fanbase is. One of my favorite songs of the project is by Oh, Spirit called “Hasn’t Been Long Enough.” It’s a beautiful song and not to many folks are familiar with that band, but it’s great and that’s the aim. There’s a band called The Mynabirds and Laura, the singer, and I have written a couple together. So that’s one I’m super hyped on. Surprisingly, the track that got the biggest reception was one I performed called “I Love America,” about the current social climate. I noticed that one side claims a monopoly on patriotism. I often criticize the state of the nation, but it’s from a place of pride, love, and a recognition of America’s potential, so I wrote a piece that explores that. It’s been spreading like wildfire.
How has the recording process for the songs worked?
The most important thing I did was the first step, securing Mike Butler. Mike is an amazing recording engineer and a friend of mine. I asked Mike if I could enlist him for the entire project. I wanted these songs to have the best chance out there. I initially was going to have musicians just record on their phones, but I’ve worked hard to get to a position in my career of professionalism and there was no sense in coming that far to regress. So, all the songs go through Mike, he mixes them, and then they enter the universe. Everything is recorded remotely by great musicians who have the capacity to anticipate what the next person might do.
We talked a little bit about this earlier, but your mom, Marian Howard, is providing cover art for every single song via the magic of her paintbrush since she is an accomplished watercolor artist. What has it been like working with her on it?
My mom is an amazingly talented and independent person. She raised me on her own as an artist, put me through college, and played every role in making me who I am as one can. She’s always been supportive and encouraging of my art. She was the first person I thought of when I thought of the project. We did a project before, and it was really funny. I tried to guide her. I showed her some Stanley Donwood art — he does Radiohead’s album covers. She said, “I’m not looking at that. I’m gonna do what I feel like doing and you’re gonna deal with it, and you might not like it, but you might.” Naturally, she knocked it out of the park. She’s like the musicians I work with — I trust her vision. She usually does three paintings per song and I pick one and, apparently, according to her, I always pick the wrong one.
Promoting a project during a global pandemic cannot have been easy. How have you managed to do it? What obstacles have been the most difficult? Did fan reaction or feedback feel different because of the circumstances at all?
It’s definitely difficult. I’ve seen these memes where there’s a picture of the world on fire and a musician screaming, “Check out my live stream.” But music is essential, it’s medicine, and we’re sick, so it’s been getting out there. I’ve also made it where folks can sign up for free if they’re interested. No one should be turned away from music. Some folks donate, some pay, and that keeps the doors open, to borrow a phrase. I want the songs heard, so everyone is invited.
Given the sheer quantity of lyrical output involved with this project with you writing the lyrics to 100 songs, what is your lyric writing method and schedule? Do you write daily, or in concentrated bursts?
I write all the time. Bathroom, song, wake up, song, anything resembling down time, which is few and far between, I’m putting pen to paper. I have found a muse in my girlfriend, I’ve found inspiration in the eyes of her children, I find it in nature, and, unfortunately, there’s an insurmountable amount of calamity, which is inspiring in a way.
The music that is part of this project straddles a number of genres… Americana, roots, rock, folk, blues, country, soul, jazz, spoken word. What do you feel informs the songs across the board so far? What artists inspire you the most as an artist and as a lyricist, both past and present?
I write for the voice. The voice informs me what I need to conjure up. And I’m into everything, so I want to take on all the genres I can. I’ve been working at record stores for 21 years, soaked in a lot of sounds. Lyrically, Bob Dylan, Mikah 9, Tom Waits, Aesop Rock, Leonard Cohen, Run the Jewels, Jason Molina, Townes Van Zandt, and Marvin Gaye have been huge influences. Musically, Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Radiohead, Timber Timbre, Andy Shauf, Michael Kiwanuka, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Wilco are some that I can think of now.
What’s next for Alfred Howard?
At some point, I’m going to sleep. I hear really good things about it. Perhaps the anxiety of this election will slip into the distant background, the fear of pandemic will dissipate, the race clashes will yield to the common sense of us all being brothers and sisters under the sun, and I’ll just close my eyes and sleep for a night.
For more music and info visit www.alfredhowardwrites.com
Photo Credit: Kristy Walker