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Interview with John Howard

Click here for reviews of John Howard albums

Click here for more news and a second interview with John

John Howard talks about his music and his life in a special electronic interview

"Following the incredible acceptance and enthusiasm for my music in 2004, the songs started pouring out of me again, an involuntary response, like a dam had burst, and the songs are still pouring out."

What did it feel like when Kid In A Big World received such critical acclaim all those years later?

It felt wonderful and really very surprising. The album was so ignored when it first came out in 1975, and was treated as a failure both commercially and creatively at the time by my record label CBS. When I received an email from Uncut Magazine's deputy editor Paul Lester at the end of 2003 saying how much he loved Kid In A Big World I actually cried. It was as though all the rejection I had felt and had buried for so many years came to the surface and was transformed into enormous relief that an album I had always believed in had finally been recognised.

How did you cope back in the 1970s with seemingly being set for a glittering career only to have everything shelved?

It hurt, a lot, and for an ambitious young guy who loved writing and recording it felt like a part of me had been taken away when CBS dropped me in 1976 and no other labels were interested. But I am someone who moves on quite quickly without dwelling too much on failure. I was lucky to have a personality that helped me survive rejection, but part of that survival instinct was to bury the hurt rather than face it. It worked for a long time but must have always been there, judging by how I reacted when Kid and my other '70s recordings received such acceptance thirty years later. Also the fact that good friends like Trevor Horn and Steve Levine 'came to my rescue' in the late '70s and early '80s by recording material with me which got some of my songs released, albeit in a small way, the occasional single. But that certainly kept me going till I finally decided to give up recording in 1984.

Did you ever doubt your ability or talent?

Not as a teenager, up to my getting my CBS record deal in 1973 I was probably horribly confident. But certainly, when I retired from recording in '84 I had come to a decision that the talent I believed I had was in fact not there. An illusion. Even as early as '77, without a record deal and with punk burgeoning and the disco scene virtually wiping out the singer songwriter genre, I was only 24 but felt like a has-been. It was a strange emotion, after I had been so positive about my writing since the age of about 15.

"I successfully submerged the singer songwriter side of my character to concentrate on other people's talents."

How did you come to terms with things and did you ever think that 30 years later your career would take off again?

Well, after the recording career was gone I moved for a while into singing and playing piano in bars and restaurants around London, places like Blitz, Morton's, Company etc. But I could only cope with that for a short time. I performed other people's songs because that was what customers wanted and it was as though my own songwriting career had never happened, very debilitating really, though good for paying the rent. But one can only do that kind of thing for a while, trying to ignore how unhappy that situation is actually making you. When I moved into working for record labels in the mid '80s, licensing and A & R, that was when my pride in my abilities returned, working with great artists like Elkie Brooks, Maria Friedman, The Crickets, Madness, Barry Manilow on albums and projects. Being treated with respect by these people brought back my belief in myself. Of course they were totally unaware of the 'John Howard Singer Songwriter' of a few years earlier and I successfully submerged that side of my character to concentrate on other people's talents. It was second best in my heart but a good second best. Kept me alive for twenty years and helped create a good safety net financially for the future. And I know that may not sound too street cred, but it's a fact and one I am very grateful for. I don't do starving in a garret very well I'm afraid. Regarding my recording career taking off again, no, I never in my wildest most breathtaking dreams ever thought there would be interest in my music again.

Did most people think you had died?

To be honest, I think most people were completely unaware I had ever existed! From being extremely lauded and feted at the age of 20 by some of the biggest characters in the music industry to just two years later being totally forgotten and disregarded, I look back now and think how very very strange that was. Thank goodness my mum's optimistic genes came to the fore and helped me move on.

Did anybody remember you in the "wilderness years."?

A few people have contacted me since Kid's reissue and since my new material has been released, saying they really liked Kid In A Big World when it first came out in the '70s and wondered why and to where I had disappeared. That was nice to hear, it meant the album back then had had an impact if only in a limited way. But during those years 1984-2003 as I say, for me it was as though my recording career had been a mirage. I do recall one afternoon in about 1978, Trevor Horn invited me to a barbecue he was having, and a girl came up to me in the garden and shyly asked, "Are you John Howard of Kid In A Big World?". It turned out she and her college friends used to sit in their bedsit listening to Kid every night, and it was still one of her favourite albums. That was lovely and I remember Trevor being knocked out she had told me that. Lovely guy, Trevor. Good heart.

How did the re-releases come about and what were your feelings when it happened?

RPM featured Goodbye Suzie on one of their compilations, Zig Zag, and the track got such great reviews the label decided to release the whole of Kid. When the album got such a fantastic reception in the music press RPM organised a show for me to do in London, a sort of belated launch concert, and when I walked out to a full house of people who seemed as excited as I was about me 'being back', I felt fantastic. Because Kid did so well RPM decided to look at my other '70s recordings, and the fact that most of them had never been released excited them even more, so Technicolour Biography, my unfinished second album, and Can You Hear Me OK?, my completed but unreleased third album came out, and they got similarly rave reviews. Well, you can imagine how I felt! But I do recall when I did that London show in April '04 how I had the feeling that the 'skin' I had worn thirty years earlier, The Recording Artist, was still not fitting very well, as though I had pulled this character out of the back of the wardrobe kicking and screaming and forced him to sit and face an audience again. It did feel a little alien as I had not thought of myself as a creative performer for so long. But by the second song of that show, the skin fit just fine, thank you, and all the screaming was coming from me inside, going "This is AMAZING!"

What motivated you to write new material and tour again?

I react creatively to how people react to me. When I was writing and performing in my late teens in the Manchester area and then in London '73 time, the fact that many people seemed to love what I was doing spurred me on to write even more material. And then getting the record deal with CBS was such a boost, that was when I wrote songs like Gone Away, Missing Key, The Flame, Deadly Nightshade, Spellbound and Goodbye Suzie. But when all that hope and vast possibility evaporated in the late '70s so did my writing muse. It literally dried up as people's interest and expectations did the same. But following the incredible acceptance and enthusiasm for my music in 2004, the songs started pouring out of me again, an involuntary response, like a dam had burst, and the songs are still pouring out. I've just released my fifth new album and am putting the finishing touches to my sixth as we speak. Regarding live gigs, I don't perform that much, I did a few shows 2004-2006, which I loved doing, in fact two shows in Manchester in the summer of '06 resulted in my first live album, In The Room Upstairs which is now one of my most downloaded albums from iTunes. Now I've moved to Spain I am doing the occasional show, the most recent in Valencia, and that's exciting, a whole new audience, a whole new challenge.

What prompted the move to Spain?

My partner and I wanted to live somewhere with a temperate climate but not too far away from the UK. We have friends who have moved out here and they liked it, so we investigated the possibilities and liked what we found. Murcia, the region we live, is lovely. Coincidentally, at about the same time we were looking at properties in Spain, I signed to a record label based in Bilbao, so it seemed as though fate was calling.

What plans do you have for the future?

A continuation of the life I've enjoyed for the last five years or so really, but in a warmer climate...writing, recording, releasing new material, occasionally doing a live show and feeling extremely lucky that I have had the opportunity to reach 55 and find a new audience for my music.

Your songs seem to be very personal, how autobiographical are they?

Some of my songs, especially those on the album As I Was Saying are very personal, even autobiographical, though I do tend to change history to suit the song, I'm not too worried if a story ends differently than it did in reality! I sometimes meld two or three stories into one song if it fits the requirements. Other times, I use other people's experiences to inspire a song, and quite often the songs come out of nowhere, the ether, as I sit at the piano, they emerge and almost write themselves. Songs such as Punchin' Judy on Same Bed, Different Dreams came out of a place I know not where, 'Judy' really did have a story, a terrible story at that, to tell and she did it, as it were, 'through me'. And then there are the streams of consciousness songs I write, where I simply let the lyric develop at its own pace and within its own structure to produce what at first listen sounds nonsensical then with closer investigation makes its own sense. Oh, Do Give It A Rest Love on As I Was Saying, Coconut Bible on Technicolour Biography, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner on Kid In A Big World are examples of this process. It's organic and great fun.

"I believe an album is a complete listening arena we sit in and get involved in, it should surround us like a cloudy or a sunny day. We should hear its rain, cry its tears, smile at its winding turn of our emotions."

How did you manage to produce new albums in the past few years that seem to seamlessly follow up from 1970s material?

This has been said to me quite a few times, and I don't really know, except that I still have the same ethic, the same drive, the same desire I had in the '70s, to write songs with good tunes, good lyrics with something of their own to say, that are slightly left of centre but still accessible. I always try to make albums that I would buy myself and that I would want to listen to more than once and because I loved then what I love now, i.e. good pop music, the work of brilliant producers such as George Martin, Phil  Spector, Mort Shuman, Joe Meek, and the great songwriters like Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, George Harrison, David Bowie, Randy Newman, Ray Davies, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Roy Harper, because they still inspire me today, then I suppose there is going to be a similar 'seamless' link between what I did thirty years ago and what I do now. Newer artists such as k.d. lang, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Antony Hegarty, Mary Cigarettes, Perry Blake, are wonderful as well, with something unique in their music that astounds, staggers, draws you in, you want to hear more. But it's my original heroes I go back to time and again and never tire of them, I always find something new in a Beatles track or something from Pet Sounds. I guess the difference in my situation today is that I now have total control over what I write and record and release, whereas in the '70s how my records sounded was often how another producer or arranger or record label would hear me. Now I have the freedom and independence to know how I want a song to sound in the studio and try to attain what I can hear in my head in the studio. I decide before I begin an album on how that album will sound, what atmosphere it will create. The songs direct that of course. And because I write a whole album as a project rather than think every six months or so, "oh good, I've got enough songs now to start work on the new album," then the atmosphere is there already in the batch of songs I've got, be it dark and broody, bright and poppy, arch and panoramic, string drenched or simple piano/voice led. I believe an album is a complete listening arena we sit in and get involved in, it should surround us like a cloudy or a sunny day, we should hear its rain, cry its tears, smile at its winding turn of our emotions. It should affect our mood and our outlook. Music, songs, records can do that, they do do that, and I want to be part of that, feel part of that. And I do feel privileged to be a part of that again.

Are you stuck in a 1970s timewarp or do you see yourself as a modern man?

Who knows? I probably am still in the '70s from a sensibility point of view, as I say my beliefs haven't altered in thirty years regarding how I want to write songs and make records. But the world today does affect me, I'm not sitting in a turret longing for the past, I love so much of what we have at our fingertips today, the internet, My Space, new studio technology, as long as our values don't get lost in the process then it's a great boon for our lives. We must stay in control however, new technology must serve us, not the other way round.

What do you say to all the people who kept the faith over the past 30 years?

There are some I know, dear friends who never lost faith and are as delighted as I am that I have had the chance to record again, to them I say simply thank you, bless you. To those I don't personally know who are out there, wherever they may be, I would say the same really, and how much I appreciate their belief when many others around them probably murmured "fool!".

What is your favourite John Howard album and your favourite John Howard track?

That's a difficult one, I think songwriters and artists usually like their most recent effort the best, but if I lined all my albums up and had to choose I would find that very difficult to do. They all mean a great deal to me, all labours of love. But to choose a few if I may for different reasons...I think because it was the album I returned to the scene with and which was welcomed with such open arms I would go for The Dangerous Hours for the sheer thrill I felt at recording and releasing that album; As I Was Saying because it was not only such a personal album about my mother and my childhood, a liberating album to write, it was also such a joy to record with Andre Barreau and Phil King, that is a favourite; Barefoot With Angels because it was my first album recorded in my own studio, where I rediscovered those childhood joys of recording whenever I wanted to on my own machine, playing with overdubbing and studio fun to the nth degree as I had done on my first tape recorder with an overdubbing facility when I was 14, it's probably my most 'up' album of all of them, the enjoyment is in the 'grooves', well I can hear it anyway!; Favourite track?...choosing just one I couldn't do, and I tend to change my mind all the time. I don't as a rule listen to my previous albums very often, I'm usually working on new material most of the time and don't reflect on what's gone before, but a few picks would be 'Til Then from Same Bed, Different Dreams, for the sound of that track, it sounds exactly as I wanted it to when I wrote it; And Even Now from The Dangerous Hours because I got to be Laura Nyro for a little while on that one, all the layered vocals courtesy of her inspirational records; These Fifty Years from As I Was Saying, it touches me whenever I hear that track, a lot of emotions all held in that song; Nothing Is Forever Anymore from my live album In The Room Upstairs, the audience really responded to that song so incredibly on the night, you could feel them being drawn in as I performed it; The Exquisites from Barefoot With Angels for its sheer pop fun quality, it narrated my musical journey in three or four minutes, and I had a ball with all the backing vocals, overdubbing heaven!; Older stuff? Missing Key is a good track from Kid In A Big World, Tony Meehan, the album's producer had such a hand in how that track sounded, we totally reworked the song in the studio and it was a great learning process for me; Finally Adored from Can You Hear Me OK?, I really like my vocal on that track - and there are times when I listen to my older tracks and wish I could re-voice them now - but that track is fine as it is; and the title track of Technicolour Biography, the memory of sitting at the grand piano in CBS's huge studios on that night in autumn 1974, as I sang and played the song with my producer Paul Phillips' beaming face through the control room glass, so many dreams, hopes and schemes are there, of how the album could have been, they are held in my heart when I hear that track. Paul and I had such plans which CBS scuppered, but the track sounds finished now in a strange way, and you can hear the orchestra in your head if you want to.

You have recorded a number of cover versions, how did you choose the songs?

They are usually songs I perform live and which the audiences respond positively to. Bowie's The Bewley Brothers always went down a storm in my shows and many people asked me to record it, similarly Talk To Me Of Mendocino which I have by its writer Kate McGarrigle on her and sister Anna's debut album, a stunning song I love to perform live and which I ached to record, so I did. They have to be songs I love and which I feel I can bring something new to, something of my own to what has gone before. Walk On The Wild Side is such an iconic Lou Reed record it was risky to record my interpretation, but we tried to bring something new, a different approach to it, I think we succeeded. Neil Young's Birds I loved when I bought his After The Goldrush album in 1970, and years later I got to record it! I don't record too many covers, partly because I'm writing so much new stuff myself but when the inspiration or desire hits me, I have a go at interpreting a great song in my own way. I have three or four up my sleeve for an iTunes E.P. next year...

How come you still have the voice of a 20 something?

Do I? How nice of you to say so! I can hear an aging process has taken place in my voice, but I think that has given a new depth to my singing which I enjoy. I'm quite a clean living boy as well, which I think has preserved the vocal chords. I had a few 'experiments' shall we say in my 20s, youthful curiosity, but I like to remember the night before too much, my control freakery doesn't take well to feeling out of control, so the occasional gin & tonic on my veranda listening to the crickets singing is enough for me nowadays.

 

John Howard's My Space Site