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Interview with John Howard

Click here for reviews of John Howard albums

Click here for my original e-interview with John

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

John Howard's latest album Navigate Home is released on April 6th, 2009. At the same time a Best of compilation "These Fifty Years" is also being released. Here we look at how the albums came about and talk to John further about his work.

How did the new album Navigate Home come about? 

"I had completed Barefoot With Angels in the October of 2006, just before my partner and I sold our house in Pembrokeshire and moved into a little rented cottage near Haverfordwest. We had made the decision to leave the UK and move to Spain, though at that stage we weren't sure just where in Spain we would end up. I started writing what would become Navigate Home in the December of 2006, just after we had returned from looking at properties and having decided we would resettle in the lovely orange grove region of Murcia. There was a cornucopia of emotions bouncing from Neil and I at that time, the excitement of finding a new home in a different country together, mixed with the fear and wariness of taking such a plunge into the unknown. The songs came out of my head and heart as I sat at the piano during those months spent in preparation for the move. They reflected what I felt. One minute I was telling myself it would all be fine, the next I was wondering what the hell we had done. Sometimes I welled up with joy at what we had planned, another day I shook with uncertainty at the prospect of leaving behind everything we'd built up together over our 20-odd year relationship. Songs poured out, and by the time we left the UK in the August of that year, I had an album's worth of material demo'd."

Tell Me a Little More About Your Move to Spain and How the New Album Came About

"Through the summer into the autumn of 2007, we settled into our new life in southern Spain in a rented house near Torrevieja, while we waited for our own home to be completed, setting up a home studio in one of the spare rooms: I would play the 'Pembrokeshire demos' to myself over those weeks, slowly building up mentally the structure of the album, how I wanted it to sound. I always work on an album as a whole project, rather than record a few tracks and suddenly realise I have enough for an album. I decided I wanted this one to be strings-driven, very orchestrated, with a panoramic lushness, piano-based with Big Vocals. Lots of layers of sound, which I worked out how to achieve technically in my home studio. Barefoot With Angels had been made just as I getting to grips with my new studio, it was my 'experimental album', if you like, trying out things as I went along. This time, the technicalities of what I wanted to achieve had to be grasped before I started work on Navigate Home. It was important that this album sounded exactly as I heard it in my head when I played back the demos. I wanted it to convey the high emotion of the songs. This one was to be my Romantic Album. By the autumn of 2007 I was ready to begin recording. I recorded about half the album between October 2007and early February 2008, and it was going swimmingly. But as 2008 dawned, the owner of the house we were staying in decided he wanted to come back to Spain so another move was necessary, which meant packing away the studio once again. Once settled in the second rental house, I set up in the upstairs bedroom, mattresses laid against the walls to give some sonic insulation in a fairly bare white-walled room and recording continued. But, in July 2008, the new house was finally ready and so once again boxes were packed and unpacked, the dream planned and readied for was finally coming true. This time, instead of spare rooms making do as a studio area, we set aside a room specially in the large basement area, something we had been planning for two years. I got down to the process of finishing off the tracks and then mixing the album, deciding on the final running order and finally sending everything off to SRT mastering studios in Cambridgeshire, to Ian Shepherd, who had mastered most of my previous releases. I wanted the album to reflect a sense of journey, of travel, of seeking out and finding, of upheaval and settlement, of loss and renewal, of where the past had brought us and what the future held. It should hopefully draw the listener in and let them flow on the feel, to paraphrase Carl Wilson. It's probably my most personal album since As I Was Saying. But whereas in 2004 that album reflected on my past which had recently become my future again with the rediscovery of my music through the reissue of Kid In A Big World, this time I was looking forward, full of expectation, new horizons ahead yet we were both thinking of what we had left behind. Laura Nyro once said she could draw what she heard in her head, the process of creating songs was that visual for her. I hope you can see my 'pictures' on this new album."

To Co-incide with the release of Navigate Home, you have also brought out a Best of Compilation. How did this come about and how did you chose the tracks?

2009 marks thirty-five years since ‘Kid In A Big World’ was recorded at Abbey Road and Apple Studios. It felt like a good a time to release a Best Of album. However, it is difficult not to become overly subjective, choosing tracks one likes personally rather than a reflection of what people seem to appreciate the most.  

So the collection was put together by choosing first of all what have become the most downloaded tracks on iTunes; next we researched those that have received special mention in reviews, and thirdly those songs which have been frequently asked for at gigs. Then, from that wide selection we picked out one track from each release, covering both CD and online releases, and wherever possible combined all three elements to make the final choice. This gave the collection a good representation of the many albums and E.Ps that have been issued since the first single, Goodbye Suzie, was released in October 1974. And, there are also two brand new tracks included, one a great standard from the '50s, the other a new Howard original.

In the last interview we left you with a gin and tonic on your veranda listening to the crickets singing. Is this still your life-style?

Well, it's been a very cold winter here, unusually so, and extremely wet. The coldest winter this region has had for 80 years, some are saying. So there haven't been too many nights since November where I've even tried to listen to any crickets brave enough to sing in storm conditions! But, as spring arrived, so did the sun and the days are definitely starting to feel warmer and the evenings balmier. So, I will soon venture out onto the veranda again!

Describe a day in the life of John Howard

Because I tend to go through peaks and troughs creatively, during the 'peaks' I spend a great deal of time in my studio, I can be in there for hours, days, hermit-like. During the 'troughs' , which sound gloomy but are in fact not, they are I believe my own brain and body allowing me some downtime from the creative highs, we all need time off. So, during those times I just read, or we drive out to the beautiful cities of Lorca or Cartagena, with its stunning architecture and archaelogical sites, or the gorgeous coastal town of Los Alcarazes, and take in the atmospheres. Both Neil and I are people watchers, and we like nothing better than sitting in our favourite 1904 spa hotel in Los Alcazares, in its little geranium surrounded courtyard, have tea and watch the people come and go. It is very popular with older Spanish couples, who come in groups often, the men sit and play dominoes, the ladies sit and play cards, and the place is awash with their lively chat and laughter. The hotel does wonderful salads as well!

You mentioned in the last interview about the outpouring of new ideas and material. Would it be fair to say this is continuing with the release of a new album and best of compilation?

Yes, it is definitely an ongoing thing, and in fact I have now started work on a new EP of five tracks, (three covers and two Howard originals), which should be ready for release in the summer. I am also now beginning the process of thinking through the next album, which I will start recording once this EP is finished. I have a lot of songs and ideas for it, and it may even end up as a double album...

What are your future plans?

See above really. But on top of the two new recordings I talked about, I will also soon start to put together the final compilation in the trilogy of demos and outtakes, Sketching The Landscape (1973-1979) was Vol.1, Creating Impressions (1980-1990) was Vol.2 and this next one will bring the series up to the present day. Probably pencil in an autumn release for that.

You sound very happy with your lot. Are there any plans to tour the new album?

No, I think my 'live' career is really over now. I went back to it for a few gigs 2003-6, shortly after Kid etc were re-released and the flurry of new material came out, but apart from a couple of shows I've done here in Spain, I don't plan any more. I love performing but I now find the process of travelling between gigs and the whole preparation thing you have to go through really tiring. Also, where we now live in Spain, it's miles from anywhere, driving to major cities and towns for gigs would be hours on the road, and I just cannot go through that. Sounds pathetic probably, but I believe in listening to your body and mine says "No more! Stay at home and record!". Of course, never say never...

Can you describe the process of producing a new album from the ideas in your head, through using your own studio to mixing and release of the album.

It's a very organic process for me anyway. I tend to write in a burst of songs, then I demo them, then for many weeks, sometimes months, I live with the demos, listening over and over again, see what ideas come through for vocals, backings, feel etc. Then, when I think I have the measure of the songs, I start work on them in the studio. I always record the piano first, and I also always record a vocal at the same time as I play the piano. I don't always use that vocal in the final recording, but sometimes I use parts of it that seem to work really well or which are just right and I can't improve on. The 'guide vocal' has also very nicely set the feel and tone of the way I play the piano, one governs the other, so when I come to do the 'proper' lead vocal, it makes the backing track much easier to sing to, much more natural with the ebbs and flows of rhythm, the rises and falls. I often then record all the backing vocals, to set them into the track, all the harmonies feeding off each other, building as I go, trying things out. Then the additional keyboards, effects, strings, etc, are next. so that when I finally do the lead vocal I am singing to the whole thing, and again that helps me get into the mood of the piece vocally. Very important I think.  EQ'ing is very important, deciding on the 'sound waves' for each track, how you want for example the backing vocals to sound against the lead vocals, creating layers sonically, it adds to the depth of a track and ensures, if you've recorded several overdubs, that they don't all clash with each other but instead work together as a unit, helping each other as it were. Once all the EQ'ing, effects, reverbs, panning etc are decided on then the mixing can start. I usually do several mixes for each song, listen to each one as I go, tweak here and there, ask Neil to listen - he has great ears - discuss where changes could be made, and after several tries the final mix is decided on. I have sometimes done, say, eight mixes, and finally gone back to the first or second one, but one has to go through that process before you can make that decision. It's a long process. Navigate Home took almost two years to write and record, even with all the house and country moves we made during it all, it still would have taken me as long I think, as I so wanted the album to sound exactly as I heard it in my head.

Can you tell us a little about the 'Kid Records' label?

I set the label up as an outlet for my own releases. Named after 'Kid In A Big World', where it all started for me. I had already set the process in motion when I decided to keep all download rights to my albums. I had let a couple go to the releasing label, but now I keep the rights, and release the albums through an online label called AWAL which deals specifically with iTunes etc. It means I first of all get a better royalty and I can also completely control sleeve design, release date, marketing and promotion, all aspects of the album's life. So, it made sense to take that a step further into the physical release of the CD as well. Kid Records doesn't release into the shops or onto Amazon or anything like that, it's not meant for that, it is simply my little home label, which sells the CDs via my website. I like this new way of controlling everything oneself. Sure, one can't afford PR companies or radio promo guys or magazine ads, but really, my market is very niche so I don't get mainstream radio play, never have, my last two CDs released through record labels didn't get a single review in the UK rock magazines, so I don't ever really benefit from all that outlay. My albums still get commercial releases on iTunes and Napster etc so they are not 'Vanity' releases, and I think we are all moving into a world where artists will increasingly release their own albums themselves and bypass the labels.

What do you think about the proliferation of new legal music sites such as We7 and Spotify. Any plans to make your work available on this kind of site?

I haven't heard of We7, but a My Space friend of mine recently suggested I look at Spotify, they stream tracks rather than make them available to download, I believe. I haven't looked into it yet but it sounds interesting. Ask me again in a few months' time!