‘I was convinced I’d be an international superstar by the time I was 21!’

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John Howard at Sala Apolo in Barcelona: photo : Eva Fraile

Singer-songwriter John Howard – who turns 65 this year – is publishing his autobiography, Incidents Crowded With Life, has his 1975 debut album, Kid In A Big World, being re-issued on vinyl, along with a collection of ‘70s rarities, and is planning a new album this summer. 

Earlier this year, he put out a five-track EP, Songs From The Morning, on which he paid tribute to some of his favourite songs by ‘60s and ’70s artists, including Nick Drake, Tim Buckley and Sandy Denny.

In an exclusive interview, he tells me why he’s looking forward to becoming a pensioner and why recording music keeps him young and agile…

John Howard - Songs From The Morning

Q & A

Your latest release, Songs From The Morning, is a five-track EP, which features your versions of songs by artists that you admired when you were growing up. The tracks are Morning, Please Don’t Come (Tom Springfield), You Get Brighter (Mike Heron), The Lady (Sandy Denny), Morning Glory (Tim Buckley/Larry Beckett) and From The Morning (Nick Drake).

Can you tell me why those songs inspired you so much? What do you like about them and what memories do they bring back?

John Howard: They all bring back different recollections really, and all inspired me for different reasons. You Get Brighter, written by Mike Heron, was the first song I saw The Incredible String Band perform in Manchester in late ’69 – when I was 16 – at The Free Trade Hall. It was the first concert I’d ever been to. The song completely hooked me as soon as Mike sat at the piano and began singing it, and has always stayed with me. I’d been planning to record it for years.

From The Morning by Nick Drake blew me away the first time I heard it, on his final album, Pink Moon. Nick’s version features just him and his guitar, as does that entire album, but I always felt it was a great pop song that would suit a full backing. Some people refer to Nick as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs.

The truly uplifting lyric of  From The Morning, written when Nick was at his lowest ebb, touches me deeply. What spirit that boy had. I tried to capture that innate, feel-good vibe of the lyric – Nick’s sense of wonder at everything in nature around him – with my interpretation.

‘Some people refer to Nick Drake as a ‘folk singer’, which is not entirely untrue, but he was also a great writer of hook-laden pop songs’

Sandy Denny’s The Lady impressed me when I heard it on a friend’s LP in 1972, but when I got a CD box-set by Sandy, a live version was on there and I loved that even more. Her introductory comment to her audience that “this song has a lot of chords” made me smile. She wrote it, and yet it daunted her. It’s the perfect pianist’s song, having as it does some very strange chord changes and progressions.

Morning, Please Don’t Come was a 1970 single by Dusty & Tom Springfield, which I heard on the radio at the time. I thought it was truly lovely, displaying Tom’s great songwriting skills, but by then the pop scene in the UK had radically changed and artists like Dusty, Cilla, Lulu and Sandie Shaw, who’d been so huge in the ‘60s, seemed to have lost their market.

I heard the song again only a couple of years ago, when DJ Rodney Collins played it on his weekly show – on ABC Oldies – and that inspired me to have a go at recording my own version.

I actually met Tom Springfield in 1975, at his flat, with a friend of mine who knew him quite well. It’s a visit he would want to delete from his memory I would imagine as, in ’75 – ’76, I was going through a heavy drinking period and behaved appallingly, like a really ranty queen, which makes me cringe now when I think about it. Tom very quietly asked my friend to take me home, which he did. If anyone who knows Tom reads this, please convey my abject apologies! Mea culpa!

The Tim Buckley song Morning Glory is on an LP I’ve had for years, Goodbye and Hello, and its lyric has always intrigued me. I’m still not sure what it’s about – and even the lyric writer, Larry Beckett, couldn’t fully explain its meaning in an interview a few years ago.

I interpret it as about the way some people can’t settle anywhere – they always have to be on the move, like a hobo, going from ‘fleeting house’ to ‘fleeting house’. I’m probably wrong but that interpretation does for me. It’s a wonderful song, whatever it’s about…

How did you approach the songs on the EP? What did you want to do with them? Is it hard to strike a balance between being respectful to the originals and also wanting to put your own stamp on them?

JH: Yes – that’s always a slight dilemma when recording other people’s songs, especially songs that are rooted deeply in many people’s minds and hearts by the original writers. I treat any recording the same way – I routine it on the piano until it starts to take shape, and then ideas begin pouring into my head for arrangements, vocal approaches and harmonies.

It’s never clear what I want from a song – whether it’s one of mine or someone else’s – until I begin the process of getting to know it really well, playing it many times until it feels like it’s reached the point of initial completion, before I start to build up the backings in my studio. I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions.

You actually can’t be too respectful when covering songs, or else you’d be slightly frightened of them, so you have to believe what you’re doing is working as a track. Once you’re in the studio, it’s no longer the song, it’s the recording you’re working on, getting the best out of a track that you can. What came before is what came before. You can only do what works for you now.

‘I always sing a song in my own way, never trying to imitate or copy the original versions’

How was it recording the EP? How did you play, arrange and record the songs? 

JH: As all the songs were already very dear to me, I felt extremely close to them, like old friends. And, of course, as I record usually on my own, I can change things as I go along and try other things quite easily, I often spend weeks on a track, living with it for a while, then going back into the studio and either building on what I’ve done, or starting again from scratch. Happily, it’s the former usually…

Let’s talk about Nick Drake – one of my favourite singer-songwriters. A lot of people only discovered Nick’s music years after his death, which was in 1974 – a year before your debut album, Kid In A Big World, came out. Were you a fan of Nick’s during his lifetime? Isn’t it such a shame that he only got the recognition for his talent after he’d died? Why do you think that’s the case?

JH: I was aware of Nick’s music when I was at art college, as people played his stuff – certainly his first two albums – in the common room, and I liked what I heard. Back then he reminded me a little of Colin Blunstone [The Zombies] vocally.

‘I remember seeing Five Leaves Left in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni Mitchell’s Clouds’

I never bought any of Nick’s releases, as funds were obviously limited at that time, and with the money I had, I was buying albums by my current heroes Roy Harper, The Incredible String Band, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and – belatedly – Dylan.

I remember seeing Five Leaves Left [by Nick Drake] in Javelin Records in Bury, pondered over whether to buy it, but then plumped for Joni’s Clouds instead, which my school friend Pauline had played me a few nights earlier.

I think that was Nick’s main problem – when his albums had just been released, in terms of getting his music across to people, you never heard him on the radio – or at least I didn’t. He didn’t perform live – again, if he did, I wasn’t aware of it – and I’ve since read he hated doing live performances. If I wanted to hear his albums they were usually lying in a pile beside the common room record player. The artists I spent my money on were those I’d seen and loved on stage, heard on the radio or watched on things like the In Concert TV series.

In the ‘80s, I think it was, I bought the four-CD set of Nick’s albums and outtakes and fell in love with him. What a talent and what a waste of a talent – to lose him so young. His songs really touched me and still do. When you read his life story – his sister Gabrielle’s biography of him [Remembered For A While] is superb – you realise what a fascinating guy he was.

I loved how he performed impromptu for The Rolling Stones in Tangiers in the late ‘60s, and he was a huge fan of Donovan’s – when Mr Leitch was no longer very cool to Nick’s mates. He’d been a really happy ambitious lad until the ‘black dog’, as he called it, came to rest on his young shoulders. Very sad.

His music has now benefitted from social media spreading the word among a wide, record buying-public, and is happily now loved by a large slice of lovers of good music. Good songs will out. Talent will out. I believe that. Sadly, we can never predict how long that will take…
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I mentioned your ’75 debut album, Kid In A Big World, earlier. It’s being re-released on vinyl soon, isn’t it? How do you feel about that and how’s it come about? There’s also an album of John Howard rarities – from’73-‘79 – coming out, too, isn’t there? What can we expect? 

JH: Yes! You Are The Cosmos, a great and highly-respected Spanish label, run by Pedro Vizcaino, is releasing Kid In A Big World and The Hidden Beauty – a new compilation of demos, outtakes and singles from my ‘70s back catalogue, both on LP. I’m, to say the least, thrilled. For many years people have been asking me if Kid… would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is.”

Pedro contacted me last year about releasing Kid… on LP and then he suggested an additional vinyl album of some of the demos and stuff I’d recorded from ’73 – ’79. The LPs look really great – Pedro and his designer have done a stellar job.

‘For many years people have been asking me if Kid In A Big World would ever be re-released on vinyl, and at last I can reply, “Yes, it is”.’

The Hidden Beauty is a very interesting compilation, with some fascinating tracks on there – recordings that, in most cases, have never been available on vinyl before. There’s a Trevor Horn production from 1977 called Stay, which has never had a proper release (apart from online about 10 years ago) – it was the first track I recorded with Trevor and features a storming guitar solo by Bruce Woolley.

There are some of the demos I recorded in 1973, when I arrived in London, at Chappell’s studios in Hanover Square. There are also some late ‘70s demos, too –  a song called Loving You, which I demoed in 1979, and which gets regularly downloaded, so that’s a great inclusion on the LP. Also, there are a couple of tracks I did with Trevor Horn in 1978 – Don’t Shine Your Light and Baby Go Now, which were released on a double A-side single in late ’79. Those two tracks feature the musicians who a year or so later formed Buggles and then The Art Of Noise (Geoff Downes, Luis and Linda Jardim, Anne Dudley, and, of course, Trevor).

Bruce Woolley is also on those two tracks, doing backing vocals with Linda. He co-wrote Video Killed The Radio Star with Trevor in 1979, and was signed to CBS when I returned to the label in 1980.

Kid… will have the original LP artwork, even including the same lyric sheet that came with the 1975 album. Pedro has done an amazing job – he’s showed a lot of love and respect for the recordings and that’s very nice to see.

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John Howard in Vienna – photo: Georg Cizek-Graf

It’s a busy time for you. … You’re working on your new album – your eighteenth –  which will be out this summer, and you’re already working on the album after that! You’re very prolific. What’s your secret? 

JH:  Ha! If I knew the secret I’d probably stop doing it. I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording. The fact is I love recording. I love the whole process, and working as I usually do on my own, I have all the time in the world to work on ideas and try things out, with no pressure from anyone.

‘I have no idea why I am still so prolific. Songs simply arrive out of the ether into my head and I write down loads of sketched notes and ideas until I’m ready to start recording’

I’m not sure yet who will release the new album. If I can’t find a label to put it out, I’ll do a self-release. I did several self-releases – 2009 – 2014 – before the John Howard & The Night Mail album came out on Tapete. Self-released albums don’t get the same exposure, of course, but at least they’re out there if people want to find them. I’ll keep putting stuff out while people want to hear it and – bless them forever – buy it.

A label release would be lovely, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s not always easy to get deals with new material, which is by its very nature, and lack of history or a back story, not as immediate or immediately recognisable as a back catalogue release. I was very happy with how my last studio album, Across The Door Sill, was received. I can only hope this new one will also appeal. But about that I can do nothing. Only hope!

So what can we expect the new album to sound like? How’s it going?

JH: The new album was completed about two weeks ago. It contains ten new songs, and is probably more instantly ‘accessible’ than the stream-of-consciousness material on Across The Door Sill, in that the songs are basically pop songs (i.e. with a verse/chorus structure in most cases), but of course done in the John Howard pop way.

People who’ve heard the tracks in progress so far – friends like Kenji Kitahama from Friedrich Sunlight, Robert Rotifer, Ian Button – who will be mastering the album – and my ‘70s producer Paul Phillips – have all commented how I seem to have a new sound with these tracks, a ‘new palette’ as Paul put it recently. I don’t really – I just use what I have in my studio [in Spain] in different ways, putting together different combinations of instruments and percussion.

I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita! I play everything – the drums, the percussion, the guitars, accordion, and keyboards, but as I’m not a guitarist, or a drummer, it takes me weeks to do just one track, slowly building up sounds. But I love this acoustic way of recording. It’s as old school as it can be using a digital recording set-up – a 15-year-old Yamaha AW16G workstation – and I mix everything in real time, too.

‘I record everything in real time, using real instruments wherever I can – obviously I don’t have an orchestra standing by in my tiny casita!’

If a mix isn’t quite right, I scrap it and start again, I don’t ‘save’ mixes and just tweak things – it’s always instinctive and quite intense, often going to 12 or 13 mixes before I feel it’s right. It’s obviously very time-consuming – ask my husband, Neil, who hardly sees me when I’m in the middle of recording – but I love it and still look forward to trotting across our courtyard and opening the casita door. I say ‘hello’ to all the instruments and pieces of percussion sitting on various shelves, and begin the process of starting work on a new track, selecting this and that, trying them out, deciding what works and what doesn’t on that particular song. It’s a delight that I can still do it, still love doing it, and that people seem to like the results.

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You’ve written your autobiography, too. It’s called Incidents Crowded With Life. When’s it coming out? How was it to write and should anyone be worried? Is there any scandal?  

JH Oooh! Scandal, such a scandal! I don’t think anyone needs to be particularly concerned by Incidents Crowded With Life. My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay or situations from anyone else’s points of view. I also don’t comment. That’s for the reader to do as the stories unfold. So I haven’t said things like “What a bastard!” about anyone, I’ve just told what happened and leave the reader to decide what they think.

‘My approach throughout the book – which covers my life from childhood to 1976 – was that I would tell things as I saw it and experienced it. I never write about hearsay’

The book basically covers my life working towards and preparing for what became the recording and release of Kid In A Big World, the build up to it, and the aftermath of its failure to make an impact, up to when I broke my back in an accident at home in late ’76, just as things seemed to be indicating a turnaround for the better.

The only chapter that is constructed as a third-party observation is where I discuss glam rock, its stars, and their career paths and how their music affected and inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether an autobiography needed such a chapter, but I decided that, as glam made such an impact on me and my music, then I should talk about that. It truly changed the way I wrote songs from ’71 – ’73, and how I saw myself in the scheme of things.

The book is due out in the spring, published by Fisher King. I’m pleasantly surprised that the book has found a publisher, to be honest. I never expected that, as I never considered myself well known enough to warrant a publishing deal. I’d been posting it online, chapter-by-chapter, for about 18 months when a friend suggested I should get it published in book form. My reply was “How?” and he duly sent the online links to the managing director of Fisher King, and the rest is my history in print! How fabulous is that? Will there be a second book? Well, I’ve just begun writing it, so we’ll see…

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John Howard in Vienna – photo: Robert Lettner

This year, you turn 65 and you’re showing no sign of slowing down – you’re busier than ever! How does it feel becoming a pensioner?

JH: My husband is thrilled that I’m finally going to be bringing in some proper money! Being a ‘niche recording artist’ means I earn very little from my music, so that monthly cheque from April onwards will be extremely welcome.

I’ll continue to stay as busy as I want to be. As long as my voice holds up – and it seems to have done so far – I’ll carry on recording. I’m physically aware that I’m older, I get tired more quickly, the usual 60-years-plus aches and pains are quite bad some days – due, in part, to my injuries in ‘76 of course – but when I’m recording, I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s. The higher range is not so stratospheric as it once was, but my lower range is much richer now. People tell me I sound very young when I sing, and that’s because I feel young when I sing. 

‘I feel extremely young and agile, especially vocally. I can probably sing better now than I did in my 20s’

Do you still have many musical ambitions left? Are there any songs by other people that you’d like to record, or anyone that you’d like to collaborate with?

JH:  Ambitions? I don’t really have any. Back in my teens, of course, with the arrogance of youth, I was convinced I’d be an international superstar by the time I was 21! That didn’t happen of course, and the realisation that things are not that easy was a big part of my ‘Further Education In Life’ from thereon in. But now, I have no expectations, no ambitions, I just enjoy what I do. Most things tend to happen while I’m busy doing other things.

Kid… was reissued on CD in 2003 because people were discussing it on the internet, which piqued RPM and Cherry Red’s interest. The John Howard & the Night Mail album happened because Robert Rotifer encouraged me to start performing in public again and have a think about us doing something in the studio together.

John Howard & The Night Mail

John Howard & The Night Mail

Across The Door Sill was issued by Occultation because Nick Halliwell told me he thought it deserved to be out on LP and that he’d like to release it. Kid… is being re-released on vinyl because Pedro contacted me to say he would like to do it, and the autobiography is being published because a friend sent it to a book publisher. I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing.

Robert Rotifer and I sometimes talk about recording another Night Mail album with Ian Button and Andy Lewis, and I’d love to, but getting us all together at the same time is the difficult bit!

‘I’m very lucky that people seem to want to encourage me to do things. They – God bless ‘em – want to spread the word about my music and writing’

I did contribute backing vocals and piano to The Granite Shore album, Suspended Second, last year, which was fun, and I’ve also contributed piano to other friends’ projects over the last few years – Papernut Cambridge’s Nutlets, Alex Highton’s Nobody Know Anything, Darren Hayman’s Secondary Modern, and Anthony Reynolds’ British Ballads. That’s always a nice thing to do, especially when you hear the finished tracks and go “Oooh! That’s me on that one!”

I’m sure there’ll be more EPs featuring covers of other people’s songs. I quite fancy doing an EP of Rufus Wainwright songs – and even a Marc Bolan EP – gosh! That would be fun. We’ll see…

Finally, what music – new and old – are you enjoying at the moment?

JH: I’m very into Judee Sill – I have been for months. I loved what she did back when I was a teenager in the ‘70s – Jesus Was A Crossmaker was a particular favourite when I was at college, but recently I’ve been given her lovely CD set by a friend and it’s gorgeous. What a superb songwriter and singer she was.

I still play Roy Harper’s astonishing Stormcock album – it still sends shivers down my spine. I recently bought the new version of Sgt Pepper… it’s very good. Giles Martin’s done a great job – he’s really brought the tracks to life again – though, note to Giles, Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite is far too loud compared to the other tracks. What’s that about then?

New stuff? Well, there’s a wonderful singer songwriter on You Are The Cosmos called Daniel McGeever – his album, Cross The Water, is one I play a lot. Excellent songs.

Daniel Wylie’s latest, Scenery For Dreamers, is fab, too, Ralegh Long’s Upwards of Summer is very uplifting guitar pop for the 21st century, and Alex Highton’s newie,Welcome To Happiness, is a synthesiser-fest of loveliness.

John Howard’s Songs From The Morning EP is available to download from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, etc, and to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and Rhapsody.

For more information, please visit: www.kidinabigworld.co.uk 

Kid In A Big World and The Hidden Beauty – 1973-1979 will be released on vinyl by You Are The Cosmos on April 20: visit http://www.youarethecosmos.com/ for more details.

John Howard’s autobiography, Incidents Crowded With Life, will be published by Fisher King on March 26: http://www.fisherkingpublishing.co.uk/

 

‘I never have the mass market in mind when I write anything’

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John Howard – picture by Magdalena Lepka

Singer-songwriter John Howard’s 2015 album, John Howard & The Night Mail, was one of my favourite records of last year.

A collaboration with musicians Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis, it was a wonderful album – full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

This month, John releases his brand new long-player,  Across The Door Sill, but it’s a very different beast from its predecessor. 

His latest offering is a solo voice and piano record that comprises only five songs – three at which clock in at just under 10 minutes – and it was inspired by poetry and childhood dreams. 

I spoke to him to find out how the record came about…

 

Hi John. The last time I interviewed you – summer 2015 – you were just about to release your album John Howard & The Night Mail, which went on to have some great reviews.  I saw you and your band play the album launch show in London at the Phoenix Artist Club. It was lovely to meet you after the gig. How do you feel about that record a year on? Has it been a good 12 months for you?

John Howard: It was great to meet you too, Sean, though I always feel I never have enough time after a gig to chat properly to people, so apologies if I was whisking around all over the place and looking distracted. I am still very proud of The Night Mail album. It was a delightful project to be part of – Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis are so creative and responsive. Gigging with them earlier this year in Germany and Austria was a blast, but then, every time I appear on stage with them, I love it. The last 12 months have been mainly taken up with promoting The Night Mail album, but I’ve also been writing the Across The Door Sill album, too.

Your last album was very much a band record – collaborations with Andy Lewis, Ian Button, & Robert Rotifer – whereas your new album – Across The Door Sill – is a solo project. Why the decision to go it alone for this record?

JH: I’d started to write songs for Across The Door Sill before The Night Mail recording sessions in late 2014. I’d spent that year co-writing The Night Mail songs with Robert, Ian and Andy, but once they were finished, demoed and ready to record, new songs started coming through the ether. I knew as soon as the new songs started to come along they were going to be for a solo album, and of course The Night Mail songs were all co-writes with the other band members – save for our cover of Roddy Frame’s Small World.

I never plan anything really – projects tend to come to me, like The Night Mail did. It grew organically during months of conversations with Robert, initially. But all four of us do our own thing too, Robert has Rotifer, Ian has Papernut Cambridge, Andy has The Songwriters’ Collective and his solo material, plus his work with Paul Weller, so The Night Mail was never a band per se, in the way that touring bands are. We fancied writing some songs together, we were pleased with how they came out and decided to record them. It was a happy outcome that [the record label] Tapete liked them enough to sign the album. The Across The Door Sill songs came along out of the ether unbidden. Who Cares – the opening track on the album – was the first to ‘arrive’, and I knew immediately it wasn’t a ‘band song’.

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Across The Door Sill is a brave album. There are only five songs – three of which are almost 10 minutes long – and it’s just your multi-layered vocals and pianos. It’s fair to say that you’re not aiming for the mass-market with this record, isn’t it?

JH: I never have the mass market in mind when I write anything. It became obvious 40 odd years ago, when I began recording, that one never puts the words ‘mass market’ in the same sentence as ‘John Howard’, unless the sentence reads ‘John Howard is never going to be a mass market artist.’

In the years since I returned to recording, since 2004, I have always written and recorded what I want to, with no regard for whether it will sell. I just want to write good songs. I believe I write at my best that way. This of course means my music will never make it to Radio One-derful Land…

How did you approach this record? What did you have in mind when you were writing and recording it?

JH: When the words for Who Cares started to come to me and I wrote them down, a long-form, stream of consciousness poem resulted, and I fancied the idea of seeing what happened when I sat at the piano and just wrote what came to me, as I sang the words. I recorded the eventual piano piece, which was inspired by the words, then tried out various ways of singing a melody to the track, recording several takes over many days, sung in different ways. Over a few weeks, I decided which parts of the different recorded vocals worked best and put them all together in a final mix, then built that up with more pianos and backing and harmony vocals. I lived with each mix for a few days before carrying on and building on what I’d done. All through the process I didn’t know if it would work out. It was an experiment, which could have ended up as tuneless nonsense. Some people may think it did!

I knew I’d come up with something different, and liked what I heard, so I carried on working that way, with no mind as to the lengths of the songs, or whether they had choruses, verses or hooks. I just wrote words, which came to me, and then put a melody and chords to them in a free-form, very relaxed way.

 

 

I was writing and recording the album right up to the spring of this year, though as I say, I actually began writing Who Cares towards the end of 2014. I’d never worked this way before, literally seeing what happened as I went along, blindly diving in and hoping a song, a track, would come out of it.

I usually write in a much more pop way, à la McCartney – I sit at the piano, see what starts to happen, chords arrive, sometimes sounds accompany them, which become words as the song develops, and a hook emerges, which is what the song hangs on. So, writing in such a free-form way for Across The Door Sill was an experiment from start to finish. I loved working this way though – it was very liberating

What became obvious early on in the process was how the poems were very much made up of images from dreams I’d had since childhood. The closing track, Stretching Out, is made up of many images from dreams I had as a kid, which recurred for years. I have a personal attachment to that track – it affects me each time I hear it. The images and the characters feel as real to me as real life in many ways. And the older I get, the more real they feel, like revisiting old friends.

 

The songs were also inspired by 13th century poet Rumi’s Quatrains. Can you tell me more about that? How did that influence manifest itself on the record? Is Across The Door Sill a concept album?

JH: I wouldn’t say it’s a concept album – the songs aren’t linked together in a story and there is no narrative linking each one chronologically, but there is a theme – dreams, my dreams, and how I put them into words, albeit words which together seem to make no sense, but as a whole song they do start to form a picture.

Scenarios unfold as you listen to each song. Rumi’s Quatrains was something I found on the internet. I was searching for a phrase which encapsulated what I was trying to do – that is to give myself a new challenge, not stick to methods I’d used before, and put myself out there in a new environment creatively. I found the phrase ‘Across The Door Sill’, which led me to Rumi’s poem, where that phrase basically sums up his poem. It seemed the perfect title for the album.

You’ve said it’s an album that will take a few listens for people to get into…

JH: Oh, several listens I would imagine. Be patient, folks. Stick in there.

 

Outward is my favourite track on the record – it’s stunning – very moody, nostalgic and reflective. What can you tell me about that song?

JH: Thanks, Sean. Outward was written around a dream I had of waiting for a train, then, as in all dreams, the situation changed without explanation and I was travelling by car into the hills, meeting various people along the way, turning a corner and landing on a beach, turning another corner and being in the midst of a fiesta in full swing, and then finally ending up at the station again, kind of asleep, hearing the platform porter blowing his whistle. It was a dream within a dream really. Again, the vocal was recorded very loosely. I was playing the backing track over and over again, trying different vocal approaches, recording them all, and then choosing what I considered the best bits of various takes and mixing them together into the final mix.

I could hear a kind of old film vibe to the track, and recorded the ‘spooky’ falsetto voice in the background, to add some film noir atmosphere. My old 1970s producer, Paul Phillips, said he thought it sounded like a theme to a ghost or mystery thriller film, so that was a result.

 

Can you talk me through the other songs? There are funny moments, there are wistful recollections and stories and some wry observations…

JH: Pigs ‘n’ Pies, the shortest song on the album, brought in imagery from my growing up into a teenager through the ‘60s, my hippie years of the early ‘70s, then into working in a music business in the ‘80s, which was a decade (and a business) full of confidence, money and arrogance, then seeing a kind of realisation that, by the 21st century, we’d lost something along the way.

I liked the idea of a chorus of voices coming back as each decade ended, singing ‘It’s a crazy mixed-up world!’ each time – the mantra of the human race down the decades. My dad used to say that, my grandmother used to say it, and now I hear my own generation saying it. The difference now is that, whereas my peers poo-pooed our parents moaning about the state of the world, we were all believing back then that we were entering a golden dawn, the Hunky Dory belief in the human race, and now we too sit aghast at things like Brexit, racism becoming once more a horrific norm in our daily papers, and on our streets, the ghastly and once unbelievable possibility of a Trump presidency. It seems utterly crazy, but the 1930s, and Nazism, were equally round the bend, and similarly came from giving a voice to people who felt ignored and who were looking for scapegoats for their situation, following utter nutcases pointing them the way to the scapegoat of their choice. The blame game has been the human balm for centuries.

 

Preservation, as soon as I’d written it, reminded me of late 1960s/early ‘70s folk songs – the kind I’d listen to in my bedroom on a record player. It’s very much a questioning of who we are, where we are, why we are, and positioning us as floating aimlessly through a space full of dangers and unsolved mysteries. If we are part of that unsolved mystery, then where are we headed? Is there a solution? Probably not, if I am honest. Fifty years ago I would’ve said, “Of course there is, and my generation will provide it!” Now I feel rather hopeless about things, but somewhere deep down I’m thinking we could possibly avoid the precipice staring at us. There have been times in recent years that I wonder if the human race is worth preserving. It seems to have gone out its way to destroy everything it comes into contact with. Name me one good thing human beings have done for the natural world, apart from a few good people trying to right the wrongs of generations’ destructiveness? Heavens – this is getting rather heavy!

Let’s lighten things up… You’ve worked with Ian Button again on this record – he mastered it. What did he bring to that process?

JH: Ian has great ears. I’d loved what he did when he mastered Live at the Servant Jazz Quarters for me in 2014 and then, of course, The Night Mail album last year. He gets a great warmth, while also giving things an oomph sonically. I wanted Across The Door Sill to sound very warm, wide and big, and he got that – especially his work on the piano sound. He worked hard at that and I literally cheered when I heard what he’d done.

The new album is released on Occultation – how did that deal come about? Wasn’t the album going to be released on your own label?

JH: Yes, originally I was going to put it out on my own kidinabigworld.co.uk imprint and I actually had some CDs manufactured with that in mind. When I sent out review copies to you, and several other reviewers and journalists, I also sent a copy to Nick Halliwell at Occultation, simply as a thank you for all the word-of-mouth spreading he did for The Night Mail last year. I was really surprised when he emailed me a few days later to say he would like to release the album. I hadn’t expected that. I love his label and many of his other acts on Occultation are superb, so to be part of that ‘family’ is truly special. I was very flattered too that he liked the album enough to want to release it.

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The new album will be released on vinyl, won’t it?

JH: Yes it will, in fact one of the reasons Nick gave for wanting to put it out on Occultation was that he thought it should be released on vinyl.

“This is an album which should be available on LP,” was what he said to me. That in itself was pleasing, and I’ve seen the artwork for the LP and it’s fabulous. Christian Cook of thinctanc design has done it – the same chap who designed the CD for me earlier this year, when I was going to release the album myself. Christian also designed my 2014 album Hello, My Name Is. Nick asked him to design the LP artwork and it is beautiful.

What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and 2017? Can we expect any live shows and any more records?

JH: I rarely plan, and as regards live shows, that depends if I get invited to do any and whether it’s feasible to do any of them, as I live in Spain. I don’t like being away from home for long periods anymore, so any gig would have to be a one-off, rather than a series of shows.

Nick and I are currently discussing another album for Occultation next year and I’ve started writing songs for it in the last week or so. It will again be different from what I’ve done before, and some of it will be recorded in the UK. Hopefully I’ll start recording it next year, probably for a 2018 release.

What music are you currently listening to and enjoying – old and new?

JH: I recently got hold of Judee Sill’s double album set, featuring her first two LPs. I totally adored her in the early ‘70s but hadn’t listened to her for years. It was Nick Halliwell who reawakened my love for her work when he told me he could hear Judee Sill in Across The Door Sill. I hadn’t actually considered that when I was recording it, feeling it had touches of Roy Harper and Laura Nyro in there (I don’t get through a month without listening to Harper’s Stormcock album at least once), but I also knew there was another sound, another voice in there, at the back of my mind while I was recording, which I couldn’t quite grasp. When Nick mentioned Judee to me it was like a light went on in my head – “Yes! That’s who I could hear somewhere in my memory during the Across The Door Sill sessions!” She has hardly been off my hi-fi since I got the double album recently. Glorious glorious talent.

I’ve also been enjoying Dylan’s Cutting Edge ‘65/’66 outtakes CD too. I had many of those on bootleg vinyl. which I bought in the early ‘70s, but hadn’t listened to for years, and it’s great to have those amazing tracks again. She’s Your Lover Now, I Wanna be Your Lover, wow, genius. And unreleased at the time! Amazing.

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Not so new, from last year, Ralegh Long’s Hoverance album is lovely, very pastoral and rather gorgeous, Robert Rotifer’s Not Your Door is excellent, some lovely songs on that, very emotional songs, and of course Ian’s Papernut Cambridge album Love The Things Your Lover Loves is fab. He writes songs you are sure you heard back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but they don’t sound like anybody else’s songs. Only Jeff Lynne is as good at that.

Nick has been playing me some of the new Distractions tracks, and they are lovely – some really great songs on there.

I recently acquired a record deck again – I hadn’t had one for years. An LP I have had since the mid-‘70s, Orchestra Luna, was one of the first I put on the turntable and it took me back to my days at CBS when a press lady there gave me the LP. I fell in love with it as soon as I heard it and have treasured it ever since. Their songs are full of Hollywood, Broadway, the Great American Dream, comedy, whimsy and theatrical camp, but with an air of wryness which overcomes the whimsy. It’s fun, but with a mild snarl, and it’s tremendous. As someone once said, it’s like watching a Hollywood musical you’ve never seen…

Across The Door Sill by John Howard is available this month on Occultation. For more information, please visit: http://www.occultation.co.uk/

‘I’ve been rediscovered so many times now…’

 

Left to right: John Howard; Robert Rotifer; Ian Button and Andy Lewis

Left to right: John Howard; Robert Rotifer; Ian Button and Andy Lewis

 

In the second of a two-part interview, singer-songwriter John Howard – who releases his new album, John Howard & The Night Mail – later this month, tells me about being ‘rediscovered’, his childhood, how being openly-gay affected his pop career, and his plans for the rest of the year and beyond…

Your debut album, Kid In A Big World, was released in 1975. Looking back at those days now, how do you feel about them?

Do you regret that you didn’t become a big pop star? Did you want fame, fortune and success?

John Howard: The Kid… days feel like they were experienced by another person now… I look back and can’t actually remember too much about it. I always regret that I have very few recollections of recording the album at Abbey Road. That should have been a huge deal for me.

I’d spent all my latter-‘60s days staring at photos of The Beatles in Beatles Monthly recording at the studio, and here I was, there!

But I don’t remember feeling anything except, ‘OK, let’s make this album as good as we possibly can.’

 

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It’s bizarre how little I remember. I think youth and its arrogance have a lot to do with that. I believed I had the talent to be signed to a big label like CBS and wasn’t surprised when we recorded at Abbey Road and then Apple in 1974.

I’d always thought I would be successful. I had built up a pretty good following of fans doing gigs in the Manchester area in the early ‘70s, and the move to London in ‘73 was specifically to find a manager, which I did within a few weeks of arriving, and to get a record deal, which I had by the end of ‘73.

I’d also been commissioned to write the theme song of the new Peter Fonda/William Holden movie, Open Season, recorded the song in Rome in January ‘74 to an arrangement written by the film’s orchestrator, and was told on a weekly basis by CBS staff that I was “gonna be huge!”. I was 21 and believed them, of course.

Since first hearing The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever I had decided that I not only wanted to be a singer-songwriter, I also wanted to be a recording artist.

I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than coming up with something as sensational as that record (dream on, darling!).

Regret, though, is the way to madness. I’m not actually a particularly nostalgic person, I don’t tend to dwell on the past, the good or the bad, and am only reminded of it occasionally when Neil [my husband] puts on one of my earlier albums. He often listens to my stuff, I rarely do…

How does it feel to have been rediscovered and reappraised for Kid In A Big World and to have been picked up on by musicians like Darren Hayman, Andy Lewis, Ian Button and Robert Rotifer?

JH: I went through almost the exact same rediscovery ten years ago, when Alexis Petridis in his 2005 Guardian review of The Dangerous Hours wrote, “So obscure was singer-songwriter John Howard that his recent re-emergence seemed less like a comeback than an archaeological find: you half-expected his return to live performance last year to be prefaced by the appearance of Tony Robinson, explaining that there had been a fascinating discovery in trench one.”

I’ve been rediscovered so many times now, the trench is looking a wee bit the worse for wear!

For me, The Night Mail album is part of a sequence of events helmed by Robert Rotifer since 2012. In fact, while I hope the album does well, and I’m knocked out by how well it’s being received, I want it to succeed mainly for Robert.

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He has believed in my music for over three years now and has worked doggedly – and at times persuasively – to get me out of my ‘solo comfort zone’ into working with a band again with the support of a bona fide great record label.

He has done all that, even when I told him that although I loved what we’d recorded, I didn’t think he stood a cat in hell’s chance of finding a record deal for it, he proved me wrong.

In many ways Robert has become not only my friend and band colleague and writing compatriot, he is also my champion, my cajoler, my ego-support. He won’t take no lightly. Which for someone like me who is these days rather lazy when it comes to making too much effort unless pushed, is rather perfect.

Where did you grow up and what kind of childhood did you have?

JH: I was brought up in Lancashire. I was born in 1953 – the grandchild of millworkers and Potteries boys and girls, son of a middle-class draughtsman born into a pub business he rejected, and a working class secretary who always wanted better out of life, and got it.

I was surrounded by a lot of urban decay and greyness, but raised in a lovely little council house backing onto endless fields.

People say the world was in black and white until ‘65, but I don’t agree, my childhood is full of colours in my head. I was a very happy little kid, albeit with fears of my mother dying young – which she did – and always with a sense I was ‘different’ from the other lads at school, which I was.

There was always the conflict of Roman Catholics versus Church of England – my mum’s and dad’s families, respectively).

My dad’s early married life was made a misery by his mother-in-law who resented him not being a ‘good Catholic boy’, and my mum was always made to feel ‘not quite good enough’ by her mother-in-law who had raised herself to what she felt was a life one rung above the others.

It never really impacted on me, as I ran around the fields and played near the brooks, lost in my world of fantasy, where a visit to The Kardomah cafe in Manchester presented an exotic playground, with its large wooden elephants dotted round the huge dining room and the smell of freshly ground coffee always in the air.

I would spend my days at home listening to my parents’ album of My Fair Lady, falling in love with songs like On The Street Where You Live and its fabulous internal rhymes, and trying out my foxtrot to the 78s piled up inside the radiogram.

I loved listening to my dad playing the piano – he’s a great jazz pianist – and always wanted to learn. I wrote my first song at four to my budgerigar Joey and took classical piano lessons from the age of six.

It was only my burgeoning love of pop music in the ‘60s which prevented me following a career as a classical pianist, which my tutor had her eyes set on for me. I gave up at 16 and never read a piece of sheet music again.

The song Safety In Numbers, from your new album, tackles sexual prejudices.

What was it like being an openly gay man in the music scene in the ’70s? Did it hamper your career? Have things changed now, or do you still encounter prejudice? 

JH: In 2007, I wrote a song called My Beautiful Days. It’s now one of my oft-requested live numbers. It covers the way things have changed between now and back in the ‘70s in terms of attitudes towards gay performers.

 

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I was recently re-reading an interview David Bowie gave in 1971 following the release of Hunky Dory, where he said he was gay, but in reality, he meant he was bi-sexual – and even that is questionable.

I think his publicly stated sexuality then was more about appealing to as wide an audience as possible, being ‘gay’ was becoming more an accepted lifestyle choice around that time, and he probably felt it made him seem rebellious in the eyes of ‘the grown-ups’.

Bolan had that feyness some took as signs of his being gay. But both men were happily married chaps. Not gay at all, in fact. And ‘that was ok, then’, in the eyes of The Establishment (the BBC etc).

It was considered acceptable by them to allow a load of straight blokes wearing make-up and earrings to stomp and pout around Top Of The Pops playing at being camp, as long as it sort of sent it all up, a la Sweet.

Remember that we now view TV characters like John Inman’s Mr Humphries as out-and-out gay, but there were times in the Are You Being Served? and its later follow-up Grace & Favour series when the scriptwriters created situations where one was made to wonder if he was just a straight ‘cissy’ mummy’s boy, rather than an out gay man.

Larry Grayson was camp as Christmas but he never once said he was gay. Just a little effeminate, darling. Or in Noel Coward’s time, ‘He’s rather theatrical, isn’t he?’

At that time it was considered career suicide to openly say you were a gay man. Bi-sexual was alright, as it didn’t mean you were completely turned off having sex with a woman. It had just enough frisson of naughtiness while not upsetting too many apples off the cart.

I realised how much things had changed in the late ‘90s, when George Michael was arrested for importuning in a Los Angeles loo. The scummy tabloids all rubbed their hands with glee thinking, “At last, we’ve brought the queen down! Let’s enjoy his destruction together, tabloid readers!” after years of trying to ‘out’ him.

Instead, George’s record sales tripled overnight, his latest Best Of became a huge seller, and when he appeared on the Parkinson chat show to talk about his arrest, he made a joke about it, which made us all laugh, and a nation fell in love with him all over again. Wonderful.

I never hid my sexuality, called everyone ‘darling’ and was just myself. A friend once told me I was ‘the most naturally gay man’ he had ever met.

I’ve always assumed that from the moment I walk into a room people will know I am gay. Not because I mince in, crack me wrists and start looking at men in a lascivious way, but just from how I am. I believe I give off a ‘gay vibe’. We gays called it ‘gaydar’.

Other gays sense it immediately, but in my case I think most straight people do too, especially women. They have an extra sense about such things. It’s probably because of the way we look – or don’t look – at them. Our eyes don’t immediately go to their boobs, and we’re more likely to compliment them on the dress they’re wearing or their shoes than stare at their breasts, and if we do do that it’s usually because we’re thinking aesthetically, ‘What a gorgeous-looking woman’ as we would if we’d met Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren in the ‘50s.

Well, this ‘vibe’ was obviously something which upset some people at organisations like the BBC. I was unaware of it at the time, thinking my lack of radio plays and therefore poor record sales was more to do with the fact my album [Kid In A Big World – 1975] wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that CBS were disappointed with Kid… when we delivered it to them, so I thought they’d lost faith in it, which resulted in uninspiring sales.

It was only years later, during a visit to our home in Pembrokeshire in 2005 that my producer back in the ‘70s, Paul Phillips, told me he believed my failure to secure Radio 1 plays was due to my being gay. He told me that at the end of my performance at The Purcell Room in 1975, while the audience clapped and shouted for more – well, they did – he’d turned to his neighbour, a high-up producer at Radio 1 and raved about me to him, expecting a similar opinion back.

He was met with a very obvious case of homophobia, the guy’s reaction was very much “Him?? Played by the BBC??! I don’t think so!”.

When I told my 1970s manager’s widow about this a few weeks later, she reiterated something similar, which she had also kept to herself for 30 years for fear of upsetting me.

She told me that on talking to the same chap at that 1975 after-show ‘do’,  he’d said to her, “Well, we won’t be playing HIM on Radio 1!”.

In those days, no Radio 1 plays meant very poor sales for a single, and singles sold albums for pop acts, so Kid… flopped, causing a sense of panic at my record label, CBS.

“What are we going to do with him?” set in around the corridors and offices of Soho Square and I, or my career, never recovered from that.

 

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Instead of releasing my follow-up album Technicolour Biography, the label cancelled recording sessions, put me in the studio with disco producer Biddu and hoped that would put a stop to ‘all this gay stuff he’s writing about odd parties on the beach with bohemian types’ and push me into writing some good old hetero hits.

Instead I wrote about an affair I’d just had which had ended, leaving me rather devastated, all couched in ‘more commercial songs’ but still with an obvious sense of me singing to a bloke.

The only exception was a catchy little number, the ironically titled I Got My Lady, which was me having a bit of fun trying to write a hetero hit.

CBS released it with great relief as a single, but when that too was rejected by Radio 1 and bombed, the company decided enough was enough, pulled the Biddu-produced album from their schedules and said ‘bye, ‘bye.

 

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I struggled to get any record deals after that, only recording the occasional single with people like Trevor Horn (pre-Frankie and Buggles) and Steve Levine (pre-Culture Club).

By the early ‘80s I’d had enough and took up an offer to work in the music industry itself, where my gayness was immediately accepted, indeed embraced by all my industry colleagues.

I would have gone through the rest of my life thinking the reason I’d failed as a pop singer in the ‘70s was because my recordings weren’t any good, should RPM/Cherry Red not have reissued Kid.., to such wide acclaim, and then followed that up with releases of Technicolour Biography and the Biddu-productions Can You Hear Me OK?, which also got amazing reviews, which led to me returning to performing and recording again and having that conversation with Paul Phillips in 2005.

That year I played a wonderfully camp gig in Highgate’s Glam-Ou-Rama Club, where the audience treated me like a returned hero from Planet Ziggy. I had finally succeeded! On my terms.

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Are you looking forward to the new album launch in London [Sept 8 – The Phoenix Club] and taking the record out on the road?

JH: Yes, I always enjoy performing on stage. Especially when there are people there to hear me! The Phoenix Artist Club looks like a wonderfully bohemian venue and I’m very excited about performing there. It’s only a stone’s throw away from where my manager’s office was in Denmark Street in the ‘70s and CBS was situated across the road in Soho Square.

It was also in Denmark Street where I did the launch show for As I Was Saying, in 2006 at the 12 Bar Club, so it’s seems fitting the UK launch show for The Night Mail should be in that area.

Future gigs are still to be arranged and don’t look like they’ll happen ‘til the New Year now, but that’s fine, there’s no rush. I am the human proof of that!

How do you see the rest of the year shaping up?

JH: True to form, I don’t stop writing and recording, and already have another solo album completed and ready for release sometime next year.

I’m not sure through which label, or exactly when it will come out, but it will at some point next year.

I’m also recording a new EP of Randy Newman songs, which should come out early 2016. That’ll be an online-only release. All my EPs tend to be cover-jobs! I like occasionally recording songs I love by other writers, from Bowie to Button and back again, and five track EPs are a great vehicle for that.

What happens through the autumn will largely be determined in many ways by how well The Night Mail album does. Stay bright, pop pickers!

 

John Howard & The Night Mail is released on August 21 (Tapete).

For more info: http://www.tapeterecords.de

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The album launch gig will take place on September 8, at the Phoenix Artist Club in London.