‘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…
JH 1 copy

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.

Incidents JH Cover (2).jpg

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…

John In Vienna 1

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’


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’.


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.


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.


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 don’t even know if I’ve seen any of the Bond films all the way through’

With the new Bond blockbuster Spectre around the corner, indie label Where It’s At Is Where You Are (wiaiwya) is releasing a James Bond tribute album called A Girl And A Gun, featuring covers of 007 songs and soundtracks by contemporary acts including Papernut Cambridge, Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long. 

I asked Ian Button from Papernut Cambridge about his groovy garage-rock take on Lulu’s The Man With The Golden Gun…

Ian Button

How did you get involved with the A Girl And A Gun project?

Ian Button: I can’t quite remember when I first heard Jerv (wiaiwya) mention the idea – I think it might have been when we were all at The Union Chapel when Papernut Cambridge played a Daylight Music show at the end of 2014.

I probably muscled in just as much as I was invited. The idea fitted in really well with our ‘lost year of cover versions’ – the Nutlets album and our soon to be released EP of John Sullivan theme songs – so I just said yes without thinking.

Jerv is a great friend, and was also a great advisor to us when we started the Gare Du Nord label – the links between all the bands and players on the labels in our little circle are too complex to go into – but suffice to say I’m involved on a couple of other tracks on the album too – drumming, recording etc on Ralegh’s and Darren’s tracks…..and the Papernuts are going to be a sort of ‘house band’ for some of the show on November 7th at The Union Chapel.

(Papernut Cambridge)

Why did you choose to cover The Man With The Golden Gun? What were you trying to achieve with your version?

IB: I went for it because I thought I knew no one else would. It’s one of the real underdog themes. But of course Mark Williamson (Crock Oss) went and chose it as well, and did a brilliant electronic/location recordings version of it too. At the show on Nov 7th we’re going to do a kind of amalgamation of both our versions, which is going to be great fun.

(Crock Oss)

I remember Lulu doing The Man Who Sold The World and being in a sort of Bowie phase in the early/mid ’70s, and The Man With The Golden Gun was definitely the same kind of thing/look/era.

When I got to grips with the music I realised how cool it is – not really any chords, just dark monophonic lines and dischords etc…it took me a while to work out those really Bond machine gun cluster notes at the start. They are very clever!

Like all our covers, I wanted to try and make it sound sort of like the original – not an oblique post-ironic re-work – but I also liked the idea of a bloke singing it instead of Lulu.

It was recorded the way pretty much all of the Papernut Cambridge tracks are formed – I start at home with a basic structure, in this case a sort of synth bass line, a couple of guitar lines and a drum machine.

I used Mellotron sounds (M-Tron Pro) to layer up the brass/strings/harp etc. Then I went to a little rehearsal room to do the vocals and real drums. The drums were recorded with just one mic, but there are three takes all playing at once.

The next step normally is to send the track to the rest of the Nuts so they can add bits – but in this case it didn’t quite happen as usual.

Robert Halcrow was the only one who sent anything back by Jerv’s deadline (bass, real horns, and backing vocals) – everyone else just said they couldn’t add anything – even though I meant for them to replace the programmed parts with real guitars/keys etc. So it’s really ended up just me and Rob Halcrow on this one. But Ralegh Long came up with something maybe better than any music – the video, which is taken from a spoof Bond movie that he and his mates made when they were at school – Blackeye. It’s genius.

Are you a Bond fan?

IB: Not really, I must confess. I kind of liked the ‘60s and ‘70s ones because they were a bit light hearted. Christmas afternoon fodder.

I haven’t seen the Daniel Craig films, but I hear about torture scenes and I kind of don’t really like the idea of them being dark or too scary.

What’s your favourite Bond film and song – and why?

IB: I couldn’t name a movie that’s my favourite, unfortunately. I actually don’t even know if I’ve seen any all the way through – but my favourite song is You Only Live Twice. That strings riff is the cold suburban sunshine of the 1960s, bottled. I also especially like the reggae bit in Live and Let Die.

Who is your favourite actor to have played Bond?

IB: Roger Moore – not least because he and Dorothy Squires used to live near me in Bexley…

What do you think of Sam Smith’s song for Spectre – Writing’s On The Wall?

IB:I had a listen and it didn’t really grab me. But then neither did the Spectres one [Bristol band] that got a lot of attention in that stupid mix up of reviews. I usually don’t like music that tries to be all dramatic, minor key and portentous, although I do make exceptions!

I’m going to use Sam Smith’s lyrics in a university lecture next week, to see if people recognise them by reading a verse in isolation. They sort of don’t say anything about the movie really do they? Not like Lulu, who actually said what’s in the film, totally!

A Girl And A Gun is released digitally on October 23 (wiaiwya).



For more on A Girl And A Gun, read my interviews with wiawya founder John Jervis  and musician Robert Rotifer


Howard’s way

Singer-songwriter and pianist John Howard’s latest project – John Howard & The Night Mail – could be the best pop album you’ll hear all year.

In the first of a two-part interview, I talk to him about writing and recording with his new band, ‘living in exile’ in Spain, his love of ‘60s pop culture, and why he’d rather listen to Revolver than Radio 1…

Ian Button, Robert Rotifer and Andy Lewis contemplate working with John Howard (photo credit: Pamela Berry)

Ian Button, Robert Rotifer and Andy Lewis contemplate working with John Howard
(photo credit: Pamela Berry)


John Howard released his piano-driven debut solo album, Kid In A Big World, 40 years ago – back in 1975.

Criminally overlooked at the time, it’s now considered a cult classic, but the mid-70s music industry wasn’t ready for an openly gay, flamboyant singer-songwriter…

Late last year, John, who’s now 62, teamed up with musicians and songwriters Robert Rotifer, Andy Lewis (Paul Weller’s bassist, DJ / Acid Jazz regular) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge, ex-Death In Vegas, ex-Thrashing Doves) to make a new album – his 15th.

Recorded over four days in November 2014, John Howard & The Night Mail will be released on the Tapete label on August 21.

It’s a wonderful collection of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop (Before) to slinky retro mod-soul (Intact & Smiling), glam-rock (Control Freak), observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives (London’s After-Work Drinking Culture & Deborah Fletcher) and the moving paean to ‘60s pop culture that is In The Light of Fires Burning, which name-checks Joe Meek, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles and Telstar, among others…


How does it feel to be back, with a new album and a new band, too?

John Howard: It’s always good to have a new album out. I don’t feel I’m ‘back’ particularly, because I’ve been writing, recording and releasing albums each year since my real ‘comeback’ album, The Dangerous Hours, which came out in 2005.

What is great is to be working with these amazingly talented guys, Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis. They’re all fabulous musicians and songwriters, and great company, too.

I am really proud of The Night Mail album and knocked out it’s getting such a positive reaction.

It’s a great record…

JH: Thanks, Sean. I’m thrilled. It’s turned out sounding like we spent months recording it – it’s so polished and a really cohesive set of solid pop tracks, with some lovely songs.

This is an album I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have made on my own. They are songs I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – have written on my own.

I love it. I listened to it again the other evening on our roof [in Spain] – the only cool place of an evening right now here – and was once again struck by how great it sounds.

That isn’t meant to be big-headed – it’s an acknowledgement of the terrific effort, time and talent that has gone into making the album by all four members of the band.

Several of the songs are observational – they’re populated with characters and their everyday lives. I’m thinking, in particular, of the tracks London’s After-Work Drinking Culture and Deborah Fletcher.

In my view, they’re up there with other great observational songs by Ray Davies, Blur, The Beatles, The Divine Comedy, and early Bowie… Do you write about real, or imaginary, characters?

JH: Well, those two songs you’ve mentioned have lyrics which were written by Robert and Ian, respectively, so that proves what great lyricists I’m working with!

London’s After-Work… particularly resonated with me, as the lyric described my own situation when I ‘worked for a living’ in the ‘80s and ‘90s at various music companies.

There was a definite belief system at work in all those companies that you had to be a member of The Team, and to prove your membership you were expected to go to the local wine bar after work and mix with your work buddies ‘til all hours.

I never went along with it, I used to purposely leave the office at six, making sure everyone saw me leave by waving and saying “‘bye!” loudly as I left.


London new


I had a great guy waiting for me in our lovely home and there was simply no contest as to whom I wanted to spend my after-work time with.

I had some work colleagues who would get in at 7 a.m. and worked till 8 p.m. then went to the wine bar with other work colleagues and got home after midnight. They used to lecture me that I wasn’t doing my career prospects any favours by not doing the same.

My riposte was always the same, “when the company has done with you, they’ll get rid of you, no matter how late you stay or how many arses you lick while you’re here.”

And sure enough, they all became victims of the companies’ attitude to the ‘loyal’ office worker, the unspoken rulebook – ‘give everything, and get nothing but a salary for a while back.’

I remember one company I worked for arranged a ‘Team Building Awayday Event’ where we were all supposed to take part in sporting activities similar to those in the ‘70s TV programme It’s A Knockout. Each head of department was to ‘take a lead and build colleague brotherhood’.

The fact my department consisted of two girls and me went rather over their heads. I watched one of the first activities when we’d arrived at this damn thing, hurried back to my hotel room and stayed there reading for the rest of the day, claiming an asthma attack, when questioned about my absence that evening over dinner.

There was a definite sense that I’d let the side down – not from my two female departmental colleagues, who were actually just jealous that I’d managed to make such a crafty exit.

My own lyrics are usually about real people I’ve met, or around a story I’ve read or heard about, which then gets rather mangled into fiction as the song develops.

I don’t think Ian has ever actually met a sexual dominatrix like Debs Fletcher, but you’d have to ask him about that!

The opening song Before reminds of something from The Zombies album Odessey and Oracle…

JH: I love that album! Now you mention it, Before does have that Zombies feel about it. I hadn’t considered that until now. It’s my lyric which Robert set to music, so the beautiful structure of the song is all down to him.

I met Colin Blunstone [from The Zombies] when I was signed to CBS in ‘74/’75. He came to the launch concert I gave at London’s Purcell Room and sat next to me at the after-show lunch. I had to keep nipping myself that here was I, just down from sunny Ramsbottom, sitting next to one of the greatest pop vocalists ever whose recordings had filled my little transistor in my box room in Bury, listening to him telling me how much he loved my music!

Rod Argent from The Zombies played on your debut album, back in ’75, didn’t he?

JH: Yes, Rod played on Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner on Kid In A Big World  and also on the first unreleased (until 2004) version of Family Man, which was re-recorded at Apple when CBS rejected Tony Meehan’s production. I have great memories of Rod making faces like a naughty child in Abbey Road’s Studio 2 as he came up with ever more outrageous sound effects on his Moog for Guess… while Tony Meehan was jumping up and down at the control room window shouting “Yes! Yes!”.

One of my favourite songs on the new album is In The Light of Fires Burning. It’s a very nostalgic lyric, with references to early/mid ‘60s pop culture – Joe Meek/ Telstar, Pink Floyd, Gerry Goffin, Neil Sedaka, The Beatles…

I really like the imagery of the fairground  – it’s very atmospheric. Can you tell me more about the inspiration behind that song?

Was it inspired by listening to ’60s pop music as you were growing up?

JH: Ah – that’s one of my personal favourites on the album too. I was brought up in the ‘50s and ‘60s – by the age of nine or ten, I was a huge pop fan and I was surrounded by it on radio, TV and in the music papers and culture, generally.

I always saw the fairground as a kind of example of pop music of the late ‘50s, early ‘60s – all fun and lights and laughter and everyone having a great time with friends while their favourite pop songs blasted out into the evening air. It’s what Sedaka himself has called The Tra-La-La Days, which was what pop music generally felt like then.


fair new


By the mid-‘60s, things got much more serious and thoughtful and thought-provoking. Pop stars were no longer pin-ups in Jackie, they were people ‘with something to say’, and their views were often taken as gospel.

It became a kind of new belief system for ‘the youth of today’, Dylan was ‘a generation’s spokesman’, and with that new attitude, the lyrics of pop songs became much more than simply sad or happy tales of love lost and found. They turned into an inward way of viewing an ever-disturbing world, Vietnam, The Cold War, assassinations…

Drugs like LSD were getting many of the talented people around at that time out of what they found too sickening to dwell on. It all felt so positive in ‘67, but by ’69, it all started to go wrong, of course. Utopia did not exist after all.

New realities were being created through the medium of pop – or rock as it became. And with that new awareness of something more than falling in love with your best friend’s girl, and a growing interest in what could be achieved in recording studios sonically, came great records like Tomorrow Never Knows, See Emily Play, Purple Haze, God Only Knows and A Day In The Life.

For me, aged around 14 or 15, it was a terrific time to be a young record buyer. There was so much fabulous and fascinating stuff around it was a case of ‘what can I afford to spend my pocket money on this week?’.

The last part of the lyric for In The Light… tells of how The Beatles changed pop music forever, from playing All My Loving on Ed Sullivan to creating Sgt Pepper in just three years. Astonishing.

When I sent Ian the lyric, I knew he’d get into it and come up with something wonderful for the tune. His band Papernut Cambridge, which is basically Ian under another name, has a gorgeous mid-to-late ‘60s vibe about it.

I always think of Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd when I hear Papernut stuff – it resounds with all the stuff I heard on the radio in that glorious ‘66/’67 period in pop and popular culture.

I knew Ian would create a brilliant song from the lyric and when we recorded it and the guys came up with that stunning psychedelic ending in the studio, I was in seventh heaven! How perfect that was.



The first single from the new album is Intact and Smiling, which was written with Andy Lewis. It’s a great ’60s-style mod-soul-pop song. Are you a ’60s pop obsessive?

JH: Obsessive, no. Fan, yes. Because I grew up into my teens in that decade, then ‘60s pop music is part of my DNA.

But I was never a soul fan per se. I bought a lot of Tamla Motown records like Baby Love, Tracks of My Tears, I Was Made To Love Her, etc, and adore all of Marvin Gaye’s stuff, especially his ‘70s material like What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.

I saw Marvin twice in concert in the ‘70s and he was truly sensational. The Mod movement never touched me – far too butch and confrontational for fey old me!

I was more of a studying hippie around the age of 15, and became a fully-fledged hairy by 1970. My pop heroes in the ‘60s were Dusty, P.J. Proby, Scott Walker, Gene Pitney, Roy Orbison, Cilla, all the drama-pop artists. By the late ‘60s, I’d become infatuated by The Beatles, buying everything they’d done to date – every single and album I’d missed while drooling over Dusty and Sonny & Cher.

Once at art college I started buying records by, and going to see in concert, The Incredible String Band, Frank Zappa and Roy Harper – whose Stormcock album is still one of the greatest LPs ever recorded.

And I became a very belated Dylan fan, buying again every album I’d missed in the ‘60s. I’d raved about and bought Like A Rolling Stone and Positively 4th Street, but had never been fixated enough to buy his albums – until around late 1970).

The mod-soul influence on Intact & Smiling is all Andy’s, and I sent that lyric to him knowing he’d do something pop-soul with it, incorporating his own particular groove into the music. I loved singing it in the studio, it wasn’t a song I would ever have thought I’d sing, and I had a ball with such a fantastic backing track chugging along behind me. I didn’t however expect it to be the amazingly popular and catchy gem it has become!


The song Control Freak sounds like a nod to ‘70s glam-rock. Are you a control freak?

JH: Yes, more or less. I think that’s one of the reasons I began recording alone!

What has surprised me is how easy I’ve found it letting others take control of many of the aspects of this album. And because the recording sessions were so relaxed and also because I felt ‘in safe hands’ with the guys, I was happy to enjoy the team process when making the record.

The glam stomp thing of the track is down to Ian, who is quite the glam fan man. When Ian sent me his demo to my lyric, it reminded me of Bowie’s Jean Genie, so I decided to sing it with a faint circa ‘73 Aladdin Sane twang.

I actually wanted to re-do some of the vocals as I felt they were pretty rough in places, the double-tracking is very ‘out’ occasionally, but the boys all insisted it was ‘perfect’ and loved the out of phase double-tracking. ‘So authentically ‘70s.’

You can actually hear me right at the end of the track saying “Was that rough enough for you?”, directed at the control room. There was an unrecorded “Yes!” in reply.

Does it feel strange after having a period of keeping out of the limelight – when you were doing your own thing and releasing your own records – to be back working with a new band, co-writers and a new record label?

JH: I can’t say it feels ‘strange’ – I tend to respond to each situation as it comes. I’m quite adaptable as a person, and nothing ever truly surprises or shocks me.

I haven’t consciously kept out of the limelight – I think the limelight has had trouble finding me! Whoever’s operating that thing keeps missing me. ‘Hello! I’m over here!’ has been my mantra for quite some years.

Luckily for me, Robert and his Gare Du Nord compadre, Ralegh Long [English singer-songwriter] saw me waving in the distance and upped my profile considerably in 2013.

A musician friend of mine from way back, when I played him The Night Mail tracks, said “it isn’t better per se than what you’ve been doing by yourself in recent times, but this album will definitely take you to another level”, and that, certainly, the latter bit about ‘another level’, is true.

I can’t say what’s better or worse when it comes to my own recorded output. That’s up to whoever listens to my music to have an opinion.

Doing my own thing on my own label imprint (‘John Howard via AWAL/Kobalt’) for so long – since 2009 – meant I was in total control of what happened with it, who did the sleeve design, I handled all the arrangements and production, the title of each album, who mastered it, when it came out, what sort of promotion I’d do for it, etc. It was all down to me. So letting the reins slacken for this new album has been, well, actually rather relaxing. And I completely trust Tapete – they’re a great record label and they’re doing a wonderful job with the album. They have a fantastic roster of artists who we are now indirectly associated with as well.

It goes without saying, I wholly have faith in Robert, Andy and Ian who handled the production, mixing and mastering of The Night Mail album. My natural experience-created caution, when it comes to getting excited about anything I do, has meant I am weekly thrilled by what’s happening because of the album.

As I Was Saying


How easy was it to adjust to the process of writing, recording and playing with a new band?

 JH: I’ve worked with musicians on and off over the years – obviously in the ‘70s I always worked with other musicians. In fact, when I recorded two singles with Trevor Horn in the late ‘70s, I didn’t play an instrument at all. I just wrote and sang the songs and then left them to Trevor and his fellows Geoff Downes, Anne Dudley and Bruce Woolley to do the rest. I recorded with what became Buggles and Art of Noise before they were Buggles and Art of Noise!

My 2005 Cherry Red release, As I Was Saying, was recorded with bassist Phil King (ex-Lush, now with The Jesus & Mary Chain) and guitarist Andre Barreau (Robbie Williams, The Bootleg Beatles), and we did a few gigs together to promote the album at the time.

Since then I’ve recorded entirely on my own. Circumstances dictated that really, and it was easier in terms of having as much time as I wanted to get something right. I could pop down to my studio at three in the morning and do a percussion overdub which had come into my head – having no neighbours helps – and take as long as I like to finish an album – usually about a year, playing everything myself.

What was it like making the new record?

JH: Writing the songs and making the Night Mail record was uncannily easy. I wrote lyrics with Robert, Ian or Andy in mind, in terms of how I imagined each one would write the melody and the style of song. The boys sent me their lyrics separately to put them to music.

It was always fascinating wondering what they’d do with my lyrics and, I guess, vice versa on their parts, too. Then, once the songs were written and we’d all sent our demos to each other and been very happy with the resultant ten songs, I then got to work demoing all of the songs on piano at home, with a few backing vocal and harmony ideas in there for future reference.

I initially had the idea that whoever wrote the lyric would sing the song, but Robert was very keen that I be the singer in the band.

I had originally imagined the project with just a band name, not with my name at the front. But again, Robert felt that the album should have my name on it. I think it was also Robert who came up with the Night Mail band name, and, of course, he did the front sleeve cover artwork too.

By the time we got to the studios in Ramsgate (Big Jelly) in November last year, I knew the songs like the back of my hand – I’ve always been a detail preparer by nature – and though the boys hadn’t routined the songs in the same obsessive way I had been doing for months beforehand – they are all rather busier than I am these days – as soon as recording began, they all fell into place beautifully. It was as though we’d been playing these songs together for years.

The sessions were so happy and convivial, like four guys having a great time, doing what they love doing. It was a lovely few days. The guys then got together a week or so later and mixed the tracks, then Andy did a final mix, and Ian mastered the album. It was a real team effort. None of it had been difficult. It had all been something of a breeze – much to my relief.


John Howard & The Night Mail

There are rumours that you’ve been ‘living in exile’ in Spain? Is this true?

JH: It sounds so romantic, doesn’t it? ‘Living in exile’. But no, I wasn’t. My husband, Neil and I, decided to move to Spain in 2007, simply because we both felt that there was no professional reason to stay in the UK, much as we love the country and miss living in the UK every day.

It was mainly a financial decision to move here. Cost of living is much cheaper here – you get much more for your money with almost everything.

We’d had a large house in Pembrokeshire which we adored, bought for Neil’s parents to come and live with us in 2001, after I retired from working in the music business – which I’d done since the early ‘80s – and Neil had more or less retired from acting. Sadly Neil’s parents both died before they could move in, so we were rather rattling round in there.

Why were you lured out of Spain and tempted and intrigued by this latest project – The Night Mail?

JH: I’d come to a point in my career where the initial media excitement of the reissue of Kid In A Big World in 2003, and my ‘comeback’ to recording new material – which was greeted similarly to how The Night Mail album is being welcomed now – had died down.

I’d started off in 2004 playing some lovely gigs in great venues, like The Jermyn Street Theatre and Cecil Sharp House in London, but it had finally reached a point a couple of years later, where I was literally playing to eight people in clubs in Brighton and Chester.

I remember performing at The Tapestry open-air festival in 2006 and looking out at a field with about six people and a few bemused sheep looking back at me.

There was a sense that the 2004 rediscovery aura which had built up around me had evaporated to an “oh, he’s got yet another new album out now, has he?” attitude.

I’ve always been prolific when inspired, but it was actually beginning to work against me. One journalist was actually reported to me as saying, “the problem with John Howard is he brings out too much stuff, and the mystique simply disappears”.

My journalist and writer friend Rob Cochrane once told me, when I was musing over this apparent waning of interest in my music by 2006, “Your problem, John, is that you’re too happy, too sane and too un-fucked up to be of any interest to many music journalists. Get a drug habit which almost kills you and they’ll be all over you.”

It made me laugh anyway. I accepted it as a fact and decided to just carry on doing my own thing at my own pace, and basically thought ‘sod it if only a relatively few people want to hear it.’

I knew I had some really loyal fans who had stayed with me through thick and many thins and they are still there for me buying everything I bring out – God bless’ em.

But the media interest had completely disappeared by 2007, when my albums were getting no reviews at all.

The move to Spain also came at a fortuitous time, as in 2007 I coincidentally signed my Barefoot With Angels album to Spanish label Hanky Panky.

They organised two gigs for me in Bilbao and in Valencia but again, we had the same problem – getting enough people along to see me. Being a ‘legendary songwriter from the 1970s’ and ‘cult artist’, just two of the tags I’ve been labelled with over the last few years, didn’t, it seemed, mean many people wanted to pay good money to see me perform.

My fanbase, while extremely loyal, is spread thinly around the world, so expecting large turnouts at single venues with very little pre-promotion was frankly pie-in-the-sky by that time. And this was, of course, all before the joys of Twitter and Facebook, which has helped artists like me publicise our gigs much more widely enormously.


You Shall Go To The Ball



It was a chance reading in 2012 of an interview with songwriter Ralegh Long in the online magazine Neon Filler, where he mentioned me and Bill Fay as two of his greatest songwriting influences, which persuaded me to send the magazine a copy of my then new album, You Shall Go To The Ball – a studio re-approaching of some of my 1970s songs from Technicolour Biography, the unreleased (until 2004) follow-up to Kid In A Big World.

Joe Lepper, the editor, not only reviewed the album but also did a fabulous write-up of my music and career up to that point. It was the biggest write-up I’d had for years.

He also suggested I send a copy of You Shall Go To The Ball to Robert Rotifer, which I did.

Robert emailed back to say how much he loved the album and had actually been alerted to my music a couple of years earlier by [songwriter] Darren Hayman, who had attended my 2004 Jermyn Street Theatre show.

Robert interviewed me for his German radio programme on FM4 and during it he asked me if there was a possibility that I might go back to the UK to do some gigs.

I said if the venue was right and the gig was well-organised I would consider it. That was when the Rotifer Mission Machine really got into gear!

He and Ralegh asked me if I fancied playing a support slot at Ralegh’s Servant Jazz Quarters gig in 2013, which I did and it was a blast, so many people came along, the atmosphere was fantastic and it even spawned a live album in 2014, Live At The Servant Jazz Quarters. Robert had very cleverly manoeuvred the situation the previous few months into getting me a band for the gig – beginning by asking if I minded him accompanying me on a couple of numbers and then suggesting Ian as drummer and Andy as bassist for the evening. Unbeknownst to me, Andy had been a fan of Kid In A Big World for years, playing tracks like Spellbound  on his DJ nights.


kid in a big world


The publicity the gig received from various magazines like The Quietus, and a general buzz about it, generated by Robert, Ralegh and Ian’s label Gare Du Nord, resulted in my then current new studio album, Storeys becoming my most successful for years – even getting reviewed!

Robert’s plan B then sprang into action – he, along with Ian and Andy, wanted to record an album with me, but how to do it while I was living in Spain? There was the rub.

At first we mulled over maybe me recording piano and vocal tracks here in my home studio, then the guys overdubbing backings onto those in the UK. I wasn’t keen on that idea, there’s never a really cohesive sound to projects like that.

I eventually came up with the idea of the four of us writing songs together and really approaching a new album together as a band project. The guys loved that idea, and once we got into gear for that Robert came across Big Jelly Studios in Ramsgate, which he felt would be the perfect location to record the songs together.

He tied a UK visit by me for the recording sessions into another Servant Jazz Quarters gig, which meant it all made sense on many levels.

Who are your favourite songwriters and artists? What are you currently listening to – old and new artists?

JH: My ‘60s and early ‘70s musical heroes I’ve already covered earlier. Though in songwriting terms people like Randy Newman and Bacharach & David knock me out everytime I hear one of their songs.

Jimmy Webb is up there as a genius I wholly admire and adore and Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell are simply astonishing.

I loved early Gilbert O’Sullivan, Brian Wilson’s ‘60s creations take my breath away and Leonard Cohen and Bill Fay are brilliant to listen to still.

I was a big fan of Bolan in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, bought all his albums from My People Were Fair… to Slider. After that he got very samey and safe and just kept repeating the same ‘boogie riff’, which got very boring and creatively unchallenged.

I adored Bowie up to Low – that album was totally incredible, as was everything which went before. I still go back to Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory, Young Americans and Low when I want my fix of D.B.

I covered his tour de force, The Bewlay Brothers, for my 2007 EP of the same name, and it’s now one of my most downloaded tracks to date.

In the ‘80s I got into Prince’s music in a big way – I still love his Purple Rain period and I still enjoy some Prefab Sprout stuff, though the ‘80s Prophet synths all over their tracks make it a little difficult to listen to for me now.

k.d. lang is a genius, I have all her albums. She sings like Karen Carpenter did, hits it right in the middle of the note every time. Stunning.

One of my pet hates in the ‘80s was the way many singers tended to sing ‘sharp’, above the note. Boy George did it often and Tony Hadley did it most of the time – it was a weird symptom of singing in that decidedly odd decade.

Lennon often sang under the note, just under it, which is a lovely thing to hear. Above the note, however little, hurts my ears.

I enjoyed Blur in the ‘90s and I think Damon Albarn is a huge talent. But I loathed Oasis, that “we’re as big as The Beatles” rubbish the Gallaghers spouted in interviews used to leave me shouting at my music mags!

My problem with nearly all pop music now is the way it’s recorded. I absolutely revile auto-tuning, it makes every singer sound like a computer. All their natural vocal sound is removed, replaced by an always in-tune digital horror.

I have friends who can’t hear it and think I’m going bonkers bringing it up everytime they play me a new record they’re in love with.

And the way now that everything is recorded at the same level, loudly, with no light and shade in the productions, even what begin as acoustic-sounding tracks turn into auto-tuned platters from hell. Every nuance is destroyed by this need to shout at us in perfect tune.

I had a go at listening to Radio 1 a few months ago, which I hadn’t done for years. I had to turn it off after three records and felt as if someone had punched me in the face. I had been sonically abused, dear!

I see young new artists performing at some live event on TV, think, ‘they’re good’, then listen to their stuff on iTunes to see if I want to buy it and am immediately hit with a pointlessly auto-tuned voice. Very sad. I run back to Revolver and bask in the light of real talent being recorded with sensitivity, musicality and balance. And human-ness. What’s wrong with occasional vocal flaws? They’re what make a great record stand out from the crowd. Why do record companies insist on getting their artists to shout so perfectly at us? It’s very unpleasant and should be banned, darling.

On the plus side of ‘new music’, it won’t surprise you to hear that I really love Robert Rotifer’s work – he writes great songs with such a tremendous punch about them.



Andy Lewis comes up with some wonderful ‘60s mod-soul ‘classics that should have been’ and Ian Button’s Papernut Cambridge records are regular spins here at home.

Ralegh Long has a big future ahead of him, his new album Hoverance is a tour de force in fragility set to gorgeous melodies, like curtains blowing in a cool breeze. I also think Alex Highton is an enormous talent. His first two albums are standouts for me.

It’s so difficult though now to get an album by a new artist away, without that big record company ‘branding’ thing that goes on. It’s all so corporate now. Everything has to have a ‘sound’ to succeed in the mainstream, everything is a soap powder which washes all the ‘dirt’ away. I love a bit of dirt. I am a perfectionist in the studio, but I always try to maintain a human quality to my recordings, which all have a kind of ‘60s vibe about them.

Most of what I play on my albums is acoustic and recorded in real time, layering as I go through the song each time, no spinning in. Done ‘the old way’. It means I retain a sense of naturalness, which if any big label or producer got their hands on it would be turned to auto-tuned digital mush in no time.

But there is no chance that any big label or producer would have the slightest interest in me, so I’m safe!

Do you have plans to make another record with your current collaborators?

JH: Oh, I hope so! I’d love to make another one with the boys. In fact, if this one does OK, we’re contracted to do three albums for Tapete.

So, Night Mail fans, buy this one and we’ll get to do another!


To read the second part of my interview with John Howard, in which he talks about about being ‘rediscovered’, his childhood, how being openly-gay affected his pop career, and his plans for the rest of the year and beyond, click here


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

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

Facebook – click here

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