NICK HOWARD & THE STRANGE BUT REWARDING JOURNEY OF SONG
By James Campion
For the past hour I have listened to Nick Howard tell his story, and it is whiz bang of a tale; coming to New York City as a cheeky 22 year-old musician from Brighton, England with literally nothing but a song and a dream. Settled in a back booth at Pete’s Tavern, the 32 year-old /songwriter relives a decade filled with playing clubs and pick-up gigs here and there around town, waiting tables after long days in some dead-end office dirge, recalling his trips back across the pond to swing around Europe making a name for himself. Releasing EP’s and eventually three albums of original material ranging from folk to soft rock to stabs at pop, getting some of his songs on TV shows like Beverly Hills 90210, before an uber-weird turn of events in 2010 landed him on a German version of The Voice (to which he had six weeks to sort of kind of learn the language). And, don’t you know, he goes and wins the damn thing. It earns him a record deal and a car (which he sells to make another record), he blows up with a #1 single that he wrote about Hurricane Sandy called “Unbreakable”, and things start moving for him in Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Then…well, he comes back here and goes back to opening for other acts.
“After winning The Voice, I felt a bit ridiculous,” quips Howard, fully embracing the bizarre details of his recent past. “You’re playing little clubs in downtown New York for like six years and then you’re suddenly making appearances in shopping malls and headlining a tour with all the other contestants. But I’ll tell you, I was playing to a couple hundred people a show before The Voice, and then over a thousand afterwards.”
He laughs at the memory, sipping tea in that disarmingly cordial, British kind of Paul McCartney way. But then he suddenly grows quiet. After a moment of contemplation, he says with some measure of seriousness, “I wouldn’t say this year is my last chance to make a mark in the U.S., but it’s definitely my best chance.” It is almost as if everything Howard has told me leads up to what he describes as the next crucial step to his incredible story; an upcoming American tour.
And maybe “almost” is understating it a little.
“Most people that have seen me play in the last year would have seen me play solo, so the biggest difference is I am going to have my band. I only have 25 to 30 minutes as an opener to showcase Nick Howard, and now I’ll have an hour. Hopefully those people that are coming have listened to my music and can connect with the songs. It’s definitely going to be another side of me in a more dynamic, musical experience. Now people are finally going to get to hear and see what I’m about.”
This is Nick Howard on the precipice of something big. All that stuff about sleeping on sofas and busing tables and winning German cars, all of it leads to this tour. It is the culmination of our blithely tossing around ten years of his life, learning to work as a composer and plying his trade with and without bands. It all comes down to April 9 when he will, of course, kick the whole thing off at the Rockwood Music Hall in his adopted town.
“The Rockwood is a critical songwriter spot,” Howard effuses, beginning to percolate with excitement over the prospect of kicking off the tour of his life in this little Lower East Side room of maybe 150 people; all eyes upon him, all of them knowing this is an audition of sorts, a precursor for what is to come; an auspicious milieu for someone clutching at the next rung of success.
“I look at the states like I looked at Europe in 2010, 2011,” says Howard. “For me, it’s a blank canvas and I want to build something the way I built it in Europe, pre-Voice, and that is this tour. It’s building blocks; maybe do some radio campaigning and all the rest of it, but for me its touring and live performing, that’s the biggest thing, because without the fans you really have nothing going on, you know? I don’t care who you are, if you don’t have fans you go away very, very quickly. Having toured with Eric (Hutchinson) and Tyrone (Wells) last year, tickets are selling pretty well. So we are off to a good start and it’s going to be about padding that.”
“I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”
I decided to meet up with Howard after seeing his solo performance opening for the aforementioned pop songsmith, Eric Hutchinson last October at the Highline Ballroom. It was easy to hear right away how these infectious songs could be bound for bigger productions, as a more than distracting sign pronouncing NICK in lights hung above him. It was an interesting dichotomy of humble opening act trying to win hearts and minds playing his songs in the most direct way possible while unabashedly being heralded by this bombastic exclamation.
One particular number stood out, a shamelessly transparent love song with a rousing refrain called “Super Love” from his latest album, Living In Stereo. The room seemed to come alive when he hit the chorus and belted to the rafters as open an expression of raw emotion as one could hope to hear in those environs. But the crowd ate it up, proving that Howard is indeed beginning to reach his core audience; those who ignore the shackles of cool irony for the naked joy of song for song’s sake.
“The love song is the one thing that everyone in the world understands and you don’t even need to understand the language,” says Howard, proudly. “I was singing in European countries where people have broken English and they still know what I am singing about because love is beyond words. ‘Super Love’ is just that. It wrote itself. I wrote it with a friend of mine in L.A. (Justin Gray, whose resume includes working with Mariah Carey, John Legend, David Bisbal, Luis Fonsi, Joss Stone, and Amy Winehouse), and it didn’t take us very long. You just go for it, you write a love song. I am not one who is fazed by lyrics being cheesy. I don’t care about that.”
When pressed about toeing the invisible musical line of being openly expressive and professionally manipulative, Howard is defiant. “I mean the song is called ‘Super Love’,” he laughs. “I remember when we made it obvious that this song is not going to be like Megadeth, and I loved that and I embraced it. I think people want to hear that stuff. I’ve had people who have emailed me having heard that song and they have played it as their first dance at their wedding or walking down the aisle and that justifies it, ya know? If someone can’t express how they feel about someone, at least through a song they might be able to. I’m all about just going for it with love songs. Just tell it how it is.”
And telling it ‘how it is’ translates to how Howard prefers to connect to this growing audience.
“I like presenting my songs both ways,” he says, ordering up another tea. “I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band. You can do so many more things with a full band that you can’t do solo and vice versa, so I think a nice healthy balance of the two is the best and that’s kind of what I try to do.”
“I really like the intimacy of the solo show where you can talk about what you are singing about in the lyrics and you really have people’s attention, but I also love rocking out with a full band.
Howard gets fidgety when he talks about performing. It is painfully obvious this has been his sanctuary through good times and bad; the stage – his comfort zone, where he can do what he loves, what he has always loved, sharing his talents with people.
“I was really, really young when I got a video of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and I just watched it until the VHS ran out,” recalls Howard, as if it was happening for the first time. “It was the entertainment thing that really struck me, the effect you can have on other people just from singing and dancing. Then I started playing guitar at seven when I heard The Beatles and then when I was a teenager I was lucky enough to be in the UK when Brit Pop came about, Oasis and Blur, these great bands. That’s when I started writing and never stopped.”
Howard embraces songwriting as much as the showmanship bug he encountered at age seven. He composes on guitar and what he derisively calls “songwriter piano”, and his methods vary from working off clever titles that pop into his head or the gathering of random melodies that he snatches from the either and blathers into a mobile recorder. He’s recently picked up the discipline of co-writing, which he admits allows him to get out of his head and share experiences that bring to light more universal themes.
“I find it easier if someone says, ‘Write a song about this today.’ Okay, so now I have something I have to focus on; it has to be about this subject,” explains Howard. “So I try and do that to myself sometimes. I’ll say, ‘Nick, write a song about this today.’ If I just sit there and try to see what the song is than that can work…but it can take a long time. You might spend two years writing a song to see what it’s about. I heard Chris Martin say he has no idea what ‘Yellow’ is about and it’s Coldplay’s biggest hit! Yet he has no idea what the meaning of it is. Sometimes songs are just a reflection of your subconscious or whatever it is.”
Howard’s anxious enthusiasm to bust out in the U.S. is amplified by the fact that he is an independent artist, as are so many of the new and quite frankly established ones nowadays; the record label route becoming less and less an imperative and more and more hampering. “I went through a year on a big label and I played maybe 150 concerts and they didn’t come to one of them,” he sighs. “How can you sell a product that you have never seen?”
And there is the always-enticing creative control allowed by technology and democratized distribution channels. “I think if you can create something by yourself you are in such a better space than just signing to a major label, then it’s always yours,” Howard says with vigor. “With a major label, you’re giving away a lot for a small chance at success. At that point it doesn’t really belong to you anyway. If I want to go play a show tomorrow in Germany, then I can book that in a second. If I want to record a song on ITunes, I can do that in a day. The goal for me for so long was to get on a label, on Sony or Warner. I got there and I was like; ‘Are you listening to me?’ They didn’t even know me.”
Howard has since incorporated (Satellite Music) and runs his own label, which he describes as fully functional, from hiring studio musicians, choosing touring bands, public relations, you name it. And it all culminates – performance, business and music – on his first U.S. headlining tour.
For all intents and purposes these career-defining concerts will feature music from 2014’s Living In Stereo, by his own admission his first collection of pure pop songs that range from hummable ditties, go-for-it ballads, and genre-shifting dancables, all of it acting as a playground for his impeccably emotive vocals. Although deep down Howard considers himself a singer/songwriter in the traditional sense, and his previous work reflects this, the new material is a concerted effort to combine his love of performance with the music. “I was actually thinking about the live show when I wrote and recorded these songs,” he says. “I was trying to make an album that can be a show.”
This makes sense, since Living In Stereo unfurls as if a Nick Howard concert libretto, moving listeners around his many affections for different genres, from his obvious comfortable zone in the romantic ballad “No Ordinary Angel”, the new single, to the upbeat showstopper “Dancing As One” or the playful, “Life Is Great (& I Love Everyone)”and the oddly funk-laden “Laser Beam”, and the aforementioned crowd-boosting “Super Love”. It also effectively reveals Howard’s penchant to take somber themes with stinging lyrics and place them in a toe-tapping whistler like “You Can’t Break A Broken Heart”.
“I like writing like that because I always think that songwriting is often trying to make something good out of something bad; trying to turn a bad situation into something good,” says Howard. “I think by doing that you can actually deal with something easier by putting a positive spin or flair. So yeah, ‘Can’t Be Friends’ is about having to un-friend your ex on Facebook and stop them from stalking, but it’s got this fun little cowboy, Nashville thing going on behind it. It’s so silly that you kind of have to address that with music. So it’s got this sort of whistling melody in it, which again is a sad idea that your heart’s broken, but by putting a little whistle in there and just making it kind of funny it makes the whole idea of it easier to deal with. I think that is what song writing is, therapy. So you can achieve the role of therapy with music, even if the lyrics are really dark.”
Howard gives you the whole package, musically and lyrically. Watching him play his unapologetically effusive songs, it’s obvious he cannot hold back, and his appreciation for what the audience expects from him, his relentless pursuit of song as a connecting lifeline between artist and listener, is palpable in the performance. The release of Live in Stereo, a strong representation of his recent European swing, is a fine example of what you can expect when you see him play. Less live album than celebration of fan and performer, it underlines a man and his music perfectly.
But trust me, if you catch Nick Howard on this tour, and you surely should, leave the ironic cool at home and bring the whistling, sing-song, silly part of yourself and just let it go.
After all, this is how he’s completed the journey from that 22 year-old wide-eyed dreamer to the cusp of international stardom; one song at a time.