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Michael Howard: Archetypes Devolve Into Sound

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Photo by Little Green Eye Media

Words by Teeka Ballas
Photos by Little Green Eye Media
Published in Anchorage Press, March 19, 2015

 

Sincere and earnest, gentle and familiar, Michael Howard’s speaking voice sounds a lot like how he sings: it is full of quarter notes, rests and relaxed vibrato. And though he doesn’t sing with gravel or brusque masculine bravado, his vocals cannot be dismissed as simply being pretty; they are bright with character and full of frontal tone, and are excellently captured on his sophomore release, The Martyr and the Magician.

One of the marvels of this album is its economy of sound. With precision and delicacy, Howard turns soil, levels mountains and burns houses down without ever condescending or alienating the listener. Each song is an invitation to engage in the triumphs of his efficacy.

The opening track, “Better Than the Last” is the emotional equivalent of getting asked to your first dance. It makes your heart leap, pirouette and sometimes even get stuck in your throat. But not every track is as lovingly hopeful—some beg remorse, while others vent and contemplatively rage.

“There’s a book or two about the archetypes of personal development, and the martyr and the magician are two of those archetypes,” says Howard, explaining the album’s overarching theme. “I know it’s kind of intense, but I think I’ve worked through some things in these songs.” By which he means both emotionally and musically.

Each song on the album brandishes its own identity of fondled guitar strings: a lackadaisical strum, a binding of chords, a variety of picking styles. Some of the tracks on the album have a rambler picking style that is reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s early ventures into folk blues, while others carry the melodic strumming style of Sfjan Stevens, and the contemplative plucking of Dave Von Ronk. They are a representation of Howard’s investigation into his style and craft, but rather than coming across as experimental or as a discordant amalgamation of key signatures and rhythms, his songs are a comprehensive, well-woven quilt.

Water is a recurring character on Martyr. It is at once a lover, a child, a villain, a martyr, a fissure, a bind.

Born and raised in Anchorage, Howard was brought up in the mega Baptist Temple under the leadership of Dr. Jerry Prevo.

“I was involved in everything,” says Howard. “I was in worship band all through high school, choir, Christmas plays… the whole thing.”

This changed, when at 18 Howard moved out of his parents’ house and a year later moved to Portland, Oregon.

“That was around the time I started to see what was going on in the rest of the world. A social awareness was happening for me,” says Howard, now 31. “I was looking around one day and was like, ‘This shit doesn’t make sense, man!’ There was this white, xenophobic, racist, homophobic agenda shrouded in these conservative values that I had been brainwashed at birth to be a part of, and I was totally upset, completely upset.”

This explains some of the angst that runs through Martyr; like a river, it bends and flows and swiftly delivers without apology. “Town With No River” is an excellent example. Although inspired by the first line in a Richard Hugo poem, and initially intended as an experiment in writing in the style of old folk spirituals, it exposes cultural misery and contemplation of blame through religious custody by spewing lines like, There’s a space under Jordan where the wretched are saved; How sweet the sound of amazing grace; Like John and the Baptists found hope in his name; This whole town came to Jesus, when we swam in the waves.”

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Although he wasn’t really looking for anything to fill it, Howard says there was a bit of a void where religion had been when he left the fold. Since then, he has found a little Buddhism and meditation to replace it, but ultimately, music is what he finds most fulfilling in his life, the one thing that’s been consistently there since he was a child. In addition to his church music days, growing up he played with a number of bands that pushed the other extreme.

“Yeah, what you don’t know about me is that I’m kinda hard core!” Howard laughs sardonically. “I used to play in a bunch of punk rock bands in Anchorage—a whole crop of kids that all moved to Portland … It was this phase that had lots of screaming, technical guitar playing and jumping around on stage.”

Howard attended Portland State University, earned a degree in community development, and stopped playing music for a while. He returned to Anchorage and says he became “Michael Howard Community Developer, Council President, Guy with a Jobby Job” for a few years.

“That cycle ended. I quit my job, got divorced, and picked up my guitar again. That was about three years ago.”  Howard then recorded his first solo album, Caribou and the Wolf on his laptop and went on tour with local band Super Saturated Sugar Strings in the summer of 2012.

Howard’s solo ventures are a long way from the hair bristling rowdiness of punk rock shows, but it should be noted that his latest album isn’t just one guy and his guitar. Martyr features eight of Anchorage’s most fierce players, including James Glaves, Evan Phillips, Marty Severin, Kevin Worrell and Eve Van Dommelen.

Glaves produced the eight tracks recorded at Arkansas Studios in Anchorage. These tracks are full of excellent talent that tastefully accent and blend organic textures into Howard’s songs.

The first three tracks, however, were produced by Jacob Winik at Tiny Telephone Studios in San Francisco. The primary difference that sets these songs apart from the others is that they were recorded in analog format—which for those who don’t recall music’s glory days, means they were recorded to tape, not directly into a computer.  The sounds are not comprised of ones and zeros, and the middle tones aren’t absent. There is a depth of quality in these songs that is sadly missing on the rest of the album. Remarkably, however, the mastering of the final product has made the melding of the two different recordings nearly seamless.

Howard says he already has a whole new batch of songs he’s anxious to record soon—hopefully in analog. He is currently touring across the country playing in bars and cafes and plans to return to Anchorage in early May.

“Things are really great in Alaska,” says Howard. “It’s an awesome time to be up there as a musician … It’s a good place for me to be.”

Howard, who was among the 10 regional (AK, IO, CA, WA, OR, MN) finalists for the 2014 Mountain Stage Radio Show New Song competition, says he hopes to start hitting the festival circuit in the next year or so, and sees himself still touring on a fulltime basis, years from now, with a dozen albums under his belt.

He laughs giddily as he talks about his future in music. “I have a very clear memory of our neighbor across the road when I was a kid talking with me and my parents, and saying to me, ‘When you gonna quit playing music and get with it, Michael?’ And now I’m like, ‘Pshhh. Whatever!’”

Howard Album Cover

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