What time are you on?
HOWE: I'm on borrowed time. I don't know what time zone I'm in. It feels suspiciously normal at this point.
What enticed a Tucson man to frolic and record in the middle of an Ottawa winter?
HOWE: Here's the nutshell story. There were a lot of coincidences that led me on this path. I've found that the amount of coincidences that occur is a good indication that you're going in the right direction. I was invited to do the Bluesfest in Ottawa a couple of years ago. That in itself didn't make any sense to me cuz I don't make blues records, but I just figured Canada knows what it's doing. The first day was normal enough. A slight coincidence occurred as only two acts were on the stage that day: me and Nina Nastasia, whose music was the last thing I was listening to before I got on the airplane. The next day they had me at the First Baptist Church with Jim Bryson. It was great getting to meet Jim. Our sets were surrounded by gospel choirs - which didn't make any sense to me. Nothing made sense but it was all happening pretty good. I went to the church early to find a piano. Before I left the first gospel choir took the stage to go over things and thatŐs when I was first riveted. I had never witnessed a gospel choir live like that. The sound, that surge, all those voices - it just had me wrapped up. I stayed there all day long taking it all in. There were three of 'em that day: one with eight, one with twelve and one with thirty-five members. It was insane. It was overwhelming. It made me dizzy. After it was all over I went back to the hotel room, but I couldn't shake it. Something inside told me to head back, even though I knew it was over for the day. I headed over anyway, and there had just been a beautiful thunderstorm - another good sign. When I got there, there was one more unannounced set taking place. I walked into the middle of it and I couldn't believe the sensation. Yeah! When that was over I talked with the church director and he opened the door for possibilities when I asked him if he thought it was even possible if I could make some music with that sound - not religious songs, just meshing with the mess I usually make. That's when he said "sure, if you keep it positive". So that was my challenge, actually more like a decree, or a swinging door that was left open. At that time I also met a woman folksinger named Susan Dole who I saw at the Pinetop set earlier, and met her again at Jim Bryson's full band set that night. She was extremely encouraging about coming back up here to record. I sat in with Jim Bryson that night and met Dave Draves - whom apparently I had met before in my house when he traveled with Julie Doiron, coming through Arizona, years ago. So it was all becoming very familiar. When I went back home Susan kept emailing me, saying that Dave's got a studio, Jim has a friend from high school who has a gospel choir - she was the link keeping the idea alive. Finally in December of 2003, in literally a leap of faith, I just got on a plane to come up here, not knowing what to expect, not having anything set up. On the way up, I got so excited, I wrote three songs on the airplane. Dave met me, took me to his studio which I fell in love with: a dreamlike 16-track analogue two inch tape situation he had built in his backyard. It was just perfect. There in the studio was a fella named Jeremy Gara who was finishing up some songs on his session, playing guitar. Dave pulled me aside and said "you know, if you need a drummer, Jeremy plays drums". Since he was playing guitar at the time, that seemed to make perfect sense to me. So Jeremy and I went in there the next day, and we immediately hit it off at the moment of impact. Susan Odle opened a show for me and Fred Guignion was playing with her, so I invited him to come down and play slide, and then Jim Bryson of course, and that was pretty much the band. I phoned Steve Johnson, the director of the Voices Of Praise choir, to see if he wanted to take a chance on this thing. When they came in and started singing I realized that they were the last choir that I had seen that night when I went back to the church. That's the short version.
I thought maybe you'd found religion in Ottawa and had to get back to the pulpit.
HOWE: I found something up here, it's definitely a spirit. The sounds are held sacred, there's true spirit in them. There's so much hope in all those voices, and so much life. The vibrations, the waves, the overtones - I think that even before we are born, when we're in the belly before we come out of the womb, the ears have developed. It's our first sensation. We get the rhythm of the heart and I think that's where we get our rhythm. The rush of the white noise of the blood and the murmur of mom's voice - this lasts for so many months in early development and then you come out and you hear your own voice. There's a connection to music, to sound.
Have you always had that connection?
HOWE: I think everybody does, but not everybody acknowledges it.
Were you one of those kids running around banging on pianos or anything you could find?
HOWE: No, I came from a non-music background. I'd hear it in my head but I didn't have the facility to play it on my own. That took some work. It didn't come easy.
So there wasn't a magical transformation, a musical euphoria?
HOWE: I wish. When you play music, it's a form of reinvention. It takes you out of this world. Whatever your inspiration to leave this world, whether it's exultation or troubles, or inabilities. You come up with this positive thing to take yourself away, or tap into something else. Then if you wanna play with somebody else you have to learn cover songs, and when nobody recognizes those cover songs, your last chance is to make up your own song and that's how it started.
It seems like you've been recording forever. How soon after you started playing did you release material?
HOWE: There was a PBS station in Pennsylvania .... I was born in Pennsylvania, and we were wiped out in 1972 by a big old flood from a hurricane that swelled the rivers. The water came six feet over the roof of our house, and smashed everything including the piano. Once that piano was gone I really wanted to play it - that old reverse psychology. I tried to come up with some songs a couple of years later. At that point I had already started going to Arizona in the summers cuz my dad lived out there. It was in '75 I think, this PBS station allowed folks to come in and record for a couple of hours on a 4-track, for free. You had to come up with twenty minutes of material that they would play on the air on this weekly show. That was me jumping into the fire, cuz I didn't know what I was doing, and I had too many ideas for 4-track, and I didn't know what could and couldn't be done. I expected everyone to learn songs right away and that was a complete disaster. I would write these rock operas, which is really funny, and some country songs. And I still play one or two of those songs.
Oh yeah, which ones?
HOWE: There's one called "Steadfast" which deals with the flood and other things going on with the planet - which are coming true! That just goes to serve the notion that every song is true. If you sing about anything, sooner or later it'll eventually happen.
So you predicted climate change?
HOWE: I didn't predict anything. I was just making stuff up. By '76 I had completely moved to Arizona. Going to Arizona for summers is like coming up here for winters. If you feel good with that, you're good to move in - you've been initiated. There I met a fella who became a best friend, an important musical influence, and truly a brother to me. Born in East Berlin, he was snuck out as a baby, grew up in Chicago and we both discovered Arizona in '72, but didn't meet until '76. He played slide guitar, partial to the Dobro because he was half Czech - it was a Czech family that invented the guitar, the Dobry brothers (note; that translates to the Good brothers - perhaps another sign of future Canuck collaboration recordings). His name was Rainer Ptacek.
HOWE: Yeah! Are you Czech?
HOWE: That's lovely. They make the best folks. He had the best smile, the biggest hands, blue eyes, played a wealth of music. Rainer went on to make all these wonderful records that were only licensed in Europe. Once he started making babies with my other best friend in town, he didn't tap into the notion of touring or worrying about the music. He worked in a guitar shop, making sure they had a steady income, then he would make these records on the sly. It was the best , best music I had ever heard. Him and I got together and started a band in '79, that became Giant Sand.
interrogator and photo snapper: john sekerka
(steal only with consent ... and candy)
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