The solitary genius of Alfred Howard
On a quest to write 100 songs in a year, the San Diego musician redefines what it means to work collaboratively
It’s difficult to listen to Alfred Howard’s “I Love America” without getting chills.
It’s one of those rare poems that opens you up and scrambles your insides before settling in next to your heart, where it will reside forever. It’s seven minutes of the prolific San Diego musician spitting out passion, love, fury and awe. There’s no instrumentation, just Howard’s raw voice.
But “I Love America” is not just a hell of a performance—it’s an essential celebration/condemnation of the most powerful country in the world. The poem addresses the glaring injustices that permeate this country while acknowledging its beauty, and trying to reconcile the two. This America is natural splendor and beauty. It’s the music of Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin and the poetry of Gil Scott-Heron. It’s a burrito from Pokez and a blissful drive up the PCH. But it’s also kids in cages, systematic racism, police brutality and evil.
So profound is “I Love America” that it easily stands alongside the likes of James Baldwin’s “The American Dream and the American Negro,” Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” and Kimberly Jones’s “How Can We Win” in terms of blistering critiques. It’s no wonder the nonprofit Playing For Change tapped him to perform it for their “Peace Through Music” virtual event (in a slot between Gary Clark Jr. and Run the Jewels, no less).
And all this from a guy who prefers to be behind the scenes.
“I hate performing so much that if I'm doing spoken word, I'm doing it because I have to,” Howard says. “I'd be good to never do spoken word again in my life. That would be absolutely fine.”
This is a little strange to hear, especially considering that Alfred who—before the pandemic—played in five bands, was writing songs for eight, and co-founded the Redwoods Music collective. If you’ve been to any show in San Diego, or heard any music produced here, there’s a good chance that Howard had a hand in it. Yet, according to him, the lockdown was a blessing in disguise.
“My priorities were kind of shifting,” Howard says. “There was a point where I was trying to watch a Golden State Warriors game at a Casbah show. I had the game on my phone and I set it up behind some percussion while I was on stage. And I was like, wait, that's not fair to the person who paid to come see a performance you know? It was also indicative of the energy I had to offer.”
But instead of starting the cumbersome and emotional process of pulling away from stage life, the pandemic took care of it for him.
“I equate it to: I was in this band The Heavy Guilt,” Howard says. “We had a drummer named Jenny and she always had to go to the bathroom. Always, no matter what. And we had these long road trips, and I would never want to stop the momentum of the van, so I just waited it out. Of course, I always had to pee too. I knew that if I just waited long enough, Jenny would say something, and then I'd be like, ‘Ah man, really? All right.’ And then I’d run to the bathroom as fast as possible.
“COVID 19 is my Jenny,” Howard says.
For the first month of lockdown, Howard took it easy. He didn’t do anything related to music. He caught up on movies. He read. He napped.
But the itch to write came creeping back in, and Howard—inspired by some of the home recordings that were popping up on social media—challenged himself to write a song every day, which he then scaled back to two songs per week at the behest of a concerned friend.
“I was gonna do a song a day until my friend Ellis Bryant told me that I was like a stark raving lunatic. He said, ‘You will exhaust everyone who's listening to you, and you will exhaust yourself’ And I was real defiant and indignant, but then I thought about it for like seven minutes and I was like, oh man, Ellis just saved my life.”
So, with a revamped goal of writing 100 songs in a year, Howard enlisted musicians (including his Redwoods players), producers and other collaborators to help with Alfred Howard Writes, an immersive online project showcasing music, stories, art and poetry. Having released more than 60 songs since June, Howard is well on his way to meet his 100-song goal.
As one might expect, there’s an immediacy to a project like this that couldn’t be captured through long-gestating work, and journeying through Alfred Howard Writes is like getting a play-by-play of America over the past year. Of course, not everysong is about the tumult and conflict that has ravaged our country, but taken as a whole, the project feels like an invaluable history lesson. Only a year like 2020 could produce a work of art as incendiary as “I Love America,” for example.
And unlike a lot of music that’s been released during the pandemic, these aren’t your typical stripped-down, singing-into-your-phone type arrangements. Every song on Alfred Howard Writes sounds lush, often featuring a full band arrangement where individual performers recorded their parts remotely to a click track.
“There is a magic to this kind of collaboration, even though it's not the same as everybody in a room playing together,” Howard says. “But there's something to it. All these cats who've never met each other, making music together. It's great. And the point is some of it probably wouldn't work in a room, you know? Like different personalities and stuff. You never know.”
But perhaps the most striking artistic partnership is the one between Alfred and his mom, Marian Howard, who paints original watercolors that accompany every song.
Like the music, her art is indelible—simultaneously vibrant and elegant. The paintings are so soothing that it makes scrolling through Alfred Howard Writes’ Bandcamp feel like ASMR for the eyes.
When asked what it’s like collaborating with his mom, Alfred refers back to a previous project they did together.
“I remember we did this other project together once for a record I put out,” he says. “I brought her this Stanley Donwood, who does all of Radiohead’s art. I love their artwork, so I found a bunch of his paintings outside of the Radiohead stuff. I was like, ‘Hey, this is the vibe I kind of want to go for.’ And she's like, ‘I'm not gonna do that.’ Matter of fact. "’I'm gonna do what I'm going to do. And if you like it fine. And if not, get someone else.’”
Howard pauses, and laughs. “Okay!” he says, as if it was even a choice.
And no doubt it was this unique partnership that eventually landed them an interview on The Kelly Clarkson show, where they charmed the hell out of the American Idol superstar.
“That was a tremendous opportunity for someone like me. That's the most people I've ever reached in one moment,” Howard says. “Or probably in all the moments, cumulatively. And of course you have people be like, ‘Dude, you should do more of that!’” Howard laughs. “And I’m like, ‘That is a great idea.’”
Subscribe to Alfred Howard Writes here.
FIVE ESSENTIAL ‘ALFRED HOWARD WRITES’ SONGS
Truly, every song is good, but if you’re new to the project, start with these five beauties.
“Guidance of a River”
You’re always gonna win me over with ‘70s flute. “Guidance of a River” is a stunningly emotional mixture of soul, dream pop, with a dash of yacht rock. I had this one on repeat during those stressful final days of Trump’s presidency.
“As Long As It’s With You”
Sometimes the most powerful love notes are the simplest. “As Long As It’s With You” rivals Big Star’s “Thirteen” as one of the purest love songs I’ve ever heard. Armed with only an acoustic guitar, Francis Blume delivers Howard’s words so delicately that it feels like you need curator gloves to handle them.
It’s no surprise that Kelly Clarkson featured this song during her segment. ”Dystopian Blues” is a retro, Delta blues-style rocker that’s catchy as hell. It’s so cool that you almost miss the bleak, nightmarish imagery. Props to Howard for getting the lines “The city’s burning/The fire scrapes the ceiling of the sky” onto The Kelly Clarkson Show.
“His Story” never fails to choke me up: an old-school country song about an estranged father, brought to life by Nathan Moore’s ruggedly smooth voice. Gun to my head, this might be my favorite song from the Alfred Howard Writes project.
Alfred Howard Writes Songs With Friends revels in a lot of beauty and sadness, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll. “Never Known” is the exact song I want to be playing when I step foot in a bar again. Frequent collaborator Shelbi Bennett’s soulful voice plus a goddamn horn section? Yes, please.
Happy Inauguration Day!
Remember in Kurt Russell’s letter from Abraham Lincoln in Hateful Eight that makes him cry when he reads it? I now have my own Lincoln Letter:
This made me feel good. It’s easy for any writer to feel like they’re just typing words into the wind, so it’s always so heartening to get validation like this. Thank you, Mayor Gloria. <3
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Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.