Parlor Showcase

Kindness Personified: Al Howard, Soul Brother No. 1

Al Howard. Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.


Butterfly and Al. Photo by Dani Bell.


Howard spinning records at the Vinyl Junkies Record Shack grand opening. Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.


The Redwoods Ladies (l. to r.): Emily Reilly (Birdy Bardot), Shelbi Bennett (the Midnight Pine), Dani Bell, Rebecca Jade (the Cold Fact), and Dawn Mitschele (Cardinal Moon). Photo by Kristy Walker.


Photo by Julia Hall McMahon.

Eclecticism and diversity aren’t exactly championed in this culture of ours. In fact, it would appear at last glance that if you can do one thing reasonably well, and you can repeat that thing ad nauseam, you are poised for a successful 15 minutes in any number of artistic disciplines—regardless of whether or not you have anything of substance to share with the world.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule: Salvador Dalí, Rod Serling, the Beatles, and Pablo Picasso come to mind. But popular culture circa 2018 is experiencing a perilous landslide of mediocrity. Fifty-three years ago you had a college thesis level of lyricism in the Top Two with “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. Alarmingly, contemporary popular music registers somewhere on the reading level of a first and second grader, so when big money is pushing such volumes of trite trash down the throats of the masses, what sort of culture do you think results from that deliberate excess of guile?

The only antidote to the puerile droppings of the lamestream media conglomerates fouling the air is to ignore such infantile distractions and create your own art and culture. In other words, seek out other like-minded souls who are cooking on the same wavelength and set the intention of putting love and true creativity out into the world.

Each of us is a mirror for one another. And I am all about celebrating critical thinking and a superior intellect—having a ball while continuing on a self-selected course of higher education. Life is too short—so eat well, drink with gratitude, feed your soul, and champion the underdogs of excellence. What the world needs now is more intelligent compassion roaming the streets and establishments of San Diego, and to that end you can thank the sweet goddess of love that Mister Alfred Howard is on the prowl.

Not only is Howard poetic, thoughtful, handsome, and charismatic, the mofo is freaking hysterical. But don’t take my word for it—hit him up on Facebook, listen to one (or, better yet, ALL) of the seven musical projects that he is currently producing and writing song lyrics for. Or subscribe to his blog (Al Said What?) and procure a copy of his second book Autobiography of No One. It will de-mythologize your ideas about being a bohemian road warrior in a carrier van of rock ‘n’ roll rebels, and his musings are an absolute delight. If you have any feel for the life of the mind or the peculiar demands of being an artist, you will see yourself reflected in these pages. And you will howl from the recognition.

Should you be an appreciator of (take your pick): the human condition, music and record stores, Ocean Beach hippies and freaks, sarcasm, irony, wry observation, unflinching social/political critiques, deadpan humor, and intelligent glib banter—Al Howard might just become your new best friend.

I’d venture to say that there is no one currently working within the confines of the San Diego music scene that is more prolific and committed to his craft as Howard is. After fronting the K23 Orchestra more than a decade ago as a vocalist and lyricist (think Quincy Troupe fronting Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis), and exhausting a fair amount of energy as a spoken word artist, Howard has reinvented himself over the last few years due to the physical constraints that lyme disease have imposed upon him—which include the scarring of his esophagus and limiting his ability to vocalize in concert as he once did. But since necessity is indeed a mother, the need to reinvent himself as an onstage percussionist, producer, and lyricist for an array of other voices has brought him to a whole new audience, and the work that he’s producing now is as good as it gets within San Diego.

Howard is part of a consortium that you might think of as the OB People’s Co-Op of local music. He is partners (along with Matt Molarius, Marissa Mortati, and Josh Rice) in the record label The Redwoods Music, the home of the Heavy Guilt, the Midnight Pine, Birdy Bardot, Rebecca Jade and the Cold Fact, Dani Bell and the Tarantist, Cardinal Moon, Erik Canzona, Lion and the Lady, and his latest project Louise Walker. It’s a roster and résumé whose demands would hurl a lesser man into a ditch of exhaustion.

Alfred Howard is one sly, wicked, and wonderful dude who transplanted himself to San Diego in 1999 after spending his formative years in New Jersey and Massachusetts. He was born February 19, 1978, in Newark, and raised by his mother as an only child, attending public school in Jersey City and moving to Morristown to attend private school at the age of 14. “That was quite the shift in my reality,” says Howard. “Because I came from a predominately black neighborhood—I won’t go as far as to call it ‘innercity,’ but it was definitely ‘the city.’ My mom was a single parent, and she really wanted me to get a good education, that was her priority. So I went to seventh grade at a place called Morristown-Beard, which is a fairly renowned school. Morristown is a typical East Coast suburban town, but we’re also near the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and Jocky Hollow, so it’s really wooded and you can learn to like a quiet, secluded area very, very quickly. I went from a predominately black neighborhood to a predominately white neighborhood.

“My mom would drive 45 minutes back and forth every day. She didn’t have a driver’s license, and she went out and took her driver’s test, got a license, and drove me to school every day. It was a whole new world for me. We’d see deer on the way to school and I had never seen anything like that before. I got really into nature and started birdwatching. Actually, I got into bird watching when I was about seven. I’ve been doing that for the majority of my life at this point; that’s where I find a lot of solace: in nature, going hiking, and going birdwatching. Places like that really inspire my writing.”

Howard’s mother, Marian Howard, put him through school working as an artist specializing in watercolors [marianhowardart.com]. He didn’t meet his father, Reginald Butler, a history professor at the University of Virginia, until he turned 21. “When I met my father I found out I had a half-brother who was in my favorite hip-hop group growing up: Digable Planets. His name is Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler, and he’s in a band called Shabazz Palaces right now. I saw them open up for Radiohead last year at the Shrine in Los Angeles, and it was pretty exciting. He’s awesome. We all check in on each other sporadically.

“I grew up an African-American birdwatcher who got into heavy metal because we had Seton Hall University pirate radio WSOU-FM, and I used to listen to that. It kind of freaked my mom out that I was into metal. And the year that punk broke when Nirvana’s Nevermind became a thing—that was it, dude. I was a sophomore when that happened, and it was all Pixies, Nirvana, Breeders, Soundgarden, all the Seattle stuff: Mudhoney, Green River. And because we got deep, we researched all those bands and were really into Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo.

“It’s so funny to think about because there was no Internet back then, it was just word of mouth, talking to people, going to record stores and talking to clerks. When I was a kid, the first music I heard that I knew was significant was Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” And I still think to this day, lyrically, just thinking about that juxtaposition of opposites, probably was the most profound impact on me when I was a young kid. The Sound of Silence—just that concept. When I was a little kid I had to think about the poetry of that. And I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I never thought of silence having a sound.’ Maybe it sounds a little naïve at this point but to a seven, eight-year-old kid I was floored by that. And I remember that feeling of being floored even back then, trying to write little simple, jingly things.”

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After Howard completed high school in ’95, he attended Boston College and graduated in ’99 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. He then set off on an epic 3,000 mile road trip across North America that took in several Roger Waters concerts, dipping down into New Orleans, rocketing up to Vancouver, and hugging the entire West Coast before landing in San Diego. Along the way he kept a journal and begin writing in earnest, with the result being his first book, The Serpentine Highway.

When I was 21, I wrote a book about life in a burgundy Toyota Corolla: the coffee stained cup-holders, the soiled, unpaid parking tickets piled at the feet of the driver’s side, the midnight vistas, and varying vantage points from the road. I spent a lifetime in that car, professionally meandering, jotting down nuance, and trying to find home. The book ended in San Diego, where I’ve rested my head for the past 13 years.
San Diego Has Weakened Me: As I contemplated the possibility of polluting this warm Utopia with Massholes, I noticed something strange happening. All the sudden 60 degrees was freezing cold. It no longer took three degrees with the windchill factor to shiver me to the core. All it took was 55 degrees and a steel breeze off the ocean to keep me inside. Throw rain into the mix and forget it, full-blown paralysis. It was as if San Diego knew I was about to rat out its awesomeness to undesirables. So it acclimatized me to silence. Though there is no greater feeling than complaining to someone in northern New Hampshire about how this 58 degree December low has “chilled you to the bone.”
— from Autobiography of No One

After arriving in San Diego, Howard worked in Escondido at Circle of Friends, counseling the children of substance-abuse parents. But after a couple of years of professionally helping others to work through their problems, his heart cried out to be involved with music 24/7 and he took a job working at Cow Records in Ocean Beach, where he works three to four days a week to pay the bills. In “Record Store Day Recollections” from Autobiography of No One, he writes: “I went to school in Boston in the late ’90s, spending a lot of time in Harvard Square where there were record stores aplenty. They weren’t the Sam Goodys of the world, but dusty hole in the walls, the used-dollar bins of vinyl, smelling varying shades between mold and grandfather, the long-haired clerk like a docent who knew encyclopedic volumes on everything within the cramped confines. When I got my degree in psychology from Boston College, my mom asked me what came next. I responded, ‘I’m gonna move to California and get a job at a record store,’ and I did exactly that. She was not pleased.

“2001 was a time when my first band, the K23 Orchestra, was starting to go and we were touring a bunch. And I said to myself, ‘I want to try not to work and just make this my thing for a while.’ And at the time I could still do spoken word gigs—just me alone, which is a little bit easier financially. But most of the shows were full band performances. Back then, CDs were popular, so I’d go to a concert, a big arena rock show, and I’d walk from car to car and I’d read a poem and sell a CD. And I’d leave the concert with, like, a grand in my pocket. I worked hard, and that’s partly how I lost my voice. It was on top of the scarring of the esophageal lining. But I worked my ass off to get that music out there. And I still do to this day. That’s nothing that anyone is going to do for you. Maybe a lot of young musicians might not learn that, or maybe it’s something they pick up. I recognized that right away—I was poisoned with belief in myself, like right out of the gate. And at first I’d put something out and I’d go, ‘All right the CD is out, why has nothing happened? Why am I not on television yet?’ How do I ameliorate that situation? Why, you bring it to the people.

“I was annoying in the beginning, man. I had a guy come up to me recently: ‘Dude, you sold me a CD at a Karl Denson show in the Belly Up bathroom.’ ‘Yes, I did.’ That’s something I would have done back then—nothing was sacred. It’s important to me, I believe in this. Obviously I believe in this, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it at this point, and I want people to hear it.

“I do end up using my psychology background at the record store though—consoling people as they part with years of memories. I talk them down. And then I take their stuff,” he says, laughing.

*********

So not only am I afraid of flying, but I’m stubborn and generally stick to my guns. Therefore, I simply don’t fly, despite the heaping amount of convenience. So since the late ’90s, anytime I’ve made it back to New Jersey for Christmas or Thanksgiving I’ve a) driven, b) took a train, or c) and I wouldn’t suggest “c” to anyone, in fact I give “c” an “f,” the Greyhound Bus. They need to get a Greyhound Bus in the Balboa Park torture exhibit, fill it with wax statue replicas of the crazed maniacs, post convicts, and pre-cons frequenting such modes of travel.

Where did my fear of flying come from in the first place? Perhaps it was the first time I flew when I was about seven and my grandma sat me down and said, “In case I don’t see you again, I love you very much Alfred, a lot of people explode on planes.” Thanks, grandma. Maybe it was watching 24 straight hours of CNN on September 12th that drilled that sight into my mind. Maybe it was a girlfriend breaking up with me at an airport as she arrived for what was to be an unpleasant visit. Whatever it was, I was feeling pretty good on the return flight from Philly. Maybe I had overcome my fear and could visit home without having to start the return drive 30 minutes after my arrival in order to make it back to work on time. Or maybe I was completely wrong.

This is what being wrong sounds like. It sounds like a voice on the P.A. saying “Not to stir a panic, but do we have a doctor on the plane?” Sorry flight attendant, but that is exactly how you cause panic. I hoped the pilot didn’t eat the fish. — “So…I’m Afraid of flying. Kinda Like a Scrawny B.A. Baracus” from Autobiography of No One

“I had a weird premonition that I’m personally not supposed to fly,” says Howard. “I’ve flown plenty of times. Ironically, I did fly once since then and the plane did make a emergency landing in a weird ice storm in St. Louis where someone had a seizure on the plane, which delayed my next flight for 24 hours and it was just a total nightmare. I don’t fly for two reasons: number one, if I hear an inner voice in my head telling me not to do something, I listen, because I’ve had enough odd synchronicities happen that I trust my judgment. Number two, when I travel, I like to see it at a pace that I can observe and reflect upon, and those observations become songs. I like to take the long way to get there.

“I’ve taken the Greyhound cross country several times. It’s a nightmare, but I love it. It’s great, and awful, and it gives you a lot of perspective of America. I met singer Dawn Mitschele right before I had to take a Greyhound bus to Chicago for a gig, and I told her that when I usually take these bus trips, all I do is write. I just write constantly on the bus. So, I suggested sending her lyrics and maybe she could send me back song ideas, and we’ll see if that is a collaborative process that works for us. And I got on the bus, and I sent her a song and I’d receive a text back late at night with this fleshed out song idea. And I loved it, and I’d send another one. And the first Cardinal Moon record was pretty much written that way. And then we got the studio band together to flesh it out further.”

**********

Howard was asked in 2015 how he managed being in seven different groups, and he responded with: “I have a stomach ulcer, so I might not manage it well. But I’ve been working at a record store for a really long time and I’m really curious about a lot of genres of music, so I’ve always wanted to try everything. So with each of these different groups, they all are sonically different as well. Even though they have a lot of overlapping musicians they just satiate different needs that I have as a listener.”

You can listen to the various Redwoods Music projects and hear a through-line of continuity, but each LP has a definite ring of uniqueness to them. “That’s the goal,” says Howard. “For all the initial Redwoods albums it’s pretty much the same musicians. We are starting to diversify a little more as we’ve progressed the label. But, basically, [drummer] Jake Najor and [bassist] Jason Littlefield are the rhythm section. And we’ve had a bunch of different folks contributing guitar work to it—that’s been the largest variable. And all the singers will lend their voices to other people’s records. So we have a very familial vibe to our recording process.” Redwoods Music is the personification of a rising tide raising all boats then? “That’s the whole premise of our collaborative record label,” he says.

“And if folks want to support or buy into what we do, our label offers a lifetime digital subscription service to all current and future Redwoods releases for a one-time fee of 80 dollars.” With over 15 titles and growing, that is quite the sound investment of patronage in the pursuit and support of excellence in the San Diego underground. But don’t be surprised if somewhere in the not-to-distant future some, if not all, of the acts on the Redwoods imprint break out and become household names outside of the Pacific Time Zone.

One of Howard’s projects slated for release at the beginning of 2018 is called Louise Walker, featuring the sultry talents of Bay Area singer Lindsey Olsen. It’s the kind of record you could put on any time of day or night and it will soothe you into the chill zone, no matter what your mood. “It has some cool, ambient, odd passages, and the best that I can do to describe it is that it’s kind of ‘psychedelic Billie Holiday,’” he says. Like if Billie Holiday traded heroin for psilocybin? Howard laughs, “Yeah, somewhere along those lines, for sure, had she lived long enough to make this record. We were trying to come up with a name for it, and it’s got this kind of old-timey feel to it, and we decided to call it Louise Walker, which is my maternal grandmother’s name.

“My mom is a part collaborator on the project—she’s really a brilliant painter. I was playing it for her and she just really loved the record. And I thought, man, it would be cool if we did a lyric book where she did her interpretations of the songs as art pieces. So we’re going to do a limited edition of 100 or so as a pre-release for the CD. She did anywhere between one and three images per piece for the 12 songs on the album. These are all brand new, original pieces of art—all watercolors.”

*********

If you want to hear Howard do his spoken word thing, go on YouTube and dial up his poem “America.” It’s a mindblower. Here is a taste:

I love the First Amendment which gives me this right
But as the rising of sun this war’s just begun
And the plan to expands been at hand since day one
This war is not one it can be broken into fractions
There’s a war at home waged on Affirmative Action
There are wars waged abroad to keep up the distraction
There’s a war on the backs of the large working class
There’s a war on education and on probable cause
The patriot act wages war on Constitutional laws
There’s a war without fist there are soldiers for peace
There’s a war waged through music on the mass media beast
In this land of free speech money does all the talking
But we shout just as loud in the streets when we’re walking
I love the idea of democracy
I will love when it is fortified as reality
I remember singing my country ‘tis of thee
Believing in this sweet land of liberty
Hand on my heart respecting the land of the free
I don’t think it is just my American Dream…
Talk about determination and passion. It would seem that no matter what kind of obstacles fly into his path, Howard insists, “If you feel something drive you, nothing stands a chance at stopping it.

“And I don’t really care if anybody agrees with my point of view—more power to them. When I post stuff on Facebook I’ve had people chime in negatively on it. The first thing I do is say, ‘Hey, do you want to get a cup of tea? Would you like to sit down and have a conversation?’ Because I’m here to share my point of view and to expand on it—I don’t want my point of view to be stagnant, I want to hear other points of view.”

After all the miles logged on the open road, documenting the wild twists and turns of being a slave to the rhythm and exploring the communicative power and the muse of language, has Howard arrived at an overarching philosophy about how to approach life?

“My philosophy is to not overthink it. Or to try not to.”

How is that going so far?

“Not particularly well,” he says with a smile. “But my philosophy is very simple: be kind to each other. And I’ll leave it at that.”

To find out more about Al Howard and his constant stream of activities look for him on Facebook and check out his work on theredwoodsmusic.com.

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