The folk Americana singer/songwriter reflects on his debut album Impatiens and how the Front Range brought new life to his songwriting.
Michael Howard is a seasoned musician who often plays a hundred shows in a year, has actively performed and collaborated with multiple bands along the Colorado Front Range, and has been writing music in a prolific and soul-searching manner since his early teens. The catch is that you’d never guess any of this from a first impression.
When we met, Howard donned a flannel shirt, loose-fitting blue jeans, and work boots, looking fit more for a day’s work than a night onstage. He works as a contractor when he’s not making music, but the combination of dress and his uniquely relaxed, informal way of talking about his music make him feel like a true everyman; an everyman, that is, with an affinity for a rousing melody.
Born in Colorado but raised in Virginia, Howard came back out to the Rockies three years ago for a fresh start. Back in his home state, he tapped into a newfound sense of inspiration to take music more seriously than he ever had before. He began playing hundreds of shows a year, collaborating with multiple local acts, playing with The Wooden Spoons, The Healthy Herd, and working prolifically on his own solo material.
In November, Howard released his solo debut Impatiens, a sprawling anthology of stripped-down and forthright Americana-driven songs:
“The album is named after a flower that shoots its seeds out of its pods when lightly touched. They just explode and fling their seeds everywhere,” he said, cracking up.
“I came out to Colorado after a very cloistered, isolated period in Vermont,” he added, explaining the more serious side of meaning behind the name. “It was a very insular, isolated time, so by the time I got out here, there was so much pent up, and it exploded. I went from playing one or two shows a year to a hundred. I suddenly had all this inspiration flying around,” he said.
Recorded with John Macy at Macy Studios in Denver, Impatiens is built mostly from material Howard began working on when he came back to the Front Range. These are songs that came from a period of creative abandon, where music introspectively began taking shape before he put it on paper.
While making the album, which is limited to him, an acoustic guitar, and the occasional, sweeping vocal harmony, Howard replicated the environment of playing live in an intimate setting by bringing friends and family into the studio to observe the recording process. The entire album took only two days to record, many of the songs coming together in only one take.
“Impatiens was really about establishing a baseline. These are what the songs sound like without other people involved. There are so many people I’ve played with around Denver, and I have individual songs that’ve been played with three different groups, and they each sound different every time. That’s what was fun about this record: it has that living room experience,” he said.
As a songwriter, Howard’s range of expression is thematically rousing. His narrative, colorful, and folk-informed lyrics meet his percussive, bluesy guitar playing in a manner that’ll latch onto your own stories with every croon.
“Fable” is a song Howard began writing when he lived on a hippie commune in his early 20s. The song stings of early ‘20s wanderlust and dreamlike splendor as it describes a dream he had at the time of his unborn child. Howard came across the song recently, discovering that after some fine tuning, it’d be a good fit with the sentimental mythos of Impatiens.
On the other end of the coin, “I Need Another Lover,” a swooning love song with an undercurrent of dread, was written much more recently. However, the final product took on an unexpected form.
"When I wrote 'I Need Another,' I was cracking up; it’s just a setup for a joke each time the refrain hits. It’s set up like, ‘Here’s another terrible situation.’ But when I actually had it recorded and listen[ed] to it afterwards, I realized that it’s a super depressing song,” he said.
The album’s most soaring moment is the title track “Impatiens,” a heartening love song that shows off Howard’s poetic tongue. Boasting flowery, transcendental quips like, “Time’s a patient teacher/Makes me wait to pay the cost/While I draw the map that gets me lost,” with simple, forthright declarations such as, “Cause it’s too late, I love you/Good luck,” the song is a colorful display of a songwriter that’s able to reside on multiple levels at once.
“The awkward thing about the song ‘Impatiens’ was that three or four people thought it was about them. When I’m writing a song, I don’t change names or circumstances. If you’re unlucky enough to know me personally, it’s only a matter of time,” he said, laughing.
This sense of humor and lack of self-seriousness is part of what makes Howard- and his music- so charming. Whether he’s joking about his album title, or how a song deceived him by the time he’d finished writing it, he doesn’t let himself get lost in the emotional severity of being a songwriter. It isn’t to say that he doesn’t take his craft seriously- he’s already completed an album’s worth of new material since Impatiens released- but he keeps a relaxed grin on his face through it all, constantly acknowledging how appreciative he is to be able to do what he loves.
“The feeling I get after playing a solo set is one of total peace. I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. That feeling? It’s [like being] on top of the world,” he said.
When asked about how he feels playing by himself as opposed to with a band, Howard speaks about the pursuit of being a singer/songwriter with equally high regard for its challenges as well as its virtues.
“I love doing solo stuff because it’s the hardest. Playing in front of hundreds of people with a group doesn’t have that feeling; it’s just fun. When you’re playing alone, presenting material where you’re not lying or changing names- it’s just nakedness,” he said.
In many ways, its as if Howard is often only playing to an audience of one person: himself. He isn’t preoccupied with self-promotion, technology, and other variables that can cloud the consciousness of an artist in the modern age.
“To go from doing all of that booking, promotion, and social media to not going on Facebook ever- I’m a much happier person now. I’ve had periods of time where I’ve been tied up in it all, but overall, I just want to show up, have a good time playing, and meet other people in person. The great thing about social media being such a big thing right now is that it rarifies the actual in-person, face-to-face experience,” he said.
Michael Howard is bringing things back to the music and the music alone, and that’ll prove to go further than any amount of likes or shares.
Keep up with Michael here.
All photos, videos, and embedded tracks per the artists featured and those credited. This feature was edited for brevity and clarity by BolderBeat.