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Issue 1084

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Terrence Howard: Howard's Way

Terrence Howard
Terrence Howard

Many may be familiar with Terrence Howard as the Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated, handsome actor who starred in such notable box-office smashes as âHustle & Flowâ, âRayâ and âCrashâ. But what many may NOT know is that his first love is, and always has been, music.

Thus, with this monthâs release of âShine Through Itâ (his debut LP for Columbia Records), Howard finally gets to pursue his true passion; fulfilling the dream the Cleveland, Ohio native had on first arriving in Los Angeles 16 years ago. By no means your average soul or R&B or even jazz affair, the record finds Terrence surrounding himself with an impressive, small cast of accomplished live players - whom he dubs The Band Of Kings - on a distinctively singer/songwriter-based set that refuses to fit into any one genre for more than one track at a time. Recorded in a remarkable 11 days, the albumâs 11 songs range happily from funk-rock (âPlentyâ), through Latin instrumental (âSpanish Love Affairâ), New Orleans-style marching music (âWarâ); on to romantic balladry (âLove Makes You Beautifulâ) and intimate, downtempo confessions of personal traumas (âNo. 1 Fanâ).

Indeed, having recently starred on-screen in the medical horror drama âAwakeâ as well as treading the boards on Broadway in the Tennesee Williams play âCat On A Hot Tin Roofâ, Terrenceâs enthusiasm with his new-found music career is such that the remainder of 2008/early 2009 promises to see him putting his burgeoning film career on hold to begin touring his new LP internationally; in addition to working with new talent for his own record label, while simultaneously writing songs for other artists.

Holding court in the near-palatial opulence of a downstairs luxury suite at Central Londonâs plush Soho Hotel, a be-hatted and suited Mr. Howard (whoâs impressively appeared in over 20 major motion pictures) speaks softly and slowly, yet passionately, to âB&Sâ about his uniquely personal and refreshingly organic musical debut.

What was the thinking behind your debut album âShine Through It?

âMy initial reason for making the album was because I felt I had something to SAY. As an actor Iâve been limited by the direction of my director, limited by the imagination of my writer, and by the funding of my producer. I have had SOME autonomy in making the film and creating the character, but overall itâs always been CONTROLLED. Whereas music for me is my own personal form of expression. So the album title was representative of finding your inner voice and not being afraid of the ROAR within your inner voice. You know, a lion isnât so concerned with to the creatures of the jungle being frightened by his voice. He knows that theyâre SUPPOSED to be. And, as a result, he roars to make sure that everyone not only hears it but FEELS it. And thatâs exactly what LIGHT does. It pushes through and it illuminates not just the soul, but also the SPIRIT. Which is why I called my album âShine Through Itâ.â

Whatâs the meaning behind some of the lyrics?

âA lotta the lyrics either come from personal experience, or from personal observations. âLove Makes You Beautifulâ, for example, came from me just watching people on the street, seeing them hugging and kissing, walking the dog, or playing with the children. And realising that people of all shapes and sizes are made beautiful by a mere act of love. The title track, as I said, talks about having personal faith inside; while âPlentyâ is about wealthy people and the wealthy experiences Iâve had. Where you forget the value of humanity because youâre so busy trying to value the dollar. Then âWarâ - which was initially called âChinese American Warâ - came from me thinking about the Taiwanese situation, and China wanting to annexe Taiwan back to itself. With the US - and many other nations - having so many economic ties with Taiwan, a potential war may well take place over the next 20/30 years. And, as China becomes even more ostentatious about who they are, I donât think that the rest of the world will be able to deal with them. Because theyâre a really powerful country, and very disciplined.â

How did multi-instrumentalist Miles Mosley (of Lauryn Hill, Herbie Hancock and Common fame) become your co-producer?

âInitially I went into the studio by myself. Then, after the first day, I asked the guy who owned the studio to find me a great upright bass-player. From the names he gave me, I chose Miles Mosley because I knew of his previous work. So Miles came in - this big, bad guy, half-Jewish/half black - and immediately started playing with me. And, by the third day, I was telling him I needed a viola player. So he brought in this guy named Tom Lea. Then I told him I needed a saxophone. So he brought in Kamasi Washington. Next I told him I needed a trumpet. He brought in Serifin (Aguilar)⦠And so on. You know, Miles totally understood the MUSIC that I wanted. And, because heâd worked with all these people and already had a great relationship with them, he knew whoâd be right for my project. So, with me being so busy writing - we wrote like eight of the songs while we were in the studio - Miles basically became my cinematographer of sound. And, because he showed so much aptitude while I was in the process of putting the record together and organising musicians, after about six days I decided to make him my producing partner and co-arranger. And it turned out to be the most wonderful collaboration.â

Did you have definite ideas as to the kind of musicians you wanted in The Band Of Kings?

âYes, we were very specific about the type of players we wanted. Like we went through two keyboardists before finding Kenneth Crouch; we went through a few drummers... Because I needed people who were TRUE MUSICIANS. Anybody that came in the room and asked âAre we playing to a click?â, I knew that they werenât gonna MAKE it! Because NONE of us were going to a click! This was all organic. And, if I tell you that you have complete autonomy and you go stand in the corner, then you donât really need to be in this party! I wanted players that had something to SAY! To me the musicality of it all was the most important thing, and I wanted it all to be live.â

How would you describe your highly unusual and distinctive vocal sound?

âI donât have a singerâs voice. Iâm an EXPRESSIONIST. I would personally align myself to the vocal style of those people who just talk and sing in their normal speaking voice. Like (soft rock singer/songwriter) James Taylor, or Nina Simone - you know, you could never really tell whether she was singing or humming, or just thinking! But then with me you also have the pain of (Seventies black folk singer/songwriter) Richie Havensâ voice, where the frustration that you hear echoing in his words is awe-inspiring. You know, I donât have the vocal gymnastics that people like Usher or Chris Brown do. And, when my voice falls flat or cracks - I donât think thereâs such a thing as WRONG notes, just notes that arenât appreciated - it cracks because perhaps thereâs a huge gulf between the pain and the solution. And sometimes you have to fall into that gulf before you hit the waterâs edge refreshed by it. So, as I say, I donât consider myself a singer. With me itâs all about EXPRESSION, pure and simple.â

Can you tell me about your background and how you feel itâs influenced your approach to music?

âI was born in Chicago, but raised in Cleveland, where we lived in what they called âtown housesâ. Which were a little better than the projects, but still pretty bad. My father loved The Temptations and The Dramatics, but then he also loved David Bowie and Pink Floyd. My mom listened to Bread, The Carpenters and Tavares. My grandmother listened to Al Green, while my great-grandmother listened to Nat âKingâ Cole and Duke Ellington. So, with all that playing around me, music became the thing Iâd always escape to. You know, I used to tell people I could play piano and guitar 10/15 years before I actually COULD! And - because I never wanted to be a liar - Iâd be struggling to play! But I didnât get any results until I stopped trying to sound like other people! I learnt it was all about the happy accidents called mistakes! And that stays with me even today! Like âSanctuaryâ came about while I was trying to work out the chords to âImagineâ by John Lennon! In fact, virtually every song Iâve written has probably come about through me trying to figure out another song! Because l truly believe thereâs only ever been one original song on this planet. And everything else has been an adaptation of that original song.â

So whatâs the story behind you first becoming established as an award-winning actor before now becoming a professional musician releasing your own album?

â16 years ago I went to the audition for (the Jackson Five bio-pic) âThe Jacksons: An American Dreamâ. You had to sing two songs, and do a dance. I was a pretty good dancer and - being 19/20 years old - I was pretty handsome at the time! I sang my songs to Suzanne de Passe, the movieâs producer. She liked me, she put me in the movie. And, because she wanted to manage me for a while, I thought sheâd give me a music deal. But - though back then I was a terrible actor - she kept trying to put me in movies, kept trying to get me to act... And, next thing I know, Iâm an ACTOR! But while film is my vocation - my nine-to-five - music has always been the road that leads to where Iâm headed. So here we are, nearly two decades later - a dream deferred, but one thatâs now been ACCOMPLISHED! And Iâm completely at peace. I donât care if this album sells one copy or 10 million - Iâve done what I needed to do! Iâve made the most honest thing Iâve ever made in my life. While, say, with my children I couldnât choose whether theyâd be a boy or girl, how tall theyâd be, or anything like that, with this I was able to make ALL my own choices. And Iâll live or die by them!â

What are your plans for your own record label?

âOne reason I signed with Sony is because, out of all the labels I was trying to get a deal with after âHustle & Flowâ, they were the one that was prepared to give me the most control in terms of giving me my own label. You know, Iâm disgusted and appalled by the quality of the music thatâs being presented to the world, and thatâs being FED to the world, right now. I think we are much more intelligent than that, and that we really should demand more from our artists. So, with my label, I would like to sponsor and provide an environment in which an artist can come in and do exactly what I did. You know, an artist shouldnât need to be given direction. You just need to trust in your own SOUND. So I do feel I need to establish some type of foundation, where an artist can be reminded of how powerful they are and be encouraged to go in the studio and just BE who they are.â

The album 'Shine Through It' is out now through Columbia Records
Words PETE LEWIS

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