Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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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 ‘Hustle & Flow’, ‘Ray’ and ‘Crash’. But what many may NOT know is that his first love is, and always has been, music.

Thus, with this month’s release of ‘Shine Through It’ (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 album’s 11 songs range happily from funk-rock (‘Plenty’), through Latin instrumental (‘Spanish Love Affair’), New Orleans-style marching music (‘War’); on to romantic balladry (‘Love Makes You Beautiful’) and intimate, downtempo confessions of personal traumas (‘No. 1 Fan’).

Indeed, having recently starred on-screen in the medical horror drama ‘Awake’ as well as treading the boards on Broadway in the Tennesee Williams play ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’, Terrence’s 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 London’s plush Soho Hotel, a be-hatted and suited Mr. Howard (who’s impressively appeared in over 20 major motion pictures) speaks softly and slowly, yet passionately, to ‘B&S’ about his uniquely personal and refreshingly organic musical debut.

What was the thinking behind your debut album ‘Shine Through It?

“My initial reason for making the album was because I felt I had something to SAY. As an actor I’ve 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 it’s 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 isn’t so concerned with to the creatures of the jungle being frightened by his voice. He knows that they’re SUPPOSED to be. And, as a result, he roars to make sure that everyone not only hears it but FEELS it. And that’s 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 ‘Shine Through It’.”

What’s the meaning behind some of the lyrics?

“A lotta the lyrics either come from personal experience, or from personal observations. ‘Love Makes You Beautiful’, 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 ‘Plenty’ is about wealthy people and the wealthy experiences I’ve had. Where you forget the value of humanity because you’re so busy trying to value the dollar. Then ‘War’ - which was initially called ‘Chinese American War’ - 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 don’t think that the rest of the world will be able to deal with them. Because they’re a really powerful country, and very disciplined.”

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

“Initially 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 he’d worked with all these people and already had a great relationship with them, he knew who’d 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.”

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

“Yes, 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 ‘Are we playing to a click?’, I knew that they weren’t 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 don’t 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.”

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

“I don’t have a singer‘s voice. I’m 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 Havens’ voice, where the frustration that you hear echoing in his words is awe-inspiring. You know, I don’t have the vocal gymnastics that people like Usher or Chris Brown do. And, when my voice falls flat or cracks - I don’t think there’s such a thing as WRONG notes, just notes that aren’t appreciated - it cracks because perhaps there’s a huge gulf between the pain and the solution. And sometimes you have to fall into that gulf before you hit the water’s edge refreshed by it. So, as I say, I don’t consider myself a singer. With me it’s all about EXPRESSION, pure and simple.”

Can you tell me about your background and how you feel it’s influenced your approach to music?

“I was born in Chicago, but raised in Cleveland, where we lived in what they called ‘town houses’. 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 ‘King’ Cole and Duke Ellington. So, with all that playing around me, music became the thing I’d 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 - I’d be struggling to play! But I didn’t 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 ‘Sanctuary’ came about while I was trying to work out the chords to ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon! In fact, virtually every song I’ve written has probably come about through me trying to figure out another song! Because l truly believe there’s only ever been one original song on this planet. And everything else has been an adaptation of that original song.”

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

“16 years ago I went to the audition for (the Jackson Five bio-pic) ‘The Jacksons: An American Dream’. 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 movie’s producer. She liked me, she put me in the movie. And, because she wanted to manage me for a while, I thought she’d 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, I’m an ACTOR! But while film is my vocation - my nine-to-five - music has always been the road that leads to where I’m headed. So here we are, nearly two decades later - a dream deferred, but one that’s now been ACCOMPLISHED! And I’m completely at peace. I don’t care if this album sells one copy or 10 million - I’ve done what I needed to do! I’ve made the most honest thing I’ve ever made in my life. While, say, with my children I couldn’t choose whether they’d be a boy or girl, how tall they’d be, or anything like that, with this I was able to make ALL my own choices. And I’ll live or die by them!”

What are your plans for your own record label?

“One reason I signed with Sony is because, out of all the labels I was trying to get a deal with after ‘Hustle & Flow’, they were the one that was prepared to give me the most control in terms of giving me my own label. You know, I’m disgusted and appalled by the quality of the music that’s being presented to the world, and that’s 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 shouldn’t 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.”

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

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