Singer-songwriter Bryan Howell has an unbelievable amount of passion when it comes to music. It's evident throughout Take The Risk, the latest release that combines old-school punk sensibilities with straight-up rock and roll influence. It's a nice combination, and it works in Howell's favor. We recently had the chance to speak with Howell about the process of working on Take the Risk, the music video he released for the track, "Your Saturday Night", and much more.
You released Take The Risk back on August 5th (congratulations on the release, by the way!) Overall, how long did the entire process of putting together the album last? This can include everything from pre-production to getting the final mix and master.
We started officially rehearsing for the album late last April. At the same time I was choosing what songs to put on it and doing some polishing of them, I was also writing new ones. Tracking was done over a period of a few months in a variety of bursts here and there from the end of July to the end of September. Then we hit some seriously rough weather after that with getting the final masters dialed in and getting my master tapes back. So, wow….it ended up being about 15 months.
Was there any song on the record that was particularly challenging to produce, and if so, what were the challenges you were met with as a songwriter?
The two biggest hurdles for me, personally, were “Time Marches On” and “Angel From the Lonely Coast”. They were written, effectively, under a lot of duress as the session dates were looming. With “Time Marches On”, there were other songs we were trying to work up that I felt would fit the album, but they weren't quite clicking. So I wrote that song as a late replacement, hoping that it was going to at least be on the same level as the rest of the songs, and I stayed up until all hours getting it done and hoping it would be decent. When I brought it to rehearsal and everyone just dug into playing it and liked it, my co-producer and engineer Jeff raved about it, and people who were listening to rough mixes during tracking kept saying great things, I was really surprised. It had been a very personal song I'd dug out of me, content-wise, very quickly, and I'd been hell-for-leather writing it, so getting these reactions was really validating.
“Angel….” was a song that was an idea before it was a song. I had a basic chorus, a lot of lines in my notebook for possible verses, and just the first two chords on guitar. Nothing else further or concrete. I knew the feel I wanted to get, and what I wanted to say lyrically and musically, but it was pretty much all concept and nothing there to back it up for a while. I had another song that I thought was going to be on this album, but I realized it wasn't going to fit, but “Angel” might if I got it right. So I worked on that extensively, and then I brought it to the band. I felt that there was this kind of polite haze of confusion at first, and then I think they might have thought I was crazy when I said there should be a sax on it, but everyone brought out their best stuff to the band tracking and arrangement, and we got a killer sax player, Sam Kininger, to play the sax on it. All during the album tracking I was rewriting the lyrics for that, bit by bit, and tweaking it to be as exact as I could. You can lose your guts about these kinds of songs, because they are so nuanced and, for lack of a better word, gentle, and to write what I feel are good lyrics in that situation can take a lot of personal vulnerability, when most people would rather be opaque and vague, to put their armor up, so to speak. So there was that balancing act of polishing it up while not over-thinking it, or scrubbing off the emotion and vibe I was trying to conjure.
You just released a video for "Your Saturday Night". The feel I get from the song is one that is mixed with both punk and older-school rock influences. Who were you listening to or drawing inspiration from when you were putting together a song like that?
Yeah, that's definitely valid. I remember that my intent was to try to write something that was anthemic-sounding without being simple or dumb, and to write from an angle where there was more than one interpretation possible of who was being addressed and why in the lyrics. I had just the title for a long time, and a huge amount of lyrics that weren't congealing solidly, until I came up with that little verse riff. I was just noodling on the guitar one day, no intent to try to write, and I came up with that. It seemed to sound like the anticipation I felt the song was trying to convey, because it kind of hovers and doesn't resolve. From there I just wrote it all out pretty quickly, because I had plenty of lyrical ammunition in reserve to chip away at. I don't aim to straight-up cop anyone's vibe as a songwriter, but I also feel that the music you love is in your marrow and always seeps out in its way. So as I was tweaking it into final form, I was thinking about big rock anthems from bands like The Clash, Foo Fighters, Thin Lizzy, The Who and others, any song from yesterday to now where there were big guitars and drums and a sing-along chorus.
From what I understand, you are from upstate New York, and you made the move from NY to Nashville last year. What kind of influence did growing up in New York have on you musically? Why did you choose to migrate to a city like Nashville, rather than say Los Angeles?
That's right, I moved to Nashville earlier this year from upstate New York. Growing up there, from a musical standpoint, gave me a few things. I learned that I needed to have a “go for the throat” kind of approach to performing and songwriting, because if you didn't have good songs and get people interested, there was no reason to be doing this. You don't deserve the audience's time and attention—you have to prove you do and earn it. On top of that, my parents instilled me with a great work ethic, and so I approach music, I suppose in a way to put it un-glamorously, like a job. Since people are going to spend hard-earned money and choose going to see me play on any given night over a bunch of other options, I need to do my homework and give all I can give as a performer and artist, because that decision should not be taken lightly. I feel that that commitment to quality and showmanship always needs to be honored to an audience, and those are lessons that I learned that I hope never leave me.
As for moving to Nashville, I felt the city fit me better than L.A. for a variety of reasons. When I really got down to researching the lineage of rock and roll, and learning my ancestry as an artist, I realized that pretty much every bedrock genre of American music—jazz, blues, country, rock and roll—has deep origin roots in the South. So I wanted to be near that pulse. Also, Nashville is very song-oriented, and all about balancing taking pride in its musical history while building off of it, so there was all that went with that. And when you add on that I felt the musicians here, who I feel are among the most talented in the world and can play any style, and have a huge breadth of musical knowledge, well, those are the people I want to get the chance to play with, and also force me to up my game and prove my worth to be onstage with them. So from any standpoint as a musician—great recording studios, great musical instruments, great venues, great players, great industry connections—Nashville has it. Add to that awesome food and all-around great vibes for me personally, and to me it was obvious.
These are the last two questions, and I ask them to every artist that I interview as a way to close things out. First: what kind of message, if you have one, would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?
I hope people walk away feeling a bit better about everything. Life can be hard, and it's not all perfect or always fair, or always beautiful. But I think it's great to be alive, and you have to appreciate that and remember how lucky you are, even against the bad stuff. So if they get a bit of that, and have their day lifted up, and hopefully can enjoy themselves and dance and sing along to a song….that's what I'm hoping for. I say it a lot, but I hope my music makes people feel good and then gives them a bit of a spiritual recharge too. I feel really lucky that I just have the chance to play music and get a chance for people to hear my songs and maybe get whatever they need out of them in some shape or form, and I hope that that carries through and translates in some way at least a little bit, whether they listen to the album or go to a show.
Finally: what does music mean to you?
It's probably cliché to say, but everything. Music gave me an honest outlet for a lot of stuff I didn't know how to process or get out, a purpose and a meaning. It's given me great joy without any ill effects, helped me through a lot, and it's put me in touch with many of the people that I'm closest with, and love and value the most. On top of that, it's helped me to understand others and what they are, and in that way, because I feel music has broken down a lot of the barriers of society, race, money and language, its presence in my life has also hopefully made me a better and more understanding person. I'm a fan of a lot of things in life a great deal. But if I had to give most of them up, it would be rough, but I could. Music? No way. That's when it's all over.
This has been another Shameless Promotion.