Howie Newman is regarded as one of the most engaging and entertaining performers on the New England acoustic music scene. As a song-writer, guitarist and harmonica player, Howie cleverly combines music, comedy and audience participation for a truly fun and unique program. His amusing songs are up-beat and catchy and in-between songs, Howie keeps the show rolling along with fun banter and short comedy bits. He also sprinkles his performances with a few serious songs. Song topics include old cars, baseball, Smartphones, marriage, the weather, intergalactic garbage collection and more. A diverse entertainer, Howie also fronts a high-energy acoustic duo called Knock Wood. Along with original songs, the guitar-and-fiddle duo play lively covers that span everything from the Everly Brothers to Steely Dan, featuring excellent musicianship, pleasing harmonies and the usual hilarity.
Was there something (an experience) or someone in your life that was the "catalyst" for you to start writing music? Tell us about it.
I had been writing songs for a while when I came across several performers who liked to do funny material. Jimmy Buffett, Steve Goodman and Martin Mull come to mind. It was a lot of fun listening to these types of songs so I kind of decided that I would start focusing on writing tunes that were humorous, satirical or just plain whimsical. People responded really well to this kind of stuff and there was always a lot of great energy in the room. So I continued with it, fine-tuned the craft and came up with a lot of very amusing songs. I then started to add funny stories, short comedy bits and audience participation to the show. I wrote some nice serious songs, too, and these rounded out the performance.
Let's get this out of the way. What is the CRAZIEST thing that has ever happened to you in your music career?
Some of my early songs were about baseball, one of my passions. I sent a few of the songs to Sports Illustrated and the magazine ran a short piece on me. A week later, I got a call from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. SMU was running a big media blitz ("Mustang Mania") for its football team and wanted a song for the campaign. They wanted something a bit out of the ordinary, something a little crazy. This was in July and the season was starting in six weeks so I had to put things together quickly. I kept it simple, wrote the song (also called "Mustang Mania") in about a day and then rushed off to the studio to record it. We put together a country and western band and the recording came out great. This was before CDs so we had 1,000 45 rpm singles pressed and shipped them off to Texas. The song was a big hit and was played regularly at the Cotton Bowl. Imagine that: a Jewish kid from Boston writing and recording the official football fight song for a major football team in Texas.
What has been the high point of your music path?
I think recording a really good full-length album was a major step for me. The CD, titled "Trust Me, You'll Like It," was released in 2006 and featured some great musicians like Duke Levine (Mary Chapin Carpenter, J Geils Band) and Billy Novick (New Black Eagles Jazz Band). It was such a blast working with all those terrific players. There were lots of different styles of music and varying arrangements. We added a lot of really nice backup vocals, too, and I was very proud of this album. I always wanted to make an album like this. It fulfilled a lifelong dream. Last December, I finsihed up my second full-length album, "When You're Happy," and that was a great experience as well. I loved the way it turned out so I guess that would be high point number two.
So, how do you approach songwriting or what is your creative process like?
I always start with a concept and try to come up with a couple of catchy lines. Then I sit with my guitar and play around with chords to see if I can capture the feel of the song. All the while, I'm jotting down ideas that may make it into the final version. After a while, I've got a chord progression and a rough outline of the song. The next step is to fill in the lyrics. I'll keep playing it over and over, adding pieces a little at a time. Then I put it away for a day or so and come back to it. I need to get some distance and perspective. Sometimes the final version comes in a few days. Sometimes a few weeks. When it's ready, it's ready.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Indie Artists today? Or, if you could ask the music industry to change one thing, what would it be?
There's so much great talent out there, it's very difficult to get people to notice what you're doing, even if it's refreshing and different. Radio airplay is a major challenge, too. There are lots of stations that play indie music but they are inundated with so many unsolicited CDs that it's hard to even get a listen here and there. I think you just have to appreciate the people who do listen and play your music -- and keep plugging.
If you could share the stage with one other artist or band, who would it be and why?
Ooooh, that's a tough one. I've been a big fan of Mary Chapin Carpenter for many years so she would probably be my first choice. Her style is much different from mine but she does have great sense of humor and knows how to engage the audience. I've done a lot of openers and it's always been an enjoyable experience. You get a great audience, do a short set and then sit back and listen to someone you really like.
What are your rehearsals generally like? Or, how do you prepare for a live show?
I think planning out good sets is very important. I always try to vary the tempo, the key and the subject matter. Start strong, finish strong and mellow out a little in the middle. Since engaging the audience is very important to me, I actually rehearse my between-songs banter. Rehearsing and hearing what I say always gives me new ideas. I ad lib a lot, too, when I'm on stage and also react to what's happening with the audience. So it's not totally scripted. In addition, I try to hear the songs as the audience would hear them. Too fast, too slow? Does it need more of an instrumental solo? Less? The fun part is trying out all these new ideas in front of alive audience.
Pick one song that was your greatest challenge to write. Tell us about it!
Definitely "Big in Belgium," from the "Trust Me, You'll Like It" album. When I was writing the song, I had just released my first CD and a guy from Belgium asked me to send the album so he could play it on the radio. In Belgium. Weird situation, great song material. I knew what I wanted to say and had some funny ideas but, for some reason, putting it all together was a real struggle. When I get into these types of ruts, I always tell myself, "Keep it simple." So I went with a chord structure that I had used before, borrowed a couple of lines from an old song and got things rolling. The tempo was completely different so it didn't sound at all like the other songs I had borrowed from. When it was finished, I had a great new song and learned a little from the experience. And the album version, with Duke Levine on guitar and mandola, was terrific.
What's coming up in the future?
I've been doing a lot of shows with my folk-rock duo, Knock on Wood. I have a couple of rotating partners who play fiddle and mandolin. It's amazing how much more energy is in the music when you just add one person. We do lots of solos and vocal harmony, and try to keep things lively. Music should be fun, right? We play many free outdoor shows during the summer and then do small clubs and other indoor concerts the rest of the year. I really appreciate the fact that I can do original music and sell CDs at these shows. It's been a blast and we're going to stay with it.
Where can fans can access your music.
I have a separate page for my new album, When You're Happy - You can listen to full tracks of most of the songs, get info about the players and read some compelling propaganda For other music samples, see my website music page or check out Knock on Wood videos.