Exclusive: Howie Day on ‘Collide,’ visiting Manila, new music

Paul John Caña

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Exclusive: Howie Day on ‘Collide,’ visiting Manila, new music
The 'Collide' hitmaker opens up about his songwriting process, his unique live shows and why he doesn’t think he’s a rock star

Most people know him for his song “Collide,” but there is so much more to musician Howie Day. The 33-year-old native of Bangor, Maine broke out of the singer-songwriter explosion of the late 90s and early 2000s (alongside such names as John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Matt Nathanson and many others) with a unique twist to his act.

In addition to heartfelt songwriting and wicked guitar skills, Day usually performs using samples and effects pedals. Basically he would record one guitar or vocal track (hitting the body of his guitar qualifies as percussion) and play over it with another, all by himself, onstage. The result is nothing short of mesmerizing.

 

He’s not the first to do it, of course, but his performance style and pizzazz has endeared Day to millions of fans through nearly a 15-year-long career and three full-length studio albums. This month, Day makes his very first trip to Asia, including Manila. Rappler got the exclusive chance to chat with him ahead of his show. Excerpts:

Rappler: Where are you now and can you tell me what you can see outside your window?

Howie Day: I’m in my hotel room in Chicago. Out my window are the Marina City towers, which you may know from the cover of the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  

It’s been 14 years since the release of your independent debut album Australia. Do you still listen to it from time to time? How do you feel about it now that you’re a bit older?

I haven’t listened to it in ages. Australia was a moment in time, and I was just starting to figure out my voice. I don’t  think you ever completely figure it out, which is why you have to keep going. In hindsight, I find it remarkable that I wrote those songs at such a young age. I still play some of them, which means they’ve stood the test of time to some degree (14 years anyway, yikes!) 

 
 

 “If you feel like you’ve ‘made it,’ and you’re completely satisfied, you have bigger problems.”

 

  – Howie Day

 
 

You toured extensively in the beginning of your career through college campuses and built quite a sizable following among college students. What were those early years like? Any memorable/funny moments?

I was the same age as my demographic, so obviously it was a lot of fun. We got to hang out sometimes, so I got some of the “college experience,” as they say. It was also excruciatingly hard work, and the funniest stuff happens when you’re completely spent.

I can remember so many times when we were completely exhausted, everything was going wrong, and I’d be on the floor laughing about the dumbest things.

I think it’s some sort of built in evolutionary defense mechanism. We used to sit in hotel lobbies and put a five dollar bill on fishing line and when someone bent down to pick it up, we’d yank the line. That was fun. Funny. 

I’ve always been fascinated by your use of samplers and effects pedals. How did you start doing it? Were you influenced by any specific artist who also used the same samplers/ effects?

I opened for this amazing artist Joseph Arthur, and he was doing the whole loop sampling thing. That was a bit of a eureka moment. I was already dabbling in effects pedals a bit, since I had no engineer on the road.

Adding the percussive elements and sound-on-sound vocals was just taking it to a whole new place, and added a huge amount of dynamics to a show.

Generally a solo acoustic performance that lasts an hour or more can seem pretty flat, so this technique allowed me to be really loud and intense, or very ethereal and experimental.

Was there ever a specific moment in your career when you sort of felt that you had “made it?” That you had transitioned from being a struggling artist to bona fide rock star?

 

As cliche as it sounds, my goal was just to be able to make a living doing what I love. I got to that point quicker than most artists, so I’ve been very lucky. I guess when my mom stopped hounding me about going to school, I knew I was in it for the long haul. David Bowie is a rock star, I am not a rock star. If you feel like you’ve “made it,” and you’re completely satisfied, you have bigger problems.

What’s your songwriting process like? Where do you get your ideas, especially for songs like “Madrigals,” “Ghost,” and “Disco?”

For me it’s usually about music first, lyrics later. First I get a chord progression going that I think is interesting. That will usually summon some sort of image in my head, and I’ll sing gibberish in circles.

If the record button is on, it’s amazing the sort of subconscious nonsense that comes out. It’s almost like you’re your own therapist trying to decode a dream. So you try to figure out what it all means, still holding on to that image, that place.

From there, I tweak words around a little so they sound aesthetically good and make them rhyme if they need to, and voila!

Watch a dance routine choreographed to “Collide” to the left. 

“Collide” was such a monster hit. Were you surprised that it got as big as it did? What’s the story behind the song? 

Sometimes you get that demo, you listen to it, and it gets you. Other people’s music does that all the time, but I have a much harder time giving myself goosebumps.

That song got me, right from the start. It was written really quickly down in New Orleans with my friend Kevin Griffin at his studio. The image was waking up next to the one you love, maybe on vacation in some tropical place. Everything is perfect in that moment. Then we started talking about all the stuff you have to go through to earn that moment.

I think the song means different things to different people, and that’s fantastic. I have no idea why some songs connect on such a massive level. They’ve got computers trying to calculate and quantify that sort of thing, and so far as I know, the most powerful supercomputer in the world can’t figure it out.

 

You always seem so relaxed and “at home” onstage. Do you still get nervous before a show? Any pre-show rituals that you do? 

I get a little nervous. It’s natural to be anxious standing in front of a group of people being vulnerable. You get used to it a little. Pre-show I just focus on what I need to do. I usually spend an inordinate amount of time on the setlist every night, warm up for a few minutes, and walk out there. 

Would you ever consider working with artists like John Mayer or Jason Mraz on a record? Which artist would you say yes to in a heartbeat if they asked you to work with them?

Any of them. Those are all great guys you mentioned. Collaborations are always fun. I’d like to get some songwriting tips and/or tactics from Ryan Adams, or Feist! 

Sound The Alarm came out in 2009. Any plans to release new material? 

We are working on album #4 this fall and it will be released early next year. I’m ecstatic to see it start to take shape.

You’re coming to Asia to play for your fans here for the first time. Any impressions and expectations about Manila and the Philippines in particular? And what can fans expect for your set here? 

My impression is that the landscape is beautiful, and the people are really friendly. I’m looking forward to meeting lots of new friends, eating delicious new foods, and absorbing a brand new culture for the first time, so I’ll know the ropes for next time! I’m thrilled to be able to play my heart out, a bunch of new songs and the old favorites, too! See you soon!

Howie Day Live in Manila is presented by Pinoytuner and is happening on September 11, 2014 at the Amber Ultralounge, The Fort Strip, BGC. For tickets and inquiries, visit their website pinoytuner.com

 

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