Comes with a Smile # interviews
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Howie Beck
 by Jamie Lynn / pictures by Yael Staav

Howie Beck by Yael StaavWhile Howie Beck's 1997 debut, Pop and Crash, was full of indie-pop promise, no one could have predicted the emotional richness of its follow-up, Hollow.  

Despite being a home recorder of the most scrupulous kind, the title-track, which opens the album, announces itself with stunning minimalism. While Howie's songs are often sweeping affairs - rich in textures and emotional appeal - the hushed beauty of this particular track shows Howie at his essence. Whispered and fragile, Hollow conjures up late night images of the songwriter cramped in the confines of his Toronto apartment, trying his best not to awaken his sleeping neighbours.

While his confessional songs of urban heartbreak and desolation forced local music connoisseurs in his native Canada to sit up and take notice, Hollow was far from a commercial success. Howie promoted and distributed the record himself through his own label, 13 Clouds, and despite being a critical and 'word of mouth' favourite, the audience for the album was inevitably limited.  It only seemed to find a home with those who were willing to search it out.  

However, having just signed an international deal with London's Easy!Tiger (home to debut singles by Wheat, The Webb Brothers, Kevin Tihista and others...), Hollow may just have found a new lease of life.  

If I'm not mistaken, 'Hollow' was first released in early 1999. It is now August of 2001 and the album has just seen its UK release, with a European release to follow shortly. It must feel strange to be promoting it as a new album?
Actually, it doesn't really feel that strange. I haven't had the opportunity to promote the album in any real way, so I'm glad that there's finally some support behind it. I mean, it doesn't feel like a new album anymore, but it's slowly been reaching people over the past year or so. Some albums aren't meant to bust through the gates, and this has definitely been a word of mouth type thing. I'm still working on new stuff, so I'm just looking at it as a new opportunity to reach more folks.

It must feel a little different to be touring with a full band now?
Well, the string of dates through the UK will be our first tour. We've done a lot of shows as a band, but the line-up continues to change. Anyway, it's a nice change from sitting on a chair by myself. Hopefully I won't drive them crazy.

Much has been made of the fact that you are essentially a one man show ?? not only did you record, produce and distribute 'Hollow' yourself, but you also played virtually every instrument on the album. Was that done out of necessity or a need for complete control?
I think a bit of both. I do tend to be a control freak, but playing all the instruments on recordings is something I've been doing since I was 12 or 13. It's the way I most enjoy to record. I'd rather that than be an asshole dictator of a band. In terms of putting the record out, yeah, that was totally out of necessity. Not something I've particularly enjoyed, but it was necessary. I'd love at some point to make an instrumental album with friends.

You say you haven't particularly enjoyed putting out the records yourself, but it seems that more and more artists are leaving their record labels and choosing to release things themselves.  Has the Internet made that a more viable option than it would have been ten years ago?
I'm not sure. I've definitely sold records through the website, but I think if people want to find music, they find it; I know I have. I think of the Internet as another type of media and medium. Huge corporate entities still have the money to make themselves more visible online than someone like myself. It was more like anarchy 6 or 7 years ago, because [the corporations] hadn't gotten their greasy fingers in there yet. So you can exist online, but that doesn't mean that someone will hit your site.

Is it hard act as the salesman/marketer for your records, as well as the artist, or do you feel comfortable in both roles?
I hate being any kind of salesman. It's a lot easier if you're in a band than if you're a solo artist calling someone on behalf of yourself. When my first album came out in '97, commercial radio wouldn't touch it because they thought it was too underground sounding, and although I've had a lot of support from college radio, there was one particular station in Toronto who wouldn't touch it because they thought it was too commercial. I had to phone this guy personally and tell him that he was basically an idiot. Not because my music necessarily deserves to be played, but because I'm a local independent musician who was getting airplay on college radio all across Canada except for Toronto, my hometown. That's a very typical thing to happen to musicians in Toronto. It's also the kind of thing I've decided to avoid entirely now. You end up looking egotistical when you're just trying to do your best. For 'Hollow', I just mailed a bunch of them to radio stations and didn't even bother calling. The CBC here in Canada has been extremely supportive, as have a couple of music video stations. I really don't give a fuck anymore who likes my music, with the exception of myself and a few friends that I respect, I just assume it's not going to make any commercial headway. That way, you can just do your thing without wasting time and negative energy talking to people who aren't musicians telling you what music is supposed to be about.

'Hollow' is a very cohesive album ?? were you consciously recording and sequencing the album with this in mind, or were these simply your eleven favourite songs from those late night recording sessions?
The album came together slowly over the span of about a year. I never look at recording as some type of 'album project'. I record for myself, and whenever I think I have enough stuff that might be interesting to string together, I put it together and 'release' an album. Whatever that means. I'm not one of those guys who writes six songs before breakfast and puts out two albums a year. I do record a lot, but I think it's pretentious to assume that anyone would want to hear it.

Most of your lyrics seem intensely personal ?? do you write autobiographically or are you more of an observer/storyteller?
I write about the things I've experienced. At this point in my life, I'm not interested in making up stories for the sake of a song. When I'm generally feeling good, or busy, I just don't write. I don't feel the need to explain myself. It might keep me from being prolific, but you have to ask yourself why you're writing in the first place.

Even if it is about them, I find a lot of songwriters still claim the songs are about someone or something else in order to 'protect' themselves.  By saying the songs are all about your personal experiences, do you worry about feeling invaded?  I'm not trying to be cute here, but after reading this, people listening to your record will be thinking things like, "man, baby actually did play around on him".
Invaded? No, not really. I think people who worry about having their lives on display are ironically the same folks who seek fame. That kind of attention seeking has very little to do with music and more to do with performance. I don't really consider myself to be a performer and I'm not interested in being famous. The release of my records has been quite limited until now, so it hasn't been an issue. I generally don't like speaking about the lyrics in my songs because I feel that they're self-explanatory. When I write, I'm just trying to express myself, to myself, for myself.

I've read you have a good relationship with Hayden ?? another 'bedroom recording' Canadian indie artist. As someone who, within the space of a year, went from independently releasing his own 'word of mouth' debut 'Everything I Long For', to having it become the object of an intense US record label bidding war, Hayden must have offered you some guidance?
Hayden has been really good with that type of stuff. Basically, when it comes down to it, you're best off to just focus on making music.

Could you envision yourself ever recording with a producer and/or other musicians?
There are a few people that I'd be interested in working with, for the experiment alone. I've done a lot of recording with other people, but almost always on their albums. I also enjoy having friends do things on recordings here and there.

When people think of a 4 and 8 track bedroom recordings, it is unlikely they would expect the end product to sound as rich and full as 'Hollow' does. Is that a result of your meticulous nature or have advances in home recording made it easier to create a studio quality recording?
First of all, thank you. I tend to be quite diligent about the recording process. I think it's lame to look at home recording as some type of sacrifice. I've heard huge studio albums that sound like shit. I've heard 4-track and various other home-recordings that sound amazing. When I was a kid 4-tracking at my parent's house, I thought that it had to be possible to make a 4-track cassette sound as good as a cassette that had pre-recorded music on it already. I just think you should do the best you can with what you've got and don't ever listen to anyone who says you're recording something the wrong way.

Are you approaching a stage where you find bedroom recording limiting or is it still what works best for you?
Well, I enjoy the process at home. The room I'm recording in now is really small ?? smaller than my last bedroom ?? so everything has this close, intimate thing going on. I decided to do drums at a friends place recently, because the ceiling in here is just too low. Every room has it's own sound, so I'm still trying to figure this one out. I like the idea of being able to record spontaneously. I haven't been able to do that in a studio, simply because it's too expensive. I find it difficult to force inspiration, which is what I end up doing if there's a meter running. Sometimes I don't pick up an instrument for a few days, but when I do, I like the option to be able to start recording right away.

What sort of direction are you taking with the new material?
That's kind of difficult to say... I think I'll understand it more when it's finished. At this point, it's starting to feel a little more eclectic than 'Hollow'.

CWAS #9 - Winter 2002