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After long dry spell, a creative revival for Alaska songwriter Michael Howard

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 24, 2015

For a long time, writing and performing music was little more than a personal relic for Michael Howard -- a token of youth that, as an adult, he tucked away like a keepsake in an idle chest of drawers.

But when he finally pulled his guitar out of the closet, he found it was not only something he didn't want to give up, but something he couldn't.

In the few years since, Howard quickly developed into an earnest songwriter, delivering tunes with a unique voice and a palpable sense of urgency. With two albums under his belt and a third set for release early next year, Howard has thrown himself into music full time, bouncing back and forth between Portland and his home town of Anchorage between tour stints.

"I think naturally, when I latch onto a project or whatever I sink my teeth into, I do it all the way," Howard said.

Howard's introduction to the Anchorage music scene came as a teen, playing and attending local punk rock shows.

"From a young age, music was my form of expression," he said.

After playing in a handful of local bands, he called it quits as a musician, but didn't give up on music. His interests turned from punk to folk and blues, the early works of Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk.

"I put music aside for two or three years," he said. "I had a professional career. The guitar was in the closet. When I picked it up, I had a different perspective and taste that had emerged."

His most recent album, "The Martyr & The Magician," released early this year, explores those folk influences while maintaining a punk ethic.

"The Tallest Man in Idaho," a standout track off the album, merges lush picking with a contemplative tone and sharp imagery: "I saw the hound's tongue choke the bullrush out / Under a mackerel sky of angry, bitter clouds / I heard the valley filled with rye whisper/ 'Boy, this is the last time you'll be coming through.'"

On "The Martyr & The Magician," Howard used his home state as an influence, but in a more unexpected way.

"Alaska is amazing," he said. "It's world-class inspiration. You get up there and get immersed in it. I think a lot of my last album is coming from Anchorage. Alaska has a lot of beauty, but there's a dark side of it. I had some angst, feelings about the long, cold, dark winters and the isolation. It's such a fascinating place, the history and politics and the current diversity of it. You don't think of it as Alaska inspiration, but it's in my songs."

As a writer, Howard says he is evolving and increasingly self-aware. For his upcoming album, a number of the songs came rapidly after a prolonged stretch of writer's block.

"I've spent a lot of time becoming aware of my work habits and creative patterns," he said. "I read all these self-help books. I went through a really long dry spell over the past six months. I was very aware of it. I have to write. I had booked the studio time. I just had to write. I kind of forced it but it came as a creative burst and it feels good to be writing again."

Howard received a major recognition for his writing in 2014, when he was named a regional finalist Mountain Stage NewSong Contest.

"It felt like a big success to be recognized by a national songwriting competition on that scale," he said. "The competition has an impressive roster of winning songwriters who went on to have solid careers, some more or less well known. It was a huge encouragement to feel like ears that matter listening and giving approval to my work."

The breakthrough came in his third year entering the contest. Howard has also won the Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation for musical composition this year.

As dedicated as Howard is about the songwriting craft, has been just as adamant about getting his music to the people. He said he's spent the last couple of summers based in Alaska and winters in Portland, touring and performing on a regular basis. It's also been some of the most fertile ground for song concepts and themes.

"Being on the road is super inspiring," he said. "I take little voice memos and log away thoughts and imagery, hash that out into songs."

Touring and recording independently has also given Howard a crash course on the changing music industry. And while he's active on digital formats and social media, Howard said he's had his best success with relentless touring.

"It's a big ocean out there," he said. "Artists, promoters, labels are all trying to figure it out. My style is very personal. It's intended to be there in a face-to-face way. Me getting out there and playing is key."

After recently recording the new batch of songs in San Francisco, Howard says most of the work on his third album is already complete, .

"They're different," he said of the songs. "A little bit more raw, super stripped down. I think the charm of being a songwriter is the guitar, the voice and the songwriting."

Michael Howard

When: 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27

Where: Tap Root Public House

Tickets: No cover (21+ or all ages with parent or legal guardian)