The Un-Average New Yorker
In the Urban/R&B/Soul music scene of today, it’s quite easy to get bombarded with what most people would call the “Cookie Cutter” sound. Whether it’s via radio, TV or even in your cousins ride on your way to the club on a Friday night, more than likely you won’t be able to escape the reality that there isn’t much originality anymore. It probably won’t escape you either that popular media has gone to great lengths to control what listeners deem as “good music”. It’s not a new phenomenon but it does make it uber-hard for lesser known artists with more than relevant music to get their spot in the sun.
Enter Social Media and the power that it wields.
Seriously. SM never ceases to amaze me. Be it MySpace, Facebook, etc. but especially when it comes to Twitter. I’ve had an account for about six months now and it has totally opened me up to personalities, artists, mixtapes, full albums, blogs, sites, pictures….you name it, that I would have either been totally clueless about or would have come across eventually in some random search and even then may still have overlooked.
Case in point; about three months back, I happened to be on Twitter speaking to random people that follow me and out of the blue I get a tweet from a guy named @Nicholas Howard. It was nothing major. Just a normal, run of the mill reply to some craziness I had unleashed on the Tweeting world. Since I was still quite new to the Twitter game and hadn’t very many followers, let alone those that actually would take time out of their busy Tweets to speak to me yet, I did the customary, Twitter-wide excepted thing and sent him a “Thanks For Following” Direct Message or DM.
He responded in kind and I took a few moments to read some of his recent tweets.
From reading those, I came to the conclusion of Nicholas being a musician in the Jackson Heights, NY area and was in the process of finishing his second LP. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a Jackson Heights in New York, let alone that there was a first album but I was now officially interested in hearing what he had to offer for my discerning ears. I promptly sent him a reply Tweet asking if he would be interested in interviewing for TSR.
He humbly accepted (as if I’m a big league writer or some nonsense but after speaking with him, I realized that humility is one of his shining qualities), we hashed out a few particulars, exchanged emails and I began preparing my questions. You know, good old fashioned networking, just done via Twitter.
Notice the recurring theme here? Get the hint, get an account, get connected.
While I was making those preps, Nicholas was nice enough to send me an advance copy of his new LP “God Is In The City“. So being the techie I am, I immediately converted the mp3’s into FLAC files, burned them to a disc, put it in my player, found a comfy spot on the couch and pressed play on the remote. Whenever I give a new CD it’s first run through my ear canals, I actually perform the long lost art of active listening. It’s something that a lot of people don’t do these days. Active Listening, from an audiophile’s POV, involves actually giving every track it’s fair shake…err…listen, no matter how painful a song may be to listen to completely the first time. I just feel from experience that new audios don’t always resonate with people on the first go around.
Why do you think that “Radio & Video Psychology” works so well on the masses? The listeners of those media outlets, be they casual or avid, normally like their music handed out in small, easy to readily accept or quickly dismiss bites.
Unfortunately for them, Howard’s recent offering is so much of a full course meal, that they may have issues digesting it as a whole.
For the casual listener, the easiest ones to consume, would be the tracks where Howard gives you the more uptempo side of his work, as shown in the introspective yet catchy, call & response vibe of “Life Is a Mystery” or “My Hands Are Rough“, proudly displaying it’s in-your-face but not over the top infectious horns and my personal favorite;
“What if I’ve Shown You it All”
It’s arrangement reminds me so much of the recent British Soul movement that @vivrant_thang tuned me into when she introduced my ears to Leon King’s “Knowingness” or the Kylie Auldist LP that @SoulUK sent my way recently.
On the other end of the spectrum, for those looking for a lighter, more mellow and sometimes darker sound, I would suggest the sometimes mournful but surprisingly haunting refrains of “Mother” and it’s message about the human races’ treatment of the environment, the stark honesty of
“Blood from A Stone”
or the ethereal strains within “Scotch on Her Lips“. The melody in the latter will literally stalk around your brain stem afterward but either of those would be enough to soothe any restless soul in the wee hours of morning.
At any rate, the aforementioned tracks are easily contenders for singles to get at least a couple of demographics familiar with his sound but after the first listen, I wasn’t quite sure if that was how Nicholas intended you to hear his work.
In short, Nicholas’ music has a certain vibe to it that I really liked. I just was at a loss for what kind of nomenclature to give to it. I’m not just speaking of one song but the entire essence of the CD. From the way each song leads into the next, to the meticulous writing and inordinate subject matter he tackles, to the change in timbre of his voice to fit said writing. Let’s also not forget about the instrumentation. IMHO, it’s quite impressive and a big part of what make this album gel. Each track has been carefully orchestrated by Howard and his adept production crew in New York and on location in California, to masterfully create the crucial sonics needed to convey Nicholas’ writing precisely. The LP speaks to you on a whole other music level, far beyond the “common, run of the mill” hit single that radio has drilled into the minds of the masses an artist needs to have any sort of success in the music business.
So, on my second listen (cause I always spin a new disc twice before make a determination) I searched again for what this LP was saying to me within it’s allotted 46:12 minutes but the right word(s) didn’t really hit home for me until I got to the last track again. My revelation; the album, unlike some of what passes as “good” music of recent days, has an actual plot. Which is actually quite refreshing and a strong testament to Howard’s craft.
Seriously, the album has a plot. No, I don’t mean it has a bunch of skits in between songs as some LP’s are warrant to do these days. Nor does it sound like a bunch of “cut” songs that someone happened across and attempted to put together in some cryptic order. When GIITC is listened to in it’s entirety, it is quite plain to see that each song literally lends itself to the one prior as if you are being privy to a young man’s secret thought process in regards to his life, place and mental state at the precise moment his muse comes to him. All the Hopes, Dreams, Loves (Past, Present, gone for good or here to stay) Understanding, etc. All of it.
It was all there. On a 1.2 mm thick, polycarbonate plastic disc, that I had crassly scribbled his name and album title on with a Sharpie. Black to be exact.
Yes, I admit it….
I illegibly scrawled my chicken scratch over Howard’s music. Music that could easily be the score for a play, maybe not Broadway just yet but it could most definitely be Off-Broadway. Or perhaps, one of those cult classic films that you see on Encore or the Sundance Film Festival, that every so often gains it’s following not only for the writing, cameo appearances or quirky subject matter but also due to how the music within the film completely complements all three of those elements. See “The Wackness” for a better reference.
I know most wouldn’t understand this but because I had aspirations of being an artist at one point in life, I felt I had disgraced his work with my abrupt scrawling. So I reached into my mass of blank discs, extracted another one of better quality, burned another copy and carefully printed his name and the title in my best handwriting. My grade school teacher would have been proud.
Happy with my new found revelation about his LP, I emailed him to get some confirmation on it. He hit me back pretty quick with his reply:
“This album’s theme is New York City and the trials, triumphs and thoughts as a man going through it. “God is in the City” explains how I believe NYC is a blessed place and because it is blessed, why so many people come here to realize their dreams and why so many native New Yorkers stay to realize their dreams in a place that is so hard to live in. Every day we go through different things. Relationships, bad days, good days, pissed off days. And in my case, all these feelings are accentuated by the pressures of NYC. This is my New York, everyday living album to put it plainly.”
Now not being from NY myself but knowing, meeting, working and living with so many transplants to NC from the NY/NJ/CT areas, I can sort of gather what he means here. In short, Howard would want you to get a glimpse into his life and see where and how it relates to yours because more profoundly, the LP is not just about the experiences of a single average New Yorker. The themes he expounds on can also be related to Joe Smuckatelli living in Anyplace, USA.
In our discussion (cause it was so relaxed, I really can’t think of it as an interview) NH told me that even though he’s an Indie and everything he does is self generated or without major financial backing from a major label, he appreciates the the freedom it affords him to explore and create music for the listener to understand and enjoy.
For him it’s about the realness or genuineness of the music instead of making something formulaic or geared towards a specific demographic. He went further to say that even though the music industry’s major goal is to make money, with affording a living for an artist seeming to run a distant second at times, at some point the industry has to realize that making music and selling records are two entirely different things:
“There are times that I feel the industry thinks that consumers are dumb but what the industry has to realize is that it can’t lie to the consumer any longer. There are too many resources and outlets today for people to find whatever they like to listen to and not what someone wants to program them to like. Labels must start taking more risks on unknowns and helping to develop artists again and the artists’ sound.”
I can always respect that in any artist. I can also respect any artist that starts with grassroots marketing such as Howard has with a traditional plan to assist with finding his audience of involved listeners.
That includes Interviewing, Touring, Blogging, Facebooking, Twittering…whatever….
That’s a tall order in today’s music scene but Nicholas is a self described extremist so he feels ready for the work involved in the “do-it-yourself”. As long as he continues to look through his Rip In The Sky, I’m sure others will begin to crane their necks skyward as well.
Nicholas was gracious enough to allow me to link one of his favorite songs from “God’s In The City” here for you to put in your next playlist rotation. Just right click the download link, save to a folder or your desktop and it’s all yours.
Nicholas Howard – Blood from A Stone.mp3
Want to get in touch with Nicholas, a/o purchase his music? Check the links below.
Nicholas Howard Contact Info and Sites: