Since June, singer-songwriter Alfred Howard has been posting two new songs a week every Monday and Thursday without fail.
This slow rolling anthology is part of the San Diego-based artist’s Alfred Howard Writes project, a 100 song challenge born from COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. While in isolation, the venerated percussionist experienced a creative burst and began virtually reaching put to fellow musicians on the San Diego music scene to collaborate through Zoom.
The concept is a simple one, where Howard writes all of the lyrics and partners with a vocalist and other artists to record each
song, utilizing the magic of technology to share tracks and ideas. All songs are mixed and mastered by Mike Butler, while Alfred’s mom–renowned watercolor artist Marian Howard–has created paintings for each of her son’s songs, which base their roots in jazz, bluegrass and blues.
Among the artists who’ve guested on Alfred Howard Writes include Brad Barr (The Barr Brothers), Nicki Bluhm (Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers), Dani Bell (Dani Bell & the
Tarantist), Nathan Moore (ThaMuseMeant, Surprise Me Mr. Davis, The Whole Other), Annie Ellicott (Jeff Goldblum) and Goodnight, Texas (featuring Avi Vinocur, backing vocalist for Metallica) among others. And American Songwriter is proud to premiere the 50th song from the series, “Cedars Talk,” which finds Howard working alongside Atlanta folk singer Kelly McFarling on one of the strongest tunes in the series so far.
American Songwriter had the chance to catch up with both Howard and McFarling about how “Cedars Talk” came about to gain further insight into the collaborative process between lyricist and arranger.
For more information on Alfred Howard Writes and to check out the songbook so far, visit www.alfredhowardwrites.com.
American Songwriter: Alfred, what inspired you to write this song?
Alfred: So, before the pandemic hit, my girlfriend and I had the audacity of making vacation plans. She has two little ones, so trips require nuanced outlining months in advance, but we were heading to Big Sur, a place I have spent a lot of time and she had yet to visit. I even have a record named after it. As we got closer to the journey, I furthered the audacity by saying, “Nothing can stop us, we just have to get to the weekend.” Three days later, California was shut down and Big Sur was no longer in our immediate forecast. When Kelly signaled her willingness to participate in the project, I went and listened to her most recent album and just got a feel for her voice, and then I wrote this song about Big Sur reveries from the vantage point of a city’s quicksand.
American Songwriter: And, Kelly, what inspired you about the lyrics to this song that made you want to work on the track? What did you think the song is about when you read the lyrics?
Kelly: Truth be told, the thing that made me want to do this song was the part where Al asked me to do it. I didn’t need to see the lyrics to know they would be amazing. They arrived as expected; gift-wrapped in a perfect meter of longing, loss, elusive time, and the balm and perspective of the natural world. They revealed the strange consequences of the times in a soothing way. Sitting with them and a guitar – while every gig, job, plan, source of income, and expectation evaporated – felt like the correct thing to do with this new version of time. Their cadence fell off of every chord progression like slow-cooked ribs. I chose the classiest one. The melody toppled out.
American Songwriter: How do you two know each other?
Kelly: I think I met Alfred once in San Diego, maybe at Lestats in 2011 or something. My friend Avi Vinocur introduced me to him and told me he was a genius. Since then, I’ve followed his work as a musician and lyricist in various bands, but mostly I look to him as a trusted news outlet. His prolific observations are a poetic funhouse mirror of culture, consciousness, and humanity. The ridiculous parts, the heartbreaking parts, the colorful and horrible and gorgeous hilarious parts. His language is an interpretive dance performance of words. He’s the only reason I go on Facebook.
Alfred: Kelly is right about Lestats. She and I played a show together a million years ago at Lestats. I was playing with the Midnight Pine, and Goodnight, Texas was also on the bill. I’ve done a few songs for Alfred Howard Writes with members from Goodnight, Texas, and I had asked Avi if he could suggest any singers for the project. He said he’d reintroduce me to Kelly. I was excited because I’m a huge fan of her music and her stunning voice. She said she was down. I love working with folks like Kelly who I’m inspired by. With this song, I knew I had to bring something really special to the table. I wanted every line to count.
American Songwriter: Talking about bringing something special to the table, which you both do, and wanting every line to count, how was it working with each other on this song?
Alfred: I have a pretty hands-off approach to most songs for the project. Every song is a little different. But, generally, I like to plant the seed of a lyric and see what grows from it. I had a little voice note just to illustrate the rhythm of the words and how I heard the rhymes falling. I didn’t hear the song along its journey. She sent me the song when it was done, and I was totally blown away.
Kelly: It was easy. Alfred gave me lots of time and freedom and was patient while I sat with the process. It took a very long time. I was able to wrangle my bandmates to record remotely for this song, and I love that we got to make something together in quarantine and that it was this.
American Songwriter: Kelly, commenting on the lyrics, since those were sent to you fully formed by Alfred, what is your favorite lyric line?
Kelly: My favorite line is: “And the wind moves through the cedars and I listen when they talk.” There was another line in the song that I really loved but we had to cut it for the arrangement: “Before time it felt a fever/and the days came to a close / and the only constellations / were the headlights coming glow.” I also like how the lyrics juxtapose human chaos with moonbeams.
American Songwriter: And Alfred, since you had no real input on the music or vocals, what do you like about what Kelly and her bandmates did with the song and your lyrics? Favorite parts?
Alfred: I love everything about where this song landed. It’s interesting approaching music this way. It’s kinda like having someone else raise your children. Actually, now that I have children in my life, it’s nothing at all like that. But when the words leave my possession, sometimes I have an idea for them or a desire for a certain soundscape. I’ve had songs that I heard as an Al Green-feeling soul ballad come back sounding more like a Queens of the Stone Age song. I love that, because it’s an adventure and getting to hear someone’s interpretation of your words is amazing. But this one came back so perfectly. The band sounds amazing and her voice conveys that longing for escape from a difficult world. I choked up listening the first time, because I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve been a part of. It took me to a very specific place on the California coastline; I felt the wind and the silence, and I saw the silhouettes of trees in the midnight moon. I texted her immediately and asked her if she wanted to do the remaining 50 songs.
American Songwriter: Kelly, what do you think of the Alfred Howard Writes project?
Kelly: It’s a beautiful template for collaboration. A time capsule of creativity, brain waves, and collective consciousness during a surreal time. It’s the talent show for camp quarantine. Alfred is the camp director, and he also oversees the music department. His mom is the art teacher.
American Songwriter: Alfred, you’ve passed the halfway point with Alfred Howard Writes. How does that accomplishment feel? How do you think “Cedars Talk” fits in with the project overall?
Alfred: This is song number 54 out of 100. It feels good to have landed past the halfway point. When I set out to record 100 quality songs with different people, I knew it would be challenging on so many fronts – arranging all the moving parts, meeting new people, recording in the new paradigm. What never worried me was the writing side. In a year as tumultuous as this, there would always be something to reflect on, good, bad, or personal. But to be 54 songs in and having a moment of growth and being able to play a small part in this beautiful song gets me excited for the remaining 46 songs and to see what other sonic adventures are waiting around the corner. P.S. We made it to Big Sur.