How the pandemic inspired San Diego musician Alfred Howard to write 100 songs
The ‘Alfred Howard Writes’ project also includes 100 paintings by Howard’s mother, Marian
When the COVID-19 shutdown first sent San Diegans scurrying into their homes, Marian Howard was worried about her son, musician Alfred Howard.
She was worried because he had already put his songwriting career on hold after nearly 20 years, so that wasn’t good. She was worried because none of the six bands he was in would be working either. Also not good.
But mostly she was worried because the son she loved wasn’t doing what he loved, and no mother wants that.
“When Alfred stopped writing, that broke my heart,” Marian said from her home in Chula Vista. “He loved writing, and he was so good at it. So when he said he didn’t feel it anymore, I was crushed. I said to him, ‘You can’t just give up your gift.’”
Nine months and 60-plus songs later, Marian Howard isn’t worried anymore. When the pandemic hit, Alfred Howard listened to his mother and his muse. After a month of hanging out at home, Alfred decided to get back to work in a very big way.
The project is called “Alfred Howard Writes,” in which Howard has challenged himself to write two songs a week until he hit 100 songs. Since June, he has been posting two songs a week on the project’s website. The lyrics are by Alfred, with music and vocals by a collection of musicians that includes fellow Redwoods Collective artists Rebecca Jade and Birdy Bardot; Goodnight, Texas singer/songwriter Avi Vinocur (who has also performed with Metallica); and David J of Love and Rockets.
And the stunning watercolor paintings that accompany each song? Those are the work of Marian Howard — illustrator, printmaker, painter and creative role model extraordinaire.
“I hit her up because I wanted to involve a visual element, and my mom is a prolifically creative person. She is always, always creating,” Alfred said of his mother, who studied at the Boston Institute of Art and the New School in New York. “All through her career, she was constantly evolving her art and trying different genres. I have always tried to do that, too.”
When Alfred moved to San Diego in 1999, the New Jersey native planned to soak up the sun and work in a record store. In that order. A longtime music love and rabid collector of vinyl albums, Howard figured music would always be a hobby, but probably not a career.
That changed when a friend had a birthday party at a La Jolla restaurant and gallery and asked her guests to bring poems as a gift. Howard performed his poem, and at the end of the evening, the owner asked him if he could come back in two weeks for a full reading.
Did he have any additional poems waiting in the wings? No, he did not. Did it matter? Not at all.
“I always wanted to do something with music, but I had no idea what that would be. I remember listening to Jimi Hendrix and going out and getting red bell bottoms and a guitar and trying to make music, and it was just so hard. I wanted to be instantly accomplished at something, and that’s not how it works,” said the 42-year-old Howard, who lives in North Park and works at the Vinyl Junkies Record Shack in South Park.
“But when I wrote that first poem, I got that kind of validation. I went home and I thought, ‘I’ve got to do a set, so I’d better start writing.’ I did it, and I never looked back.”
That first poetry reading led to a seven-year stint doing spoken-word performances with Alfred Howard and the K23 Orchestra, which ended when he lost his voice due to several chronic health conditions. But he kept writing for other people while working at Cow Records in Ocean Beach. He co-founded the Redwoods Collective and wrote lyrics for his fellow artists. He also wrote and performed with the Heavy Guilt.
For “Alfred Howard Writes,” the songwriter is once again collaborating with musical friends, along with musicians he has opened for during his many years of club performances and artists he just plain likes. He sends them lyrics, they send back vocals and music, and the songs are mixed and mastered by Mike Butler. There are dreamy pop-influenced songs, acoustic folks songs and grittier, blues-spiked tunes, each one accompanied by a short story written by Alfred and a watercolor painted by Marian.
“It’s been an adventure,” Marian said. “My whole mantra is, if I can’t learn something each day of my life, I don’t know why I’m existing. I would always say to Alfred, ‘If you can teach me something, then do that.’ I am always open to learning. Always.”
The songs can be streamed and purchased at alfredhowardwrites.com, which got a nice boost when singer Kelly Clarkson did a virtual interview with Alfred and Marian on her talk show earlier this month. Alfred figures he will be wrapping up his 100-song project around late May or early June. But he suspects the spirit of this musical marathon will be with him for many creative years to come.
“I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot of writing. It really is,” Howard said, laughing at the goal he set for himself. “But at the end of it, I will have this nice way to remember a year that I don’t want to ever think about again. That’s our job as artists, to reflect on what is going on and try to turn it into beauty.”
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