Recently Mike Howe sat down with Michael Foster of Ambient Visions to discuss his music and other pursuits.
AV: Do you remember when it was that you fell in love with music?
MH: Yes it was when I was about 2 or 3 years old, I used to listen to the Beatles on an old fashioned record player and I used to make microphones to sing into out of toilet roll tubes. I also remember listening to “Peter and the Wolf” over and over again, I loved that.
AV: What does music do for you that other art forms don’t?
MH: Music just excites me much more than other art forms. I’m kind of deeply interested in the mechanics of it even though I don’t know much about music in an academic sense. My understanding of music is much more intuitive I think.
AV: Did you study music academically at some point in your life? If not could you tell me how you learned to play and what advantages/disadvantages you have because you did or did not not have formal music training.
MH: No I never studied music. I can’t read or write it. I learned to play firstly by watching musicians on tv and, when I was older, at gigs. Then it was simply a case of picking up instruments and trying to play them, imitating what I’d seen and heard. It was really hard but I didn’t mind because it was so exciting to me.
I think there is an obvious disadvantage of not having had formal music training in that I am probably much more limited in what I can do technically than I might otherwise have been. But I think my deep intuition for music makes up for that a little bit and allows me to come up with creative solutions to these limitations.
AV: Tell me about your other career as an ecologist and what it was that drew you to that field of study and that career path.
MH: My deep association with all things ecological is rooted in fairly humble beginnings. I would play in the woods near our house as a boy whenever I could. Like many other children I would build dens, ford streams, climb trees and lose myself in a fantasy world of adventure. I wasn’t thinking about ecology, I was simply living and breathing the natural world, my senses more alive than they have ever been since.
When I was older I ventured into the relative wilds of the North Wales mountains and I was stunned by the rugged beauty and excited about the wild possibilities of exploring the next ridge and wooded valley. It was a world that I wanted to be part of forever. So it was natural for me to study this subject at university and eventually I was able to find work as an ecologist at a National Park in Wales.
AV: Do you see a connection between the music that you create now and your work to protect wildlife and the environment in Wales? How so?
MH: I think it’s important to write about what you care about and what you know so that the music has an authenticity. I think as far as the conservation of nature is concerned I have a reasonable amount of experience and the inspiration for the music definitely comes from that life I’ve had. But I write about many other things too of course.
AV: Do you think that people who enjoy your music and other artists who create music similar to yours are more sensitive to the plight of nature in the 21st century than those who don’t?
MH: No I don’t think so, from my experience people who have a deep concern for nature in today’s world come from a variety of backgrounds and enjoy a diversity of music. I think there is a deep sensitivity inherent in my music and that of many other artists, but concern for global problems can be, and is, expressed in many musical forms.
AV: When was it that you decided to start writing music of your own and was there anything in particular that prompted you to set out on the path of a musician?
MH: I wrote my first tune when I was 36. Up to that point I was convinced that I was utterly unable to compose music, much as I wanted to. And then a tune popped out. It wasn’t great and I still haven’t recorded it. But after that many more followed and thankfully they keep coming. A door to a different part of me opened one day and there was all this music waiting to be created. It isn’t such a big deal though I think. Too many artists treat it like it’s some kind of magical gift. I think that would be exaggerating what’s actually happening somewhat, but it is wonderful fun and extremely fulfilling.
AV: Had you listened to much new age/ambient music prior to setting out on your own journey of being a musician? What were your thoughts about these genres of music prior to your personal involvement?
MH: I hadn’t listened to much music that would be classified as new age or ambient, it’s not a popular genre in the UK, but I have listened extensively to instrumental music that would probably be classed in the UK as jazz. What I’ve found is that, regardless of the genre classification, there is music that I love and have learned from greatly, and there is music that I don’t connect with, so I’m no different from everyone else. If other people want to call my music new age that’s fine, but I’d rather not because I don’t really identify with that terminology.
AV: How many instruments do you play and how did you become proficient in playing such a variety of instruments?
MH: I learned to play bass guitar first because it was easier for me to play than a 6 string, and then progressed to guitar, drums and keyboards. But the acoustic guitar has become my main instrument I’d say mainly because of listening to Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, John Scofield and guys like that play. They inspired me hugely. For all of my albums I have had to learn to play all of these instruments better to be able to play the songs I’d composed, and that was a great challenge. I’ve had to completely re-learn my guitar technique by teaching myself new hand positions and finger movements, and at times it’s been difficult and frustrating. But I keep at it because I love it, it’s as simple as that.
AV: Once you started to write music was it a forgone conclusion that you would eventually put out an album of your music so others could enjoy your compositions as well?
MH: No absolutely not, I didn’t have the first idea about how to make an album or how to release it out into the world. I didn’t have a clue and to be honest I never thought it would happen, not in my wildest dreams.
AV: Tell me about how you connected with Real Music in California with you living in Wales?
MH: I love telling people this because it still makes me laugh even now. It took me quite a long time to learn how to record my compositions properly. I had to do it myself because I didn’t have any money to pay someone to do it for me. So I recorded a few songs and kind of thought they were ok, but didn’t know what to do with them. So I did what millions of other people do. I sent demo CD's off around the world to anybody and everybody, using Internet searches to find record labels, publishing companies, music libraries and so on.
It was 3 years after I’d sent a demo to Real Music that Terence Yallop, President of Real Music, got in touch to say he’d like to use one of my songs on a compilation album, and would that be ok? I couldn’t believe it, and I couldn’t even remember having sent the demo it had been so long. Of course I was thrilled because up to that point I had been either ignored or politely rejected by everyone else. Well one thing led to another and Real Music offered me a recording contract, I can’t tell you how proud and amazed I was.
AV: You’ve put out several albums starting with Time Stands Still in 2009. What are your thoughts about the work required to take your songs from brand new compositions to finished track on a released album? How hands on are you when it comes to working in the studio recording your songs?
MH: I do absolutely everything myself apart from the final mastering. I record, engineer and mix the songs myself and I spend literally hundreds of hours immersed in the whole process for each album. Like my learning of playing instruments I’ve taught myself how to do it and I make the best of what I’ve got. I don’t believe in investing in lots of technology and kit, I think it’s more important to write good music and let it speak for itself. Having said that, the recording and mixing process is very important and I find it really enjoyable and interesting. It’s all about having a good ear for what works and what doesn’t.
AV: Do you enjoy the business aspects of promoting your music?
MH: At the beginning I was very uncomfortable with the promotional side, and in some ways I still am. But I’ve realized that it is so important for an artist to promote his or her music and you’ve got to use the great tools that are available to us these days. Using my website and social media is really useful and besides giving me a platform to showcase my music, they also enable me to connect with people who like my music on a personal level which is really cool. And despite my natural shyness I actually enjoy doing it.
AV: Your latest album is called Heading West which was released last year. Tell me about where the name of the album came from and about where the inspiration of the music included on this release came from.
MH: Quite a long time ago I had the opportunity to do a very long road trip all the way around the USA, and it was fantastic. I saw some of the most amazing places, landscapes and cities and the whole experience left a lasting impression on me. Following the release of my previous 3 albums I wanted to set myself a new challenge, so I decided to write some songs with strong jazz, folk and soul influences and I drew from that road trip and many books I’d read to do it. It was as if these places had their own musical voice, I just had to listen to hear them, and the songs emerged. The record label understood the concept and came up with the name of the album, which fitted the music pretty well I think.
AV: How difficult is it for you to take the experiences of traveling through the American West and translate those feelings into music?
MH: Not difficult at all now, but a few years ago it was impossible for me. The only real difficulty I have now is that I may go through extended periods when I just don’t feel like writing music, I think because although when I’m composing it feels easy and natural, when I’m not composing it can feel very daunting and a bit scary. That’s the only way I can describe it. But translating the feelings into music is easy because those feelings in me are so strong.
AV: What would you say characterizes the songs that listeners will find on Heading West?
MH: I think that they have heart and I think they speak of the people and places they are written about quite well. One thing that I was very conscious of when making the album was the danger of a British guy just creating a musical cliché about the American west. What I really wanted was to create warm, acoustic, soulful songs that spoke of not only the landscapes and cities, but the people who live there now and those who lived there in the past.
AV: Do you plan on continuing your work in conservation management right alongside of your musical pursuits? Does this create some issues with how much time you can spend on composing/writing/recording your music?
MH: I make a living from my conservation work, I don’t from my music. It’s so difficult for musicians to make money these days that only a small proportion earn enough money to live on. If you add in mortgages and children then it only gets harder. Having said that I love most of my conservation work so much so that I wouldn’t want to give it up entirely, but it does mean that I can’t invest as much time into my music as I’d like to. There’s no easy answer to that, you just have to try and make it work.
AV: Do you take your music on the road by doing live shows?
MH: No I haven’t done that for lots of reasons. I’m happy for now composing and recording albums. If the opportunity ever came up to play live I’d love to, but quite a number of key things would be needed for that to happen.
AV: What kind of feedback have you been getting from fans who enjoy listening to your music? Does hearing that kind of feedback tell you that you are on the right track with the music you compose?
MH: Oh yes the feedback I get is incredible. People are so nice to me because they’ve enjoyed my songs and albums, and they get in touch all the time to let me know. If someone connects so deeply with an emotion you’ve expressed through a song it’s extremely gratifying and definitely gives you a sense that you’re doing something right! And I’m always grateful that people have taken the time and trouble to let me know.
AV: Do you think that you will find other places like the American West that will inspire you to create a whole album inspired by what you see in nature?
MH: I hope so, because that will have meant that I’ll probably have done some traveling and seen some amazing places! But the album I’m writing at the moment is a little more abstract in that it’s not “about” anything or anywhere in particular . Each time I embark on a new project it’s because I want to explore an area I haven’t been into, and for this album I have been writing songs with a little more edge to them. I’m only half way through so it will continue to evolve, but it’s important for me to try new things. It’s not always obvious to the audience but Heading West was a big development and a huge challenge for me, and that often makes it much more rewarding. And so my next album will follow in that emerging tradition, otherwise I wouldn’t feel inspired to write and record in the first place.
AV: Thank you for taking the time to share some of your ideas with Ambient Visions' readers about your music and your latest release Heading West. I wish you continued success both with your music and your work to help preserve the environment that we will be passing along to our children and our grandchildren.