Redwoods Music founder and songwriter Alfred Howard made us a playlist of music that influenced him as he kicks off a new, year-long songwriting challenge.
Say hello to a new KPBS music feature, in which we ask San Diego musicians to make us a playlist and tell us about it. This is a way of sharing music together while we can't quite get out to live music performances, and it's a way of connecting to and discovering new stuff.
To kick things off, we start with the great Alfred Howard, founder of San Diego's Redwoods Music label and collective. He's written songs for dozens of albums over the last decade or so, and previously penned the much-loved "Black Gold" music column at San Diego CityBeat.
I asked Howard about his influences, because the range of music he creates indicates a vast and rich background. But in talking about his influences, he reflected a lot on where he is creatively in this moment, a pandemic amidst political and social upheaval, and the turbulent points in his life that led him to his songwriting career.
And here it is in Howard's own words.
I started out as a spoken word musician or artist, and always wrote a lot of lyrics and then I lost my voice for a while. So I stopped playing music for a little bit until I started writing songs and meeting singers who were willing to perform them.
So that started like a foray into songwriting and playing percussion in these bands. And I did that for more than 10 years. I was writing lyrics for eight bands in San Diego, playing a lot of shows. And I've had chronic Lyme disease for, gosh, since I was 14 years old and I'm 42 now, and it gives me a lot of joint problems, makes me really tired. So playing these shows late at night, getting up early, the physical pain that came with it. It was something that was difficult. The music wasn't fun the way it was when I started. So before the pandemic hit, I was kind of contemplating what was next for me musically. Could I keep playing shows? Was that the best way to do it? And I was, you know, kind of busy working other jobs. And I was ready to kinda... I made peace with it. I was ready to walk away.
And then quarantine hit, I found myself with a lot more free time and I started writing a song a day. And inviting people to collaborate, just via Facebook or Instagram. And enough people seemed interested in it that I started to kind of refine the idea. What if I personally reached out to people — some of whom I've been working with, some of whom I met at a gig in the past, some of whom I've been influenced by and were kind of reaches for me, but you never know. A lot of musicians have this newfound downtime in the gig-free economy.
And yeah, I got a really positive reception. A lot of folks were interested in working together. So I called my mom who is a watercolor painter and I asked her if she would wanna illustrate each song and she was totally in. I've always been in a lot of eclectic bands. Like, soul, psychedelic rock, folk, you know, Americana and stuff like that. But now that it's not like having to do a full album, I can kind of tackle any genre and it's just whatever two or three people kind of bring to the table is what we've been getting. So I got to write some jazz, working on a bluegrass song, working on a kind of old timey blues song, working with a folk singer in Virginia on a few songs. It's gonna be really eclectic.
'Soldier's Things' By Tom Waits
Tom Waits is a voice that I really love. You know, just such a unique style, and just a big influence on me musically. I would love to write with Tom Waits.
I don't really have any specific thing about that song. It's just got a mood to it. It's on his album "Swordfish Trombones," which is kind of like his first foray into avant garde music. There's nothing avant garde about this song, it's just got this beautiful piano part, it's really sparse, the lyrics are kinda haunting and I just always gravitated towards that song. I think it's also like, the album that it appears on makes it stand out, because it's just this kinda soft moody ballad.
'It's Alright, Ma, I'm Only Bleeding' By Bob Dylan
Maybe Bob Dylan, "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" is a song that I heard and I thought just lyrically... it was sort of, Dylan had sort of stepped away from the protest song side of folk, you know, or at least a lot of people kind of thought that about his music as he kind of plugged in and went electric. But this song is like, it's an acoustic song and it's as far as I'm concerned, it's like his biggest protest song. It's just a little bit more maybe poetic and abstract than just like, directly criticizing this big problem, you know. I thought that was like a move I could take lyrically. Where you don't wanna kind of beat people over the head with the message sometimes, sometimes you kind of have to dance around it and paint it a little bit differently for folks to hear it.
For me protest music is just music. I think a job of any artist is to reflect on the world around, on what's going on in society, and it's kind of hard to turn a blind eye to the last... any point in society. The last 4 years seem pretty intense as far as things go, but as far as I can remember I've been writing protest stuff since the Gulf War. Lots of artists have. I think maybe it becomes a little bit more esoteric how it lands in their lyrics, but you know, it's out there. It's not on the radio, but people are doing it.
'The Ballad Of Hollis Brown' (Live) By Nina Simone
And it was Nina Simone doing "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," which I — there's a live version of it more of a piano-based song, piano and drums and upright bass, and that is like the heaviest song I've ever heard. And that was one of the first Bob Dylan songs I got into, but then hearing Nina do it, she just made it her own. Oof, it's heavy.
'Spectral Alphabet' By Jason Molina
I had to pick one Jason Molina song. Jason Molina was in a group called Songs: Ohia, and the Pyramid Electric Company and he did a lot of solo stuff, he was really prolific, and he died young from, he kinda abused alcohol. But I think he's one of the best lyricists I've ever heard. And there's a line in the song I put on there, "Spectral Alphabet," that says, "Their names were inscribed by death in a spectral alphabet, their names looked foreign and they are forgotten by the world ahead." And I don't know but something about that line was just so gripping to me. He's just, he's got a great way with words, and I just wish more people had heard him.
'Right On For The Darkness' By Curtis Mayfield
Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield, I heard that a lot growing up. I went with Curtis Mayfield, "Right on for the Darkness," which is just like, his voice is just so good on that song, and the string arrangements are beautiful.
'Trouble Man' By Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye was tough because I kinda wanted to go with something from "What's Going On" because it has a little bit more of social, political overtones that fit the time, and just as an album, it's like the best soul album ever made. But it's hard to separate any of those individual songs cause they're such like, the whole album is a song. So I went with Trouble Man because I love the drum feel on that song and the production on it. And some of his cadences on it remind me of early hip hop-influence cadences, and I thought that was really cool.
'Brokedown Palace' By The Grateful Dead
I put the Grateful Dead on there because everyone always kind of clowns on the Grateful Dead. But the Grateful Dead... American Beauty, and Working Man's Dead? Those albums are tremendous. Great harmonies, great songwriting. You know, I put the song "Brokedown Palace;" it's written by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. I like that because Robert Hunter was not really in the band but wrote a lot of songs for the band, and that's kind of a position that I play in life. But that song was written around the time that Jerry Garcia's mother had passed away. And there's just lyrics and there's something... a certain tone in Jerry Garcia's voice that just like, kills me. Makes me wanna weep. And that's the song that gets me.
'Piano Joint (This Kind Of Love)' (And Intro) By Michael Kiwanuka
I put those two Michael Kiwanuka songs because they go together, it's like one song. That was the last concert I saw before the pandemic. And I went with my mom who had moved out here recently. And I got her that album for Christmas and she loves it so much and these are like these experiences — we didn't go to concerts when I was young. So like, getting to know my mom as an adult is a totally different experience, than knowing her when I was young. And getting to go to that concert with her was, it was really amazing.
Cause I figured out that that album to me has elements of like, Richie Havens, Pink Floyd, and Isaac Hays in some weird stew that works, you know? And it's like this perfect embodiment of music that my mom grew up on, but in a modern landscape. And just kind of sharing that memory with her, and having it be like the last concert before you know, the world was shut down for a little bit, just kind of resonates.
'Journey In Satchidananda' By Alice Coltrane
I came out to California on a Phish tour, which is something that I like to keep in the closet, a lot more so than my Grateful Dead fandom — but I was selling grilled cheeses in a Phish parking lot in 1999 on my way to California. And we would play music out of the back of my Toyota Corolla, and I remember playing Alice Coltrane, "Journey in Satchidananda" and it's just this really hypnotic, harp-based song.
After John Coltrane passed — she was John Coltrane's wife — it's Pharoah Sanders and just great players but like, I just remember people walking and stopping. And it was the music that stopped them, not the smell of our garlic grilled cheeses. And then they'd just spend the entire however long that song is, just standing and listening to it, and then at the end they'd ask like, "Hey, uh, do you know which direction I was going when I came here?" And we'd have to recalibrate their beings, you know? But that song has just got a special place in my heart. I just, the first time I heard it I was just like, what is this? It's otherworldly. And I didn't know music like that existed.
It's funny, cause I like the records that I've made over the past 10 years or so. It's a good feeling as an artist, you know. I think we're all constantly critical of things we've done. But I've gotten to this point where I'm really proud of the catalog that I've put out there, and I just hope to keep growing it, trying out new genres that I've never done before. 'Cause why not?
— Alfred Howard, June 2020
This interview has been edited for length. You can find a playlist here (and as is often the case with playlists, Howard made us a much, much longer one here with twice as many tracks here). You can subscribe to Howard's One Year of Songs project at his website, alfredhowardwrites.com, and write alongside him.