Barna Howard has been stirring up some nice and slow waves in the blogs the last few months with his self titled first folk album, released via the new Portland label, Mama Bird Recording Co. on February 21st. Barna is definitely new to the game- we arranged for this interview to happen at 9:30p.m. ATL time, 6:30p.m. Portland time. Somehow he got confused and called up ATL at 9:30 on the dot in the morning. 6:30a.m. his time. On a Sunday. You've just gotta love that. Endearing charm aside, one swoop through "Promise I Won't Laugh" [click for a free download] will let you know that Barna would've been kickin it with Townes Van Zandt, Pete Seeger, John Prine, Bert Jansch, and of course good ol Bobby-all men he's been compared to-back in tha day. With only his guitar and voice in tow, Barna's for sure a simplistic gentleman, with an almost primal grasp on melody. The level of richness in these songs is a little startling. It will certainly be curious to see what he does in the coming years. Barna alas tellied in at 9:30p.m. ATL time and talked to us about growing up in Missouri (amusement parks! a WWII vet ping pong champ for a grandpa! woods!), old loves he still can celebrate, and why you have to take your last brush stroke when making music.
What was your childhood like in Missouri?
Barna Howard: It was beautiful in Eureka. You could get out and walk around the woods, and we had a downtown area. Everybody knew each other, where I grew up.
I lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas for five years and I remember I used to go up to Silver Dollar Springs? [an amusement park] in, well, somewhere in Missouri!
[Laughs] You mean Silver Dollar City! My grandma would just pile us in the station wagon and we'd all go down there.
Who taught you how to play guitar?
In elementary school my dad taught me. I was very interested in music. As you grow up you start to hear words, hear lyrics, hear stories, and I was interested right off the bat. My dad never really learned his own songs but he was always playing in the living room. I just asked him one day, and he taught me five chords and said "That's all you really need to know. Know about five, six chords, and you'll figure the rest out."
This is a very tight album in terms of its basic structure. Absolutely no frills are here.
I wanted to take my time making this record. I wanted to feel comfortable and I dabbled in a lot of different techniques and areas that were interesting. I wanted to find a way to paint my pictures. The way I present my songs is important because I want to do this until the day that I die. So I wanted to have my craft dialed down.
So you were once apart of this underground group of performers in Boston called the Hootenannies?
Yeah, I moved to Boston not really knowing anybody. But I ended up meeting a few people that eventually became really good friends of mine like Vince [Bancheri, founder of Portland's new Mama Bird Recording Co.] It went until like three in the morning, just jamming songs both traditional and original. It was a lot of good creative folks to be around.
And didn't you move out to Portland with Vince to start up Mama Bird?
Yeah, and they had been in Boston years before I got there and were kind of done with it, and I was kind of ready to leave. I mean, Boston is great but it wasn't me. So they went to Portland and came back and were like "yeah, I think you'll love it". And I do love it up here. And I feel like I'm finally getting somewhere with music. A lot of great musicians are willing to collaborate and help you out. People up here are very gracious.
So I was looking at these two blogs and they were both saying how they were having a hard time translating how they feel and think about you onto the page. Song By Toad said "it's incredibly difficult for me to even begin to guess what makes this such a special album. In amongst all the bazillions of serious people plucking acoustic guitars, this record is a wonderful, magnetic piece of work." There's really kind of a badass quality about banking on only your voice and a guitar, especially in today's day and age. And the weird thing is that I'm not a big fan of the singer songwriter thing, yet that's exactly what you are.
Yeah I know what you mean, I'm not a big fan of it either. I'll say "I'm a singer songwriter" and people are like "No, you're not really". I don't even know if that's become a genre.
I do think that's what you are term wise, but yeah, I just don't get that singer songwriter vibe from you either.
Yeah, but I decided to try to just keep it really stripped back, just me and the guitar. I wanted to be lyrically driven. I am kind of exposed in this album, and you know, it is what it is. The next one will most likely have a little bit more instrumentation but it's still gonna be the same track that I'm heading down now.
What's your favorite songs to sing off this record?
I really like "Promise, I Won't Laugh" and "Timber, Nails, and Tears". They were both put together like a puzzle. I feel really good about them in my mind. Mentally I feel like they are complete.You know, you can keep writing, changing here and there, but eventually you gotta stop to get the point across. You don't want to butcher it. Like a painting, you have to stop painting eventually. It's gotta be done, you gotta take your last brush stroke.
Who is "Promise, I Won't Laugh" about?
That was about a girl I loved at one point, and it didn't work out. For a number of years I had a tough time with it- when it first happened. I had written songs about her before [while in a relationship] and songs about her after we had broken up about her. But this was kind of me wanting to make one last song about her, it's kind of the song that I always wanted to write. Just to kind of bring across the point of celebrating it instead of being sad it happened. We were sad for a reason, and that reason was because that thing that was there wasn't there anymore, and when it was there it was great. And just because it's gone doesn't mean it's a bad thing, it still lives on and it's still celebrated for me. Just like when Grandma passes away, we go to the funeral and we cry, but it's also a celebration of her life- like there is still something there. And I just wanted to create a song that revolved around that idea. As simple as it is- it's a very simple song.
Tell me about "It Hurts to Know".
It was me thinking of things that it hurts to know. And the first one was about leaving home. My mom is a wonderful wonderful woman. When I was living in Chicago I could still drive down and visit, but when I moved away it was tough on her. It was kind of about, you know, growing up. I guess your parents assume when you go out at night to have fun that you're being safe, or they at least wanna believe that even though they've probably been at the same exact place that I was at one time. Just, you now, telling white lies and saying "everything's fine" just for the sake of making them happy and keeping them calm. And just simply leaving, it always hurts to think you made your momma cry, especially if you have a good relationship with her.
There's a lot of family on this record.
Yeah. It's a very transient, lifted-my-roots thing. A lot of people that I know are still in Eureka. I just wanted to get out of there and kind of see more. And that's kind of how this album is.
You recently said in a video with "Timber Nails and Tears" that it was inspired by a man you went to high school with who got killed in the war. Have you shared that song with the family?
Yeah, I don't know if they know or not. My mom might've given it to them- she actually went to school with his parents. I kind of wrote that song from the view point of him and his wife. And the daughter in the song is actually kind of his sister, Megan, who I was closer to. It was really strange to know he wasn't walking around some where. It perks you up in a way.
Is Barna your real name? It's a great name.
It's my grandpa's nickname. His mentor in WWII was an incredible ping pong player and my grandpa, little did he know, was too. When they were on leave he ended up winning this big ping pong tournament and everybody after that started calling my Grandpa "Barna", and then it was a namesake for me.
What are you listening to right now?
I've been listening to Phosphorescent and Damien Jurado. Damien's great. He's always in town at some cafe. I respect him so much. He's one of those- he's been playing for fifteen years. I really enjoy listening to him live- especially live. I think I enjoy him live more so than the albums.
So what's going on now? I notice that you're not touring.
Yeah, hopefully it'll happen. This summer I'm imagining a west coast tour.
Are you working on anything new?
I'm about half way through song wise with the next one. So I'll probably be releasing another one around this time next year.
What are your ideas?
One of them is about how we wake up everyday, do our thing and then go to bed. I was just kind of thinking about what's the drive behind [it]? What's going on there? I added some humor to it too so it's a nice song coming along.
You tend to add humor to your songs.
Yeah, like Pat's House was about my grandma's house. I just remember her walking behind my mom and I don't know why she would forget about me but she'd just let that screen door go and it would hit out of control. I just remember crying as a child.
[Laughs] Awww! Poor baby Barna!
[Laughs] My mom felt awful. Little stuff like that that happened I can still remember. I can almost still taste those days.
Visit Barna Howard's bandcamp to buy the record.
When I hear that lyric it makes me think that he’s projecting…
Good question Chad. It took awhile. I concede defeat, but I'm pretty sure Carmella and…
The correct answer is Logan. Tickets go to Sophie Dillard! Please drop me a line…