Q&A with Austin-based acoustic duo Howard & Skye (Jonathan Howard & Blueflower Skye) - Grassroots Americana music

"Throughout their existence, blues and folk music have always offered a means for social commentary, the transfer of oral history, and both covert and overt communication. From social protest to national anthems, these musical forms and derivatives thereof have influenced and permeated social structure on every level (racially, politically and socio-culturally) as a whole, and they continue to do so."

Howard & Skye: Crossroads of Americana 

Grassroots Americana music, a rosewood cajon, and a well-worn guitar crossed paths in 2014, resulting in the Austin-based acoustic duo "Howard & Skye." Eight months prior to their meeting, Americana artist Jonathan Howard was performing his original music as a solo and duo act throughout Austin and the surrounding areas. He had been working with several different musicians and was now seeking a percussionist to fill out his sound. He also wanted this person to form the core of a project that would write, perform and record together. Meanwhile, Blueflower Skye, a percussionist since her early teens, discovered Kent Finlay's Singer-Songwriter Wednesdays in San Marcos, Texas, picked up a mandola and began to explore songwriting on her own. She bought a guitar shortly thereafter and began practicing and writing in earnest; and most importantly, dove into studying her favorite singer-songwriters for eight to twelve hours a day. Months later, with a handful of her own songs completed, she began to search for a musician to work with. Meeting Jonathan at one of his solo gigs, a commonality in musical tastes was discovered, and a duo was formed shortly thereafter.

Thus began the fourteen month process of writing, gigging and, on the fly, learning of the recording process in Jonathan's home-based "Thirsty Hog" studio. Howard & Skye's first album “Milkweed” (2016) is the end result. Reminiscent of the insightfulness and sensitivity of the singer-songwriters of the mid to late 60's and early 70's, Howard & Skye's music is a genre-defying Americana cavalcade of sound, song and harmony with roots that remain grounded in a cross-section of blues, country, folk and rock. The melody and lyrics of each song are shaded with varying degrees of Jonathan's gritty, driven guitar and vocals, and also tinted with Blueflower's penchant for earthy percussion, along with a voice to match for either lead or harmony.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What were the reasons that the duo started the Folk/Roots/Blues researches and experiments?

Skye: Both Jonathan and I had spent some time living in the southern United States in our youth before we met and formed "Howard & Skye." With Jonathan already writing blues and roots-oriented songs such as "Vampyre Blues," and with I having an interest in writing blues-country and folk songs, such as "Deep," our styles mixed naturally when we collaborated on songs for our album Milkweed.

How do you describe Howard & Skye's sound and songbook? What characterizes the duo’s music philosophy?

Howard: Our first album, soundwise, is acoustic in nature and seems to have settled into a mix of blues, country and folk, with perhaps a touch of rock and pop tossed in as well. There also tends to be a feel of grit that permeates most of the songs. In general the music we write tends not to limit itself to one genre, but instead will pull from two or more which places it in the Americana arena. We do not shy from any genre although, as with our album Milkweed, we tend to work with blues, country, and folk as a foundation more often than with other genres.  You can't always tell where things will end up once you start writing a song. Making music has got to be enjoyable if we're going to do it, so we make sure we are having fun no matter what.

How has American Roots music and culture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Howard: A life without heavy musical influence is a concept that is hard for me to grasp, and this is why it is difficult for me to imagine how my views would differ if I'd not been involved in the Americana music scene. I do know that the holistic nature of Americana music has helped me to attempt to be open minded in regard to different styles of music and their origins, and that this in turn has taken me places and allowed me to meet people I would not have otherwise.  I've learned, and formed my opinions, from these experiences, and this is the most notable effect Americana music has had on me.

Skye: My interest in roots music steered me towards like-minded artists, both locally and internationally, whom I follow and from whom I try to learn. Roots and folk music remind me that, as individuals, every listener has a unique, personal perspective in a universally bonding experience that we all share as a group, the audience. This is how American roots music and culture influences my view of the world and my journey in it.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Howard: I've been lucky to have met a number of people over the years who have been willing to share their musical experiences, both good and not so good, with me. Some have had a larger effect on me than others, but the combination of experiences that these people passed on to me as a whole has been the most important and influential.

"Make your music what you want it to be. That way you will be satisfied no matter where it takes you." I was first offered this advice by a Texas street musician with whom I struck a conversation in Austin. At the time I was just beginning to pursue music seriously, and it struck a chord with me.  I have been given similar advice throughout my life by various other people, and it rings no less true now than it did when I first heard it.

Skye: One of the most important persons I ever met was the late Mr. Kent Finlay in San Marcos, Texas. He owned a live music venue, Cheatham Street Warehouse, where on Wednesday evenings he ran a singer-songwriter night. This is where I first discovered songwriting, and after almost two years of learning and practicing guitar, I finally had the courage to go onstage and play a couple of my songs while Mr. Finlay patiently listened. And at the end of the evening, when all of us songwriters gathered around him before saying goodnight, he told us all to keep writing, and to never stop. I never forgot what he said. I had very high respect for him, and will never forget him.

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Howard: Several humorous memories from gigs stick out for me, such as the sound shorting out when the sound tech spilled his beer on the mixing board, the club losing power due to a lightning storm, the bug flying into my mouth and directly to the back of my throat mid-song at an outdoor venue, or the drunk yelling incomprehensibly for some long lost classic tune to be played at 2 am in the morning. However, for me the performances tend to live in the moment for the most part, and are something that seemingly evaporate even as they unfold. This is why the people I've met, places I've seen, and things I've learned, as well as the gigs that brought everything to pass, still remain important and distinct, but also blend into a single experience that leaves me changed, and this change reflects the import of all those individual events for me.

Skye: I have many memories of a place in Manor, Texas called J. Lorraine Ghost Town, on the outskirts of Austin. This is where I got used to playing and singing my own songs, when I teamed up with Jonathan Howard as "Howard & Skye." We played together there for a couple of years, until we moved to the River Vally Region of Arkansas; Jonathan had been playing there regularly much longer before I showed up. It was a place where we could refine our act, where we had a friendly audience, and a lot of support from the owner, George, who built the cowboy ghost town with his own bare hands over the last fifteen years. We shot photos and also a music video there for one of our songs "Nowhere" on our Milkweed album.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

Howard: Every musical period has had much to offer that previous and following periods have not. I would love to see a resurgence of the large scale experimentation and expression of the mid to late 1960's and early 1970's. At times I also miss the raw production of the early recordings where the emotion and performance are caught in a more natural state. It seems these days that technology is having the most effect on music in general.  I would hope that this will lead to a flourishing of musical ideas and expression, but I am also troubled that it might make it more difficult for musicians to earn a living as well.

Skye: Everything changes, but even though cycles of new music eventually replace what used to be popular, the best qualities of roots music still carry through in a lot of new music that takes over. You can hear blues and folk in some progressive indie rock, or the resurgence of classic country in more recent country music recordings. My hope is that in the near future, educational programs at the elementary and high school levels will maintain or reintroduce music and the arts to their curriculums, so that the next generation does not lose our cultural connection to our musical heritage, which is what I'd fear most.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Howard: It would be nice if artists could profit properly from live streaming sites.

Skye: If I could change one thing in the music world, I'd want to reverse deregulation of commercial radio in the United States. Due to deregulation in the 1990's, many independent radio stations were allowed to be bought by corporate-owned national broadcast companies. We lost many unique radio programs that used to be able to chose what songs were played on the radio, and there used to be a great many programs with high quality musical content. Now most stations under the control of national broadcast companies are told what to play, resulting in repetitive airplay of a select few artists, as opposed to exposing a wide variety of artists to the mainstream masses.

What is it like to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

Skye: I can't speak for all women; each woman has had a different experience when it comes to working in the music industry. For the most part thus far, personally speaking, I've had a positive experience, during this short time that I've been writing music and playing gigs. Most of my fellow singer-songwriters, both men and women, are kind and very cooperative when it comes to supporting each other.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Americana from blues, country and folk to rock and beyond?

Howard: The influence of blues and folk help shape the genres of modern American pop music, and these resulting genres then flow back to the original source to again create new and different offshoots. I know that for me as an Americana musician, country is as large an influence as blues and folk. I personally love that I have such a broad spectrum of genres to pull from for my songwriting, and blues, country and folk are at the root of ninety percent of that spectrum.

What is the impact of Blues and Folk music to racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

Howard: Throughout their existence, blues and folk music have always offered a means for social commentary, the transfer of oral history, and both covert and overt communication. From social protest to national anthems, these musical forms and derivatives thereof have influenced and permeated social structure on every level (racially, politically and socio-culturally) as a whole, and they continue to do so. As for myself, I write about what I observe, and I tend not to intentionally attach my own social, political, or racial view points to the work. This allows what I write to be open to interpretation by the listener.

Skye: I am not a music historian, but from what I have seen and learned is that blues and folk music have had a major impact in bringing light to all kinds of issues, including but not limited to, civil rights for people from all walks of life. In addition, blues and folk (and other genres of music) have woven a cultural thread within mainstream society through radio, movie and television soundtracks, and even in fashion, with the additional effect of giving people from different demographic and societal groups something to share and identify with. So, it draws attention to major issues confronting specific groups, while also unifying people at the same time. Not all blues and folk music is political nor activist per se, but, just like other genres, they also bring joy to and bond the audience, which is what I appreciate most about playing roots music.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

Howard: One thing I would like to do is to spend 24 hours, starting on a Saturday evening, in Greenwich Village during the mid to late 1950's, or even early 1960's.  I'd love to cheque out the scene. Spend the evening and night hanging out in various venues and the next afternoon at Washington Park. Just get a firsthand view of and feel for what things were actually like during this artistic era.

Skye: Johnny Cash is one of my biggest inspirations; I admire and respect his songwriting very much, so I would have loved to have been a witness to the first of two days in September 1954 that Johnny Cash auditioned, then recorded "Hey Porter" for Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, which set Cash's career into motion.

Howard & Skye - Official website

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