Like many people, singer and songwriter Clay Howard was initially motivated to make music by a sense of style. Howard got his first electric guitar because he liked how it looked.
“I did pick up the guitar because it looked cool,” says Howard, who spoke by phone from his home in Kernersville last week. “I thought it’d look cool in my apartment.”
After looking at the instrument for a while, Howard eventually concluded that it might be even cooler if he learned how to play it. But Howard, who just released his second solo record, an EP called “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About,” has a pretty casual way about him. He conveys the feeling that his 30-plus years of music-making have been off the cuff, almost accidental.
When we talked about his teenage years, his formative music experiences, Howard brought up playing sports. He says he had friends who practiced guitar for eight hours a day, and that was all they wanted to do. Howard was more inclined to play basketball. But if shooting hoops and running through your scales or chord changes are two very different activities, there might be a similar mindset that can excel at both. There’s relentless repetition, a pushing of the body to its limits, a willingness to work in solitude, with improvement coming in incremental bits. Some people are born to do it, but most others reach a level of proficiency by force of will and patience.
There are experts who speculate that the music-making urge in humans is all an extension of the mating instinct. We sing to attract partners. Maybe the same is true of sports: We play sports to demonstrate mastery and to earn attention. It’s all a variation on birds and their fancy plumage, perhaps, but, like that guitar, it’s pretty cool to listen to and look at.
It’s not like Clay Howard is making ultra-fancy, self-consciously elaborate music. These are sturdy riffs, more like a brick wall than a peacock feather.
“My only intent when I set out to write a record was that I wanted to write a rock record, and that just comes out of me,” says Howard. “That’s what rock and roll is to me. My favorite band is Cheap Trick, so straight-ahead rock is what I listen to.”
Listen to “Too Many People” off of the new EP. It brings to mind T. Rex and Sammy Hagar, music that calls for leather pants and silky scarves draped from mic stands. The guitars are distorted and rocking, but not menacing. It’s good-time bluesy riffage, with a little snarl. The drums pound, but it’s all in the service of a party vibe, as opposed to something designed to spark a riot. And yet there’s something strangely fitting about the song for today’s political moment: “Too many people who think they’re right,” goes one line. (The fact that everyone tends to think themselves to be right goes without saying.)
Howard, 48, says he felt the sentiment for the song didn’t require much more than the riffs and the chorus. “There was not a lot of need for words,” he says. “It was sort of tongue-in-cheek and serious at the same time.”
All five originals on the six-song EP were written as exercises for a Winston-Salem based songwriters’ group that Howard has been a part of. Each week there’s an assignment, sometimes it’s a song-form requirement — like “write an Irish lullaby” — or something more music-nerdy, like “make the chords spell out a word.” The participants have a week to write, polish, record and post their work with other members of the group. It’s a spur to creativity. The pressure helps nudge the songwriters in directions they might not otherwise go.
“It’s really just a way to keep you on your toes and keep you working on your craft,” says Howard. “If I waited on inspiration I’d be retired before I wrote another song.”
Howard has been playing out in bands since he was 20 or 21. He’s done bar rock, Christian rock, cover bands, coffee houses and all kinds of other settings. He was in a band that once did an EP of Neil Diamond covers. All of that has given him even more of a workmanlike understanding and appreciation of pop songcraft, a sense of “the way certain things should work,” he says.
“It’s a crash course in popular music theory,” says Howard. “Playing so many covers, it makes it a lot easier to write a hook.”
Another recent musical endeavor of Howard’s involves leading the music portion of the contemporary worship at a church in Kernersville. In some ways it’s the exact opposite of getting up and performing in a club. It’s not supposed to be about the singer, it’s about the audience and the community. But even that faith-centric setting can drive home some of the core principles of making music that resonates with people.
“What you’re doing when you’re leading worship is that you want people to sing. You’re not performing at all,” says Howard. “It’s really hard to write a song that a group can just jump in and sing along with.”
One song on Howard’s new EP that many listeners will be able to jump in and sing along with is his cover of the Hall & Oates soul-pop classic “She’s Gone.” Howard and his collaborator, Minnesota-based producer/musician Brynn Arens, turned the song into a chugging ‘80s rock workout, as if Pat Benatar had jumped in to take over.
Howard has assembled a band called the Silver Alerts to debut this new solo material. They’ll be performing at Test Pattern in Winston-Salem on Jan. 6th. He’s kicking around ideas for his next project. At some point he’d like to record some more folk-ish acoustic material, but he’s not certain that’s where his tendencies will lead him.
Classic rock remains the template that he returns to.
“It’s familiar. It was done right. That stuff was recorded so well,” says Howard. “I’m just a flag-bearer for the lost art of rock.”