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Categorizing Howard Fishman‘s records must make music-store clerks kind of crazy. Do they belong with jazz? Americana and roots music? Rock? You can hear all of the above in his songs.
Fishman recently released three separate records: Better Get Right, a brass-band love letter to New Orleans, where Fishman got his start; No Further Instructions, a group of string-centric songs inspired by a trip to Romania, and The World Will Be Different, about a love affair that ended.
Arts Desk asked Fishman a few questions in anticipation of his CD-release party for The World Will Be Different at Woolly Mammoth Theatre this Saturday.
The records you’ve put out since 1999 showcase influences of jazz, New Orleans, Americana, and rock—-one style always more in the forefront than the others. It never seems schizo; you’re always able to make the style your own. How do you go about choosing the sound of a record?Is it a conscious choice from the start? Or does it pull more from the songs you’re writing at that time?
I generally don’t think about style; I think about the content of a song and how to best communicate that. I heard a writer recently say that there was little reason to be a writer these days other than to have a unique style, and I thought “um, what about telling a good story?” If my music succeeds, questions of style are irrelevant. No one is gonna listen to one of my songs and think, “Wow, he really knows his traditional southern rural gospel music!” I’m a sponge—-what I hear and love tends to find it’s way into my music, but it’s not conscious, and it’s never the point.
You just put out not one, not two, but three records, each with a different sound at the same time. You’ve written on your blog that you felt they should be released “all at once not out of stubbornness, but because I think they fit together as one. They reference one another, they were recorded at the same time, many of the same players appear on each. They are three stand-alone installments in one much larger story.” Can you explain how these fit together? As such, would you recommend that a listener start/end with one over another?
It’s not a triple album, so—-to me—-it doesn’t matter where you start. Just don’t try to listen to them all at once. I love The Magnetic Fields‘ 69 Love Songs, but there are probably somewhere between 11-16 of the songs that I’ve heard once or less. Three albums at once from one artists is too much music for any sane person. You like your New Orleans? Get Better Get Right. You want a thoughtful, funny narrative? Check out No Further Instructions. You want raw love and heartbreak? Then The World Will Be Different.
You do have some footholds in the theater community, including “We Are Destroyed,” a work about the Donner Party tragedy. Your releases all seem to have a theme as well. In fact, they make me think of records like In the Wee Small Hours, which was meant to be thought of as a whole versus individual songs. Do you think of your records in terms of “plays,” something to experience start to finish, versus one song here and there, for the full effect?
They’re absolutely albums, designed to be heard as complete experiences. I work long and hard on things like sequence, beginnings and endings, cover art, and liner notes. It’s old fashioned, I know, but it’s what I like best as a listener. I want the artist/producer to curate my listening experience. I want it to matter to them, because it matters to me.
What’s the best part and the worst part of being a musician?
Sometimes someone will say to me, “You know, I heard you play once, a couple of years ago, and it made me decide to change careers,” or “I want you to know that this one album of yours is what got me through when my wife was dying of cancer.” I make music, and I put it out there, and most of the time, I have no idea what effect it has on people. That’s one of the best and one of the worst things.
You run your own label, Monkey Farm, which has put out all of your records. How did you come to start Monkey Farm? What year did you start it? And where did the name come from?
I started Monkey Farm back in 1999, when I was playing 200-plus gigs a year and had no product. People wanted recordings of the music we were making, so we went into a studio for two afternoons, recorded a couple dozen songs, sent them off to be mastered, and presto—-instant record label! Nine records later, I haven’t seen any reason to stop.
And I can’t tell you about the name…it’s a secret. I’d have to kill you after.
You’ve been in the real forefront for a DIY musician, from busking in the NYC subway to developing a label to put your records. What advice would you give to someone who was looking to go the DIY route?
As Leonard Cohen says, “Just be strong and happy, and learn how to duck.”
Howard Fishman performs Saturday in Woolly Mammoth’s Melton Rehearsal Hall at 7:30 p.m. $20.