There’s a dive bar across the street from where singer-songwriter Barna Howard lives in Portland, Oregon. He was sitting there one day when he saw a man who he was acquainted with looking distraught, so much that he seemed like he needed to cry, but wouldn’t let himself do it.
“I looked at him and then I thought, ‘Man just let it go.’ He was holding it in,” Howard says. “I wrote a song called ‘Corner of Your Eye’ about that guy. It’s a song about men not wanting to cry in public.”
This is one tune of many that people will hear on Howard’s as-of-yet-unreleased third album, which he hopes to record this fall. It’s a pretty big shift for the singer-songwriter, whose first two records were very much focused intimately on himself: Barna Howard (2012) and Quite a Feelin’ (2015).
Both of those records evoke the sound, aesthetic and even the texture of ’70s soft rock singer-songwriters à la James Taylor and Gordon Lightfoot. In fact, both of the album covers look weathered and stylized to the point that you can imagine finding them in vintage record stores. The recording and the quality of the music gives the same feeling. These are lost ’70s acoustic gems, yet they were created this decade.
“People have said that, ‘Oh you’re an old soul, Barna.’ I take it as a compliment,” Howard says. “I just love that era, that sound, especially the old son writers. I don’t know why it’s always just clicked with me as far as a canvas to work with. It’s comfortable to be there, but I do try to push myself.”
The third record will very likely sound similar to his first album in terms of style, but with better production, and, he says, some new tricks up his sleeve.
Those first two records were not only incredibly personal, they were also tied very much to location. Howard grew up in Eureka, Missouri, a very rural, small town. The first record is about leaving that town, which he did roughly 15 years ago in his early 20s. The second one is reflective, looking back at his small-time life, contrasting it with his life in the big city, and looking for meaning within that juxtaposition.
From his album Quite a Feelin’, the lyrics from his song “Indiana Rose” exemplify this perfectly. (“Because that old song was all we left behind/Those regrets, I feel ’em all the time/The love we once had, it’s hard to find/Now it’s hard to know.”)
Needless to say, his small-town upbringing factored in to his music in a significant way.
“I never lived the city life. I was about 21 when I moved to Chicago, that was the first time. I was blown away,” he says. “I didn’t belong there, but I also did. I think once I got to the city, or once I got out of Missouri, I just all of a sudden was wanting to write songs. I was like ‘Oh shit, I’ll write about that now.’”
Oddly, it was once he was in Chicago that he really honed his “rustic” sound, which came by way of record hunting in the city’s numerous record stores. He discovered all of these brilliant songwriters from the ’70s that clicked with his sensibilities.
“I just started listening to a lot of country and folk singer-songwriters. I got inspired. It was like ‘I think I can do this,’” Howard says.
Now on this third record, he’s not really looking back at his small-town roots anymore. In fact, he’s not really looking much at himself.
“Each song will be about a person that I know. They’ll unknowingly have a song written about them,” he says. “It could be sad, it could be upbeat. I’m writing about, in a sense, what I know.”
Howard says he had major writer’s block last year, as well some tough times personally. But things have changed this year as he’s reshaped what he wants to write about and has gotten things on track again.
“I think I was denying some material that was always in front of me. I kind of reminded myself what it meant to write a song, what the process is, and kind of stripped back. It started out easy and it filled it back up again,” Howard says.
INFO: Barna Howard plays at 7 p.m. on June 17 at Flynn’s Cabaret & Steakhouse, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $15. 335-2800.