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Getting to the Heart of Philadelphia’s Heyward Howkins

Photo by Tyler Costill

Heyward Howkins’ new album, The Hale & Hearty, leaves behind remnants of The Shins circa “Garden State” and a pinch of the Midwestern forest traveler persona of Justin Vernon. Named after one of the founding fathers and signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Heyward — who happens to be Howkins’ fifth great grandfather, Howkins pens lyrics about his family heritage, the great outdoors, and the end of the world. It’s his simplistic words that bring to life the idea of relaxation and leisure: “No wisdom, no worry / Holding breath like canaries / There’s no whistle or work / Just soft earth and two birds.”

Heyward first popped up on the musical surface when he toured as the lead guitarist for The Trouble With Sweeney in 2000. The band released three EPs and two LPs, opened for My Morning Jacket and OK Go, and even landed a spot on the Rolling Stone Editor’s Top Picks of the Year twice. After the band broke up in 2004, Heyward founded the The Silver Ages, the critically acclaimed choral group that features singers from a variety of Philadelphia-based bands, such as Dr. Dog, The War on Drugs, and BC Camplight, to name a few.

The Hale & Hearty is the debut album, released on June 27, with the handprints of producer Chet Delcampo etched in the writing. The album was created with a variety of sounds and arrangements that promote the beautiful subtle symphony, but leave just enough wiggle room for the listener’s own interpretation. The songs are not very long–each of them between two and four minutes–so it’s easy to breeze through the album; however, it may leave you wanting more.

The official music video for “Sugar Sand Stitched Lip,” directed by Tyler Costill and Alex Curro, was released three months ago. The concept behind the video is somewhat nostalgic and haunting.

I believe a successful music video allows you to draw up your own conclusion of the plotline. This is what I’ve developed: the man in the video, played by Gabriel Caste, is wandering the forest and spots a woman, played by Megan Becker. The role of the women in his life is unknown, but he begins to weave through trees and jog through the hills to catch this woman. Because the woman periodically disappears and re-appears from the man’s view, my conclusion is that the man is suffering from schizophrenia and the women is a hallucination. His chase toward her is a metaphor for running from his illness, longing to “catch” a cure. I highly doubt that that was the intent the directors were looking for, but they did conceive the ability for imagination in this short music video of a simple song.

The Spec had the opportunity to interview John Heyward Howkins, find out what he had to say about his inspiration, new album, and dream music collaborations…

From where do you draw your inspiration?
Most of my inspiration is non-musical. I often hear a story or read something interesting in a book or magazine and use that as a jumping off point.Recently I was on a trip with my dad in the car and he was telling me about his childhood. I got home and took much of that imagery and put it into a new song. It came out great.

Describe your creative process for conducting this album. How did the album come to be?
I was playing in Chet Delcampo’s band (he produced the album). When his live project went on hiatus, I started showing him a couple early songs I had been working on (“Hale & Hearty” and “Waist High“). He has a really great ear and a beautiful home studio. We decided to try recording a song and considered doing an EP. We were so pleased with our collaboration that it kept snowballing into an LP. I wrote the rest of the songs in between sessions.

Can you describe your experience with The Trouble With Sweeney and/or the Silver Ages? Did you want a similar experience with your new project?
The Trouble was very fun and we were lucky to play some great shows. I was definitely second fiddle to frontman Joey Sweeney. I always envisioned getting the guts to try my own thing. I am so happy I did. The Silver Ages is something I hope to do forever. It’s 12 awesome people from different Philly bands who genuinely just like to hang around with each other and sing. We sing old traditional songs in four-part harmony. I hope those dudes sing at my funeral someday.

If you could hear your music on any TV show or remake of a movie, which one(s) would you choose? Which musical artist(s) would you like to collaborate with, if any?
I definitely love the aesthetic of Wes Anderson films. I would love to get a song in the remake of “Rushmore.” I think I would like to collaborate with Chan Marshall (Cat Power). I love her husky voice and I think we would complement each other. And of course….Morrissey.

What is your favorite color? What does that color mean to you?
Oh man. That is a tough question. I love blue and green and I have no idea why. Probably for some weird primordial/universal reason that is older than time.

New Yorkers can catch Howkins live with KiddoSophie MadeleineAbby Bernstein and Shannon McArdle at The Living Room on July 31.


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