Legendary Guitarist Steve Howe Explores What ‘Love Is’ with Sprawling New Album (Q&A)


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Rock Cellar Magazine
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Breaking big in the States in the early ‘70s with The Yes Album, music fans first became acquainted with the exceptional six string gifts of Steve Howe on tracks like “Yours Is No Disgrace, “ “I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Starship Trooper.” Howe’s blend of masterful virtuoso playing paired with an uncanny gift for crafting commanding arena rock ready riffs helped elevate Yes to major global success for decades.

In 2020, Howe is still bringing on the magic with his new solo album, Love Is, half of the record instrumentals and the other half part full-fledged vocal showcases featuring lead vocal tracks by Howe ((Click here to pick up a copy of Love Is from our Rock Cellar Store).

The record is scheduled to be released on July 31 via BMG.

Join us for a conversation with the legendary Steve Howe as we traverse all his yesterdays and current endeavors.

Rock Cellar: What is the underlying message of your new solo album, Love Is?

Steve Howe: Well, I don’t think there can be one message, but generally with the sort of person I am and the kind of writing I’ve done over the years, I’d had a certain routine. I think it’s a little trendy to say that it’s all about this and all about that. I kind of avoid that.

The songs are about life, my life, and parts of it are about having children and having grandchildren and seeing them run off down the beach when you’re not holding their hand. Some of its about being on stage and similar to a balcony, where everybody is watching you. But also, love is the theme of the album — that’s a very broad word. Basically, it’s an alignment of nature, beauty and a respect for particular people that you have an affection for, so I think I’m exploring that. The second track, “See Me Through,” is a plea for that kind of concentrated enjoyment of another person, but it’s also about looking back when things were simpler.

When things were simpler, you don’t even think it could be so complicated. Like entropy in science, there is a collective gathering of mosses on a stone as it goes along and I guess that’s part of what life is like, too; you gather an awful lot of stuff. But it’s like when famous superstars sell all their possessions. They realize that life surely isn’t about possessions. I’m just pointing out various facets.

For me, being vegetarian has affected my life. It’s helped me make good choices and made me avoid pharmaceuticals, and antibiotics. Then there is also learning about relaxing, which has been very important to me. I’ve adopted that for my guitar work. So it’s basically a conglomerate of different ideas based around my life.

Rock Cellar: The theme of the album resonates strongly with what we’re all going through, love will bring us together.

Steve Howe: Yes, but it’s not an easy thing to do. (laughs) It might be the most remarkable thing but it takes work and it takes patience and takes your life to work it out.

Rock Cellar: Tackling lead vocals to this extent for this new album is a major victory for you, how did you rise to this challenge?

Steve Howe: Well yeah, I have sung lead vocals several times. My albums are mainly instrumentals but there are some songs [that use] my lead vocals. This time, I was able to get the 50/50 balance right, which I like very much; I’ve got five of each. Basically, when I sang on the early Yes records I had no experience, no lessons, nothing.

Then I did Beginnings and sang loads of stuff and the tracked up harmonies that sounded pretty good; some of the lead vocal stuff was like, this guy is new to this. (laughs) But I found that I liked to sing, even if I say so myself. I write a lot of words, and [sometimes] they can become lyrics. As the experience went on, after Asia somewhere, I took a vocal lesson and learned a great deal and then I understood I’d been singing in all the wrong ways — but I’d been getting something out of my voice.

But once I got that lesson I learned there was a process there and a technique to learn that I hadn’t really thought about, and that was kind of silly. So once I got that technique going and was practicing breathing and preparing, things got as little better, and then I realized my vocal range had improved, too. I’d done many instrumental albums, which were a joy, but when it came to this album, I felt confident about what I did and thought I could get this right so I went for it — and I’m very happy with it.

Rock Cellar: Now taking on more lead vocals, looking back, what do you think you gleaned from working with singers like Jon Anderson and Trevor Horn?

Steve Howe: I’d like to think I learned something from them. The originality of a singer is very much a captive entity within that singer and having great respect for singers as I do, I guess I always sang with them. So by singing with them you do learn quite a bit.

But it’s all about practice, particularly stage singing does require you to go and have your breathing sorted out. But after I had my lesson it helped me to sing on stage. So yeah, it’s really great singing with a great singer on stage, there’s no doubt about it. It’s great. It’s all a learning curve and we learned a lot from each other.

Rock Cellar: Writing and recording instrumentals, what are the key ingredients needed to create something that takes you on an imaginative sonic journey?

Steve Howe: Well, I can only say that writing any kind of musical form isn’t in a pattern. It’s in a transition that you make when you learn about writing music, so that’s why writers’ music kind of changes and transitions as they go through their careers. The way I write is not to the detriment of what ends up being there. There are different techniques to writing, but basically I think there needs to be a certain balance of ingredients so you’ve got chord structures and maybe you’ve got themes or riffs.

So you could say there’s some formula to it, but that formula isn’t written out for you and it isn’t a given.

I guess that’s what Yes did with songs that started with five minute intros. We said, “To hell with the rules, we’re not gonna have a thirty second intro, we’ll have a damn three minute intro.” (laughs)

So all those kind of adventures you have stimulate you to do things differently and help you grow with your career path.

Rock Cellar: You’ve just penned your autobiography, All My Yesterdays, what was that experience like for you?

Steve Howe: Initially I just wrote about my early years and put that away for a while. The publishers liked it and said, “Write the rest of it.” So when I started that journey I got much more organized about it and looked for sources and looked for stimuli that would take me back to some of those moments. Sometimes when I was writing the book I was almost there. (laughs) I’d gone back to the year and had gone through different decades, part of my mind was sort of living in that decade to draw out substance and stories and try to remember.

No book can have all the stories you want, not that there isn’t room, but you don’t always remember the stories at the right time. But I tried to make it sort of a travel log and journey through my life and be able to comment about all of those experiences, and it was nice to air those. The book has come in out in Europe already and I’ve had some feedback on it. Once you’ve written it it’s in print and you can’t change it now.

It’s a nice process, doing an autobiography. I didn’t have anyone doing it with me because nobody was available that I wanted to do it with. I basically took it on and I enjoyed it and it did teach me a bit about myself. I guess it was the old things that I didn’t expect; I was able to put them to bed, but in a nice sort of way.

Rock Cellar: When you first started playing guitar, was there a guitar piece or solo that you held in high regard as unreachable? And once you were finally able to master it, did you feel you were on your way as a player?

Steve Howe: OK, that’s interesting. When I started it was all about copying — copy Hank Marvin, copy the Ventures, copy Scotty Moore with (Elvis) Presley. So there was a learning curve and I was interested in dance band chords because I thought maybe I could get a gig as a dance band guitarist and play in the back.

But as I went along, hearing Chet Atkins was the biggest moment in my life. When I heard him play then I wanted to play like him. I wanted to learn from that and take it into my own direction. I was never a good copycat guitarist because I always wanted to forge my own way. So that part of my learning curve allowed me to get confidence in saying, “No, I’m gonna play it this way.” That meant when people booked me for sessions they didn’t get necessarily what they wanted — they got what I did, but that was my identity coming through.

I was developing levels of originality that would help me a lot later.

There were people like Albert Lee, who I’m still a big fan of.  He made many records with Chris Farlowe. On “Stormy Monday Blues,” they stupidly made it a single as part one and part two; you couldn’t get a version without them stopping and then restarting. But in there was a guitar solo that Albert plays that I did learn pretty much note for note as much as I could. I could never learn anything note for note.

So Albert Lee was a great inspiration to me. I thought I couldn’t have made it as a guitarist unless Albert had set the scene for me. He wasn’t a country guitarist at the time; he was a much more varied bluesy, jazzy kind of player with a wonderful approach. But besides Chet Atkins who I could not copy, I also liked Tal Farlow, a jazz guitarist, although Wes Montgomery is actually my favorite.

But Tal was an incredibly gifted guitarist. There was one phrase he played on an album called Tal. The tune starts and then they stop and he plays on his own for about eight bars (imitates playing) and I thought that was the most amazing piece of guitar playing that I ever heard so I learnt that by slowing the record down to sixteen RPM.

Rock Cellar: In your formative years in the early ’60s, your band The Syndicats were produced by Joe Meek, who is lauded as a legendary producer, especially in Britain. Yet he is also a misunderstood and mysterious figure. What were his talents as a producer?

Steve Howe: We did three releases that were produced by Joe Meek. Making records was completely new to me, so it was like we were at his mercy. Because he was kind of quirky and unusual and slightly troubled in his life, which was evident by the time he shot himself, which was a great shame.

He was powerful and all over-lording but he had the skills and techniques. He did some great engineering in his life. In fact he engineered the record by Big Bill Broonzy called London Sessions. He was somebody to reckon with and he did take control and he was the first producer I worked with on the journey of learning about what a producer does and how they are responsible for the atmosphere and the progress of the sessions and also the sound obviously.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5WYmFSnAiZY

He had quirky ways of doing things. He was a bit risqué. At the time you didn’t want to get into a room with him on his own; he might talk about things you didn’t want him to talk about. He had some people skills but he had a very troubled career where he was always fighting for recognition, most probably thinking Phil Spector was nicking his ideas. (laughs) — it might have been the other way around, who knows? But he had a way of doing the English sound that nobody else had and he had the confidence to drive it forward.

He was pretty powerful.

Rock Cellar: Next year will mark the 50th anniversary release of Yes’s third album, The Yes Album, your first with the band. Thinking back to those sessions, that album features perennial classics “Starship Trooper,” “Yours Is No Disgrace” and “I’ve Seen All Good People.” What are your most indelible memories of those sessions?

Steve Howe: We had done several months of rehearsing down in the West country of England. At the time it was a really trendy thing to go away to the country and write your album. That was a very hippie kind of approach, but we did that.

We got away from the frantic world and basically wrote much of The Yes Album together there. So when we went into the studio we realized we just had to make it sound better than it did when we played it out in the country.

Eddie Offord helped a lot; he helped us stylize it a bit and select some of the actual takes of the music too. But we were out there doing it kind of live and mocking up the backing tracks for the songs so we could add more things later to it. My memory is it wasn’t done all at one time; it was done in piecemeal sessions, three days here, two days there.

We’d go off and do some gigs and come back so we were very much in the process of actually being on stage where we were making the record, which doesn’t show because it’s a very studio-wise record and maybe Fragile was even more studio-wise as a record. The sounds we got were very close and dry and very well recorded by Eddie so we were lucky.

The Yes Album had so many great things, like “Starship Trooper” and I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Yours Is No Disgrace.” It had some really strong key tracks, which gave us great confidence and it did very well in Europe but we needed to get more reaction from America and that’s when we did Fragile and went out there and sort of stomped our feet first at Atlantic Records’ office and said, “Move on this record, this is the record” … and we were right.

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