William Howell is a bundle of energy, to say the least. A mild-mannered multimedia specialist working at a downtown business by day, he is a performer, recording star and father for the rest of the 24-hour period. He has been creating music in Pensacola for quite a while now—for free.
Over the past 10 years, he has been performing on Public Radio International (PRI) with a group of local musicians, producing holiday music in unique and original styles. Now, he and some of those same musicians are performing live on PRI and at various Pensacola locations.
Being as efficient as possible, William gathered some of the best musicians in town at the PRI studio to record customized holiday songs, while giving away the CDs for free. Much of the time musicians have to play or sing a certain way, but with these recordings and subsequent gifts, they were able to be completely free and creative. To date, 5,000 CDs have been given to the public.
The group, called The 18 String Army, plays in local establishments such as The Global Grill, The Leisure Club, Hopjacks Pizza Kitchen & Taproom, and The Drowsy Poet. We caught up with William on the job in downtown Pensacola.
IN: Are you a native Pensacolian?
Howell: No—being in a military family, I am from all over the place. New Orleans was one of our stops as a family, and that was a big influence. There was a big hip-hop scene in New Orleans; it opened my eyes. Gypsy jazz was huge as well. When I was in Seattle, there was grunge. While in Chicago…well, you know, I absorbed whatever was going on while I was in each place.
IN: Did music help you relate to new people as you moved around?
Howell: It turns out that sports stats, of all kinds, are a great way to fit in. So I learned stats for different kinds of sports and was able to make friends that way.
IN: How and why did you create a customized holiday song CD?
Howell: Because the meaning of the holiday has been lost in the sea of commercialism. I had been working with all of these musicians and thought about what a great collaborative effort it would be to make holiday songs the way we want. All ideas were welcome; we all worked together. Individually, each musician is able to shine outside the band they normally play in. It is the fruit of our labor, and we were able to give a gift that meant a lot.
[There is a documentary being made about Howell’s holiday music project. The documentary filmmaker Steve Moody was present during the interview. He gave us his insight on what William has been creating.
Moody: He wanted to tell the story of how it all began; the recording means a lot to those who have listened to it. It is about a sense of community. He chose to start something good; it is about giving back. Basically, it is railing against the hijacking of the holidays. We wanted to capture a moment in time.]
IN: Do your live shows always consist of the same musicians?
Howell: There are four musicians other than myself: Ashley Pennewill on mandolin, Michael Danielson on upright bass, Travis Jackson on drums, Jonathan Clark on violin and myself on guitar and banjo. Sometimes we play a duo, a trio or a quartet.
IN: Where can we see your band next?
Howell: This is the schedule so far: Dec. 18 we are at The Drowsy Poet, Dec. 24 we will be at Hopjacks, Dec. 25 we will be at The Fish House and, last but not least, we are scheduled for a private party on Dec. 26.
IN: Do you cover others’ music, or are you performing all original pieces?
Howell: I am working on a solo album. But, during the live performances, we are covering a little jazz, bluegrass and gypsy jazz. We go back and forth.
IN: Who are your top three musical
Howell: So much of that depends on the day, the hour and the mood I am in. It is so hard to categorize that into a top three. So many things are woven together. I like classical of all types. I like Béla Fleck, Gillian Welch…there are so many. Influences come from a musical journey. Acoustic music is most interesting played on parlor instruments.
IN: Are you still creating visual art?
Howell: My creative need is filled at work. I am allowed to be creative here in other ways. The arms work was a self-portrait: what do I know better than my hands? I could pick them out of a lineup.
IN: What is next for you and The 18 String Army?
Howell: Playing music all over town and taking advantage of every opportunity. We are excited about the future.
Be sure to check out the band’s current shows and dates, which are posted on their Facebook page, at facebook.com/pages/The-18-String-Army/160766160628081.