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words and original photo By Joyce Peters

In anticipation of his DC show @ Woolly Mammoth this weekend, I recently spoke with Howard Fishman by phone to catch up on his recent travels and to talk about his views on reaching for the next failure.

JP: Last time we spoke, I asked you what adjectives people who really know you use to describe you. Private, loyal, obsessive, perfectionist and maybe a little too serious was your response.
I wouldn’t use those words now.

JP: Are you too serious minded?
I am very curious and I’m interested in learning about things. I think of myself as a completist. I get very interested in things and when I do, I want to know everything about it. I like to see the whole picture. I used to describe that streak as obsessive, but now I kinda laugh at myself while I’m doing it. I don’t feel that I take myself quite so seriously anymore. I try to avoid perfectionism…to me, it’s a real killer and can lead to paralysis. And I don’t feel that I’m as private a person as I used to be. I think I’m much more open with who I am.

JP: Tell me about your music life now.
A couple of years ago, I kinda reached reached a plateau. I realized I had been making music professionally for ten years, and it was an occasion to look both backward and forward. I realized that I was spending most of my time managing my band and my career — hustling for gigs, etc. — doing the business of having a music career. It felt like I maybe I was forcing something that shouldn’t be, because life felt like a daily struggle, and I don’t think that’s why we’re put on this earth. If I was meant to be a professional musician, I should have time to practice and compose and think about music. So I made a decision to take a year off of doing the business and just instead do nothing but business and see what would happen. If my career fell apart, so be it. It would be an answer from the universe. I let go of the steering wheel and became a full-time artist. And what came out of that was three new records. Now I’m back to doing the business stuff but I’ve got new life; new wind in my sails.

JP: What’s your goal with these three new records?

HF: My goal is just more exposure. For more people to hear my music.

JP: You described this as an explosion of music and that you kind of lost your mind. Tell me how you manage so many ideas at once.

HF: A friend of mine, who is also an artist, gave me good advice. We were comparing notes about life, talking about why we do what we do…sharing the ups and downs of being artists. His advice was, “bite off more than you can chew.” I feel like challenges are important for me. It’s important to set a goal that seems far out of reach. The reach is what is important…stretching and reaching and trying to break through whatever limitations we may have. Eugene O’Neill had a credo of sorts that impressed me from a really young age. I’m paraphrasing here, but he called people who stop at success “the spiritual middle class” and said that it’s only through striving or pushing through to greater failure and the unattainable that we obtain some sense of who we are, and transcend ourselves and grow. That’s our job. He said that people who obtain success should be sentenced to keep it and rot in their cozy chairs. All my life I’ve lived by that…strived towards the next failure, rather than the next big success. There’s a sense of exhilaration in that; in going into the unknown. It makes you feel alive.

JP: One of those new records, “The World Will Be Different,” is described as a “breakup album.” Do you reopen the wounds each time you perform those songs?

HF: Being an artist of any kind, that’s how we process and deal with our experiences. We transform them into art. I’m not sure I would have known how to process experience without writing about it. Strict autobiography…that’s not usually the stuff that lasts, artistically speaking. I use my experiences certainly, but it isn’t straight autobiography; hopefully I touch on themes that are universal. I always say a good song is like a well-made boat. When you take a song out for a ride, you’re riding on the water, you don’t know which way the current is going, how the weather is blowing, but if the boat is strong, it’ll take you through whatever is coming or happening that day.

JP: “No Further Instructions” is based on a month-long journey through Romania, Ukraine, and Hungary. What sparked that trip?
A childhood friend of mine, a travel writer, was going and suggested I come along. It was a chance to spend quality time together. He told me it will change my life, that I should break out of my routine and come along. We were mostly in rural Romania. We hitchhiked everywhere and stayed in tiny towns in people’s houses. The thing that ties the three records together is that they’re all about life changing experiences; being at a crossroads in some way.

JP: Do you still love to make contact with strangers? To have a meaningful connection with strangers?
I feel that especially in our virtual world, there are fewer opportunities to come together as a community in the same space and time. It’s a very important role that live performance plays today. I’m not interested in having the band and myself be on some higher plane, to be admired or fawned upon. I’m after a communal experience. We want to have a connection with people who come to hear us…of everyone feeling things at the same time. The recordings are what they are, but nothing can capture the live experience. Live performances are written on water…something that’s quite precious to me.

Singer, guitarist, composer, and bandleader Howard Fishman performs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre on Saturday, February 12th at 7:30pm. For tickets or more information, call (202) 393-3939.