Spotlight on SummerNights: Howard Fishman

Howard Fishman, acclaimed songwriter, guitarist and bandleader (and kickoff performer for The Jewish Museum’s 2012 SummerNights concert series), has been using his signature blend of styles to impress audiences around the world. Now, his five piece brass band is preparing to bring fun, unique sounds to the museum on Thursday, July 12 at 7:30 p.m. Rebecca Wickel, Jewish Museum intern, recently talked with Fishman about his influences and expectations for the upcoming show.

Howard Fishman

RW: Your music includes a broad range of genres such as New Orleans jazz and R&B, gospel, contemporary pop, experimental, and country blues. How did such an eclectic repertoire come about?

HF: Maybe because I’m not a trained musician and I didn’t study formally, so the idea of studying one particular style, becoming versed in one particular style, was never something I did.

RW: So if you weren’t trained, how did you become interested in music?

HF: I learned music just by doing it, just by getting obsessed and staying obsessed. I’ve been a performer for a long time. I started out as an actor when I was a kid. But I guess I became interested in music when I started listening to old records, and got really into early American blues, country blues, gospel, jazz and that kind of stuff.

RW: Those influences are almost tangible in your music now.

HF: I don’t feel like the music I write and play is strictly anything. I never think of myself as doing anything that’s backward- looking. I think that when you are trying to recreate something that’s already been done before…I don’t think there’s a lot of artistic integrity to that. I pull from that very deep, rich pool of American music, and it finds its way into my music in a big way, but I’m not trying to recreate anything because that would be boring.

RW: That makes sense, because you’ve mentioned in your blog  that you’re influenced by a lot of non-musical sources, including museums. Do you remember any specific experiences that have influenced your music?

HF: Any time that I go to a museum I get inspired. In terms of The Jewish Museum, there was a Soutine exhibition that really influenced me a lot, and he became one of my favorite painters as a result of that experience.

RW: What kind of connection exists for you between visual art and music?

HF: I think it’s all expression, it’s all about how it’s going to come out that day. It’s just like songwriting, there is no regular schedule. I’m not one of those artists who has a daily regimen—that never works for me. There has to be some compelling reason for me to sit down at the easel or the piano, something that’s really inspiring me. It has to have that kind of feeling about it, that I have no choice but do it.

RW: So do you ever experience times when you struggle for inspiration? Or do you always wait for it to come to you?

HF: Sometimes I go through a period where I won’t write songs for a while because I’m not feeling inspired in that kind of way, but maybe I’m doing a lot of painting, for example, because I’m feeling particularly visually inspired as opposed to musically.

Howard FishmanRW: You started your music career playing in the streets of New Orleans and subways of New York City. You probably still see so many street performers, how does it feel to see them doing what you used to do?

HF: Some of my very favorite music that I hear in New York is in the subway, oftentimes I’ll stay and listen or buy a CD if they’re good, and many of them are. But it’s very easy in the subway to tell the posers from the real musicians.

RW: You recently wrote in The Huffington Post that religion makes sense of chaos. Do you think music accomplishes that as well?

HF: Ideally. Somebody told me a long time ago that “our role is to be the seer and not the seen”, which I always try to remember whenever I’m on the stage, or whenever I’m doing anything that somebody is going to be listening to. I have to keep in mind that my job is to get myself out of it. For me, performers are surrogates for the audience. We’re supposed to be the heroes. Our job is to go out into the darkness and see what’s out there, face the evil beasts and lead the way. We’re supposed to come back and bring back what we find. I feel like our job is to go looking for those kinds of connections, and make sense out of the chaos for the audience.

RW: Does this sort of religious connection happen for you while you’re composing music or playing during a performance?

HF: Definitely while performing. That’s why my concerts are never the same, because at any one of my shows, there are going to be moments where we’re playing without a net. The arrangements disappear, the chord structure disappears, and we’re just out in the unknown. To me, that’s the most exciting time. I feel like if that ever got taken away from performing live, it would no longer be enjoyable for me.

RW: I was going to ask what we can expect from your upcoming performance at The Jewish Museum, but I guess we can’t know!

HF: Exactly, we don’t know. All I can say is it will be a five piece, brass band. This particular band leans on the side of exuberance and fun, and it will be really influenced by New Orleans music from when I was living down there. I’m feeling great, I can’t wait. I’m excited to play in a venue that’s devoted to art, I always love doing that.

Howard Fishman and the Biting Fish Brass Band will perform as part of  SummerNights 2012 at The Jewish Museum.For tickets and more information click here >

Photo credits: Vertical top image, Brennan Cavanaugh; Horizontal bottom image, Carole Cohen.