Interview: Catherine Howe


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You're about to learn about one of the finest female folk albums ever recorded. Not many people know about Catherine Howe's What a Beautiful Place (1971), largely because the album produced and arranged by Bobby Scott (A Taste of Honey) barely made a dent after it was recorded in London. The company for which it was made went bust shortly after the album was released, and only a handful of the LPs existed. Then the album disappeared for 35 years, surfacing in 2007, when it was remastered and re-issued on CD for the first time.

If you dig Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and the other great female singer-songwriters of the late '60s and early '70s—and if you have a heart—you need to hear this recording and others by Catherine. Actually, nothing in the rest of this post is going to make much sense unless you hear a track from her 1971 album here...  

This all started several weeks ago, when I received an email from Catherine in England thanking me for my earlier post on Bobby Scott. A few back and forths followed until I realized who I was communicating with. I already owned What a Beautiful Place on CD, but I didn't put two and two together immediately. After a few more emails, Catherine agreed to an e-interview:

JazzWax: Which artists did you listen to growing up?

Catherine Howe: I had the whole of my four older siblings' record collections to hear growing up in England. Buddy Holly and Fats Domino were two who first really got through to me. Then the Beach Boys came along, and I had every one of their albums. Also Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons, and the Crystals.

JW: Which song had the deepest impact?

CH: Hearing Burt Bacharach and Hal David's The Look of Love in 1967 was a seminal moment for me. That's when I started using those sevenths, which appear in many of the songs on What a Beautiful Place. In my teenage years I listened to Randy Newman, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Lennon and McCartney, Dylan and the British bands Cream, The Who, The Zombies and Procol Harum.

JW: Were there any jazz singers who influenced you?

CH: Billie Holiday impinged upon my small English consciousness as a child, and I remember being riveted to my seat by a performance from Lena Horn at Blackpool Winter Gardens in the 1950s, when the greatest of American singers would come there in the summer season. My family was not especially musical, I heard very little folk, jazz or classical music. Instead, I heard mostly records of mainstream popular work, and I loved it beyond everything. 

JW: Did you study voice?

CH: In a small way.  I took a weekly singing lesson from the age of 12 to 14 with a good teacher in London named Rona Knight, who ran Corona Drama School in Hammersmith, London. I had no musical training beyond that, except for a few piano lessons when I was very small.

JW: When did you write the music for What a Beautiful Place?

CH: All those songs were written in the late '60s. Some I wrote in a little coastal town on the south coast of England called Swanage, where I lived as a teenager with my parents. And some were written in London. Those were the best times, when everything was new. There was sea and sun and coming to terms with life, and music was my voice.

JW: How did you meet Bobby Scott?

CH: My first meeting with Bobby is as vivid now as it was at the time. It was in February 1971. He came to England specifically to work on my album. He was 35 years old. He was full of energy, brilliant eyed, wired-up. He had imagined me as a dowdy English girl, and I had imagined him as fairly unprepossessing, too. So we were both surprised with each other. We were introduced by Andrew Miller, executive producer of Reflection Records, which was a subsidiary label distributed through CBS in England. Phil Gillen, Bobby's American business partner of the time, was there too.

JW: Why did Scott come to the U.K. to produce the album?

CH: I had met Andrew Miller and his partner John Hawkins in 1969.Together they ran Reflection, which I had signed to. Somehow they linked up with Bobby and Phil, who had injected some cash into the label. That was when Andrew and John sent some of my early demos over for Bobby to hear. That's how Bobby heard some of the songs which eventually made up What a Beautiful Place, and it was those songs that brought him over. Why we recorded in England rather than me going to America? I don't know, but it was probably better that way.

JW: How did you two work together?  

CH: My input was the songs. We sat together at the piano, and Bobby asked me to play him everything I had.  There was one song I wasn't pleased with, but he saw the manuscript there. I said I wouldn't play it, but he insisted. So I played it, and he had the grace to agree that it wasn't one of my best. This augured well for me. I quickly understood that Bobby's musical sensibilities ran in the same direction as my own. I never had that kind of rapport again with subsequent producers. 

JW: What happened next?

CH: Bobby took over. In the days that followed he just sat down and started scoring the parts without the use of a piano. I imagine he could have acquired one, but he didn't need one. I believe he wrote all the rhythm and orchestral parts at a desk, and with remarkable speed. There's some notion around that Bobby's working practices were haphazard. This is complete nonsense. I have never come across anyone since those days who was as professionally competent, naturally inspired, and intuitive as Bobby was.  He could just do it. It was like shelling peas to him. From start to finish, the scores took about a week I would say.

JW: How was he as a performer in the studio?

CH: His performance was remarkable, too, and I just rode the waves. He was very comfortable with studio work, while at the same time keeping up the pressure to a perfect pitch.   He knew exactly how to maintain the right kind of atmosphere. For the What a Beautiful Place sessions the rhythm section was made up of British musicians, and the orchestra comprised of London Symphony Orchestra members. There was a vocal booth for me, a Steinway piano for Bobby, and together we laid down the tracks.  Bobby conducted, sometimes from the keyboard. The effect of his presence on the musicians in that studio was electric.  Bobby knew exactly what he wanted, and he got it. The rhythm guys, in particular, went away feeling that they'd never played so well.

JW: What a Beautiful Place was reported to have been recorded in just two weeks in February 1971. High pressure?

CH: In fact the album was recorded in no more than four days. There were no over-dubs, all the instrumentation and the vocals went down together. And never more than two takes were needed, in fact, I can't remember singing any of the songs twice. Bobby was blessedly unbothered by those lovely imperfections that seem to distress some musicians. Once the arrangements were ready to go, it was the spirit of the thing which took his entire focus. 

JW: Time was tight?

CH: There was pressure on time, but I think Bobby liked to work at a fast pace. He could do it, so he did. He was at the top of the tree, and it was easy for him. For Bobby, it was high energy, rarefied speed, and utterly under control. I loved working at that kind of speed too. No amount of time is going to make a thing work. It either works, or it doesn't. It was music making as music should be made.

JW: What happened with Reflection Records? Why was your record lost for so many years?

CH: There was some disagreement between the American and English camps, the nature of which escaped my attention. What a Beautiful Place was just about to make the rounds of radio stations when Bobby phoned from New York to tell me that John and Andrew had placed a legal injunction on the tapes here in England. 

JW: Why?

CH: Phil Gillen and Bobby had been funding Reflection Records, so when they pulled out, Reflection folded. It's a label that had signed Steamhammer and Andwella's Dream, so its collapse wasn't good for anyone. What a Beautiful Place disappeared for 35 years.

JW: Looking back, where was the mistake? If you were to do it all again, what would you have done differently?

CH: No mistake, at least not where What a Beautiful Place is concerned. Things happen.

JW: Did the experience sour you on recording?

CH: I have never fallen out of love with recording. I write songs to perform them. As long as people hear them, I'm content. Bobby was an extraordinary man. He was complex to say the least. A consummate musician and writer, he sometimes felt that he would have liked to have done more.  He had a fierce intellect, he had passion and he either loved or hated others. There wasn't anything at all that could be described as grey about Bobby. 

JW: And as a visionary?

CH: He was also what I would call a great facilitator—a great mentor. He gave a lot to other performers and writers with remarkable selflessness. But there was nothing soft about him. He was exacting in his professional and private life. He was tremendously loyal to those he loved, and he inspired great love. 

JW: Was he a rebel?

CH: He didn't like the establishment much, even though he worked in it for many years and knew he needed it. That created a lot of tension. Bobby knew the worth of his own work. Yet he would often record the works of others, which is a curious fact. I can only think it reflects his unreserved admiration for the great musicians and songwriters of his generation. There was nothing that came his way that he didn't feel to his core. Bobby was a difficult and a beautiful man.

JW: Did you love him?

CH: Yes, and I have reason to believe he loved me, too.

JazzWax tracks: Catherine Howe's What a Beautiful Place  was finally re-issued in 2007 on Numero records and is available here. If one argues that folk originally was a form that first evolved in England, then this is folk in its purest and most beautiful expression.

Catherine's latest album, English Tale, was recorded last year with singer-guitarist Vo Fletcher. It's gorgeous and is available here.

JazzWax note: Bobby Scott died of lung cancer in November 1990, at the age of 53.

JazzWax clip: Here's Catherine Howe in 1976...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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