Winsomely kooky but meditative and wise, Danielle Howle elicits a charmed respect from critics and fans alike, as she travels along her well-worn folk-musical path.
While contemporaries like Mary Lou Lord and Elliott Smith brood awkwardly for that quintessential busk-and-bake effect, Howle somehow seems more believably at home in the songs. Still, Howle's voice -- or music, for that matter -- isn't easily categorized, especially given her tendency to swap roles and record labels at will.
On "Catalog," her solo-acoustic effort to be released next month on Kill Rock Stars, Howle possesses the sort of timeless twang that catapulted k.d. lang to her celebrated "Ingenue" status. The album showcases Howle at her heart-rendering best, with 12 scorched laments to life and love.
On "Do a Two Sable" -- her 1997 release with her band the Tantrums, on Indigo Girl Amy Ray's Daemon Records (also home to local songstress Terri Binion) -- she shows the rock breeding of a Melissa Etheridge by way of Janis Joplin. The album earned Howle her first pieces of the industry pie, and she was quickly crowned indie's new queen.
Both releases reflect a dichotomy whose tension only betters Howle's ability to express exactly what she feels. "The wind would tell me stories, when the wind would stop," she sings on "From the Tops of Trees," the opener on "Catalog." "I'd like to watch the world work from the tops of trees." It's as much of a statement of the natural channeling of Howle's musical muse as it is of the desperation of individual detachment. In Howle, expression and reclusiveness live together comfortably. "I was not a social person/ but I never missed a thing," she surmises at the song's end.
"Music is everything," Howle offers on the telephone from her native South Carolina. Steering clear of any trite posturing, she sounds like a wry, touched dreamer -- which she may well be.
In essence, Howle's songs are like brittle glass. Broad and big, they dig deeper and soar higher than the blues that ground them -- eventually achieving some triumph of resignation.
Live, Howle has a reputation for drawing in the audience, often interspersing wild-eyed stories and observations throughout her heavy set. (In yet another incarnation, Howle performs as a spoken-word artist.) But for her, performance is not only a matter of entertaining the audience. "In some way," she says, "I want to tell them how much it means to me."