Once a week, Annie Howell boards a ferry and travels across Vineyard Sound to attend harp lessons where she is trained in the classical Salzedo method. She was introduced to the harp nearly three years ago, and Ms. Howell describes her relationship to the 47-stringed instrument in almost spiritual terms. Ms. Howell even affectionately named her Venus Grand concert harp Guinevere after the Arthurian legend. She has tried her hand at both guitar and piano, arguably the two most beloved tools of the singer-songwriter, but she landed on the harp instead. “I’m sure it chose me,” Ms. Howell said. “It made so much sense. It was like coming home.”
Ms. Howell would know a thing or two about homecomings. Born and raised in Chilmark, Howell’s family has had a presence on Martha’s Vineyard for five generations, and her debut album, “Silverfrost,” is deeply rooted in Island influences. From the writing process through recording, mixing, and mastering, “Silverfrost,” released in March of this year, is truly a homegrown effort. The album’s cover art depicts Howell, dressed in all white, as she gazes through the freshly coated trees in Manuel F. Correllus State Forest after the Island’s “one really good snowstorm” in early January. The album was recorded in Howell’s Vineyard Haven rental home, and mixed and mastered in Oak Bluffs at Slack Tide Studios.
Ms. Howell’s “greatest collaborator” and co-producer, Adam Howell, is an Edgartown native and a well-known Island musician in his own right. He also happens to be the artist’s husband. He contributes his guitar and vocal talents throughout the record, but is featured most prominently on the album’s title track, “Silverfrost,” the only song on her debut in which Ms. Howell’s expansive, agile voice is met with harmony from someone other than the artist herself. “Working with him is always my greatest love, because he speaks the musical language that I speak,” Ms. Howell said.
The conversation between Ms. Howell’s lyrics and instrumentation parallels her conception of the play between reality and the realm of dreams. Her lyrics lilt and scurry across tempo and key while the harp performs like a most loyal ally, understated at times. with a nod to the classical sound many associate with the instrument. Contrary to expectation, Ms. Howell voices her harp in the same manner that a singer-songwriter might utilize the piano or guitar, establishing the song’s chord structure while allowing the lyrics to fall into place. For Ms. Howell, though, the voice and instrument aren’t dovetailed, but braided together in a somewhat dissonant, acrobatic style similar to that of Joanna Newsom, an artist Ms. Howell counts among her most prominent musical influences.
While Howell’s instrument feels like the supporting act on the first pass, a closer inspection of “Silverfrost” proves that it is actually pulling all of the strings behind the scenes, so to speak. The tension that binds the whole record, the discord and suspense, are driven by the almost improvisational, dramatic quality of Ms. Howell’s instrumentation. In other words, Ms. Howell’s harp paves the way for her voice to travel in most interesting and unexpected directions. Listening to this unfold is a thought-provoking experience, enriched by the fact that every song on the record (with the exception of one traditional piece, “Katie Cruel”) was written and composed by the artist herself.
Ms. Howell hopes that her listener will encounter “Silverfrost” with “one foot in the reality of winter and the other foot in a dreamworld.” The record certainly invokes the chilly isolation of winter, but one would be hard-pressed to find a single track unwelcome in the rest of the year.
For Ms. Howell, “Silverfrost” stands as a distinct recorded work, and she likes it that way. While some live performances are in the works for the upcoming year, Ms. Howell is most focused on writing for the time being, and even hints at a possible follow-up record to come next winter.
“Silverfrost” is available now at BandCamp.com. For more information, visit Annie Howell’s artist page on Facebook.