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Back Porch Princess

Danielle Howle sings of strange doings in the deep South


Danielle Howle and the Tantrums' latest album, Skorborealis, would seem to be a work of imposing cosmic ruminations, judging from the title alone. Upon closer inspection, the celestial yin/yang cover art actually depicts a mirror-image dog with a goofy expression, and the disc itself is loaded with rollicking Southern gothic tales.

"We can't ever think of a title for a record that means anything," says Howle. She recalls drawing a cartoon of her guitarist's dog, nicknamed Skorbor, "prancin' in the clouds one day" -- thus spawning the unwieldy title. "The Indigo Girls' last record had such a cool title, Become You. We can't think like that, so we just talk about pets."

The album, released on Indigo Girl Amy Ray's Atlanta-based label, Daemon, continues Howle's decade-long association with the Decatur duo. "Amy came to see me when I was in a band called Lay Quiet Awhile in the early 90s," she says. LQA opened for Daemon act the Ellen James Society in Howle's native Columbia, SC. "She signed us to Daemon that night," remembers Howle. "She took us on the road and got us in front of a lot of people, fast."

Ray's Indigo partner Emily Saliers also was an instant fan. "The first time I saw Danielle, it was like, "Wow, she's different.' Her melodies are wonderful -- like half-jazz, half-pop -- and she's a compelling performer. She's got this quirky Southern humor with that sort of perversity of the South that comes through in all her songs."

Howle explains her unflagging connection to the South with a shrug. "Your identity in a local culture is one of the main things you should really hold on to. It's what separates us from the glowing computer box. You can't deny where you're from."

Howle, who's now 33 -- in her "Jesus year," she says -- grew up at Fort Jackson, a South Carolina Army base. "When I was in fourth grade, we moved to Germany -- where they don't have Nacho Cheese Doritos. Things weren't so segmented over there in Germany. I mean, you'd see grandmas in the discos and there I'd be with the other 13-year-olds. Everybody was grooving together."

By high school, she was back in South Carolina facing life in public school for the first time. "It was my first exposure to American civilian culture," says Howle. "And it was a completely weird, freaky thing to me. I was stripped of a lot of culture because of being an Army person, and raised by an old-school family from out in the dirt, mixed with having lived in a foreign country, too. I didn't know what an Izod shirt was, and I didn't care."

Howle's uprooted life has been fodder for her engaging between-song folk stories for most of her career.

"There was always a bunch of country people around me, the kind of people who would gather on porches and shell each others' beans and sit on porches and talk and share tales." she recalls. "Those were the kind of people who would appreciate a jar of mayonnaise because they knew how to make it at home if the store didn't have it. A lot of my family were farmers -- all they want to do is feed other people and take care of the land. But they would also make time to be appreciative of the natural process of life, the whole cycle of growth. And they live longer because of it."

No stranger to hard work herself, Howle dabbled in demolition and construction for a while. "I just like to work," she says.

She also spent several years as a maid, a job she says she was "lucky as hell" to have. "Think of it, you get to be by yourself, with no people around to boss you at all; you can listen to loud music and you get to take care of people's special stuff. They come home, the house is clean and they're happy."

Now, when Howle is off the road, she occasionally earns extra income as a pet sitter. "It's the same thing as being a maid in a lot of ways. I make sure that animal is happy and understood and isn't lonely. When the owners come back home," she says proudly, "that dog is fine. I love it."

Recently, Howle's touring schedule has left her little time to sit pets -- or sit still at all. "I've been so busy serving my own stupid career that sometimes I forget to serve other things. But I always try to keep myself out in the world, doin' something positive."

Howle's abrupt location shifts and checkered work history often manifest themselves in songs that stand as prismatic portraits of Southern life. "Subclassic," a hard-rocking ode to small-town club pathos, finds Howle assuming the character of a scenester who sits at the bar and watches not only the band but the ritualistic off-stage doings as well.

All of Howle's songs on Skorborealis are imbued with her usual informal back-porch delivery, broadly drawn yet keenly descriptive details and effortlessly soaring melodies, with a crunchy rock foundation laid by her backing band, the Tantrums. The group joins the singer/songwriter when she's not out touring alone with just a guitar and a notebook. For future performances, though, Howle plans to blur her various musical sides and incorporate them all. "I envision my live show to become more of a sampling of everything I do. The Tantrums can play anything and they understand the aesthetic of everything that is rock to Danielle," she says.

A prolific songwriter, Howle says she often writes "a lot of really shitty music" in the course of a writing session. "I'm not afraid to fail, "cause you can fail in your own home on your tape deck," she laughs. "I just keep working until I find that one little thing I like. That way, I feel like I'm just reflecting what I see. I'm a receiver, just like a radio."

Her observational sketches portray assorted moments of time from a variety of Southern walks of life. "Karaoke" is a humorous and twangy tale of a couple who met at a blue-collar bar on karaoke night. But the person Howle's character falls for seems to love the song machine more than the actual relationship. On the jazzy "Dark Like the Coat," she sings of long walks with a mysterious lover along "dark Charleston streets."

The most Southern anthem on the disc may be the murky and brooding "Swamp Song." Howle says she assigned herself to write an ode to a swamp. "But I am talking to people in that song, too. There's a little biosphere down there in the swamp. It cleanses, it destroys, it burns, it breathes and creates life just like people do. Swamps are a strange and dark piece of nature that reflect what the hell we are tryin' to do in our soul.

"There's always something kinda creepy going on in the South," she adds. "Like the nice man at the carnival who says you can come back to his trailer after the fair closes. He seems really sweet and he can save you from the evil drunk people outside. But still, that's just not a good thing to do."

Danielle Howle will perform Saturday, November 9 at the Sylvia Theater in York, SC. Tickets cost $8. For more details, call the theater at 803-684-5590.

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