Actor Terrence Howard sings and plays his own songs on his debut album, "Shine Through It," and sounds nothing like Djay, the character he played in "Hustle & Flow."
PHILADELPHIA — When Terrence Howard first met with Sony music executives to discuss a recording career, the suits made an assumption.
“They thought I wanted to make a rap album,” says the actor.
It was a supposition based on fiction. Howard’s signature movie role is his Academy Award-nominated turn in Craig Brewer’s 2005 “Hustle & Flow,” in which he played Djay, a small-time hustler angling to make it big in hip-hop with songs like “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” which wound up winning a best-song Oscar for Three 6 Mafia.
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But rhyming about the trials and tribulations of petty criminals in “Shine Through It,” which comes out today, was the furthest thing from the mind of the 39-year-old thespian.
Instead, Howard posed a question to the recording execs.
“Do you remember ‘Vincent’ by Don McLean?” he asked. “That’s the kind of album I want to make.” Indeed, they did recall the sensitive ballad about unappreciated-in-his-lifetime 19th-century painter Vincent van Gogh, included on McLean’s 1971 “American Pie,” which sold 5 million copies.
Intrigued, Columbia Records gave Howard, who plays guitar and sings in a warm, slightly scratchy voice, a record deal. Then they tried to shape the sound of the music he would make.
“They wanted to throw a bunch of producers at me,” Howard recalled, speaking by phone from L.A. “I said, ‘No, I have to go at this alone.’ I had been controlled so much as an actor. On the set, you’re always controlled by the desires and wishes of the writer, director, producers, the studio, and the will of the other actors. I needed to step into this field myself.”
From music to science
Howard, who caught the drama bug from his grandmother, stage actress Minnie Gentry, started playing guitar growing up in Cleveland as a teen. “My uncle taught me that it was all about the bass line,” he recalls. The first song he remembers being compelled to learn was Madonna’s 1987 hit “La Isla Bonita.”
“I bought a guitar and worked on it for two weeks, until I could play that little run. It was just fantastic,” says Howard, whose debut includes the flamenco instrumental “Spanish Romance,” which he wrote with Marc Anthony in mind.
He harbored a fantasy of becoming a music star when he was in his 20s: “I had a real high-pitched, Aaron Neville voice. That was before all these cigarettes. I thought I was primed and ready.”
But movies, not music, became the priority for Howard, a soft-spoken, philosophically inclined science geek who studied chemical engineering at the Pratt Institute in New York and considers physics his first love. “Science is about trying to understand the simple things we can’t see,” he says. “It’s about asking the how, and the why. Music is really a part of that.”
Roles in Ice Cube’s “The Player’s Club” in 1998 and the ensemble drama “The Best Man” in 2001 led to Howard’s breakthrough with both “Crash” in 2004 and “Hustle & Flow” in 2005. In 2006, he starred as 1970s Philadelphia swim coach Jim Ellis in “Pride.”
He’ll be alongside Robert Downey Jr. again for the “Iron Man” sequel, and stars with Channing Tatum in “Fighting,” set in the world of underground fighting and directed by Dito Montiel (“Field Guide to Recognizing Saints”). Howard says the film is “like ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ “
Sounds of the ’70s
He put acting aside to make “Shine Through It.” He recorded the album in 11 days in Los Angeles earlier this year. His backup band gives a light-rock, jazzy feel to message songs like “Love Makes You Beautiful” and the anti-materialist “Plenty.” The arrangements, which Howard did himself, make room for flutes, trumpets, saxophones and violas.
Howard had written four of the songs — about childhood courtship (“Mr. Johnson’s Lawn”) and grown-up romance (“No. 1 Fan,” “She Was Mine,” “Spanish Romance”) — before stepping into the studio to coproduce the sessions with bass player Miles Mosley. All were informed by Howard’s love of singer-songwriter music from the ’70s.
“Oh my goodness,” he says. “The entire world was thinking about change and freedom then, and the songs, and the composition of everything reflected that.” Howard’s list of favorite artists starts with “Ritchie Havens, at the very top. The second one would be Bread,” whose song “Aubrey” he named his daughter after. He rounds out his top five with Dan Fogelberg, Paul Simon and the Dramatics, the smooth-as-silk Detroit soul group that scored a big hit with “Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get” in 1971.
The guitarist, pianist and songwriter realizes pop-culture watchers will be suspicious of yet another actor making a move into the music world, following the latest examples, Scarlett Johansson (who released an album of Tom Waits songs) and Zooey Deschanel, who paired with Matt Ward in “She & Him.”
“They can be skeptical,” he says. “That adds to the challenge. And if I can sway one of the skeptics to open his mind. … As I say in ‘Shine Through It,’ ‘All I want from you, is to let some light shine through.’ “
Both music-making and moviemaking must be honest to be effective, Howard says.
“I used to think acting was about lying,” he says. “Whoever is the best liar is the best actor. It took me to be 28 years old before I realized that it’s the person that tells the truth [is the best actor] because it’s truth that gives life. Lies take it away.”
“I could do vocal gymnastics and work with a vocal coach and get my vocals to the point where I can do backflips and somersaults and maybe move somebody,” Howard adds. “But they won’t have a direction to go in unless I’m singing from my heart. I don’t have some incredible voice. But I sing all these songs with the same passion that I experienced the stimuli that made me write them.
“It’s more important to keep that truth in it than to make it perfect.”