By HAYLEY HOFFMAN – MANAGING EDITOR
Junior Jeri Howell has turned a childhood passion into a career as a professional musician and performer. Traveling all around the state, Howell has played at a variety of venues, from Frankfort’s Grand Theater to local coffee shops.
Howell has been performing for as long as she can remember.
“I always sang really loudly around the house and so my parents really wanted me to channel that energy into something,” Howell said. “I remember my mom asking me, ‘If you could play any instrument, what would it be?’ I told her that I wanted to play guitar. That Christmas, when I was ten, I got a Fender guitar. I went over to my godfather’s house and he taught me some chords and songs, and then I started taking Bluegrass guitar lessons. It sort of went off from there.”
After several years of lessons, Howell began to perform publicly and decided to record her first CD after audiences asked if she had one for sale.
Her first album, “Branch to Branch,” was released in 2008 and features stripped-down covers of songs “Hey Ya” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” A few of Howell’s original songs are also featured on the CD, including the title track co-written by her sister.
Howell recorded the album in Nashville, which “sounds a lot fancier than it actually is.”
“To make the album, I really just talked to people that I knew. I had a friend who was in school to become an audio engineer in Nashville,” Howell said. “I could use the school’s studio for pretty cheap and if he mixed it, it was practice for him. I went down there for a weekend with my guitar teacher and his wife, Daphne, and we recorded 14 songs.”
While still in high school, Howell opened for acts like Dailey & Vincent and Sam Bush.
One of her favorite memories of performing, however, is of an impromptu songwriting exercise she did with Ben Sollee.
“When I was on Centre’s campus for the Governor’s Scholar Program (GSP), he came to perform and I contacted him and said, ‘Hey, you’re performing at my GSP.’ He said, ‘That’s awesome, we should perform some stuff together.’”
The two met up prior to the performance to rehearse several songs to perform, including one of Howell’s brand-new original songs. Sollee wanted to do an impromptu songwriting exercise on stage, and Howell couldn’t say no to such a “cool and exciting” idea.
“Previously in the day, the scholars had written down emotions on strips of paper and he got this hat out and said, ‘Okay, Jeri and I are going to write this song based on your all’s words’,” Howell said. “Ben and I pick words out of the hat and he just starts playing these chords and sings a verse. I was like, ‘I can’t freak out now. I have to do it.’ I sang a verse and he did another verse, and then we did a random chorus. It was the craziest, coolest thing, and it was an okay song.”
Just a few years later, Howell released her second CD, “Collage.” Recorded throughout her first year at Centre, the album is composed entirely of original songs.
“I wanted to record this one because I had enough original material to make a full CD. I knew that I was old enough now to make it an independent project because my first CD, I had to go through my parents for a lot of things,” Howell said. “I would go to Lexington [to record] on random nights throughout the year. The people on the CD are all from Kentucky. They were all my friends or friends of friends or people who inspired me as I was learning to play, and it’s cool to have them all on that CD.”
Howell performs with the Kentucky Ensemble on campus throughout each semester. The group focuses on bringing traditional and contemporary folk music to campus audiences.
The group also provides her with the “biggest outlet” and allows her “to perform the music [she] love[s] to perform.”
Howell also performs in the Norton Center foyer prior to shows, and most recently played before the Chris Thile and Edgar Meyer concert.
“Centre having so many music opportunities is really inspiring for writing and it’s good motivation, going to a Norton Center show. It’s been really awesome because Steve Hoffman has been really kind to me and invited me to open in the foyer for a few shows,” Howell said. “Also, I’ve been able to perform on campus randomly. I did the Deke Chili Cook-Off, and that was fun. I’m going to do an open-mic night at the Hub. And of course, I get to do my own music stuff that’s outside of Centre.”
However, Howell does not plan on pursuing music professionally upon graduation.
“I’m majoring in Environmental Studies and Spanish with a minor in History. I actually haven’t taken a music course other than the ensemble here,” Howell said. “I don’t plan on music being my main job. I’ve never really wanted it to be, but I always want to be performing and writing and performing on a regional scale. I just always wanted to have it as a fun side thing.”
During the summer, Howell interned at the Backside Learning Center, a community center that provides educational and social services to workers on the backside of the horse tracks in Louisville.
While there, Howell helped establish new family programming for the workers and their families and taught guitar to anyone who wanted to learn.
“Whenever someone would come in, which would be totally random, and say that they wanted to play guitar, I would show them a few chords,” Howell said.
For anyone wanting to learn guitar, Howell thinks they should know that the process is not easy, but at the end of the practice and rehearsing it is “incredibly rewarding.”
“If you want to write a song or you want to play guitar, and you have just an inkling, go after it, but know that it’s hard and that you have to dedicate the time to practice it,” Howell said. “I guess the biggest thing is when people tell me they’ve tried to write a song or play guitar and they just can’t, they say, ‘I’m not good enough and it’s too hard.’ It’s like people are afraid to just try it and dive into it. I would say don’t be afraid because it’s just you expressing yourself. Just don’t be afraid of yourself.”
Howell will be performing in the Kentucky Ensemble’s final concert on Nov. 22 at 7:30 p.m in the Combs Warehouse. You can also like her Facebook page, www.facebook.com/jerikatherinehowell.