Catch up with singer-songwriter Senator (Howard Baker), listen to his new single "Breathless", and look for his debut EP, Tiny Monsters, to be released later this year.
What got you interested in music and in songwriting?
Howard: I grew up in a very musical family. My mom and relatives were really into musical theater and performing and all that, so I just was kind of surrounded by it my whole life. My mom used to always help out with the local theater and so every day after school I would have to go there and just watch practices, basically, and learn the songs. So it's kind of something that was instilled in me at a very young age and grew up performing, grew up singing in choir my whole life. I think singing, playing guitar, and songwriting was just a natural extension off of that.
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
[Laughs] Actually, the first song I wrote wasn't terrible [laughs], I still get requests for it sometimes when I play for people that were around at that time. I think I was in high school, I was 15, and the song was called "Megan". It was about a girl that I went to high school with and I was at a party one night and I was talking to this girl, Megan, and we kind of hit it off and then she walked away or something and one of my good friends came up and was like, "dude, you should hook up with that girl and then never talk to her again," and I was like, "what are you talking about?" and he was like, "she does that to everyone"; and then he told me a story of how she did that to him and he was kind of bitter about it and wanted me to do some payback and so, instead of hooking up with her and doing what he wanted me to, I just wrote a song about it [laughs]. And so this song's about this girl named Megan who uses people.
Where does your stage name, Senator, come from?
That actually was also something I got in high school. I moved up to Petoskey, Michigan in '98 I believe and whenever I would meet new friends' parents and stuff, when I would introduce myself I would say, "Howard Baker," and apparently there was a very famous senator named Howard Baker during the Nixon era and he headed up one of the committees that investigated Watergate and so his name became pretty well-known and it would always get brought up when I would introduce myself to my friends' parents. They would be like, "oh, like the senator," and one of my friend's parents, in particular, they really latched onto that nickname and just started calling me it.
Which musicians would you say you've been influenced by?
My big three are definitely Beck, Nirvana, and Radiohead. Actually, I should probably throw Cat Stevens in there too because he had a really big influence on my writing style because, when I first started, I was mainly an acoustic singer-songwriter. But, Beck, Radiohead, and Nirvana are the three that I got brought up listening to a lot and I really took a lot from them.
Is there anyone you've had on repeat lately?
Kind of those three [laughs]. As far as newer stuff goes, I would probably say the last album that I really, thoroughly enjoyed was Tame Impala, their Currents album that came out in 2015. I was never a huge fan of theirs before, I'd heard a lot of their stuff and some of my friends were really into them, but I think they just really nailed it with that last album and I saw them live and I was really impressed, so I became a pretty big fan.
Which words would you use to describe your sound?
I usually say it's acoustic indie rock. The basis of it, again, I do all my songwriting on acoustic guitar and I use loop pedals and stuff a lot too, so that's the foundation of a lot of my music. And then once we got in the studio, we kind of just built off of that and orchestrated it, added a bunch of electric instruments, and went from there.
What were your inspirations behind your new single "Breathless"?
The story behind the song is kind of a bleak one, to be honest. It stems from two different experiences I had with two different girls and they opened up to me and they told me they'd had two very bad experiences of being raped and it was a very deep, heavy conversation. Both their stories were the same, but different: one of them actually chose to pursue charges and testify against him and he got locked up but, the other one, she chose not to do anything and she had her reasons for it and the reasons are fairly common, apparently, for people not wanting to pursue it. I was just really affected by their stories, especially in recent times, the past couple of years especially, and we've heard stories about stuff like that happening and justice not being served and people getting away with it and I think it's a big issue that really needs to have a spotlight on it and something that needs to be addressed. A lot of it is just our everyday culture in this country and letting things like that slide and chalking it up to 'boys being boys' or whatever. It was hard for me to really process it and to really know what to do and songwriting for me is very much my outlet and so that's what I channeled all of my emotions into, was "Breathless".
As far as the sound goes for it, when I start writing, I generally start with the instrumentals of the song and I had a riff on the guitar and it kind of sparked an old, Eastern European folk style, to me, that was the original direction of it that I just kind of heard. Then once we got into the studio, we started messing around with more electric sounds and kept that feel a little bit, but it took on a life of its own in the studio.
Is that indicative of what we can expect to hear on your debut EP and could you tell us more about Tiny Monsters?
"Breathless" is pretty close to the overall sound that you can expect. I've actually been told - and I hear it myself - that each song has a different, distinct sound and style to it. I didn't really have one kind of sound or vision going into making this album, generally speaking I just write each song as its own thing, and so I chose a sound and a style that fit each particular song instead of the whole album. There is somewhat of a common theme in the music. It's cinematic a lot; I love strings, I love blaring voices and a bigger sound, so that definitely shows itself throughout the whole EP. I like to touch on very dark subject matter, as you can see with "Breathless", that's kind of a resident theme throughout the whole EP, as well, and that's where the title of the album comes from. 'Tiny Monsters', my engineer actually came up with it. We were listening to a song by the band Puscifer with Maynard, the singer from Tool - it's one of his side projects - the song was called "Tiny Monsters" and I asked my producer/engineer - his name's Hunter Levy - "we still need a title for this album," and, without skipping a beat, he goes, "how 'bout 'Tiny Monsters'?" and I was like, "yeah, that's actually pretty cool," and he was like, "it fits because each one of your songs is kind of like its own little tiny monster," and so I just went with that.
Is there a song off this EP you'd say you're most excited to share with your listeners?
I'd say I have three different ones. "Breathless" is one of my favorites on it. I love performing it live. There's a guitar solo in the middle of the song that I really like and there's a really cool drum fill and, when I play it live, I actually play bass for the majority of the song but then, mid-song, I drop the bass and I walk over and do the guitar solo as well, so that's always really fun to do. The other one on the album is "Lost Again", which is actually going to be my second single release off the EP and we made a music video for it. That song is probably the most personal to me; it also seemed to resonate the most with the overall audience that I've showed it to, as far as the widest range of demographic that seemed to like it. It was one of the first songs that I wrote that I felt like I found my sound with. It was a struggle for me for many years to really settle into what I wanted to sound like, and I think I found that on "Lost Again". The other one is the last full song on the album - because there's an outro - it's called "April Moon"; that song I also love playing live. It's one of the only songs on the album that I really, fully sing out in; I do a lot of softer singing in most of the songs but "April Moon" is the one I really sing out with. It kind of has the most distinct and unique sound of any of the songs on the album and it's just a lot of fun to play.
How would you sum up Tiny Monsters in one sentence?
A musical illustration of the darkest parts of humanity, rearranged to make it more palatable to the masses.
What do you hope listeners are able to take away from your music?
First and foremost, just a good listening experience. I hope they enjoy the melodies, the lyrics, all the work that I put into it. But I also hope that it starts a little bit of a conversation and causes people to think. I talk about a lot of serious topics in the album and a lot of personal feelings and experiences and while, a lot of the times, those themes might not be that easy to talk about or something that people really want to think about, but it's a reality of the world and a lot of times it needs to be discussed and it needs to be acknowledged and, if listening to my songs or my albums sparks any of that to anyone, then that would make my happy.
Is there anything you want to add?
I'm just really excited about this! This is my first album - my first single off my first album that I've ever released - so this is a long time coming for me and I'm very happy about it, so I'm just really looking forward to the release. I think we are releasing "Breathless" through Pancakes and Whiskey on the 11th, so I'm looking forward to it.