Indy Week

With the Rosebuds, Ivan Howard Inspired a Generation of Triangle Musicians. So Where Did He Go?

Grayson Haver Currin Nov 15, 2017 7:00 AM

Ivan Howard grins when he talks about crossing over Kanye West.

Early in October 2014, Howard—the cofounder of longtime Raleigh pop favorites The Rosebuds and a native of city suburb Fuquay-Varina—was about to wrap up weeknight band practice for an annual Halloween-themed crew he'd assembled in Portland, Oregon. Howard had lived in Portland for a year, moving there following stints in Wilmington and New York after fleeing Raleigh in 2010.

But an old pal he'd met in Raleigh was on the phone. Justin Vernon, the leader of Bon Iver and a former Rosebud himself, had an unexpected request.

"He was like, 'Come to Eau Claire tonight. Kanye is here, and he wants you to do what I did on his record,'" Howard remembers on a Friday night from the rear table of a dim Chinese restaurant near his Portland home. His round, congenial Southern accent supplies the perfect dash of doubt.

"I actually had to call the studio manager up, because I didn't know if Justin was telling the truth. Maybe he was stoned," Howard says, laughing. "And he wasn't buying my ticket. But it was real."

An hour later, Howard was on a budget flight to Minneapolis, where he rented a car and drove the final hundred miles to Vernon's sprawling estate and studio, arriving long after midnight. Vernon had contributed heavily to West's previous three records, from supplying samples and singing hooks to cowriting several songs on 2013's Yeezus. That night in Eau Claire, Vernon's compound had become an unlikely nexus of producers, singers, and rappers—Kendrick Lamar, The Arcade Fire's Win Butler, Cody Chesnutt—all working on bits and pieces of what would become 2016's The Life of Pablo.

A few hours after Howard walked in, though, nearly everyone disappeared from the studio, as if Howard had suddenly woken on the wrong side of this dream. He found them all outside on the basketball court, where Vernon's team of three was falling to West's trio. Howard, a high-school basketball star, recruited a pick-up squad, called "Next," and crossed over West several times during a fast break.

Howard lost the ball out of bounds, but he suddenly won West's respect.

"He screamed, 'Oh, shit, I see what you were about to do to me. Oh, shit!'" Howard says. "After that, he was my friend. I wasn't just some random white dude from Eau Claire, hanging out."

Howard spent the next twelve hours writing and singing for West. He penned a tune with Chesnutt and lent his honeyed sensibilities to beats already in progress. He left twenty-four hours after he arrived, catching another red-eye flight to Texas, where The Rosebuds played what remain their final shows to date at Austin City Limits. His contributions didn't make The Life of Pablo, but at least his trio won the game.

The crossover, the late-night collaborations, even the Halloween band back in Portland: for Howard, they are all pieces of a nearly decade-long process to rearrange his life and reimagine his music after The Rosebuds stalled and the marriage at its core splintered. In the interim, he's gotten a divorce, moved across the country, supported his soft-rock supergroup on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, remarried, and purchased a cozy midcentury ranch home in Northeast Portland. And in October, he released Beautiful Tired Bodies, his debut album under the playful name Howard Ivans. A surprising set of expertly rendered modern soul, disco, and funk, it is one of the best and most honest records Howard has ever made and a clear break from his pop-rock pedigree.

"Back in the day, I would have never sung a line like, 'They don't know how it feels to love you, baby.' Coming from an indie rock background, those lines would have been cheesy to my friends," he says. "But the name change gave me permission to say anything I wanted to say. I am able to do what I want to do. I don't really have anything to lose."

For a spell, just after the start of the millennium, The Rosebuds seemed like the Triangle's next hit. Howard and Kelly Crisp met in 2001, started the band on a lark, wed, and signed to Merge Records a year later. Their debut, the effervescent The Rosebuds Make Out!, earned instant acclaim, with Spin praising it as "garage music stripped to its essence."

As a band, Crisp and Howard proved perennially restless; the subsequent Birds Make Good Neighbors shuffled slowly through bittersweet, twilit songs that twinkled with a hint of country, while 2007's Night of the Furies veered into dark dance territory. They toured constantly, seemingly stuck at the threshold between next big thing and actual big thing.

"There weren't really any role models for what we were trying to do in Raleigh as a band," Howard says. "We were trying to step it up, and at that time there was no one else taking those steps."

As The Rosebuds seemed to plateau, many of their collaborators joined or started bands that often did become the next big thing. Former Rosebuds include members of Sylvan Esso, Roman Candle, the Mountain Goats, and St. Vincent, plus three eventual pieces of Bon Iver. Vernon's star as Bon Iver even began to rise while he was The Rosebuds' touring guitarist.

The exigencies of life in a touring band steadily took their toll on Crisp and Howard's relationship, the very center of The Rosebuds. Privately, they separated, but, publicly, they put on a happy face, continuing to tour and write new songs.

During that spell, Howard and I lived together in a house that served as a sort of hostel for a string of musicians and writers. He was, as he admits now, in a dark place, looking for enough inspiration to overcome his nascent frustrations. Around that time, though, Howard stumbled into Gayngs, a psychedelic soft-rock supergroup built by Vernon and two dozen old friends. On a joint tour with Megafaun through the Midwest, The Rosebuds stopped for a few days at Vernon's house, where the songs that became Gayngs' only album were taking shape. Howard heard the material and offered a melody or two. If Gayngs were pure soft-rock candy, Howard's voice became its sweet center.

The entire experience, including a late-night television appearance in a white suit and heavy shades, gave him newfound confidence. And during one Gayngs tour stop, he even met his wife, Brooke-Lynn.

"Honestly, that was when I realized I liked singing," he says. "In The Rosebuds, I was playing the guitar, and I had to sing. But with Gayngs, it became, Holy shit, singing is fun. And I'm pretty good at it, too."

Photo by Taylor Bolding
Ivan Howard

That realization is the core of Beautiful Tired Bodies, on which Howard does nothing but sing. Since the heyday of Gayngs, Howard has written thirty songs in the soft-rock-meets-soul milieu, tunes that he knew would make little sense for an eventual Rosebuds record. (They released Sand + Silence in 2014, and Howard won't rule out another album.)

Last year, he handed them over to Trey Pollard and Cameron Ralston, cofounders of the vibrant Richmond label and production house Spacebomb. The troika combed through them all, picking ten favorites. They built a shared Spotify playlist of musical touchstones, including Luther Vandross and Michael Jackson, an aural mood board for the aesthetic they wanted to capture. They turned Howard's demos into full charts, with horns and strings and an ambitious rhythm section. Howard arrived in Richmond last December, and they cut the record in a week.

"It was mind-boggling, all in one or two takes," he says. "They could create the exact atmosphere I was going for with each song in ways I would have no idea how to do. I would have to do that accidentally, but they could interpret what I was saying in five minutes."

The playing is stupendous, with the elements of old soul and disco given a modern glow. It is the tightest band Howard has ever had, with every twisted rhythm or sharp guitar line situated in just the right space. But it's his natural musical ease that steps fully into the spotlight here, dancing as it does through the peppy "Back to the Life" or slinking through the string-swept D'Angelo nod of "They Don't Know How it Feels."

As for the notion that Beautiful Tired Bodies has any grand lyrical conceit, Howard demurs, noting that he finalized and even wrote most of the words during the sessions themselves; premeditation, he says, was limited, driven more by the fragments he found in his journals and the sound of the songs themselves than some master plan.

But he's selling himself short. These ten songs are a seesaw of feelings, of sadness countered by self-reliance, of hope facing off with hesitation. A mannered self-confidence pulses beneath the muted disco gem "King of Careless," in which Howard suggests he's more comfortable being alone than alienated. On the stunning "Second Spring," Howard hits the town in search of something that feels like redemption. "My doubt is a demon," he confesses, his voice dropping toward Barry White lows.

Howard at last asserts himself during "Come On," where his hurt starts to bloom into something like luck and belief. He sounds every bit like someone who has emerged on the other side of a very dark spell, finally finding new faith in himself and love.

Talking to him now, that change is clear. He laughs a lot and expresses gratitude and curiosity. He talks about self-help books without shame, his future with casual grace. He's not trying to be the next big thing; he's simply trying to be.

For the first time in more than a decade, Howard, now forty-two, has a day job, mostly doing landscaping for lavish suburban homes near Portland. He likes the predictability and the paycheck. He doesn't mind waking up before dawn, and he doesn't seem bitter that this is where life on the road has led. He made music for an Air Jordan commercial and is venturing into film scores. He works with other Portland musicians in his small home studio and is considering finishing the degree that life as a Rosebud interrupted.

"Getting a job was a stretch. My wife, Brooke-Lynn, said, 'Can you even get a job?'" he says, his voice stuck somewhere between a laugh and a sigh. "But when I figured out I was looking for a real job, it was like, Wow, I've got fifteen years of touring experience, but that doesn't relate to real life. Still, I can figure out my way through most things."

Like crossing over Kanye West, even if you lose the ball out of bounds.