Carly Howard is singer, songwriter, actor, and a founder of Sparrowtree Theatre Company. The majority of music she writes weaves its way into live theatre performances with film and dance. She has been a friend of ours for a few years now, performing at gallery shows, and lending support at art and music shows small and large. Carly has recently released an album of songs from her most recent theatre endeavor, Overgrown, an original fairy tale about a vegan plant eating a guy. Ukuleles, banjos, clarinets, cellos, saxophones, and glockenspiels add magic and fantasy to her beautiful folk songs. FRONTRUNNER sat down with her to discuss.
You are a singer, actor, and founder of the Sparrowtree Theatre Company. How do multiple mediums of expression inspire you?
This might be a nice way of saying I am a control freak. When I have a vision for something or an idea, I start to see all aspects of it: what it should look like, sound like, feel like, etc. It’s hard for me to isolate one art form from another.
Tell me about the production process of your most recent album Overgrown. What inspired your use of ukuleles, banjos, clarinets, cellos, saxophones, and glockenspiels?
The glock and ukulele were unexpected gifts and I started writing with them as soon as I got them. I find the ukulele to be the friendliest instrument! It’s so small and approachable — it always feels like it’s giving you a hug. The sound of the banjo gives me this great nostalgic feeling and I’m not even sure why. It reminds me of mountains and people sitting on porches stomping their feet and singing. As for the clarinet and cello, I was writing a play (the album that Overgrown is based on) and I sent the music to Tyler Phillips, a friend and collaborator, who was inspired to write cello and clarinet parts. He helped arrange and write additional orchestrations on the album, which really helped give it a much more full sound.
Overgrown is also the soundtrack to a theatre production. What comes first for you, the music or the playwriting/directing process?
The music has always come first and something visual I see in my head– whether it be placement of people on stage or colors or a set piece or a projection. Then I take what I see or hear and that inspires me to write a song. This is maybe a backwards way to work but I think it’s cool to start writing a song freely and just see where that takes me and move forward from there. Writing for me isn’t a big “thinking” process or very plot based, it’s more of hmmm…what’s on my mind? What’s in my subconscious that wants to come forward? What am I surrounded by? And then whatever that is, I try to validate it in some way and write a play around it. Much of what I write is non-linear and starts off being very disorganized. Then if I am patient with it, it finds it’s way. I get bored with two people sitting on stage having a conversation. I love movement and faces and bodies and sound. I like for my plays to feel like you’re watching a strange dream.
I think of you and your work in reinterpreting traditional fairy tales (such as your past work on Hansel and Gretel) Overgrown is billed as an “original fairy tale” about a vegan plant eating a guy. What significance does the fairy tale narrative have for you?
They are very dreamy but in a concise way. They don’t seem to make much sense on the surface and they leave space for interpretation. They are just so matter-of-fact about what seems to be absurd. “There was once an old fox with nine tails, who thought his wife was unfaithful and wanted to put her to the test.” Ha! Ok! Or I love this: “A louse and a flea kept house together. They brewed their beer in an eggshell, and one day the louse fell in and got scalded.” Yep. Just FYI, that two-page story ends with all of the characters (Door, Broom, Cart, Rubbish Heap, and Tree) all drowning in the gushing water of The Spring.
I am always inspired by how Sparrowtree mixes film, dance, theatre, and music together. There is a lot on your palette and a small army of collaborators. Tell me about the company and musicians involved in your life.
Chad Howard and I started Sparrowtree together in 2010 when we co-wrote an adaptation of Hansel and Gretel: An Indie-Folk Musical. He is to be credited for the amazing films and projections that accompany all Sparrowtree shows. It was his idea to make short films as transitions between all of the scenes and he has a great talent for using projections as a way to heighten the experience and add to the story. I have always had an interest in movement and dance and started collaborating in 2010 with my friend and choreographer, Jennifer Oman, who has had a hand in almost every show. Garrison York is a huge collaborator, who has done everything from score films to run lights to unclog the toilet at 17 Frost to help write and perform music for Metropolis (a dance concert that featured a brand new cut of the film Metropolis, set to the music of three live Brooklyn-based bands). When I go see something, I always like to see a range of art forms performed simultaneously. I think that ensures that there’s something for everyone and makes theatre more appealing to those who otherwise would not be interested. I wanted Sparrowtree to put on shows that I would want to go see, and those usually involved dance, theatre, film, and music.
What do you have planned for the future?
I am currently promoting Overgrown and playing live around the NYC area, collaborating with cellist Kim Vogels, violinist Kendra Jo Brook, vocalist/trumpeteer Bethany Taylor, and multi-instrumentalist Tyler Phillips. I am working on some new songs that will hopefully develop into my next theatre piece. All I know is that it will involve a giant web on stage. We’ll see what happens!