Howard Iceberg is an icon of Kansas City roots music. A singer-songwriter whose legacy of 1000-plus songs goes back forty years, Iceberg's recorded output in the past few years has been staggering. It's music that cross-pollinates stripped-down midwestern blues with a ragged and sardonic voice reminiscent of Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. We are honored to share an illuminating interview with this Kansas City music legend.
Please introduce yourself and describe your music for new listeners.
My name is Howard Iceberg. Over the past 40 years, I've written more than 1000 songs, played out live with Howard Iceberg & the Titanics scores or maybe hundreds of times, and released two or three hundred of my songs, first on cassette, then on CD, and more recently by digital download. Many local musicians have covered songs of mine in their own shows, and at least a half dozen of my songs have been recorded by other artists. My main body of work could be called American or roots music, with a strong rock and roll basis; but I've wandered into folk, country, blues, jazz, and elsewhere. I consider myself a serious amateur and a serious student-- not a professional. Obvious influences include Bob Dylan, John Prine, and Buddy Holly; but I've also stolen from Miles Davis, Beethoven, Bach, Tom Petty, John Coltrane, The Minutemen, Hank Williams, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Berry, and dozens of others for my music side----and from many writers, including Hemingway, Celine, Henry Miller, Durrell, Shakespeare, Donne, and Jim Thompson for ideas, not to mention my friends and neighbors. When I remember to keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth shut, songs come to me pretty easily. (I also was a lawyer for more than 40 years.)
You’ve released more music the past several years than a lot of artists do in their lifetime. When did you first start writing songs? Do you see your earliest songs as a reflection of or response to your experiences as an attorney?
I always listened to music on the radio, growing up, but never considered being a musician. First took up music when I was in law school in order to save my sanity, as an antidote to the right-brain thinking of school. Started playing the dulcimer at a folk club; and within a month or two of playing Carter Family songs and the like, my own songs very unexpectedly started popping out.
I am considered a prolific writer by some people here; but I've just worked steadily at it over a long period. There are plenty of others, I think, who've written a lot of songs. It's just that most of them are in Nashville or New York or L.A. and have chosen this as a profession. For me, I already had a day job, so it's just been a serious hobby. Songs do come to me easily; but I have also studied the craft of songwriting in some depth. To me, it's important to be open to inspiration; but once that idea comes, it's also important to be able to execute, which is where the studying comes in.
I like some of my songs much better than others. The best ones, I'll take more time with, edit them over a period of a week or even a few weeks, to get all the words right. The so-so songs, I'll just record them to preserve, and move on. Once I've recorded a song, I tend to forget about it. This is to make room for the next song coming in. For me, it seems to work best if I maintain more of a receiver mode; and let the song come to me.
As a longtime Kansas Citian, how would you describe the changes you’ve seen in the KC music scene over the years?
The KC music scene is thriving these days. There is a lot of great talent out here, some of which would probably be more well-known if KC was more of a media center. There is also more collaboration these days, it seems to me, than in the 80's or 90's. I also think that part of the depth of good music these days can be attributed to the economic/political situation. Fewer jobs mean more musicians.
Who are your top two musical influences and what do you admire about their work?
I've been asked to name two of my major influences. I would say Bob Dylan and John Prine. Dylan because he showed that modern songs could be high art, take on serious subjects, aspire to poetry, break all rules and conventions. Prine because he showed that modern songs could be genuinely funny and have heart. People have called me KC's Bob Dylan, but mainly for superficial reasons. I write a lot of songs, I have a raspy voice, we come from the same stock. But my songs aren't really like his. The reason he is so influential, not just to me but to many other songwriters, is that he put no limits on his own influences. He could draw from Chuck Berry and Arthur Rimbaud in the same song. Or from Kerouac, or Stephen Foster, or Muddy Waters, or the Beatles. Before him, much popular songwriting was about trying to write a hit that was just an inch or two different than what had come before. And many musicians identified as and limited themselves within a certain well-defined genre, be it blues, or country, or bluegrass, or folk. Dylan blew up the boundaries. As for John Prine, to me he is like the spiritual grandson of Damon Runyon, funny caricatures, sincere and cynical at the same time, maudlin with a wink of the eye. In both Dylan and Prine, the excellent lyric writing is also backed up by good melodies.
Also, it is probably not a coincidence that both of my major influences, like me, have a pretty sketchy singing voice.
What’s ahead for you in 2018?
2018----last month I released a new album, "Netherlands", a new direction for me in the sense that I brought in some of the well-known jazz cats in town, and also tried to tell a story in record form, with the songs relating to each other, rather than each one standing entirely on its own. You can hear it for free if you're on Bandcamp or Spotify. Since then, I actually recorded a whole nother album of 15 songs, all in one day, which is in final stages of mixing. It will not go out to the public but to a few close friends and fanatics. I'm 70 now, and though I love my old band and the days of playing loud with a 5-piece group, I'm no longer inclined in that way. I've got 4 or 5 gigs already lined up in the coming months, most of them solo or duo. I'm starting a new side project, the Hermanos Brothers, a duo with the great Chad Brothers. Also I have probably 3 or 4 CD's worth of songs that are already finished and in the can, that I'm just too embarrassed to release so much stuff at once. Maybe I'll do something with some of that. And I have a lot of songs that I've written (and continue to write), some of which are good enough to spend some time bringing in some ringers and recording. Whether I live much longer or not, I don't expect to be musically productive for much longer---so I'm trying to put a cap on things. As for today, I just got in a CD of the songs of Harry Warren, a songwriter who wrote hits for the movies in the 1930's. I'm going to see what he's about.