Band: Billy Howerdel
Album: What Normal Was
Label/Vertrieb: Alchemy Recordings / BMG
After all of these years, songs, and shows, Billy Howerdel is ready to introduce himself.
Now, that may sound funny if you have any familiarity already, but how much do you really know about him?
The vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, A Perfect Circle co-founder and guitarist projects facets of his personality onto a reflective canvas of ethereal guitars, evocative vocals, glassy synths, and living and breathing soundscapes. It’s both a tribute to his earliest inspirations and the result of a creative restlessness to keep pushing forward. On his proper full-length solo debut, What Normal Was [Alchemy Recordings/Rise Records/BMG], he inhabits a space that’s reverent of his past, present, and future simultaneously.
In essence, it’s simply Billy Howerdel.
“This is me stepping back into my early teen self and making the record I would have made if I had the means and the knowledge when I first picked up a guitar—just in 2022,” he explains. “It’s that moment as a kid when you hear a record, close your eyes, and go somewhere else. That was the time I found my lane, so to speak. During the making of this album, a global pandemic’s chaos had a silver lining. It gave me time to tighten the songs into the place I’d hoped they could be. When I look back, I don’t think I’d change anything about it.”
Hailing from Northern New Jersey, Billy craved the culture just beneath the surface of the mainstream and outside the bounds of terrestrial radio. He was rewarded with endless inspiration by discovering Killing Joke, Echo and the Bunnymen, and The Cure. Devoting his life to music after witnessing Pink Floyd live, his path twisted and turned. He acted as something of a behind-the-scenes journeyman, working as an in-demand touring and studio tech for the likes of David Bowie, Guns N’ Roses, and Nine Inch Nails, to name a few. After striking up a friendship with Maynard James Keenan when Tool opened for Fishbone (for whom Billy served as a tech), the pair ended up being roommates, sharing a North Hollywood house. The two would eventually launch multiplatinum alternative rock phenomenon A Perfect Circle—but more on that later…
During 2008, he made his first solo statement under the moniker Ashes Divide with Keep Telling Myself It’s Alright. In the next decade, the album pervaded as a cult favorite with millions of streams.
As Billy worked on a long-awaited follow-up, it morphed into something a little closer to the man himself.
“This record was going to come out under ‘Ashes Divide’ up until last summer,” he explains. “As time passed, I felt like this sound was closer to what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s more of what’s in my musical DNA, so I wanted to go with my name. In the early two-thousands, Maynard gave me a little bit of advice. He encouraged me to use my voice front-and-center. So, this album is 100% me using my voice and register. I think it tells a better story of who I am.”
As such, Billy handles the bulk of the instrumentation minus drums (which were primarily handled by Josh Freese with Tosh Peterson performing on a pair of tracks. He’s also joined by trusted confidant and longtime collaborator Danny Lohner as co-producer and Matty Green as mixer. He initially teased the album’s arrival with the six-minute “Poison Flowers.” Its silky drip of lyrical venom, understated vocals, and ominous synth-craft instantly appealed to critics with praise from Guitar World, Loudwire, Daniel P. Carter of BBC Rock Radio 1, and Revolver who pegged the record as “one of our most anticipated albums of 2022.”
On its heels, the single “Free and Weightless” opens with a bright keyboard intro. The keys practically bleed into the guitars almost unrecognizable from one another. The track’s fluid motion matches the push-and-pull of his vocals between breathy verses and an ecstatic hook, “Ready to surrender, so I may be free and weightless.”
“The energy of it was a nice compliment to ‘Poison Flowers.'” he goes on. “It was built out of a rolling collage of loops, which isn't something I would normally do. Thematically, everything on this record is pointed at personal relationships. The songs are a combination of a few conversations happening in a split-screen point-of-view. No one story is ever completely singular. It’s like patchwork.”
Bass-y synths echo in tandem with his vocals on the lush and lively “Ani.” He elaborates, “It was nice to have a dominant heavier synth song. Story-wise, it's a grab-a-notebook, be-a-voyeur, and observe kind of song for me. There’s great writing to be done by going to the farmer’s market with a hoodie and glasses on overhearing pieces of conversations. That one might have kicked off that way.”
“Beautiful Mistake” serves as a centerpiece. Its effervescent drone gives way to vulnerable verses before guitars wrap around a steady beat on the refrain, “I love your beautiful mistakes.” Eventually, it falls into the rapture of a cathartic guitar solo. “It moves around a bit,” he reveals. “Think of when you’re speaking to someone, but all this person sees is your deficits. So, you try to get them out of the hole they’re digging and you do your best to get someone to see the whole versus the parts.”
Whether it be the glitchy percussive drive of “Selfish Hearts” or the subdued dreamscape of “EXP” (“It’s a letter to my kids,” he notes), he seamlessly dips in and out of textures and moods. The album concludes on an up-tempo note with the luminous “Stars.” “Sometimes, I want to put you to sleep at the end of a record, but not this one,” he smiles. “Musically, I’m a big fan of The Smiths. It didn't matter what dismal shit Morrissey was saying, because the musical atmosphere felt optimistic and that’s what I always latched onto. There are two directions of emotion.” Such dichotomy has defined his catalog thus far. Billy founded A Perfect Circle with Maynard in 1999. The group’s seminal full-length debut, Mer de Noms, went platinum and made history as the “highest Billboard Top 200 bow for a rock band’s debut.” They followed it with the platinum Thirteenth Step  and gold Emotive . Along the way, they headlined hallowed venues such as The Hollywood Bowl. The group made their return with 2018’s Eat The Elephant, marking their fourth consecutive Top 5 debut on the Top 200. KERRANG! awarded it a rare perfect score, while it graced Revolver’s “Best Albums of 2018.” In between, Billy’s music has also appeared in video games and on the big screen.
Ultimately, this album is the best way to get to know Billy.