Most kids just don’t grasp the idea of a life goal. For them, long-term planning is figuring out where they’re going to sit on the bus after school. But Howie Day, he had everything figured out by kindergarten. When his teacher asked the class to write down what they want to be when they grew up, Day simply put down two words: rock singer. Sure, it seemed rather fanciful at the time. But then came all the lessons, the solo gigs during high school, the small tours his senior year. He even sent in homework via Fed Ex.
Now, that daydream seems rather prophetic. While still a few clicks away from star status, Day is already making a run at John Mayer’s hippie heartthrob throne, translating his triple-threat package—indie street cred, radio-ready folk and Teen Beat looks—into an all-out assault. He’s already got the lunatic fans, built up from years of touring his native New England. While his debut album, Australia, has only been out of Day’s trunk and on record store shelves for the last few months, there are several websites dedicated to trading bootlegs of his improv-heavy concerts. He’s even winning over Tori Amos’ notoriously single-minded crowd night after night as an opening act—a monumental feat in its own right. Guess you really do learn everything you need in kindergarten.
“I always knew I was going to get here because I promised myself I would,” the 21-year-old Day says. “It didn’t matter what it took; I was willing to do pretty much anything. It sounds cliché, but I just believed in working hard, being in the right place at the right time and playing to odds.”
For a while, that meant slugging away every Friday night at his dad’s restaurant in Bangor, Maine, for people who could care less if he was even there. His sets bordered on acoustic karaoke, Day slipping in a few originals amongst all the Beatles covers. By 17 he was on the road, pulling together enough money to pay for Australia. The effort was worth it, the disc pulling in the Boston Music Award’s Best Debut Album award and sparking a major label bidding war that Day ignored until finally inking with Epic.
But now, Australia is haunting Day. When he first began work on the record, he was little more than a coffeehouse strummer with a batch of songs that came off like a solo Goo Goo Doll with a serious Jeff Buckley complex. Over the years, though, his sets have morphed into a digital playground, with Day using samplers to turn himself into a one-man symphony. Instant loops and hand-slapped beats shimmy in and out of songs. At times it seems like Day is just weathering an instant hurricane of noise and hooks. Though a pleasant record with all the soothing power of hot cocoa, Australia is just a shadow of what Day can really do.
“There’s this huge gap between the live show and the album now,” he admits. “The songs have just evolved over the years, enough that they sound different than when they were recorded. And I don’t know if they’re even done yet. This record is a snapshot of me three years ago. I want to show people what I can really do.”
With the press calling him a prodigy and his official major-label hello scheduled for the middle of next year, the pressure is starting to build. If Day can figure out the formula, it might be enough for him to usurp Mayer as the current college troubadour of choice. It’s all got him a bit worried.
“I have to admit that this whole thing has been kind of cool, but also kind of weird,” he says. “People expect one thing, but being so young makes it harder for me to have that credibility you want. It’s like I have less respect because I don’t have as much life experience. It’s not going to be easy, but I guess nothing has been really easy yet, so why should this be different.”