Jim Croce, Don McLean, Cat Stevens, Barry Manilow: It’s a favorite singer-songwriters list that only Terrence Howard could reel off without a hint of embarrassment. The green-eyed movie-star-turned-singer’s September album, Shine Through It (Sony), is getting glowing reviews and doing for melancholy what DJay, his Oscar-nominated Hustle & Flow character, did for pimping: he convinces you it’s not so bad.
Howard is currently touring behind Shine Through It while juggling film work. As many roles as the divorced father of three is playing, he’s never too busy to contemplate his role in the lives of his kids. He told Babble all about it. – Tammy La Gorce
Congratulations on your new record! You wanted to be a singer before you became an actor. Is this something like a dream come true for you?
You know what’s so interesting? To get great reviews like this record’s getting, all you have to do is make an album that’s got some real instruments in it and put some heart into the songs. People are dying for songs with heart, with real truth in them.
You were divorced in 2006 after a fourteen-year marriage that had been tumultuous; you had divorced and remarried your ex-wife once before. You wrote the song “No. 1 Fan” for your ex-wife, right?
I didn’t write the song for her, I wrote it for me, but it’s about her. I remember when I first played it for her. I still see her on a daily basis, still have dinner over there. I go hang out and watch TV with my kids, go there and hang out together with her. It’s really good now – we’ve found peace being a divorced family.
Any chance you’ll remarry her again?
I don’t think there’s enough tissues in the tissue box. For either of us. Sometimes you get together when you’re so young, and you’re trying to grow but you’re not ready for the real responsibilities that come with that lifetime commitment. You damage the foundation to such a degree that the best thing you can do is to be best friends.
You have three kids: Aubrey, fifteen; Hunter, thirteen; and Heavenly, eleven. What’s it like being a single dad?
I don’t know, because I’ve only known life this way for the last eight years or so. I mean, separating from my kids had become everyday life for me, because of my work. I’ve got to go away a lot. So I’ve modified my schedule to be home with my children. And I’ve developed such a good relationship with my son (Hunter). My son truly is my best friend. When I’m away we talk on the phone – we play guitar together, we box together on the phone.
You box? Over the phone?
Yeah. We talk. I told him about being scared one time boxing and he said, “Sometimes I feel that way too.” I like giving him that little skill under his arm so he can walk a little tougher.
You didn’t want to sing “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow at the 2006 Academy Awards. Was that because of its language and content? Were you thinking of your kids when you made that decision?
Well, it’s one thing to play that character (DJay, a pimp-turned-rapper). That’s who I was. But when the show was over the character was over, so the idea of still doing the song became no fun. It wasn’t about trying to be a role model.
Do you monitor the music your kids listen to?
“Where else would I live? Hollywood? I don’t think those people even like me.”Yes. I try to keep them from most hip-hop, because you know what? It’s harder to get an idea out of your head than it is to keep it from going in there in the first place. Some music can be corrupting – if it’s not building you up it’s tearing you down. My children’s brains are forming, I would like to protect them from explicit references. Later they can fill their souls up with junk food if they want. But junk food is something I’m determined not to allow. For now.
You’ve said that being a storyteller is important to you in your music. What kinds of stories do you tell your kids?
I tell them my life stories. I’ve always enjoyed taking a story and putting it in a way that’s not only informative but tasty. You know, you use metaphor and simile to carry them places. But you know that book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go? The title makes it seem like it’s for a child, but the information in that book is about an adult’s life. Sometimes I take a cue off that book, and sometimes I take cues off the Bible when I’m telling stories. I like stories with truth in them.
You live in Lafayette Hill, a suburb of Philadelphia, two blocks away from your ex. Why do you choose to live in the suburbs? Is it good for the kids?
Where else would I live? Hollywood? I don’t think those people even like me. Why would I want to be around that? I’m where I am because that’s where my kids are. Things didn’t work out with my wife so I had no choice but to be home, near them. I spend most of my time within a five-minute radius of home.
Some of your favorite artists are ’70s old-school singer-songwriters. You’ve said that’s because your parents turned you on to that sort of personal, heavily emotional music and also because you appreciate a sensitive, thoughtful lyric. What kind of music are you listening to now? What kind of music are your kids listening to?
I tell my children ABC: Always be comfortable, always be calm. I listen to Jim Croce, James Taylor, Paul Simon. Paul Simon is still inside my car CD player. I haven’t changed what I’m listening to because I still haven’t heard much in music to lead me in a different direction. Music is still saturated with electronic sounds. It’s not true style, not something that can inspire me. My son loves Jim Croce, Cat Stevens. One of his favorite songs is (Stevens’) “Father and Son.”
There was a terrible incident in your childhood that’s been widely written about. When you were two, you watched your father stab a man who made racist comments in a department store, and he went to prison for it. I’m going to assume that you were a really strong, resilient kid, because despite such a hardship you went on to be a success. Are your own kids resilient people?
They are. But I think of how much further I might have come if that hadn’t occurred. I’ve been defensive; I’ve chased people away. My kids were born with natural resilience, and I think they’ll be able to spring much further than me, because they haven’t been pushed down.
You’re thirty-nine, but you look twenty-five. How do you do it?
Bad living. I haven’t been to the gym lately because I had been taking care of my mom [who passed away this fall] and it took a lot out of me. But no: I usually drink a lot of water. Cayenne pepper is good and so is ginger and bitter greens. You’ve got to work out on a regular basis, you’ve got to sweat for a good twenty or thirty minutes every day. What makes people look old is having all these toxins trapped in their bodies. You’ve got to sweat them out.
What can we see you in next? Or should we just plan to come to a concert?
Fighting is going to come out in the spring – that’s Dito Montiel’s film with Channing Tatum, who’s great. I’ll also be touring for the next couple years; you can check my myspace.
Anything else you want to tell Babble readers?
Yeah. I taught my children one thing: If they want to know what I would say about something and I’m not there for them to ask me, if they want to know what I would think, I tell them ABC. Always be comfortable, always be calm. If you’re not comfortable in a circumstance, if you’re not calm, turn around and walk away. Say no. You know in your heart what’s right, and that’s all you need to know.