Howie Day

When Howie Day was 12, he decided to trade in the ivories for a six-string because, let’s face it, guys who play guitar are way cooler than guys who play piano, Ben Folds notwithstanding.

The Bangor, Maine, native got his start with music at the age of five when his mother bought a piano at an auction. He soon began learning commercial jingles by ear. That would help him out years later when, at 15, he landed some gigs playing covers and a few originals around his hometown.

“That went on for about three years or so,” the singer/songwriter told POLLSTAR from Rotterdam, Holland, following a tour stop with Tori Amos. “Then it got to the point where I was playing just about every night of the week. … But it was kind of like my job. My friends all worked at Burger King or whatever and I went out and did gigs at night.”

A couple of years later, Day was the first act on a bill at the University of Maine with Ziggy Marley and a nu-metal act. The show’s middle agent, Shawn Radley, was impressed by the performance and offered to book some shows for Day. Soon, Radley was handling both management and routing duties for the troubadour.

“It was one of those random things that I wonder, had I not done that show, where would I be now?” Day said of their initial meeting.

With Radley on board, Day began expanding out from the Northeast, playing gigs at college coffee houses across the country and developing the strategy that would shape the rest of his career, building a loyal fan base through constant touring.

“We’d just go back to the cities over and over and go from 20 people to 50 people to 100 people, etc.,” Day said. “It was kind of fun, building it up with no outside help at all, just on touring alone.”

And with the development of a fan base came the refining of Day’s sound, which initially was just his voice and an acoustic guitar. After catching a show by Ohioan Joseph Arthur, Day began incorporating samplers to loop sounds around his singing. That sound informed his self- financed indie album, Australia, which was released on Daze Records in 2000.

The album sold a mind-blowing 30,000 copies with no formal distribution, selling at shows and on the Internet only.

“I had certain fantasies about how far this could go independently. But it definitely got to the point where there was more to do than I could do on my own,” Day said, adding that even though he wasn’t necessarily looking to sign with a major, “I knew in the back of my mind that if I built it up big enough, that they would come, that it wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Howie Day

“I think going into it that way is a lot better position for an artist to be in. Everybody says artists get fucked on major label deals but at least with them seeking you out, it gives you a little bit of extra clout.”

The major label bidding war was eventually won by Epic Records, which re-released Australia last year.

Along the way, Day landed a cover of “Help!” on the “I Am Sam” soundtrack and ended up on the Jeep World Outside Festival with Sheryl Crow, Ziggy Marley, Train, and O.A.R. Besides a certain amount of fan crossover, Day has a shared philosophy with O.A.R., which can easily sell out large clubs and theatres despite not having a major label deal.

“Instead of whining and making a label deal your goal, there’s tons of things you can be doing on the ground floor when you’re starting out,” Day said. “Labels always say the hardest part of promoting an artist is that first 50,000 or 100,000 copies, sort of getting that foundation. I think building a foundation can be done on your own, just touring around and working hard on it.”

Radley agreed that touring was a major component of building a fan base.

“Since he turned 18 (he just turned 22), he’s probably done almost 1,100 shows,” he said. “The live show was always one of the things that we focused on. … We can’t control radio or MTV or any of the other variables that come into it, but him getting onstage every night and winning them over was something we could control.”

Day’s agent, William Morris Agency’s Aaron Pinkus, said interest in the singer is growing westward, with colleges along the Left Coast and throughout the country contacting his office for avails.

“The overarching goal is to make Howie as much of a global artist as possible,” Pinkus said. “Our steadfast belief is that Howie is going to be an artist of the magnitude of a Sting or Paul Simon.

“Howie and Shawn have diligently worked to develop a strong grassroots fan base. Today, Ron Opaleski, Brent Smith, Peter Grosslight, Tony Goldring and myself are trying to further that grassroots process, taking Howie into other markets and other areas in entertainment to which he has not been exposed. Yet.”

According to Day, he’ll finish up work on his next album when he returns from Europe. And, even though he’s always toured without back up, he said he may consider bringing in a band for the sophomore effort.