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NEW YORK — “When I grow up, I want to be a rock singer.” Howie Day said that in kindergarten, and he meant it.
Last week, Day, 22, played two sold out shows at Irving Plaza in support of his album, “Stop All the World Now,” released this week. He worked the audience like an old pro, mixing in new material with old, deftly handling the screaming fans and the one or two ever-present hecklers — all the while fighting off a nasty cold.
But dealing with the pratfalls of being a rock star for a living is nothing new to this Maine native. Indeed, he cut his teeth when he was 15, playing college bars in Maine. “For my 16th birthday, I was playing this classic sort of dungeon place,” he recalls. “It was a packed Friday night and there were drunk college girls dancing around saying, ‘He’s so cute.’ It was kind of like ‘Almost Famous,’ except my dad was there.” Over the years, his strum-and-hum songs, filled with tales of shoe-gazing heartbreak and morning-after hangovers, won him a devoted word-of-mouth following among the college crowd. His grassroots popularity also scored him an opening slot for Tori Amos last year.
With spiked hair and a cherubic face, Day may look like a student, but the days of working that circuit are well over now that he’s got the muscle of Epic Records behind him. As soon as “Stop All the World Now” debuted, the video for its first single, “Perfect Time of Day,” immediately hit MTV’s Buzzworthy list and his schedule is already filling up with high-profile TV appearances, including “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.”
But no matter what, true Day fans will still follow him for his live performances, if not just to see him do his mind-boggling sampling trick. Halfway through his sets, the band exits and Day turns into a one-man show. With only a looping sampler and his acoustic guitar, he literally builds his songs in front of the audience, first thumping the drum beat on the guitar body, then picking the bass on the lowest string, strumming rhythm guitar and so on. Eight or nine layers later, he’s jamming out in full glory. “One night, I thought I’d just do a little ditty with it and every day I kept adding one little thing to it,” he says. “Over 500 shows, I got pretty good at it.”
Being such a prolific showman also has given Day time to really get to know how his audiences will relate to his songs, specifically if girls or guys will like a particular tune. He thinks the girl songs are easier to spot. “Girls like it when guys shed the macho thing and become more vulnerable.” The guys, meanwhile, go for the more “chip-on-the-shoulder” tracks. Day says “Perfect Time of Day” is definitely co-ed because it’s up-tempo, but then, so is “Collide,” a sweet-and-low love song. “It’s vulnerable and guys might not listen to it in groups,” he says, “but they’ll probably like it on their own.”