The acoustic blues and roots troubadour Justin Howl released his second album, Wanderlust, on December 1, 2020. The Chicago-based songwriter, vocalist, guitarist, and harmonica player draws from his native Mississippi’s literary and musical heritage to present ten original songs about unyielding angst, desire, and disillusionment.
Howl began performing live when he was a PhD student at the University of Chicago—propelled by the energy of the city’s blues clubs and the vast collection of old recordings he had discovered in the library’s holdings. While Justin acknowledges a debt to Chicago blues, he says, “I’m more drawn to the North Mississippi style because of its hypnotic quality. I think it’s also my way of going back home through the music. I find myself doing something similar with the literature of William Faulkner, who’s also from that region. When I graduated in 2016 with no prospects of an academic job, I decided to drive down to Oxford and attend the annual Faulkner conference, and also play music along the way and back. It became my first tour, and I’ve been touring ever since.” Justin has become a well-traveled performer praised by Blues Blast Magazine as a “strong singer” whose tunes “will strike a chord with you.”
Tracks such as “Interstate 55” and “Sweet Babe” are firmly rooted in hill country blues, with Howl echoing R. L. Burnside’s percussive and rhythmic acoustic guitar style. On “Times I Been Good,” Howl pays homage to Fred McDowell’s droning slide, all the while synchronizing his guitar phrasings with steady Johnny Woods–inspired harmonica grooves.
While many listeners will recognize a few of these songs from his live shows throughout the US and parts of the UK, most of the songs were written during the COVID-19 pandemic and so make their debut here. The title track “Wanderlust” shows a heightened sense of wanting to travel, in a time when it was safer to stay home. “Things to Do” explores the tension between a character’s quiet and calm contemplation of the most menial of tasks he might perform in isolation, on the one hand, and the extreme anxiety he feels about an uncertain future, on the other.
With hundreds of shows played in over thirty US states and abroad, Wanderlust comes as a poignant personal statement from one of Chicago’s busiest musical wanderers.
“Who said that the days of one-man-guitar-with-harmonica-bands are gone? Passionate, musically clever and well determined to stand by his artistic canons, singer-songwriter Justin Howl proves otherwise. While fusing his vision with elements of American folk and deep blues, he tries to show the way to escape isolation, depression, hard times.”
— Edoardo Fassio, author, journalist, radio programmer, alias Catfish, Your Favorite Blue-Jay
“Modern-day troubadour Justin Howl hits the sweet spot between Dylan road songs and Junior Kimbrough.”
— Johnny Burgin, Delmark recording artist
“Justin’s tunes are worth a listen and are intelligent throughout.”
“Blues with an organic quality. . . . to reward us with sonic purity.”
“Justin Howl does it all as a guitarist, singer, harmonica playing songwriter and producer. . . . achieves an energetic urgency. The approach is refreshing.”
“Wonderfully weird. . . . cool and vibey. . . . topped off by Howl’s warm and rangey vocal presence.”