D Family: Howie with his wife Leigh and sons Holden, 6, and James, 10
When the Backstreet Boys took America by storm in the mid-'90s with chartbusting hits like "Quit Playing Games With My Heart," "Everybody (Backstreet's Back)," and "I Want It That Way," Howie was somewhat of a mystery. He was rarely heard on lead vocals and didn't speak out much in the press. But as fans learned from the 2013 documentary Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of - chronicling their "comeback" after Kevin rejoined the group following a seven-year hiatus - Howie had plenty to say. Each of the guys shed light on his own demons - including health issues, troubled home lives, addictions, and the group's sudden commercial decline in the mid-'00s - but Howie's struggle dealt directly with his role in the band. Shockingly, the quiet guy in the back was meant to be one of the leads until a new producer armed with a new sound pushed him into the background, a place Howie never wanted to be.
Born in Orlando, Florida, to an Irish-American father and Puerto Rican mother, Howard Dorough was a shy kid who had trouble fitting in but found an outlet in singing, dancing, and acting. In 1992, going by the stage name Tony Donetti, he answered the casting call for a new male vocal group specializing in pop harmonies and soon found himself trading lead vocals with Brian Littrell. By the time they released their self-titled debut in 1996, adopting an edgier, dance-pop vibe courtesy of Swedish hitmaker Max Martin, Howie was demoted to a supporting role. Much to the fans' delight, he finds himself on a more equal footing with his bandmates these days, but admits the early formation paved the way for their success.
"Looking back on those songs, if my voice had been on them as a lead, the songs may have not been as strong," he tells us.
Fast forward to 2019 and Howie is showing off his voice in a way he's never done before. On Which One Am I?, his first kids' album and second solo album (following Back To Me in 2011), the father of two recalls his childhood experiences through a range of styles, addressing the perils of being a short kid on the bluesy "Small Time Blues," battling stereotypes on the Spanish-flavored "No Hablo Español," overcoming shyness on the '60s-pop-styled "Shy," and slaying imaginary foes on the Lenny Kravitz-inspired "Monsters In My Head." The album, slated for release on July 12, 2019, is a companion piece to the musical Howie D: Back in the Day, which will premiere in Omaha in February 2020.
Meanwhile, the Backstreet Boys are bigger than ever. Their 10th album, DNA, debuted at #1, their first chart-topper since 2000's Black & Blue, and their two-year Las Vegas residency smashed attendance records with their sold-out "Larger Than Life" shows at Planet Hollywood. They also embarked on their biggest arena tour in 18 years in support of DNA. We caught up with Howie the day after the Backstreet Boys wrapped up their Vegas residency to chat about Which One Am I?, his history with the Backstreet Boys, and the group's most-hated song.
Howie: Yeah. We've had many, many blessings. Very, very honored to be doing so many good things and just accomplishing so many things. I think a lot of bands that have had success sometimes wouldn't fathom the idea of having lightning strike twice in a bottle. We're blessed that it could happen to us, and it's brought in so many opportunities for us, with the Vegas residency, with this upcoming tour we're getting ready to do, the nominations and being able to get the platform to do work on my solo children's CD, and hopefully get the light of day out there. I'm very grateful, very blessed - going to church every Sunday.
Songfacts: Did you guys sense that DNA would be the one to put you back on top?
The demo was so good, and we needed to do it justice. You know, it's hit-or-miss sometimes when you're doing a demo. Sometimes it's sounding great when you hear all the voices and sometimes it's just meant to be with the person who wrote the song and did the demo. We, fortunately, put our voices to the song and it was like magic. We were like, "This is it."
The label loved it - they were 100% in agreement with us on it. I let my wife hear it, and the people around me, and I was like, "What do you think of this?" and little by little we were getting the same reactions about it. So I said if radio would be willing to give us a chance to be heard out there by the public, then I really think this could be the one. And sure enough, we got that - we got very lucky, we got a lot of love and support from radio and from media, and the people who have stuck behind us over the years: the fans. The fans calling out to radio stations was amazing, and the love and support were just overflowing.
Each record that we make as the Backstreet Boys, we really take our time and effort to do it. The last few of them, especially after the biggest ones, probably Millennium back in 1999 and Black & Blue in 2000, we weren't played all over the radio as much. I think a lot of people thought we just disbanded and that never happened, only Kevin took a break for seven years while the rest of us kept on carrying the torch. We would make records, normally about every four years we would have a new one, and people would be like, wow. Since they would hear us on the radio and blast our records in the past, they just thought we had went our separate ways, but we still kept on trucking, and we take our time with major records.
That's another reason why they wouldn't come out so fast: We always wanted to make sure we topped ourselves, let the cream rise to the top, and we set the bar high. We'll sometimes record over 50 songs for a record until we know we have the best where potentially every song could be a single. And that's why we're proud to stand behind our records. We really take pride in making sure they're good records that have legs of their own and can stand the test of time.
Songfacts: So, in the midst of all this you have going on, how did the idea of a children's album come about?
Howie: Well, if you had asked me 15-20 years ago, I would probably have thought you were off your rocker because me doing a children's CD? But as life goes on we evolve as people and adults, and by my mid-30s I had gotten married and a couple years after that we decided on making a family. About five or six years ago, I realized that I had a hard time connecting with some of the music out there, the stuff that my oldest son was listening to and playing, so I found myself feeling like, what can I do to get more involved and have more of a connection with my son and what he's going through at the age of 5 years old.
I was just like, there's gotta be better stuff out there. I started watching stuff that was cool like Wreck-It Ralph and Toy Story where the kids got it, but that also had enough humor in it that the adults could enjoy it as well. And I said, This is what it should be about. Parents with their kids should be able to chuckle along with the music and get some kind of learning experience out of it.
I actually have a distant cousin - his name is Bob Dorough - and coincidentally, he wrote a lot of the songs for Schoolhouse Rock!, a TV show from back in the day: "Conjunction Junction," "I'm Just A Bill," a lot of those songs. He's a really, really well-known jazz musician. He played with Miles Davis, and I found out after I got into the Backstreet Boys that we were related. I always loved those kinds of songs, so I wanted to do something that was special like that, especially when I started looking at my audience, and I'm like, man, these fans who were kids at one point, just teenagers, have grown up just like us and now have families as well, and they bring their own little kids to concerts. I remember as a little kid, whatever my parents would play, I started to like, and I ended up loving the Eagles, Earth, Wind & Fire, and all these really great groups out there. So I thought this is the right time to do something, not only for myself but for a lot of my fans out there.
Songfacts: Which One Am I? incorporates so many different styles, from the rock sound of "Monsters in My Head" to the '60s doo-wop of "Shy" and the reggae vibe of "Worry." Who were your sonic influences while you were putting this album together?
Howie: That's definitely true. It's not like the typical cheesy lullaby CD with "The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round" and stuff like that. This was something that I was like, You know what, I really want to do something that's cool and different.
I got really lucky and worked with two great writers up in New York. One of them is Tor Hyams, a Grammy-nominated children's CD writer, and the other one, his partner, is Lisa St. Lou, a Broadway singer and performer. I always joke that getting together and working with writers and producers is like a therapy session because you're getting to know each other. It's like a quick first date: You get to the point very quickly. We were talking about my life and I was like, "OK, now that we've been talking for two hours and have gotten to know each other, what do you think we should really write about?" They were like, "Your life is actually a really great story."
Being a kid who grew up in a mixed family, Mom is Puerto Rican, Dad is an Irish-American, you're trying to find your identity with what you can relate to, and what people relate to you. A classic example is "No Hablo Español." People used to always look at me and automatically assume because I have olive, darker skin that I spoke Spanish, and unfortunately as a little kid I didn't really learn Spanish. We grew up in a really Anglo-Saxon neighborhood, and as a kid with a lot of brothers and sisters, we never thought we needed to learn Spanish because there were no kids that were speaking it around us. My mom was also trying to learn English and didn't want us kids to have to grow up with an accent, especially in the '70s when it was a very judgmental time.
Reggae music has an influence on me - I love it. For me, when I'm on vacation, there's nothing better than listening to a little Bob Marley - it just totally puts me into a kind of relaxation mode. I'm a huge fan of Lenny Kravitz, and there's a little Lenny Kravitz influence in "Monsters In My Head." "School Bell Tango" has a little bit of a Spanish vibe. "Small Time Blues" had a bit of influence from my distant cousin Bob Dorough, with that kind of bluesy, rockabilly kind of music. I just love music.
And now Backstreet Boys has this album and it's called DNA because it has a mixture of all of our influences and that's why it makes us who we are. Hopefully it's something where every person who may not like just one genre of music can find something they like on the record.
Songfacts: On "Which One Am I?" you kind of poke fun at the nature of being in a boy band and having to explain who you are. How did you find your place in the Backstreet Boys once your initial role as lead singer was shifted to a mostly supporting role?
Howie: You're very observant. Yes, it was definitely a challenge for me. I said if you had asked Howie D of 20 years ago if I would be writing a children's CD, I would have thought you were off your rocker. Well, if you had asked me 30 years ago if I would have seen myself in a boy band, I would have totally thought you were off your rocker. The closest thing I ever had to a group situation was when I had a girl singing partner for about five or six years. I had a couple of small bands I had put together and things like that, but I was definitely more of a frontman.
When the Backstreet Boys first started, I was more of a frontman, and then little by little, things changed. Once we made demos and got featured a lot and signed a record deal with Jive Records, we got placed with this legendary producer Max Martin. He has been been one of the biggest producers in the world over the past couple decades. He started writing hits for us and then for 'N Sync and Britney Spears and then Celine Dion, Bon Jovi, Taylor Swift, The Weeknd, Maroon 5, Usher, Katy Perry, Pink, the list goes on and on and on - he's just amazing. But the sound changed. He came with a sound that was more of a new swing-ish kind of sound. It was definitely something where my voice no longer commanded to be the lead on these songs, and little by little I got pushed more to the supporting role in the back. I'll admit it was a challenge in the beginning. I never really thought of being in a group where I wouldn't have my own two legs to stand on and be more an equal player with all the leads, but it definitely taught me truly how to be a team player. As a little kid, I didn't do a lot of organized sports like playing baseball. Years ago, I got hit by a ball a few times and was like, "Forget this, this is no fun." Luckily, music and acting and singing and dancing and those things were my passions.
So, it's been out there, and I don't feel ashamed talking about it because there's a documentary that we did about five years ago called Show 'Em What You're Made Of and we were able to go in and really talk about things that had been on our chests for years. Our fans really loved it and we got critically praised for the fact that it wasn't a fluff piece, it was really true in dealing with the heart of the story, and I talked about that, how it really affected me. It was Nick, AJ and Brian who were more of the leads and Kevin and I became more background. When Kevin decided to take a break, that's when I went to the guys and said, "I want to do this, my heart is still in this, but it's one thing with two of us in the back, and it's another thing with just one person in the back." I just really felt like my heart would have a hard time struggling, moving forward with this same formation. So I said, "I really want you guys to at least give me a chance to step to the plate. I'm not expected to be gifted something, but I at least need the chance to try." And sure enough we had a slew of new producers that came in and they were all like, "We don't understand why you're not singing, you've got a really strong voice," and I was like, "Oh, I really appreciate it."
So, I was then able to really step up to the plate and from that point forward, I've been able to become a bit more of an equal player. And the fans love it. I think the fans back in the early years thought I just didn't want to sing, but I just wasn't given the opportunity by the record label to do it. I don't look back on it as if it was a negative thing. I think everything happens for a reason, and looking back on those songs, if my voice had been on them as a lead, the songs may have not been as strong. I've been able to be comfortable in my skin after many years and understand that it was meant to be the way that it was, and I'm very grateful that the other guys were able to do the leads and it helped give us that big break and benefited all of us.
Songfacts: You've said "All I Have To Give" is one of your favorite Backstreet Boys songs, but on the flip side, which is your least favorite?
My least favorite with the group has consistently been "If You Want It To Be Good Girl (Get Yourself A Bad Boy)." It's funny because now that the fans know it's the least liked of all the songs, it's the one they now rally to hear. When we do a crowd favorite, the fans always vote that as the one they want to hear. But it was a song that we were blessed to have from a writer and producer named Mutt Lange who was a huge writer back in the '80s and did all these big hits for Bryan Adams and Def Leppard. He was coincidentally signed to the label for publishing, so they asked him to write a song for us, and they wanted it to be the first single in America. I think they were cashing in on his name being associated with it. Even though we weren't true, certified artists who had been in the business forever to know what's right and wrong, in our hearts it just didn't feel right coming out with that song. The lyrics, the tone and everything, we were just scared. Being a young group like that, we already had enough of a battle to fight, being accepted in the world and showing people that we were singing and not lip syncing. So, we actually held our ground with our management that we needed to change the idea of that.
But that song, when you listen to it, it's really strange because Mutt Lange, he was ahead of his time. There was a song out by Shania Twain [Lange's wife at the time] called "That Don't Impress Me Much," with that same [vocalizes instrumental riff] sound in it that he used in her song. So he was definitely ahead of his time. He was a great, great supporter of the group, and we were very thankful for him being part of the team.
Songfacts: Getting back to your children's album, was that your sister Pollyanna singing with you on "Pollyanna's Shadow"?
Howie: It wasn't. Actually, she wrote the song - she was one of the writers on the album. Yeah, that's my older sister Pollyanna, who I credit so much for inspiring me to want to be an entertainer. I just followed her footsteps as a little kid. At the young age of 6 or 7 years old, I was in my very first musical with her, The Wizard of Oz. She was playing the Good Witch at 17 or 18 years old and they needed a bunch of people. They had their younger brothers and sisters play Munchkins, so she asked me to come out and be one of the Lollipop Guild guys. I was actually just a Munchkin at first and when they asked whoever wanted to audition, believe it or not I had the nerve to want to do it, and I was truly Mr. Shy. But I think about how I would always sing with her in church as a little kid. I couldn't even read, but I'd memorize the words. When I was like 6 years old, I'd be singing with her in the folk mass on Sundays. I truly was my sister's shadow. I would follow her wherever she went. I would even go to the contests that she would compete in or she would take me as her show-and-tell for school. I love her so much.
Sometimes I wanna just give up
And stay inside all day
But that wouldn't be any fun
Alone and locked away
I may not have the courage yet
But at least I'm willing to try
Not to be shy
But that was not her on the song. That was actually Lisa [St. Lou], one of my partners in the writing the album. Lisa is the one who did all the female background parts, and she has an amazing voice, I'm very proud of it.
Songfacts: How did Which One Am I? inspire the musical Howie D: Back In The Day?
Howie: As we were writing the CD, the more and more we were getting into the songs and the structure, the more and more we realized this thing could be a really cool musical. So we started working on a musical, and then little by little, we went through a couple different rewrites - all these songs right here, believe it or not, inspired the musical. Only about three of them are in the final musical, but we decided we wanted to still put this out because it was just like, Wow this is really a great body of work and it would be a shame, especially with the fans who have been so patiently waiting.
A musical takes a little longer to put together and get greenlit, but I am really proud to say we'll be doing it in Omaha next February at the Rose Theatre. In the meantime we were like, let's get the CD out there - it's almost like a kind of prequel that inspired the musical, so it should definitely have its own light to shine.
Songfacts: Was there a particular song that really spurred the idea for the musical?
Howie: What really started inspiring it was "Back in the Day." That one had the whole "and coming to the stage, ladies and gentlemen..." and all of the theatrical-ness of that song. It kind of goes back into the story of when I was younger. I don't know if it was the first song or one or two of the first songs we wrote, but it definitely was like, This is really kind of an interesting idea here. And it little by little inspired more and more memories about things I was going through as a little kid.
I wanted to get it out there for people to feel comfortable, to be able to say, "Hey, I'm okay in my skin," and to say whatever you go through, as long as you come through on the other side, there's nothing you can't accomplish. That's what I tell my kids, and they really inspired me to make this record. I wanted to show them that even daddy as a young kid went through a lot of the things that you are going through, and you just have to keep on pushing through it and you're gonna be okay.
Songfacts: I love that critique from your sons at the end of the reprise of that song. [James gives the song a 9 1/2 rating and suggests doing a little more work, while Holden says it's a 10 1/2.]
Howie: Aw, thank you. You know, that was actually a surprise. I literally said, "You know what, I think I might put my phone in my car, and I'll play the final version of that song, and be like, 'Hey guys, what do you think?'" And I know what they're going to say. As you can see, they are honest kids. They give it like 9 1/2 or something like that, they're funny. They were totally opposite of each other that day. Normally the younger one, Holden, is the one that is a little bit more of the critical one, and the older one, James, he's such a sweet boy, he never wants to hurt anybody's feelings. But that day there was a role reversal and the older one was a little more of a critic on it. But, they are my sons, those kids. I'll play music, whether it's from Backstreet Boys, or on my own, especially the Backstreet Boys, where sometimes we even have the songs playing in the car on their way to school and I say, "Daddy's gonna start learning the songs to go and sing when we're recording." My kids will learn it within two or three verses while I can take about 10 or 12 times to learn the song.
James actually inspired the title "Monsters in My Head." One morning, he woke up and he was like, "Daddy, I have these monsters in my head and I don't know what's going on." He was just starting to understand what dreams were all about at the time. And he would say, "It's scary, how long have I been sleeping?" I had to tell him, "It's okay, it was just a dream." But I was like, Monsters in my head, that's a good one. I told my writers that and that's how I was inspired to write this really cool song that's probably one of my favorites. That one and "Worry" and "No Hablo Español." Oh, I love them all, I have to be honest.
May 11, 2019
For tour dates and other info on the Backstreet Boys, visit their official website.
Get more Howie D at howied.net.
Also of interest:
We Will Rock You (To Sleep): Pop Stars Who Recorded Kids' Albums
Interview with Richard Marx
family photos: Nicole Hensley
More Songwriter Interviews