Danielle Howle's melodic and spirited folk-rock has always had a raw and earthy flavor, but it was never what fans or critics would describe as "swampy." That notion might be about to change, as Howle wraps a year's worth of musical collaborations and recording sessions at a rustic place she calls the Swamp House.
The facility is a solar-powered house owned by Awendaw Green exec Eddie White. Located deep within the Francis Marion National Forest, it's situated on a raised mound overlooking a creek.
The structure looks more like a beach house than a traditional cabin. It's a feat even reaching the place, one that requires navigating through dense woods on dirt roads and unmarked trails.
Howle and Awendaw Green kicked off a series of musical get-togethers at the house last year as part of a "sustainable energy recording project." They called them the Swamp Sessions.
"It's whenever I can get people out there," says Howle, who oversees the sessions with assistance from Nat Mundy, an audio engineer with a ton of experience at Awendaw Green's in-house studio. "It's all very random. We just try to open minds and make music."
After starting her musical career in Columbia, Howle settled in the Lowcountry, setting up residence in a small house behind the Sewee Outpost. These days, she's literally the artist-in-residence at Awendaw Green.
"About three years ago, it was time for me to get into that mindset," Howle says. "When the Awendaw Green thing started to happen, I got nothing but opportunity out of it."
She started the Swamp Sessions last fall, welcoming Cary Ann Hearst, Joel T. Hamilton, Rene Russell, Doug Jones, Josh Roberts, and others. The songwriters and their various guest musicians worked together on arrangements for sketches of songs already in progress. They also co-wrote new songs on the spot.
"I'm more of a conductor," says Howle. "I'll help sing and write things, but it's definitely a community-oriented project. One of the visiting songwriters might say, 'Let's put this idea together,' and all of the musicians there say, 'Yeah, that's great.' And it's amazing."
Spontaneous creativity is the main idea behind the Swamp Sessions. Howle hopes to help local and regional artists create and document new original music in a private setting.
"There's a sense that everybody can bring their own different experiences together into a completely vulnerable position of songwriting," she says. "There's no ego or weirdness, and there's no internet, cell phones, or any of that stuff going on. There are no restrictions."
In the main room, Howle and Mundy arrange drums, amps, and microphones into a semicircle surrounding a center-room fireplace and pipe chimney.
Awendaw Green donates much of the recording gear, but it's very basic. Despite the lack of high-tech facilities, the Swamp House has a warm, natural sound of its own that's easy to capture. "The house resonates nicely and creaks at the right moments to produce beautiful noise," says White.
So far, one of her fondest memories from the Swamp Sessions featured a jam between Joel Timmons of Sol Driven Train, Asheville-based songwriter Valerie Miller, and members of Firework Show and A Fragile Tomorrow.
"They'd never met, but they got together and did a duet version of one of her songs," Howle says. "The rhythm section of Firework Show played the support, and Sean Kelly [of A Fragile Tomorrow] laid down a nasty-ass guitar lead on an old 20-watt amplifier."
Howle and Awendaw Green plan to release their first compilation in early 2012. Money is a factor, so they've considered working on a Kickstarter campaign.
Conducting the ongoing project in Echaw Creek has required most of Howle's time, money, and attention over the last year — to the point of keeping her off the road, away from the local club circuit, and away from some of her own songwriting.
"Making that shift has actually made me get stronger," she says. "My appreciation for creativity has deepened and become more refined."
Howle is encouraged and inspired by the sense of mutual support, and she believes that the entire project has been rewarding.
"It's a humbling experience to ask friends and people in the community to help support something I'm behind with my whole heart," Howle says.