The Interview: Ben Howard

Published on 28 August 2014

[I]t’s been three years since Ben Howard’s first album, Every Kingdom, a debut album that saw every one of its singles A-listed by Radio One and that won him two Brit Awards, best British male and best British breakthrough. Yet despite these accolades it is clear from his refreshing and genuine view on the industry he has found himself in that there’s no danger of any fame and fortune going to this man’s head…or guitar.

This time around Howard has put the acoustic guitars away and replaced them with a more atmospheric sound, drawing on the electric guitar and weaving in a weightier feeling. Songs such as ‘Simple Things’ and ‘Conrad’ have varying layers and dynamics that unravel as they develop, and ‘End of the Affair’ is a seven-minute track that tests the listener and shows the diverse sounds he is capable of.

That being said, it still boasts his signature, the tracks that in one moment evoke a certain euphoria and in the next bring tears to your eyes; a unique talent and something that makes his music timeless and very compelling. It’s clear that the 27-year-old will always just make the music he wants to make, whether that leans towards pop or that goes down a more indie, alternative route. Rather than fitting a mould, or ticking a certain box it is real and honest and arguably the reason why he is so loved by everyone from teenage girls to die hard music aficionados.

We caught up with the Devonshire artist in a busy corner of Soho House to see how life has changed since winning two Brits and becoming the nation’s favourite guitar wielder.

HOW ARE YOU FEELING ABOUT THE NEW ALBUM, ARE YOU ITCHING TO GET IT OUT THERE?

Yeah I feel good about it. It’s something we’ve lived with for quite a while now. We spent eight months in the studio and went through a real love, hate affair with it so it’s nice to give away ownership of it and get to the point where it’s like, ‘ok we spent a lot of time on this and now it’s not ours, it’s someone else’s.’

IT’S BEEN THREE YEARS SINCE YOUR DEBUT ALBUM. DID YOU ALWAYS PLAN TO LEAVE THIS AMOUNT OF TIME IN BETWEEN THE FIRST AND SECOND ONE?

No not really. We toured quite heavily with little material, to the point where we were kind of getting sick of the old material. A lot of the songs have been from when I was a kid and we’d moved on from that but we were still stuck with playing those songs and all of a sudden I was an entertainer and I was going through the motions on a lot of things. I knew we were going to go away for a bit, but I didn’t have a plan really. Then after we left it, it was like ‘we probably should do something’ and at the beginning I was like ‘yeah let’s go straight into the studio’ but then I went on holiday and I was kind of up for not doing anything and just re-attaching myself to music again because I lost a lot of it last year, I lost patience with most of it to be honest.

IS THAT FROM REPEATING THE SAME MATERIAL?

Yeah, definitely. It’s hard to give yourself your own space, there are a lot of people pushing you, especially when there’s money involved. A lot of people are pushing you to do a lot of things and it gets to the point where you have to say, ‘this isn’t actually what I want to do, I want to do something else.’ But it’s hard not to just keep going.

DO YOU FEEL A LOT OF PRESSURE TO BE MORE THAN A MUSICIAN, ESPECIALLY WITH SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE SUCH A VARIED FANBASE?

I think I’ve made it fairly clear from the start that I don’t really do social media. It’s never really been part of it for me, so I’ve been fortunate that hasn’t been a pressure. But yeah, with this record the success of the first one meant that everyone is very expectant for it to be successful and then you’re like ‘well how do you make a successful record?’ and you have all those conversations and it’s like ‘hang on, that’s got nothing to do with actually putting together a record’ and it’s really counter productive. So there’s that whole weight that goes on to making a second record and it took a bit of time out to get rid of that, to get rid of those feelings that I owed anyone anything or that I had to please a certain demographic of people that would have liked the old record but perhaps might not like the new one. I’ve been surprised by how many people really liked “End of the Affair” and were really into that. Now I realise that it’s not such a courageous track but when we first put it down I was like ‘this is really different from the first record’ and I think with that track I wanted to challenge people. I wanted to challenge myself more than anything because it takes a while not to want to please everyone all the time and to be comfortable with the fact that you don’t have to sell a lot of records to be successful in music. That’s a conversation I have with myself quite a lot.

DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE SONG ON THE ALBUM?

I sort of have a love hate relationship with all of them. I don’t think there’s a favourite. The beauty of the record is that they’re all so different. It’s not of a style which gives it it’s own identity and it’s own space. “Forget Where We Were” is probably the most polished sonically and sometimes that’s really refreshing. I definitely see it as a whole thing, as a mish mash of different noises.

IT IS VERY DIFFERENT TO YOUR FIRST ONE, BUT IT STILL MANGES TO PROVOKE LOTS OF EMOTION. YOUR FIRST ALBUM DID THAT BUT THIS TIME IT SEEMS TO BE DONE IN A BIGGER WAY?

It’s grander. It’s not a conscious thing but I am conscious of dynamics in music. I spent the whole record just going ‘we’ve made 14, 15 tracks that are completely different to each other’ and I felt like there needed to be some sort of thread to the record. My favourite records are ones that have a sound and consistency throughout and so that was hard for me to realise that I’ve played songs that I haven’t thought about and that is the thread, so it is very similar to the first record in the fact that I’m playing guitar and I’m singing and I haven’t done anything too weird. We haven’t gone really pop with it but we haven’t gone super left field. So it’s still on the same thread just more developed and grander and more interesting musically than the first.

HOW, IF AT ALL, HAS LIFE CHANGED SINCE THE BRITS?

I think everything’s changed since then. The world changes and things change on a daily basis. I don’t know whether it’s because of the BRITs or because life evolves anyway but it definitely didn’t change what we were doing and I haven’t changed my lifestyle because of that that moment. I think everything evolves and they are little moments and reference points but I don’t think it changed because of that.

WHERE DO YOU KEEP THEM?

They’re under my record player, they hold it up. I finally got them out, they’ve been in a box for a year and a half!

YOU’VE HAD A LOT OF LOVE FROM RADIO 1, WHY DO YOU THINK THEY LOVE YOU SO MUCH?

I don’t know, they just seem to be on board with stuff which is quite funny because it’s sold us to a certain demographic. We’ve got a lot of young fans which is incredible because I didn’t think that’s where we’d be otherwise. It’s nice because the really rewarding thing for me is when we get played on 6 Music and stuff like that and we get played on Radio 2 sometimes. The nice thing is it’s spread and people have an attachment to the music and it’s not because it’s in a certain social space. People play it if they want to play it and listen to it and I’ve always been a firm believer in that. I’m signed up to a lot of music websites because I love music, I love listening to other people and it’s just so funny how certain things are sold to people to digest it in a certain way, it’s tiring you know?

IT’S INTERESTING BECAUSE YOU STILL HEAR TRACKS FROM YOUR FIRST RECORD ON THE RADIO, THEY HAVEN’T FORGOTTEN YOU. WHEREAS WITH SOME ARTISTS WHO RELEASE ALBUMS ALL THE TIME, PEOPLE FORGET THEM AND GET BORED VERY QUICKLY.

It’s funny, I think people are in it in so many different ways, it’s hard not to generalise but there’s a space for everything. There are a lot of people who are trendsetters and who are very of the time and very conscious of exactly what’s going on. They can have a cultural view on something and be part of a cultural movement and it depresses me sometimes that I’ve never had the capability to do that, I’ve never been extroverted enough to do that. I’ve almost never had the patience for it. There’s so many different ways you can play your music and sell your music to people. I just kind of play the music and see if anyone listens and people still listen to the first record, which is amazing for me because I can’t listen to the first record.

REALLY?

I listened to a track the other day, and I was I was like ‘fuck my singing voice has changed’ and you don’t realise it. Time moves on and you don’t realise what changes until you go back to it.

WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST FEAR?

I think to get to the end of it all and to have not to have given anything back, to have been selfish all the way through my career. I always say that it would be nice to actually try and make some sort of difference in the world. I still haven’t figured out what that will be but it’s hard, there’s so much stuff going on all the time, we’re all so wrapped up in ourselves and that’s how we as humans survive, we are completely self motivated. You see it in America, everyone has convinced themselves that they are worthy of something great and it leads to anxiety and depression and it leads to some really gnarly issues that everyone’s dealing with in right now. You see Robin Williams, that was a huge wake up call for America to realise that it’s a country where there are a lot of mental issues and not that much help. We’re always so driven on our own path that it ends up leading to where we are today which is exactly where we were two million years ago. It makes you think that people are inherently violent and we’re not supposed to get on with each other. But maybe there are a few things we can change somewhere below the ranks that mean one day, if everyone does their own little bit we can… I don’t think we’ll all get along, but if we can make things better for a few other people that is good enough.

I’VE READ THAT YOU LIKE READING. WHAT ARE YOU READING AT THE MOMENT?

Yeah another thing I don’t do enough of recently. I’ve neglected a lot of books. But I’m reading Hemingway, Farewell to Arms. It’s one of those classics that I’ve never read and I need to. I’ve always been fascinated with writers and what they can do. I think it’s good to at least start with the classics and read books that you enjoy and realise what readings for. Reading is to have someone else’s outlook on the world. I’m amazed that people can word stuff as they do and create lasting pictures in your imagination.

WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME SOMEONE SURPRISED YOU?

Probably a week ago, someone opened up to me in a really strange way. In adult life you realise how we all play a game and life is almost like a play. There’s things we hold on to and there’s things we don’t, and I think that as adults we’re constantly learning and we’re more and more conscious of dynamics between people. I was talking to someone and it was just a very cagey affair and they just turned a switch and opened up and it was genuine and I felt it. Someone I didn’t expect affection from showed me affection, that was quite special. I don’t think it happens that much, we fein affection most of the time but we very rarely open up. I only know a couple of people capable of it.

I Forget Where We Were is released on 20 October