If there’s one saving grace from losing some of the world’s greatest acoustic guitar virtuosos over the last few years, it’s that the sun-kissed, Devonshire-based Ben Howard is following in their footsteps, rekindling the world’s recognition for acoustic folk music.
There aren’t many 25-year-olds that have cracked the states as quickly as Ben has, either. Already conquering the UK selling over 161,000 (500,000 globally) copies of his UK number six debut, Every Kingdom, and selling out tours wherever he goes (trying to get hold of a Ben Howard ticket is like trying to find a golden Willy Wonka ticket in a chocolate bar…), he has tapped into a market that’s often a black hole for British artists and it’s no surprise that every American has gone bonkers over his magical melodies and remarkable songwriting.
Enrapturing everyone in his path, Ben fingerpicks his way through open tunings, gliding his fingers over the strings, flirting with harmonics and tapping his guitar’s body in a way that’s so delicate and intimate, yet bold and endearing. He’s a rare breed – one that Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Davey Graham would be proud to having flying the flag for them. Like the aforementioned acoustic heroes, he has an army of fans, besotted with his enchanting vocals and anthemic songwriting, making his 21-date November UK tour a complete sell out. Both relentless gigging and word-of-mouth buzz have elevated him to the upper echelons of the acoustic scene, which inevitably draws comparisons, but on the sheer beauty of his musicianship, Ben Howard is untouchable. He released his haunting debut album, Every Kingdom, over a year ago, and he’s still able to ride high on its waves, which is testament to how exceptional the record is.
It’s was pretty cold day, early 2012, when Acoustic ventured to Ben’s hometown of Totnes, Devon, to have lunch and do a shoot for his cover interview. We knew we had to get him while we could – his schedule wouldn’t allow such a thing now! It’s not surprising that so many talented singer-songwriters have come out of this quaint little town in the South of England – the place is so beautiful, inspiration just echoes the streets. As we made our way into Ben’s town centre flat, we had a certain nuance of excitement as he ushered us into his lounge. Surfboards were hanging from the rafters of the roof, surf magazines scattered across the room and several guitars propped up against the kitchen table, but his Martin D28 was sat in prime position on the sofa. He was playing a few tunes before we’d arrived and he quickly picks it back up as we take a seat with coffee and roll-up cigarettes. Here we were, sat with the UK’s most talked about singer-songwriter whose tickets were moving like wildfire, listening to him play in the comfort of his own home. The lovely thing about Ben is that he’s just a normal guy with a fire in his belly to be the best, but he’s not one that’s driven by popularity or fame – he’s a real genuine, laid back character, which his living space evidently portrays.
Before we headed out for lunch we chatted about which songs he was currently listening to and in demonstration, he popped a Bon Iver single onto the deck of his record player while checking emails on his MacBook and pulling on his duffle coat and hat. Other than a few people subtly pointing him out, which he barely noticed, he was undetected walking around Totnes, but he was wearing a smile from ear to ear – he was happy. Why shouldn’t he be, though? He’s Ben Howard. It’s hard not to keep up with Ben’s goings on – he’s pretty much played on national radio every day – but before we delved into writing his cover interview, we called him for a catch up. ‘Hey, Guy,’ he answers. ‘It’s funny that you call while I’m playing an electric guitar,’ he says. ‘Shit, better give me that acoustic,’ he shouts to one of his band mates with a loud chuckle. He’s in Germany, just about to go on stage at the Haldern Pop Festival and he’s in high spirits – Every Kingdom has just reentered the UK’s top ten album chart after being in the top forty for forty-four weeks.
‘It’s been pretty crazy, especially as it’s only our first record. I’d always dreamed of playing bigger venues but I never thought I’d be played on the radio so much,’ he starts. ‘I just always wanted to play gigs to more and more people, but never thought it would happen on the first record. I was expecting it would take people a few albums at least to get to know who we are. We never had a particular game plan to try and get out in front of as many people as we could but it seems to be happening on a daily basis now, more and more people are coming across the record,’ he admits over the hustle and bustle of his dressing room, four hundred miles across the North Sea. ‘It’s amazing – I just got a phone call the other day saying that Every Kingdom had gone back into the top ten!’
So things are looking pretty rosy for Ben back home whilst he’s out touring Europe. He’s signed to Island Records, once home to John Martyn and Nick Drake, and his brand of fireside acoustic folk is the success story of 2012. Ben spent the summer, like so many others, touring the festival circuits both here in the UK and Europe, filling the festival tents to the brim, bodies spilling out across the surrounding greenery-cum-mud, all humming the melody of his falsetto intro to ‘The Wolves’ en masse. Ben’s now backed by a select committee of musicians – Indian Bourne on cello, vocals, bass and percussion and Chris Bond on drums, sometimes simultaneously with bass – that join in his love for melodies, hooks, intricacy and delicate musicianship, setting the perfect scene for his open-tuned Martin and sing-along anthems. One UK festival he played this year, to a rapturous amount of fans, was Scotland’s T in the Park.
‘Ah, yeah that was great fun. A real muddy affair but we had a great gig up there. For me, it’s always great being up there – I’ve always had a bit of affinity with Scotland. It’s a
place I’ve thought of moving to,’ he admits. Another huge show of the summer was playing to 30,000 people as the sub-headliner at the Latitude festival, and despite having a few string set backs, it was on of the best gigs he’s ever played. ‘Latitude was huge one for us. I did have a bit of a nightmare, though,’ he laughs. ‘I snapped about three strings during the set; there were guitar changes all over the place. It was the biggest gig of my life and there I was having a bit of a meltdown moment. Those moments of adversity are sent to test you though, aren’t they?’ he chuckles. Besides, when you’ve sold-out London’s Brixton Academy, consecutively for three nights, you can deal with snapping a string or two, right? These gigs aren’t until the end of November, yet along with the rest of his UK dates, they sold out months in advance. ‘Yeah we’ve got the big one at the end of year,’ he says of Brixton Academy. ‘The whole UK tour has sold out way in advance. I don’t really want to play big venues, so I got around it by doing a load of nights at these smaller iconic venues. I love festivals but touring is a whole different vibe.’ Ben also packed out the Shepherd’s Bush Empire for two nights running in February, complemented by the harmonies of a fast-rising musical buzz, something often attributed to the surf scene – a fraternity he’s often linked to, as a keen surfer himself.
‘I think being a part of that scene definitely helped at the beginning. It was a funny one, that was where we came from, you know? The surf scene in the UK is pretty small, though. The first few gigs we played were at these small surf festivals and doing things like Newquay beach sessions and stuff like that. It was where we started out and friends have just been a huge help getting my music places through word-of-mouth – it’s actually been a bit of a saving grace because we’ve never done much press,’ he says. So, it’s kind of like a big street team? ‘Yeah, we never expected any radio airplay so we relied on word-of-mouth. It is the best way to receive music and the best way to put it out there.’
Howard’s a thoughtful character, self-effacing and almost blissfully unaware of his own success; he’s gotten to a point where he’d easily fill any venue in not just the UK, but all around Europe. In fact, he was selling out venues in France and Germany long before he was signed to Island Records. Now he’s in a new ballpark, one that many have tried to play in and ultimately, ended up losing. Not Ben, though. He’s cracked America, and cracked it right. As we’re writing this, he’s on stage in Minneapolis playing to a sold out crowd. He’s then heading of to another in Boulder, Colorado. Sold out. Yet, speaking to him, he is so relaxed about his triumphs. He could be the biggest star in the world, and he’d still be happy to sit in the back of a grotty tour bus, wearing his baggy jeans, hooded sweatshirt and Vans, playing to people that truly appreciate his music, which is what it’s all about, right?
‘It was a struggle to break America in the beginning because we were right back to the drawing board. I think a lot can be said for different styles of music going down well in certain places but we didn’t really think about it too much. It was just going to a new place and playing songs to a new audience, not really having any expectations, stuff just seemed to go down really well. People are super friendly over there and it actually felt good to be going somewhere and starting from the ground up again, having a stripped-back live set. Just honing in on your skills in pubs again,’ he says laughing. Pubs and clubs one night, the next though, making his American network television debut on David Letterman’s Late Show. ‘Yeah, we done some TV stuff while we were in New York, it’s amazing to keep busy. For any musician it’s a lifelong dream to go to America and tour. You never know whether it’s going to sit well or not and I don’t think anyone can tell you if it’s going to. You shouldn’t stress about it too much, just go over there and if people like it, then they like it. It helps that our music comes from a real honest place, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, I think there’re a few universal themes on the record, which wasn’t an intentional thing, but we’ve sort of realised it works well for us wherever we go at the moment.’ So it must be a great feeling, knowing how far your music has travelled? ‘Yeah, we are really blessed we get to travel so much, we get to go to all these amazing places and play some really cool shows.’
Ben doesn’t have the forty-year career to fall back on, nor does he have the twenty one studio albums, yet – although it’s almost inevitable that in forty years time he’ll be the John Martyn we talk about today – what he does have, though, is his behemoth of a debut album, Every Kingdom. It has been out for over a year, has spent the majority of that year in the top forty of the UK’s album charts after debuting at number seven, and still dips into the top ten, a year after its initial release. He just has that sought-after flair for writing great hooks and up-tempo choruses, creating a mammoth set of whimsical folk anthems that’ll be remembered for years to come. All from a barn in rural Devon…
‘The whole thing was pretty much recorded in Devon. We had a few that were recorded in London. It’s nice to record at home, you get the time and space. Plus, we all get to see family and friends while we’re there. You spend so much time away from the people that are close to you when you do this job, so the last thing I want is to be away recording in the city.’ We ask Ben what his standout track from Every Kingdom is, and thankfully, he agrees with our verdict on his epically melancholy ‘Black Flies’, calling it “the best song he’s ever written”. ‘I think that’s definitely the strongest song on the album. There was a lot of talk about releasing that one as a single and I was the one pushing for it, but I’m glad we didn’t because it’s the little gem on the record.’
In keeping with the themes of love for his homeland, the next thing on Ben’s agenda is his new E.P., Burgh Island, named after the small tidal island off the coast of South Devon. ‘We’ll be going into the studio again to put down some new tracks; we’ll be playing a lot of them on the tour in November. It’s nice to go back to the drawing board and mix things up. We’re getting a bit more creative with the songs and I’m looking forward to doing some solid rehearsal days and adding a few new instruments. Burgh Island is a bit of a working title for it; I guess that it’s the kind of focal track really. The plan is to have it quite atmospheric, giving us a lot of creative space. It’s nice doing an E.P. because there’s not as much importance riding on it as there is an album,’ he admits. So, releasing a new E.P. is just a way to keep on the cusp of creativity, and for Ben to get the newer stuff out ahead of his headline tour. ‘Yeah it’s nice to just keep releasing new stuff and occasionally change direction. It’s not necessarily what we’re going to be doing for album two but it’s a work in progress E.P., and it’s nice to get in the studio so that people will have a few different things to gauge us on.’
Ben brings a crisp freshness to the world of acoustic troubadours, he’ll make you feel like it’s the first time you’ve ever heard anything like it, but still having a rootsy lustre seemingly as old as the country side in which he wrote the songs. His authenticity as a songwriter can be attributed to his parents love for the classic songwriters of the 60s and 70s, but it was after a brief stint studying journalism in Falmouth, giving up only a few months before graduating, when it dawned on him that he “could get away with being a musician full-time”. Wherever he goes you can be sure of one thing – he’ll have the whole audience singing back his songs, humming the melodies and screaming the chorus. Fair to say that he’s nailed the songwriting, then. ‘Anyone’s debut record becomes their greatest hits really,’ he says chuckling a little. ‘You collect all the songs that you think are going to give a good impression of your music over the last few years. ‘The Wolves’ and ‘Keep Your Head Up’ came about by jamming around at university. Although there’s definitely a thread between all of the songs, it’s obvious which are the newer songs and which are the older songs. I guess most of the songs on the record are about people that have come in and out of my life.’
Technical flourishes aren’t what make Ben tick; he admits that if technical ability was all people cared about “we’d all be listening to jazz”. Where real music lies, is in the heart and soul. ‘It comes down to the mental space you’re in; the songs just depend on how much you invest in them. If you really put your heart and soul into them and believe in what you’re singing or what you’re playing, then it comes across. That slightly loose edge when you’re not overly conscious of what you’re doing, but you’re really in tune with what you’re singing about.’ One thing he doesn’t like is being told what to do. ‘I’m really bad at having a boss,’ he says laughing. ‘I did work on a building site as a kid and I had a boss then, but I only listened to him because he was a huge guy that would probably beat me up,’ he chuckles. ‘I’ve never been great at having people telling me what to do.’ Safe to assume that co-writing isn’t for you, then? ‘I did a few co-writing sessions a long time ago, but within about five minutes we knew it wasn’t going to work,’ Ben admits. So, no guitar teachers either? ‘I did have a couple of guitar lessons when I was a kid, so I’m not totally self-taught. I learnt drop tunings from quite an early age and then I just taught myself. As soon as you start messing about with drop tunings you’re on your own. You’ve just got to figure it out, enjoy it and just find the notes that you like.’ As a musician who can’t read or write music, tuning to his own spec and discovering the notes as he goes along is a hugely important part of writing music for Ben. ‘Yeah, you just make up your own little things, no one can tell you what’s right or wrong and you go with what you think sounds best. You spend a lot of time enjoying the guitar that way.’ On that note, Ben plays in his own tuning or “G/C combo”, as he calls it. He tunes (from low to high) to CGCGGC.
The first guitar Ben ever had was a nylon-strung Spanish guitar – it was among the collection of guitars in his lounge – which features in a few tracks on Every Kingdom. ‘My mum gave me that one, actually – it’s on ‘Promise’ and ‘Gracious’. You know how you have guitars that sit in the corner, and then the ones that sit on the sofa?’ he asks. ‘Well, it’s the one that’s always sitting on the sofa when I come home, so I always have a little noodle on it. It’s one of those bonuses of getting to go home,’ he says. ‘I’ve never been one to go to a guitar because of the make; I’ve always gone through a lot of different ones. I’ve played everything from a Telecaster to a Les Paul and a Martin steel-string to a nylon classical. At the beginning it was people like James Taylor and older folky stuff that my parents listened to which made me want to pick up a guitar.’ Playing percussively was something that then came naturally for him, mainly used as accompaniment technique when he was playing solo. ‘It just made sense to have some sort of percussion and bass involved when I was playing on my own. There’re a lot of people I used to watch who pioneered that style and I think when you’re playing live solo shows you always want to impress people but I didn’t want it to be a gimmick – I wanted to make sure I was focusing on the songwriting because that’s what I love more than anything. I use that technique less and less now because we’ve got bass and drums in the band. There are so many people who play percussive guitar phenomenally well, I thought I’d let those guys get on with it,’ he laughs. ‘I was just experimenting with my guitars; you’ve got to go down those little avenues and enjoy what you’re playing.’
Being a left-handed player, he often struggles to find great guitars that suit his laterality, but he’s found one in an endorsement with Martin and their D28 model. ‘I started on Martin dreadnoughts because I love the warm; rich bottom-end with the open and drop tunings. I’ve got a couple now, and Martin kindly helps me out with them. They’re one of the only guitar companies that make a lot of left-handed models. I went into a vintage and rare shop recently and they had a brand new Gibson hollow-body electric, and I said to him, “Why is this in vintage and rare?” and he’s like “Well, that’s because it’s left-handed – it’s rare!” Just because it’s a leftie, it was in the vintage and rare shop,’ he laughs. ‘I have such trouble with lefties, so I’m really fortunate that Martin make them. I mean damn, they make amazing acoustic guitars. Once you get onto a D28, you don’t really go back after that.’
‘The most important thing to remember is to just take everything as it comes. You’ve got to be chameleon-like,’ he says. ‘There are so many ups and downs of touring. I’d like to say it’s all enjoyment, but sometimes you get to some really dark places and you really struggle with things, being tired all the time, drinking bottles of nasty booze,’ he chuckles. ‘You just take it all as it comes, you never realise how topsy-turvy it can be until you’re doing it, it’s intense. As long as you don’t take yourself too seriously, then you’ll have a blast. Get a good bunch of people too – I see loads of bands going around with crews that they don’t talk to, session musicians that they don’t talk to, and that’s not what touring is supposed to be about. You’re there because you’re making music together, if you don’t get good people, you’ll just be miserable,’ he ends.
And on that note, Ben disappears into the commotion of his German dressing room ready to continue his musical crusade, taking over the world. This is Ben Howard, dark and addictively alluring on record, a 25-year-old that harks to the era of music we all long for, yet when you do hear him, it’s like the first time you’ve ever listened to anyone do something so stunningly beautiful and intricate as what he does on Every Kingdom. He is exactly what we’re afraid of losing; but thankfully, he’s here to stay.
Every Kingdom is out now on Island.