“I think it was about the time my dissertation came up” reflects Ben Howard on what ultimately made his decision to give up journalism and dedicate his life to music. “I had a 12,000 word dissertation to write and I kind of realised – it just sort of crept up on me – that I wanted to play music full time.”
The singer/songwriter reflects further on what was music jounalism’s loss and music’s general gain. “A friend of mine said – it’s kind of a clichéd quote – but it hit me real hard at the time. I was talking to her about whether I was going to quit or not and what I wanted to do with life and I was on a surf trip at the time and she said ‘the most beautiful lives are the ones that take risks,’ And that really rang true.”
“So I quit” says Howard, “…and I didn’t tell my parents. I told them after. Eventually they were supportive, but they were pretty shocked at the time. I didn’t have a fall back plan and I had a lot of debts. But they’re super happy with how it all turned out. They come to a lot of shows;” and they’re not the only ones.
Since releasing his debut studio album, Every Kingdom through Island records in 2011, the wave of Howard’s popularity has been gathering steady momentum, with good reason.
Growing up surfing the cold waters of UK coastal town Devon, Howard’s roots/folk style reflects his down to earth background. Filled with haunting and heartfelt lyrics, Every Kingdom really is a credit to Howard’s natural skill for songwriting. Powerful acoustic layers and memorable melodies ebb and flow throughout the solid and carefully crafted album.
“It’s all quite different, you know,” he explains – reflecting on his favourite part of the journey. “The recording process was such a long, casual process that we didn’t have any time constraints. It wasn’t as if we were gearing up to a big album release or something. Everything felt like it was growing quite naturally. So it was quite funny going from the album process to live shows now, it’s all quite hectic.”
“We just played Latitude festival, which was really cool. I think that was the biggest crowd we’ve ever played for,” reasons Howard. “About 18 or 20,000 people. I snapped like three strings in a set, which I don’t do very often.”
Recently in town for Splendour in the Grass festival as well as his own side shows with Michael Kiwanuka, the surfer/songwriter stopped by on his first trip down under, which let him reflect on the Australian attitude.
“People over here just seem a lot more relaxed about stuff,” says Howard of his first impressions of Australia. “In England we’re a little bit up-tight, there’s always an urgency to stuff where there doesn’t need to be… whereas here, everyone’s really on it but people are just chilling…We haven’t met a bad egg yet.”
“I’m a bit of a shit tourist really.” confesses the Devon lad. “I just like going round and getting vibes off of places. I wish it was longer to be honest. Six days in Australia is nonsense.” Howard did find time to go on a short surfing trip only 12 hours after Splendour however.
“I enjoy festivals because people are less conscious of themselves,” he explains. “There’s just a lot more fun to be had. Like the album, it’s quite acoustic and quite introverted, there’s a lot of mellow quiet songs on it, so it’s nice to go to festivals and play quite a hammering set; and people don’t really expect it from us, but we try to make as much noise as possible.”
Things have moved quickly for Howard, with the YouTube clip of his one-time performance of his stripped back cover of Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’ receiving well over 4 million views.
Grateful, yet wary of receiving the wrong kind of attention for his work, Howard is more than a mere cover artist, as anyone who ventures into his own work will soon discover.
His songs have a grounded and thoughtful voice, exploring the light, dark and often consuming nature of relationships. But where do these inspirations come from? “People I know, mostly,” he says smiling out from under his sandy hair and hoodie.
“I like kind of watching people out and about. That’s where most of it comes from. A lot from yourself too, you know what people have taught you and what comes from yourself. Definitely though more than anything I rely on relationships and their ins and outs and the different emotions that come out of it.”
Despite the hustle of fame and international tours, Howard’s approachable and down to earth nature has never wavered. There is a real and genuine warmth upon meeting him and a lot of heart behind what he does. You can see it in the sly grins that creep across his face as he strums or exchanging jokes with the swooning crowd between songs.
“Music for me has always been what I like to make and what I like to hear, rather than chords and notes and writing and reading” he reflects. “I think definitely I’m starting to get my producer head on, my ears are starting to evolve, finally. It hinders you a little bit when you get to gigs. You become a bit of a perfectionist like those snooty bastards at the back: ‘Not sure about that snare sound!’ But I think on the whole you get very conscious of everything.”
With plenty of gigs booked, including a spot in the epic line up at UK’s Bestival, it might be a little while before Ben Howard can sneak in a cheeky surf, but we’re sure he’ll find a way.
“We’re gonna record a little EP in the gaps. I’ve been playing a lot of electric guitar at the moment, something a little bit different… so it gives us a little breathing space for album two. I don’t really want to put too much pressure on it. I’ll probably disappear for a little time as well.”
You can take the boy out of the surf but you can’t take the surf out of the boy.
Every Kingdom is out now through Island Records.