Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Ben Howard Second Header

Ben Howard begins to solve the riddles inside his head

23 March 2021, 08:23

A decade on from his beach-acoustic debut, Ben Howard still cuts the same silhouette as his twenty year old self. But the man in front of the window is asking different questions to the ones he posed on his first three records.

Growing up in Richmond, and then Devon, Howard has been writing songs since secondary school. He gave journalism a shot at university, before dropping out to tour across Europe and secure a record deal with Island Records – home of long-standing influence John Martyn.

Following the success of first singles “Only Love” and “Keep Your Head Up,” Howard’s 2011 debut, Every Kingdom, slotted right into the niche of surf-sad-acoustic. Filled with searing harmonies and slow sliding percussion, Howard reflected on intimacy, memory and sincerity as he asked: “Where have I come from?” Moving away from his Devonshire home, Howard then released I Forget Where We Were, a record more playful than its soulful counterpart. This time, he wonders, “How do I feel?” Self-produced between France and England, 2018's Noonday Dream was a moodier, lonelier exercise in rumination.

“Why do we have an instinct to share things? And in what capacity? Is it even ours once we’ve shared it?” Howard quips, after almost an hour of gentle prodding to get him to expedite his reflections. This is an essential part of the Howard phenomenon – the complexities of being an ambivert. He knows who he is, and, unlike the social-media generation under his thumb, has no desire to project that publicly. He finds his passion in the parts of life you can’t control – the need to create – yet, at other times, he suspends quick justice. “I read in a pre-Every Kingdom Tumblr interview that you said that your music is essentially about growing up,” I ask. “Don't believe anything I said back then,” he swiftly responds.

So, we return constantly to his musical journey, and what he’s asking of this latest installment. Recorded this time in a series of old haunts: Devon, New York, Paris and finally Ibiza, Collections From The Whiteout is an accumulation of different palettes, artists and cities. Chiefly produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner, it features a host of other prominent names: drummer Yussef Dayes, Kate Stables from This Is The Kit, James Krivchenia from Big Thief, Kyle Keegan from Hiss Golden Messenger, Thomas Bartlett, St. Vincent’s go-to pianist, Rob Moose of Bon Iver, Blake Mills, and Phoebe Bridgers.

The sentiment in his music is one of solitude and impermanence, so we discuss at length how the Dessner-Howard relationship worked. In a nutshell: “He was certainly running the ship a lot of times, getting me to record more while I was just walking around the garden smoking cigarettes. It dragged me back in and forced me to put another one down.”

This fits perfectly with the musician in front of me – constantly looking out the window, a ready wry smile on his lips. For, in person, Howard is less laid-back-cool and more down-to-earth than his back catalogue suggests. He’s still reticent, but there’s a curiosity and normality in the musician that these years of artistry has cemented. Collections From The Whiteout is a testament to that, depicting this journey of self-discovery and transformation.

This time, Howard takes a stab at narrative songwriting and experimentation. He writes of political outrage, of lost souls, adventures, and Anna Sorokin. In previous albums, Howard was probing his consciousness. Now, he examines collective consciousness, and, inexplicably, his own wonderings bleed through. With Collections From The Whiteout, Howard has brought us a new adventure in self-hood. He asks: “What am I going to say next?”

BEST FIT: In your press release, there’s a line by the American writer M.C. Richards which says that in order to become an artist, first and foremost, you must create. Sometimes you’ll get it right and sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but you have to go through the process. What is your process?

BEN HOWARD: The initiation is whatever tics and whatever captures that little moment of inspiration; whatever forces you over the threshold to stick with it for more than 10 minutes. That can be technology, it can be finding an arpeggiator on a synth or running guitars through a few weird pedals that shouldn't really go together. Or just simply a couple of guitar chords in an odd tune that bring out an interest in harmony. I don't really start with a clear intention, especially at that early stage, I just let it roll a little bit and see what threads I can pick up halfway through.

It sounds like you're creating all the time then.

Yeah, always pottering! I do go through big flat spells and I've learned not to fear those moments of apathy, but understand them as quiet times. I just keep the faith that one day a noise or something will come back in my brain and encourage me to do something.

I understand that there's the story about listening to “Santa Agnes” by the People Collection, which started the creation of this record. Can you tell us about how that experience sparked your relationship with Aaron Dessner?

We were driving in Portugal. Whenever I say ‘driving’ it reminds me of that Robert Wyatt song, “We were driving in Wiltshire / Nothing marriage of the sea…" Anyway, just driving over a beautiful bridge south of Lisbon, listening to a lot of Aaron Dessner’s work. With the sunshine and the climate, it was that little holiday moment. It was, “well, why don't I just give them a call and see whether we can make a record together?” Or see whether we can just play some music together and follow a thread somewhere. And he got back to me pretty soon after and said: “Yeah, come on over”.

Considering you made a record together, the chemistry must have been something special...

Aaron is a very grounded guy and he's constantly looking for the essence of things. I think we clicked quickly because he was very much in this pocket of loop drum beats and loops or piano chords, we were very comfortable in his studio. And then I came in with a load of strange mood guitar parts and things. It was just a nice meeting of his comfort zone and music he had been putting out, then me throwing a curveball to it, and then us figuring out where that worked, but with no tension and no constraints – we weren't making a record straight off the bat. He's a fantastic one for chasing the muse and just letting things run. I realised that he finds great joy in just playing music and seeing where it leads.

So that comes back to the MC Richards quote of just creating; that you did just make music.

Yeah, definitely. I was reading MC Richards’ book, Centering, at the time and it just seemed to all fit into place. And it was good because we were chasing ideas that were sometimes a bit flawed.

What felt flawed?

Just sometimes you're your own worst enemy and that's part of the process, which is also a difficult one, realising you're the thing that stands between you and the idea. I've always thought that it's a good part of the process: being your own filtration system. So, I'd come in with a song that was half cooked, or I would come up with a sound that I thought was great, and then the next day and we'd record it. It sounds strange and it was, but Aaron was great, he just ploughs on through.

You talk about Aaron and his loop pedal comfort zone, and you mixing things up. Talk to me about what you were gravitating towards in terms of instrumentals.

We were having a good time with drum machines and the freedom of where those sounds come from. They can be iPhone recordings, they can be the best new synths that are coming out, or they can be super analogue gear like CR78’s thrown through a delay pedal. It’s about seeing where it takes you and having fun with that. I've always loved John Martin's vibe of just sitting there with a guitar and a drum machine, just pressing play with a really stripped back beat. I’ve always been chasing a sound like that. So that was fun, realising we both attack beats in a similar way. I think I play the classic guitar with all the delays and those sorts of things because I'm always chasing that rhythm that I can’t quite put my finger on?

Have you finally caught it? Or are you still trying to catch it?

I think there's moments where I like what I've done, or at least parts of the record. I feel like it's a success because you go through all these little battles with each song and all you're looking for is one little moment that describes or gets across a sentiment. And it can just be one little moment. You make a whole record and then there are perhaps one or two little pockets where it feels like it works. So yeah, I think there's definitely a couple of them on the record.

You said that there are parts of the record you like. Do you not like the whole thing? Or are we talking parts of it that feel perfect?

There's no part of the record that I dislike. I think it's such a great fusion between myself, Aaron and the collaborators, and the whole experience was so fun. I guess the point is that we left it imperfect deliberately. There's a lot of musical elements that are purposely a little crooked, or little bits that were left in just for me. It's just feeling comfortable with that. But the more I listen to it, the more I enjoy it.

You've got what has definitely been marketed as a very collaborative album. Talk to me about that process, does it feel full circle when you look at your journey?

It feels like it's a slightly different chapter really. It was just a time and a place where the guys were doing other stuff and I was kicking my heels a little bit, and just wanted to play some music, and approached Aaron. It was just a time where we were all doing different things, not an intentional choice of ”Let's collaborate with all these people, let's make a record that is more like something else or let's not work with the band for this one”. I just went off exploring on my own and Aaron came up with a few answers. And then, obviously, his phone book is ridiculous, so while we had these big gaps, he's like: “I'm gonna get Rob Moose in and play some strings”, “I'm gonna get all sorts, James from Big Thief”. It was just nice to have that approach of throwing a lot of stuff down and not being too precious and understanding that sometimes people bring ideas and melodies that you would never have got close to and that being a part of the thread; of someone else leading the way even though it's your own record.

"I think it's important to give things a time and place; to have an imprint."

It's interesting that you've ended up with a very specific, very cult, band of artists around you. Did you find anything unexpected coming through in the music because of these collaborations? Or do you look back and go actually, this all sounds like me.

I think that was the point actually, it was all unexpected. And to be able to grapple with that, to run with it and realise that it was adding a more interesting array of sounds and noises; that was the point. Just to allow that unexpectedness to make something better and make something more enjoyable. Someone like James [Krivchenia, Big Thief], for example. He has such a wonderful disposition, such a wonderful sound. I was looking for that sound, and Aaron was always like, “Well, why don't you ask James to do it?” I'm always interested in the fusion of ideas, that by sticking two separate things together, obviously, you get some weird crossover. I think I've always been interested in that, in music, in terms of styles and genres and musicianship as well. Yussef Dayes is the other one where our musical worlds don't really collide very much, but it was really interesting to see whether we could get Yussef to drum on what was essentially a folk song. So we had him drum on “You Have Your Way”. It was all about seeing what worked – having that freedom and the time to go down the rabbit hole.

He's a phenomenal drummer, so he did it easily, but he sounded like Yussef Dayes drumming, which is fascinating. I always loved those musicians who always sound like themselves.

Who else can you think of that’s characterized by sounding like themselves?

There’s a ton of them – Mark Knopfler [Dire Straits], Vini Reilly [Durutti Column], BB King. I think I've always drawn to those characters.

To me, it’s the overall sound that feels lyrical instead of individual words. Does that sound true to you?

Sometimes I'm picky about words and sometimes I'm not. I think I have two brains working at the same time - I really enjoy the music part and sometimes the words get in the way, and sometimes the music gets in the way of the words, so I'm always wrestling with the two of them.

You also spoke in that interview about the fact that physical location doesn't influence you as an artist.

That’s a lie.

So that's no longer true?

I don't think that was ever true. I do think you have to be sensitive to what's going on around you, whether it's the physical space or whether it's the emotional space or the time or whatever's going on, both locally and globally. But in terms of actual physical locations, I think it's important to give things a time and place; to have an imprint. So I think location is always there isn't it? Maybe that's why I move around so much.

Transience has been important to your previous records, but creating this in a lockdown universe obviously doesn’t allow that. Instead, there's a new found snippet of sociopolitical landscape on there...

I think you’re constantly picking at new ground. There's little things that perhaps have a life or a sentiment that's worth describing. I think there's very few people that can put the world in a nutshell - possibly people like Jenny Hval in “That Battle Is Over” and, well, Dylan. It's about always trying not to achieve that and making sure you're just settling for these tiny little vignettes and these tiny little moments and realising that perhaps all together they bring up a bigger picture. You can write a song about a moment and literally just try to grasp it as a moment - that gives you quite a lot of freedom. A Kestrel flying overhead is enough to write a song about and realising that it's achievable.

Can you give me a specific example of something you picked up and turned into a song?

Well, “Finders Keepers”... That was an interesting little story that had very little to do with me but it felt like it alluded to a lot of different things. It was essentially a guy that found a suitcase floating down the Thames and decided that he would investigate and find what it was. It turned out it was a dead body. The court and police came and that was that. Obviously a very shocking incident, but I enjoyed more the reason for what he was looking for. Why would you follow a suitcase down a river?

Why do you think you would?

Well, because it could have been anything, I think that's the point. It felt like he was obviously looking for something and in searching for it he found something he didn't want. I just thought it was funny.

I don't think the humour comes through enough, though. I'm always kicking myself. I wish things were a little funnier.

Can you narrate one of your favourite songs? How about “Sorry Kid”.

That was very much a room dictating what a track would sound like. The idea I had was loosely based on Anna Sorokin and the run of it that she had. The whole thing just seemed like a little pocket in culture that seemed quite entertaining and tragic at the same time. We recorded that in Paris. Aaron had a very simple setup in Paris - he was borrowing a studio off the guys from Phoenix. It was very much a small room, with a drum machine and electric guitar. So we had a whole song to put down without a lot of instrumentation. It was just a small little box room, so the guitar sounds really boxy, and the drum machine was really boxy, [with] just that clean up front guitar – there's so many people running these chorus guitar parts these days, I thought I'd give it a go and put my own stamp on that. We just put it down start to finish and then tried to tidy it up a bit. But I like it because it sounds like we recorded it in a box.

You’re now living in Ibiza, roads away from where your grandfather had a notorious affair with the late Nico of The Velvet Underground. That must be inspiring on a musical-history level.

It's not really my story to tell. It's really just that era of Ibiza through the 50s and into the 60s really. There were a lot of people travelling through there, some with trust funds, some without… it was just a real melting pot of all sorts. I think there was a lot of friction between the hippies and the beatniks. And then, of course, the backbone of that is the thinkers that were so accepting of these weird strangers that had trickled down from whatever they were sick and tired of in Northern Europe. It was a really interesting epoch, and my Granddad ran a jazz bar down in the city center in town. He's got a lot of stories that I'm always trying to squeeze out of him, but we’ll get there one day.

I get the sense that as a person, you don't dwell on things you don't need to dwell on. Is that true?

Yeah, I try hard to do that. I think we live in a time of great overexposure to so much information. Sometimes it pulls you closer to your craft and sometimes it pulls you further away. I’m always trying to find the good spot there where sometimes things can overcomplicate what you're trying to do and then sometimes you need that outside world, you need to come back in with the olive branch and try and poach a story. I think the whole record is this push and pull between that fine line. Putting out a record in itself is some sort of desire to communicate, but also essentially singing fairly introverted songs; there’s a great juxtaposition there.

What else have you discovered on the journey of Collections from the Whiteout?

I think what I’ve found interesting is the enjoyment of working with Aaron on a lot of different music, the process of writing songs together and the freedom of those little moments of inspiration coming from a lot of different places. So I think that's what I'm interested in: I’m interested in the making.

Collections From The Whiteout is out on 26 March via Island Records. Ben Howard plays a one-off global live stream from Goonhilly Earth Station, Cornwall, on 8 April.
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next