Ben Howard: finger-pickin’ good
Ahead of his Longitude headliner tonight, the Devon singer-songwriter talks about taking the laid-back route to success
Ben Howard: ‘I got bored, went to the pub a lot, started playing music in the local bars’
Life is good for Ben Howard. There he was, last week, in Portugal, sucking on a peach, looking forward to headlining tonight’s shenanigans at Longitude. Such success is, he admits, a long, long away from performing his subtle, archetypal sensitive singer-songwriter material in front of small audiences in and around Cornwall.
“We adapt very quickly to things, don’t we?” It’s a breezy rhetorical question from a laid-back guy. “If you had told me many years ago that I’d have been headlining Longitude, or festivals like it, I would have thought it was unimaginable. But we’ve done quite a few big shows now, and it feels right, I really enjoy it, and I’m sure audiences do. The important thing is not to think about it.”
Such a relaxed attitude suits 27-year-old Howard well. His music is the epitome of finger-picked acoustic tunes best delivered with the background of gently lapping waves, a sky full of warm blue, and something recreational loosely held in your hand. In contrast, Howard says he was a noisy kid, forever making up songs and singing them in front of any one that cared to listen.
“It was just the way it turned out,” he recalls. “It was never a conscious push from anyone – it was mostly myself, because I’d always played the guitar and enjoyed it.”
So he was never a sulky teen, then? Oh, hold on! “I stopped playing the guitar for a while, because I got to hate it, but then I went back to it again.”
The way Howard tells it, he had no great plans to be anything – he simply liked writing down words and ideas that swirled around his head, and from these he liked making up stories and songs. A dreamer, not a schemer?
“Yeah, that’s right. I suppose at the start, in many ways, I was influenced by my parents’ record collection. Everything goes in, especially as a child, you absorb everything, whether you realise it or not. For instance, I heard a Waterboys record the other day and it nearly made me cry. Why? Because I hadn’t heard the album in over 15 years, and you realise how certain things like that seep into your head, and stay there; you’re sure you’ve forgotten things, but then something triggers a memory and you become quite emotional.”
Howard’s teenage years veered between writing songs and building up a portfolio of tunes to attending college to study journalism. “I wanted to build narratives, create stories,” he relates, “but I’m afraid journalism never really took hold, I never enjoyed it that much.”
An immediate response
Typically, the student years kicked in. “I got bored, went to the pub a lot, started playing music in the local bars. I know for sure that I enjoyed playing music in front of other people – it was a new thing for me, but there was something about sitting in front of people, playing music and getting an immediate response. By comparison, studying journalism was a dull ache in the background. Music just took over.”
Were there any pivotal moments along the way that told him mainstream success was a few blocks around the corner? No, he says. Everything evolved slowly but surely.
“I’m sure, in hindsight, that you can probably select loads of different moments – key moments, possibly – but I maintain it all happened naturally and normally. I just recall that pretty much every show we played, we played to more and more people.”
Howard says that his rise over the past few years has taken place without conscious effort; he just plays shows and hopes that someone turn up to see him. It is, he admits – peach now chewed, and nut spat out, under a still hot Portuguese sun – a privileged position to be in.
“I realise how lucky we’ve been and continue to be, and how important that is. The kind of fans I have are those who allow the songs to be part of their lives; indeed, it’s as if the songs aren’t mine anymore. Do I feel a sense of ownership over the songs? I kind of feel that as soon as you’ve played a song to one other person, then it’s something you share together. And when I play it live, in front of an audience, it’s not mine anymore. It remains close to me, but it’s not solely mine. Except the royalties, of course, which are totally mine!”
An interesting aspect of Howard’s growing popularity is the diversity of his fanbase; it seems that ages range from teenagers (eye-brimming, hopeful, the world at their fingertips) to fortysomethings (eye-brimming, pragmatic, world-weary). Songs can really speak to everyone, can’t they?
“It’s indicative, I think, of honest songwriting,” Howard says, “in that it gets through barriers. I’ve said that, but of course I don’t know whether my songwriting is any more honest than anyone else’s. Or, indeed, what it offers people, but it seems to be doing something. People seem to really get it.”