Keaton Henson: ‘I just hate being looked at by lots of people’

Songwriter’s new album, House Party, investigates notion of musicians projecting alter-ego versions of themselves

In April 2019, songwriter Keaton Henson reached the end of a sold-out performance at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and headed, at speed, for the wings. As he retreated into the shadows, he silently vowed to never again step in front of an audience. “That was the last time,” says the 35-year-old Englishman softly and thoughtfully. “I remember doing that show and thinking, ‘That might be it for me.’”

Henson is a cult musician whose audience runs from devoted to fanatical. Q magazine praised his work’s “delicate beauty”; the NME heralded his “tremulous voice… somewhere between Paul Simon and Wayne Coyne”.

He is also one of those rare artists who can surprise you every time they put out a new album. His latest, House Party, is a spry and wry collection of alternative anthems blazing with guitars and sparkly hooks. That’s quite a pivot from 2020′s Monument, a cathartic rumination on his father’s death. One minute he’s summoning the Leonard Cohen within; the next, he’s staging a one-person indie disco with darkly comedic lyrics and jangling melodies.

The one consistent throughout his career is that he has never chased the spotlight. Quite the opposite; he has consistently shied away from it. Henson has a deep dread of live performance and has yet to set foot on stage since playing the NCH four years ago. It isn’t stage fright, he explains. He suffers from an anxiety that manifests in all facets of life.


“The same thing affects me off stage. I don’t feel it’s specific to the stage. It’s certainly the most heightened version of it. I just hate being looked at by lots of people.”

He takes a moment and continues: “Stage fright implies that a lot of the fear [has to do with making mistakes]. I’m not afraid of messing up or skipping a lyric. It’s the same thing that affects me when I drive to town. But it’s much worse because there’s five people in town and they’re busy doing other stuff. But they are 3,000 people in a venue and they’re not busy. They’re there specifically to watch me. That makes it really frightening.”

I have no idea how my body will react to being on stage. I have asked to do smaller ones and see how that goes

He is mindful his audience wants to see him and does his best to accommodate. In 2012, he staged an event in London called Gloaming, which involved Henson performing to a single person at a time; his image refracted through a mirror from another room. With excitement building over House Party this year, he has agreed to four concerts in the UK (he hopes to come to Dublin shortly, too). Yet even on a sunny morning in London, as he leans over his laptop, his generous beard filling the screen, his voice quivers. “I have no idea how my body will react to being on stage. I have asked to do smaller ones and see how that goes.”

Henson’s whispered, meditative songs and his aversion to live performance have conspired to create the caricature of the artist as a recluse weeping in his bedroom. He laughs: that stereotype isn’t entirely untrue. But there are other sides to him too. He’s married, he has friends – he isn’t simply the guy who shuffled into the wings at the NCH and wished he’d never gone on in the first place.

The notion that a musician can be more than one thing is the theme of House Party. It’s a concept record where he plays with the idea of an outgoing alter-ego. What would that other Henson look like: the guy who had chased the success from which he has shrunk? He tries that persona on for size across the LP. “I’ll say I’m fine/But we both know that I’m full of s**t,” he chirrups on I’m Not There, an upbeat indie song that exchanges his traditional milieu of the artist’s garret for the heart of the dance floor at a student disco. Brash, buoyant – it’s a whole new Keaton.

“I’m inhabiting a version of myself who made very different life choices or potentially has very different values,” he says. “It’s imagining myself as someone for whom fame, rather than being repellant, is something they want. It’s all that person wants. Where would I be, if I’d moved to LA, which was something I might have done? I have a vision of where this guy lives and what his life is like.”

I’ve met some people and been fascinated and heartbroken by what they’ve had to give away in order to get where they were. Emotionally and mentally it feels like they’ve had to give up part of themselves

Henson grew up in a rarefied show business family. His late father, Nicky Henson, was an actor who appeared in Fawlty Towers, Minder and Inspector Morse; his mother, Marguerite Porter, is a former ballet principal and MBE. He has also been around the occasional famous musician and has been struck by how their public persona often swallows them whole. It’s so Faustian – to be devoured by the illusion you have sold to the world.

“I haven’t met lots of people but the people I have met, I’ve been fascinated by this industry and this art form. And I’m applying ‘art form’ to the music but also the performer, their persona, their press – all that stuff feels like an art form in itself. I’ve been fascinating by what it does to human beings – it has an effect on their emotional state. I’ve met some people and been fascinated and heartbroken by what they’ve had to give away in order to get where they were. Emotionally and mentally it feels like they’ve had to give up part of themselves.”

Fame, he concludes, eats you from the inside out. It’s an acid corroding the soul.

“With this record, especially, I’ve tried to boil it down in my head to the simplest explanation. For me, it’s that they live in the shadow of a projection that they have created. You create a version of yourself. And I’ve met people who don’t feel the real them can live up to this character they’ve created. So they become the character – they sort of are that person in real life. That person is very two-dimensional. They’ve created a shell. Over the years, the real them under the shell becomes a frail husk.”

He’s always wanted to explore “this very specific psychological phenomenon”. Until recently, he felt it wasn’t particularly relatable to most people. Lately, he’s had a rethink. Today, it isn’t just celebrities who cultivate a persona and try to sell it to the world.

“I realised actually that isn’t specific to artists any more. Most people project a version of themselves and live in its shadow until they feel like frauds. They aren’t experiencing life: it’s just a projection. These are things that most people can relate too. Hopefully it isn’t arch and specific just to artists.”

He isn’t the only musician to wonder about the heavy price of fame. On a much more prominent scale, that question has been asked by stars such as Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift – celebrities who have, in recent years, opened up for “intimate” documentaries about the dark side of their gilded lives.

“I don’t watch a lot of artists’ documentaries. I suppose I’m slightly suspicious. They always feel either uncomfortably revealing, that they are genuinely giving away too much of themselves,” says Henson. “It’s like, ‘no – keep that for yourself… that’s not for other people’. Or else it just feels they’re doubling down on the shell and the mask. I haven’t seen [the Sheeran or Swift films], so I’m not accusing either. But just in general.”

The irony of all this is House Party could well be the biggest hit of his career. There are dark and intense songs – Late To You, for instance, is a heartbreaking ballad addressed to his wife. But it is also, in places, splashy and catchy: an LP that meets the listener halfway. And so an album about the temptations of success could be Henson’s most significant success.

“It still feels massively personal. But it would be somewhat ironic [if it was a smash]. I don’t feel I’ve sacrificed anything. I think the goal should be that, rather than having a huge radio hit, you should sneak something genuinely good on to the radio. Something that appeals to loads of people but has a real core to it. That’s the goal. I don’t think that will necessary happen. But I’m really proud of the album.”

House Party is released on June 9th