Keaton Henson: ‘I make grim realities more beautiful to listen to’

The reclusive singer taps the fragility, beauty and discomfort of the emotionally afflicted

Frankly, we are surprised. Very surprised. Having seen Keaton Henson perform a mesmerising anxiety-riddled set at last December’s Other Voices in Dingle, one is aware that the English folk musician doesn’t take fondly to something as frivolous as a promotional interview. Plus a rake of previous (missed) interview opportunities with other media outlets, such as the time he didn’t bother showing up for a chat, and one where he sent explanatory line drawings as answers to questions.

So we are pleasantly taken aback when Henson answers his phone. Initially hesitant, it swiftly transpires that he is eager to talk about his work as a musician, a songwriter and an artist, as well as the anxiety issues that manifest most obviously in his near-crippling stage fright.

First things first: Henson's remarkable new album, Kindly Now, channels the kind of fragility, calm, mournfulness and beauty that made Jeff Buckley such a signifier for the emotionally afflicted. Henson agrees, but there is an extra ingredient in the mix that he doesn't want overlooked.

"There is discomfort, too," he says in a low but steady voice. "For me, there are certain pieces of beautiful art that have a discomfort in the reality of it. That's what I hope for, anyway. It's like the artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, both of whom are icons to me. It's about representing a grim reality, but in as beautiful a way as possible.


“If there’s anything altruistic about the art I make, then hopefully it’s that it makes those grim realities much more beautiful to listen to, and, if people wish, to take away with them.”

Grim experiences

The “grim realities” Henson writes about are, he freely admits, based on his own experiences of personal and romantic relationships. Kindly Now teems with such admissions.

“Yes, it’s all fairly autobiographical,” he says. “When you get to a certain age, your emotions aren’t anywhere as easy to write about. As a teenager, emotions are very straightforward and powerful, and that’s when I started writing songs. For this album, I tried to tackle writing about more complex adult feelings, which can be harder to strip down to their essence.”

The lyric writing arrives uninterrupted.

“It’s reasonably stream-of-consciousness. As someone who spends quite a lot of time on my own, I’m very practiced in talking to myself, so I have these inner conversations all of the time. That makes it easier to sit down and write.”

Henson is also an accomplished (and much exhibited) artist; he won’t choose between music and art because he “needs them both, and because I’m not on for sitting still. When the music is driving me nuts, the thing I need to do at that point is to go away and sit and draw for two days. Then I’m recharged and ready to write again.”

Henson was born in 1988, the sole offspring of ballet dancer Marguerite Porter (MBE in the 2015 New Year Honours list for services to ballet) and veteran TV and film actor Nicky Henson. His music breakthrough arrived five years ago when then BBC Radio 1 presenter Zane Lowe aired his song, You Don't Know How Lucky You Are. The enthusiastic public reaction prompted the rerelease of Henson's 2010 limited edition debut album, Dear . . . .

Live shows to promote the debut and his 2013’s Birthdays were infrequent at best and always in small spaces such as art galleries, museums and churches. The reasons soon became apparent: Henson’s extreme uneasiness with performing in front of an audience. Add such palpable tension to songs that thrum with disquiet and you have a mixture that people couldn’t get enough of.

Potential meltdown

Does Henson if some people go to his live shows in the hope of seeing a meltdown? There is the potential of that, he admits.

“The intensity, which I’m told is there, comes ironically from my not wanting to be up on stage. It’s never just another day on the road for me, though; each gig is a really huge deal.

“So it’s ironic, yes, and it seems to have generated a kind of performance that people want to see. Which means I have to do gigs more often! I suppose there’s something about a state of terror that can bring out a different performance.”

Is there a balance between the pressures of performing and satisfying fans?

“It comes down to the core aspect of anxiety – for me, after trying lots of things, what helps the most getting through it all is to find something you love more than you’re frightened of. It’s a constant meditation on how much I love making music, and I love it more than I’m frightened of what goes into making it.

“It is a balance, of course, but it takes a lot of will power to remember that when you’re backstage and the intro music starts playing.”

There is also the safety net of Henson being aware the people who go to his shows know what they are investing in. They’re hardly expecting Robbie Williams to bounce out in front of them?

“Me stage diving? I don’t think so! But now you mention it, I think there is an incredible kindness to my shows from the audience. I’m constantly amazed about that, and shocked when I go to other gigs that there isn’t always the same level of understanding and empathy. Yes, I’m sure – the people who like my music feel it more.”

Intense feelings

What a lovely person Keaton Henson is. Strip away the notions of someone trapped by their own neuroses and you have a smart, witty artist who feels things intensely and who expresses those feelings.

Still, does he ever wish he could be a brazen, publicity-seeking, unashamed personality-pumping performer?

“Every day,” he replies, with a laugh and more than a hint of candour. He says part of him wishes he could live his life like an open wound. It is a disarming thing to hear, and a remark that stays with me for days.

He is astonished by the energy displayed by some of his music industry friends.

“They tour and tour, and do interviews and all other kinds of media stuff,” Henson says. “I’m desperately jealous of that, but in my brain there’s a central protection towards my art making, and I’m hyper aware of things which affect that. So I need to safeguard the things within me that allow me to make it.”

- ‘Kindly Now’ is out now on Play It Again Sam. Keaton Henson performs at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre on February 11th.

Keaton Henson – the illustrator
"Drawing is something I've done since I was very young. In fact, I assumed I'd be a full-time artist, but I have severe colour blindness so that prevented it, which is why all my illustrations are in monochrome. The art side of my life has always been a more technical thing, but I'm very comfortable with it. In fundamental terms, art is my hands, and music is my heart; my music is emotionally led, while art is more of a soothing thing for me.

“Music stresses me out in a nice way, but art calms me down.”