Ben Howard: ‘England at the moment – it’s quite a strange place’
Devon musician on beatnik grandfather, definitions of folk and weaving truth and fiction
Ben Howard: “I’m always interested in that interconnection between the self and the exterior.”
Taylor Swift may have discovered the charms of waterfalls, leaf-strewn paths and misty walks in the woods with her Grammy-winning Folklore album. But there is an argument that she was running to catch up with English singer-songwriter Ben Howard, whose music has for years rippled with images of ragged clouds and rolling hills.
“I feel very privileged and lucky to have grown up in the countryside,” says Howard, unshaven, smiling and with his eyes semi-obscured by the brim of a baseball hat. “The countryside has very much shaped who I am and my appreciation for certain things. I could have been a weather man. I spend a lot of time looking at the weather.’
The crags and creeks of his native Devon in England’s southwest are picturesque yet there is a wildness to them too. That same quality of beauty mixed with danger is a defining feature of Howard’s folk rock. And it is especially to the fore on his strange, fragmented and mysterious new record, Collections From The Whiteout.
Which brings us back to Taylor Swift. Collections From the Whiteout was recorded with The National’s Aaron Dessner at Dessner’s Long Pond Studio in New York’s Columbia County in 2019 and 2020. Not long after Howard had packed his bags and headed home, Swift arrived and assembled her “cottagecore” instant classic, Folklore. They are studio twins, separated by just a few months.
“The birds were tweeting, the sun was shining,” is how Howard (33) remembers Long Pond, the steep silhouette of which you may recognise from the cover of The National’s 2017 LP, Sleep Well Beast.
“It was a marriage of natural resources. And a beautiful part of the world,” Howard reminisces. “Aaron played very intuitively. He wasn’t stuck on things like genres.”
Even before Taylor Swift introduced him to pop fans, Dessner was in demand as a producer. He’s collaborated with Sharon Van Etten, This Is The Kit and Frightened Rabbit. However, it was a connection closer to Ireland that made Howard want to hook up with the guitarist and arranger.
“I loved a lot of the work he was doing with Lisa Hannigan,” says Howard. “That record they did together, At Swim, is incredible. But it wasn’t like we said, ‘let’s make a record’. It was more, ‘let’s play some music’.”
He divides his time between the UK and Ibiza, where his parents now live and where his grandfather used to run a jazz club (he was a “beatnik” reputed to have briefly dated singer, model, actress and Velvet Underground collaborator Nico). Before the lockdown he was also a frequent visitor to Ireland. The link is his guitarist Mickey Smith, an acclaimed surf photographer who has shot extensively in Clare and Galway.
Howard poured his love for the country’s windswept landscapes into his 2012 song The Burren. On it, he earnestly delivers lines such as “the sun looks like the afterlife /In a battlefield after the rainfall”.
“It’s a very peaceful part of the world,” he nods. “It has a good ‘heavy’ spirit. There’s a fierceness to the countryside. It is hard to find a tree. It’s solid, it has a freshness.”
The soulful desolation of the west of Ireland has clearly left an impression on Howard. It’s tempting to see it as an influence on Collections From The Whiteout. This is a record full of wide open spaces, hissing fauna and mournful vistas. Spending time with it is akin to embarking on a hearty walk in which you set off before dawn and arrive home just as the clouds have made good on their threat of rain.
Typical is the single What A Day, where he conjures with imagery of “rivers breaking” and a “dancer on a pale blue sky”. You are plunged into an alternate timeline in which David Attenborough fronted Fairport Convention or Terrence Malick picked up a mandolin rather than a film camera.
“I’ve always been a fan of Celtic music,” says Howard. “All those little lilts and all those chords. Those have stuck with me since I was a little kid. There’s a ton of incredible Celtic music. I grew up listening to the Clancy Brothers. And then there is the crossover with English stuff such as Pentangle and John Martyn, who was a cornerstone for me in terms of chasing crazy guitar tones as far as he could.”
Howard was born in Richmond in London in 1987, right under the Heathrow flight path. When he was eight, his parents, who had hippy tendencies, relocated the family to the countryside near Totnes, a market town close to Exeter known for its bohemian subculture.
He grew up steeped in his mother and father’s love for artists such as Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Simon and Garfunkel. Having started writing songs as a teenager, in 2008, he put out his debut EP, which caught the attention of Island Records.
Released three years later, his first album, Every Kingdom, confirmed Howard as a talent to watch. It peaked at four in the charts and was nominated for the Mercury Prize.
“Whether he’s singing about love or the world around him, Howard invariably taps the natural world for imagery: this is an album of horses and wolves, the wind and the sea,” went an approving BBC review. Uncut hailed the singer as an “unusually poetic songwriter revelling in his proximity to nature”. Two Brit Awards and an Ivor Novello would follow.
Still the reception wasn’t universally rapturous. Devon has a big surfer community and Howard confessed in interviews to riding the occasional wave. He was, for his sins, filed alongside the unbearably upbeat “surf folk” of Jack Johnson and Newton Faulkner. And then there were the Ed Sheeran comparisons.
“It is what it is,” he says of being likened to Sheeran. “There are so many little corners to this music world. People will make opinions as they will. That’s just the world we live in. You just have to carry on finding these little corners of it that you enjoy.”
Critique of England
The press release accompanying the new album claims several of the songs were inspired by true stories. Crowhurst’s Meme, for instance, is said to be about the death of amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, while Finders Keepers concerns the discovery by a friend of Howard’s father of a dismembered body floating in a suitcase.
“Very loosely,” is Howard’s response to the question of whether the lyrics are grounded in fact. “I’m always interested in that interconnection between the self and the exterior. If there’s a thread to the album it’s a sort of weaving between truth and fiction.”
According to his record label, Collections From The Whiteout also presents a critique of an England “puffed up into absurdity”. “I keep getting pull quotes from this press release,” he says, slightly warily. “‘England puffed up into absurdity’ . . . England at the moment, it’s quite a strange place. A lot of places are.”
The record is “not very English”, he says. “The countryside is predominantly conservative. That’s how it’s always been,” he adds with a shrug. “It’s just there are more extreme examples of it these days. There’s always been a push and pull between those communities and London.”
Folk, as he says, is a crucial component of what he does too. So it was perhaps inevitable that, early on, he would be lumped in with the nu folk set and acts such as Mumford and Sons.
The Mumfords have been in the news recently, following banjo player Winston Marshall’s endorsement of far-right figure Andrew Ngo. Ask Howard about the “nu folk” tag and he seems to process his feelings about the association in real time (I obviously don’t canvass his opinions on Winston Marshall and fascism).
“There’s a lot of mislabeling of things. Especially in that little corner. Folk is always difficult to pin down. It was a time and a place, nu-folk. ‘Folk’, it’s such an abused word. For me, it means an era long gone. And you’re trying to forge something new from it.”
Collections From The Whiteout was finished remotely as the lockdown arrived. Since then Howard has been largely bunkered down in Ibiza. As an introvert, he doesn’t pine massively for touring.
“I don’t miss it,” he says. “That isn’t to say I don’t like touring. But being able to make music and make a record and concentrate on that is hugely refreshing. I’m very much enjoying exploring the record. I need time to learn how to play it. Some of the guitar parts are evil.”
Collections From The Whiteout is out now. Ben Howard and his band will perform a live streaming concert from Goonhill Satellite Earth Station, Cornwall, on Thursday, April 8th