While the Simon Cowell-spawned One Direction is making a Beatlemania-like splash in the US, fellow Brit Ben Howard arrives on our shores rather less conspicuously. Howard, the 23-year-old former journalism student and surfer who seemingly fell backwards into a music career while growing up in South Devon, England, would have it no other way. Howard’s Every Kingdom, the first record to be released in the States on Mumford & Sons keyboardist Ben Lovett’s indie label, Communion, is a mostly acoustic venture that has drawn comparisons to the best of Nick Drake and John Martyn; it ebbs and flows just like the waves he rides on his days off.
Before he made his Stateside debut at this month’s South by Southwest festival, we caught up with the singer by phone during his UK tour to discuss life on the road, the inevitable Jack Johnson comparisons, and the dangers of bringing whiskey into the recording studio.
JEFF OLOIZIA: You’ve got a gig tonight, right?
BEN HOWARD : Yeah, we’ve got a show. I don’t have to sound check for another hour, so [I’ve] just been drinking loads of coffee and smoking loads of cigarettes. [laughs]
OLOIZIA: How’s everything going?
HOWARD: It’s been amazing! To be honest, it’s been a really crazy year for us over here, because everything’s just been getting progressively bigger. The shows over here are starting to get quite serious.
OLOIZIA: I’m sure it’s a little bit surreal, but probably a really cool experience as you’re headlining bigger and bigger venues.
HOWARD: Yeah, it gets to the point where it’s just like, “Wow, hang on a minute. All the tours are booking up and stuff,” and just the idea of coming to America—we’re all really excited about the States.
OLOIZIA: Yeah, you guys are playing South by Southwest, right? Is that your first US show?
HOWARD: Yeah, basically. I can’t wait. I’m looking forward to sitting down and going, “Hello, America!” Quite looking forward to that moment.
OLOIZIA: Nervous at all?
HOWARD: Um, not really. I’m kind of—I’m intrigued. So many people have told me that it’s quite different playing out in the States, and obviously, as a musician, touring in the States is kind of the Holy Grail. So, I’m intrigued more than anything. Just looking forward to it.
OLOIZIA: Well, you’ve got quite a crazy tour schedule. Have you ever had a slate of dates that are so condensed like this?
HOWARD: No, I think… end of last year, we played a lot of shows through Europe and stuff, and it was kind of a test for us, you know? Just to see if we could play that many shows, and still enjoy the music that we were playing. And it was cool, so we just decided to play loads this year. I love playing music—and live especially—and I love being on the road. It gets in your blood. So I was just like, “Yeah, let’s pump the whole year out. Let’s go on the road and go travelin’.”
OLOIZIA: Are there any stops in particular that you’re excited for?
HOWARD: Yeah, I’d love to go to New York. I’ve been to some kind of weird places in America. I’ve been to Idaho –
HOWARD: [laughs] Yeah, randomly. I said that to the last guy who just interviewed me, and he laughed at me. That was a funny little trip. I didn’t see many people, to be honest.
OLOIZIA: [laughs] I think it’s exciting that you’re bringing your music to the here for the first time. How would you describe your music to new fans in the US?
HOWARD: Uh, that’s a difficult one, because I guess the music—it’s definitely quite acoustic-based, and I guess it comes along the lines a lot of those guys that get dubbed “folk” and stuff last year. I think we’ve kind of electrified some parts now, and the live shows are definitely even more diverse than the record. Ah, this one’s a tough one… I don’t know. Something like “hard folk.” I haven’t got a clue.
OLOIZIA: I would guess you get compared a lot to Jack Johnson, given that you both surf and play music that is primarily acoustic. Is that something that bothers you or are those sorts of comparisons just inevitable?
HOWARD: That’s a funny one, because I listened to some Jack Johnson when I was younger, and I’ve always been part of the surf world and have been in the sea quite a lot. My biggest influence out of those guys is probably actually Ben Harper. I’ve always been a huge fan of [his], because musically, he’s always been so eclectic, and he’s always done exactly what he wants to do. So yeah—I think I’ve got a hell of a lot of respect for Jack Johnson and where he’s come from and what he’s done, but musically we’re very different. Hopefully people who listen to the record a bit more will realize that perhaps we fit in our own little category.
HOWARD: It doesn’t piss me off or anything. I kind of just know that’s the way of the world.
OLOIZIA: Do you think you’ll be able to get out and do some surfing in the US?
HOWARD: Maybe. We’ve got a little tour of the West Coast in the summer, I think. It’s so funny like, [surfing and music] have always been two completely separate things in my life, and a lot of people, especially in the UK, they, they don’t really get surfing very much. They think it’s the Californian dream. They’re like, “Oh, so you’re a surfer and you’re this and that,” and it’s like, I go surfing because I like the outdoors. In England it’s freezing cold, and it’s usually dark and raining and it’s the middle of winter, and you do it because it’s invigorating. It’s like going on a walk in some remote place on the planet. It’s really—it’s not very glamorous. But I kinda don’t get to surf too much at the moment. Music’s taken over.
OLOIZIA: I can imagine. Especially with this being your first record—they say your first album is the one you spend your entire life writing. When did the songwriting process for [Every Kingdom] begin?
HOWARD : Um, really it’s probably been the last five years of my life. The biggest learning curve of my life was getting that record down. By the time that it was done, there were times I couldn’t have been happier and then… I’m not the type of person who cries at anything, but there were times that I just sat there and started crying. There was one moment in particular when that record made me cry, and nothing makes me cry. I just sat there and had a complete fucking meltdown, and then we banned whiskey from the studio after that. [laughs] I literally had two drinks and had a meltdown at two o’clock in the morning, and I couldn’t do it anymore. We had to have a break after that.
OLOIZIA: Yeah, that’s probably not a bad idea.
HOWARD: It’s amazing what it does to your head, because it is—it’s so much of your life that gets poured into it. It actually turned out almost like a diary in places, and when you’re trying to do those memories justice, it becomes quite an intense process.
OLOIZIA: You started playing music at a pretty young age. You were just a kid, really.
OLOIZIA: Was [music] something you always wanted to do as a career or did that come later?
HOWARD: I think that sort of came later. To have a sort of career in music still kind of freaks me out every now and then. I get those weird moments where you’re like, “Hang on, what the fuck am I doing? How on earth did this happen?” [Laughs] But yeah, it’s definitely a trip. I’ve always played, and it was never—I’ve never been that careerist about music. It was only till later on that I was like, “Hang on, I can actually something that I really love, and actually make a living off it,” which I guess is everyone’s dream no matter what.