A humble genius, Mr Hudson has worked with Kanye, Nile Rodgers and Amy Winehouse, balancing old school sounds with an ear toward today’s sonic sensibilities.
From a degree in English Literature at Oxford University to finding himself on a plane en route to Hawaii to meet Kanye West, the beat of Hudson’s own drum has landed him a series of very fortunate events. So many, in fact, that our chat really only manages to scrape at the surface of the path of this recording artist, writer and producer.
“It’s very easy to complain about the mainstream and bubblegum or pulp,” he says. “We look back with rose-tinted spectacles and say, ‘Oh it was better then.’ You think that the only music being made in the ’60s was The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder, but there was plenty of shit then, and into the ’70s and ’80s and so on, and even now...” Ben McIldowie – who goes by the stage name Mr Hudson – is thankfully not amongst today’s shit-producers.
Growing up in Birmingham, England, Hudson’s home was filled with books and records. The city, however, was not an environment that commonly bred artists. “No one got record deals there,” he states. “It didn’t feel like anyone did anything with the music other than enjoy it, to be one of the bands that played once a month in one of the local pubs.” So, when did Ben McIldowie first become Mr Hudson?
“The first show I ever did, I was 16, and I rang up the promoter and said: ‘I’d like to come and do this open mic night.’ He says: ‘What’s your name?’ I say ‘Ben McIldowie.’ He says, ‘Sorry, say that again.’ ‘Ben McIldowie.’ He says, ‘Have you got a middle name?’ From that day on, my stage name was Ben Hudson. Then when I started working with hip-hop producers, I realised that being Ben Hudson with an acoustic guitar meant that I was just in a line of nice boys with nice songs on the guitar and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to incorporate hip-hop elements. I needed a more original name, so I made it Mr Hudson. Nice guys finish last. I was being ignored, so that was one of the ways in which I flipped the script.”
Earning his English literature degree proved fruitless and the summer holiday following his graduation became a never-ending one: “I left college at 21 and thought I’ve got to get a job and then thought ‘Fuck that! Maybe the fact that I love music means I can pay my rent without getting a job.’ But it wasn’t until 26, that I actually got my shit together and landed a record deal.” From there, Hudson joined Paolo Nutini, Mika and Groove Armada in opening for Amy Winehouse on her tour. “What I liked about Amy is that she kept it a lot realer than a lot of other people who talk about keeping it real,” he recalls. “A lot of artists are writing cookie cutter lyrics and I think Amy’s success is a reminder that people actually love a bit of specificity in their lyrics. It reminds me of Joni Mitchell: a combination of honesty and specificity.”
With two successful solo albums under his belt, Hudson is still arguably best known for his work alongside Kanye West, who has remained a frequent collaborator. “He heard my first album when he was in Japan,” Hudson explains. “I guess he didn’t want to listen to hip-hop while he was working on his fashion stuff over there. Next thing I knew, I found myself in Hawaii working on 808’s and Heartbreak. Just like that.” It turns out that when he sent his track There Will be Tears to Kanye, the superstar had emailed two minutes later telling him to get on the flight to Hawaii straightaway. Hudson describes the sound they created together as a “sad robot voice: a combination of autotune, sad lyrics and aggressive drums.”
Fresh from a year-long collaboration with Duran Duran, writing and producing their newest album, Paper Gods, Hudson is also nearing completion on his third album, Autumn In August, which will be out as soon as he whittles down the “thousand or so” songs currently on his laptop down to ten. Easy, right?
It helps that he has a sharp awareness when it comes to pop cultural shifts. “There’s always been a relationship between hip-hop and fashion,” he states. “The assumed context of hip-hop is a low-income existence. Once you get money, you want to show it; you wear it. Whereas the rich kids want to look as broke as possible, ‘slumming’ it on the Lower East Side in ripped jeans and beat up Converse. Ironic you might say, how the rich kids want to look poor and vice versa, but I don’t care whether people roll around in ripped jeans. I don’t want music to end up completely abandoning musical instruments or the process of recording them. I hope we’ve got another Nirvana about to break.”