Wan­der­lust grips singer-song­writer Ben Howard and in­forms the wist­ful sun­set sounds of his epic new al­bum, Noon­day Dream. Dave Everley vis­its him in south-west­ern France and asks if he’s found what he’s look­ing for…

Q (UK) - - Contents -

The last time we met him, the singer­song­writer was on su­perbly can­tan­ker­ous form. Have the in­ter­ven­ing four years tamed him? We head to France to find out.

A cou­ple of years ago,

Ben Howard very nearly bought an is­land off the coast of Nicaragua by ac­ci­dent. He had just fin­ished the long, grind­ing cam­paign in sup­port of his sec­ond al­bum, I For­get Where We Were, and a need to recharge his bat­ter­ies com­bined with a deep-seated wan­der­lust had taken him to Cen­tral Amer­ica. The singer and his girl­friend, Agatha, spent a few weeks in Nicaragua, drink­ing Nica Libre rum cock­tails and read­ing lo­cal po­etry. On one of those hazy, dis­lo­cated days they started talk­ing about the idea of mov­ing to a re­mote is­land, away from civil­i­sa­tion, re­moved from the pres­sures of mod­ern life. It was a bit of a fun, an idyl­lic fan­tasy. Howard soon for­got about it. Then he got a phone call. “It was this Span­ish guy,” he says. “He goes, [ putting on ac­cent], ‘It’s Marco calling about the is­land. The bad news is that we’ve al­ready sold half of it, but the good news is that it’s now half the price.’ I’m, like, ‘What the fuck is go­ing on?’” It tran­spired that Agatha took all their Tom Hanks-in-Cast Away talk far more se­ri­ously than her part­ner. She had spot­ted an is­land, evoca­tively named Pink Pearl, for sale and made dis­creet en­quiries. “I didn’t know any­thing about it,” says Howard. “I think she was well up for it. Way more than me.” He smiles at the mem­ory. He let Marco – and Agatha – down gen­tly, rea­son­ing that re­lo­cat­ing to a re­mote is­land might not be the best ca­reer move for a work­ing mu­si­cian. Still, there’s a part of him to­day that can’t quite let go of the idea. “The re­al­ity of liv­ing on a desert is­land would prob­a­bly be aw­ful and quite a strug­gle,” he says. “You have to be a cer­tain kind of per­son to be able to cut your­self off from ev­ery­thing. It’s more the romance that it’s pos­si­ble, that any­thing’s pos­si­ble. I don’t think there’s any­thing wrong with fol­low­ing that romance some­times, even if it’s on a whim. There aren’t many rea­sons not to en­ter­tain your dreams.” This sense of drift­ing root­less­ness, of move­ment and time, in­forms Howard’s third al­bum, the frac­tured, beau­ti­ful Noon­day Dream. Nicaragua is in there, in the open­ing track Nica Li­bres At Dusk, with its hushed evo­ca­tions of soar­ing ea­gles and dy­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. But there’s an­other, more ab­stract sense of place hang­ing over it, too: the sim­i­larly trans­porta­tive A Boat To An Is­land On The Wall was in­spired by a pic­ture Howard saw hang­ing in a restau­rant. It all sounds like the prod­uct of a mind that spends a chunk of its time think­ing of be­ing some­where else, or maybe even some­one else. To­day, Howard’s trav­els have brought him and his eight-piece band to a rus­tic farm­house-come-res­i­den­tial stu­dio, deep in a for­est an hour’s drive from Biar­ritz, in the south­west of France. We ar­rive in the mid­dle of a tor­ren­tial all-day down­pour that, com­bined with the fore­bod­ing iso­la­tion, lends ev­ery­thing the claus­tro­pho­bic air of an art-house hor­ror movie in which un­sus­pect­ing hol­i­day­mak­ers are at­tacked by psy­chotic lo­cals. “It’s OK, the mush­rooms aren’t out yet,” says Howard with a half-smirk. The singer and the band spent a few weeks here in 2017, work­ing on Noon­day Dream. They’re back for a fort­night’s worth of re­hearsals, try­ing to work out how they will recre­ate the al­bum’s im­pres­sion­is­tic sounds live. Judg­ing by the as­sorted key­boards, string sec­tions, two drumk­its and im­pres­sive num­ber of ef­fects ped­als packed into the farm­house’s con­verted stu­dio-barn, this isn’t straight­for­ward. “I find mak­ing records a kind of war of at­tri­tion,” says Howard, set­tling down onto a large red sofa in the con­trol room next door, a glass of red wine from the farm’s stash of vino in his hand. “Even­tu­ally it drains all your en­ergy and you think, ‘That’s got to be it, I can’t pos­si­bly do any­thing else.’ But it’s all got to be a chal­lenge, hasn’t it? You’ve got to find ways of open­ing the door to all these won­der­ful lit­tle mo­ments where the magic comes in.”

When Ben Howard emerged at the start of the decade, it looked like he’d been un­packed straight from a box marked “Earnest Singer-Song­writer”. He was blond, good look­ing and, in his de­but al­bum Ev­ery King­dom, came bran­dish­ing the kind of safe, sad­face folk-rock de­signed for mass ap­peal (this much proved true – Ev­ery King­dom sold more than a mil­lion copies and helped him bag two Brit Awards). Yet even then it was clear he lacked the puppy-dog en­thu­si­asm of his con­tem­po­rary, Ed Sheeran. In tem­per­a­ment, Howard sat closer to one of his big he­roes, the late folkie John Mar­tyn, or more re­cently, Damien Rice – ca­reer grumps who bris­tled at the world around them and what it ex­pected of them. When he last spoke to Q, four years ago, Howard was on spec­tac­u­larly testy form. A tense in­ter­view ended with the singer calling the jour­nal­ist “a c**t”, though not to his face. Look­ing back, he can’t de­cide if it was down to “a dodgy tour man­ager” or the fact he hadn’t been able to fin­ish the John Mar­tyn cover he was try­ing to learn. “I wasn’t in a par­tic­u­larly good mood,” he admits. Not be­ing in a good mood has seemed like his fac­tory set­ting at times. He shrugs at the sug­ges­tion. “Well, I try to be true to my­self. Which man­i­fests it­self in dif­fer­ent ways. Some­times that’s can­tan­ker­ous, some­times it’s not. But that’s al­right, I ap­pre­ci­ate it in other peo­ple

I find mak­ing records a war of at­tri­tion. You’ve got to find ways of open­ing the door to all these lit­tle mo­ments where the magic comes in.

as well. I read that piece. That was me on that day.” He shrugs again. “That’s cool. Fine.” Are you less can­tan­ker­ous these days? He thinks for a mo­ment. “I sup­pose I’m more aware of my sur­round­ings and the peo­ple who are in­volved in my life than I used to be.” He’s cer­tainly hap­pier to­day, even if he still can’t quite en­tirely em­brace the in­ter­view process. He tries, for sure, but many of his sen­tences trail off in dis­tracted “er…”s or half-fin­ished thoughts. Get­ting him to dig deep into the mean­ing be­hind his lyrics is a non-starter. “I won­der what it is that of­fends me about peo­ple ask­ing for mean­ings and trans­la­tions, cos I’ve al­ways felt a need to push against it?” he asks rhetor­i­cally. “Some­times the mean­ings of things change in my head, and be­come at­tached to dif­fer­ent things from what they orig­i­nally were. And other peo­ple’s in­ter­pre­ta­tions of what you’ve done can be jar­ring. You don’t want to have to talk your way through it.” He trails off, sips his wine. Sub­ject de­flected. Ir­re­spec­tive of whether or not he wants to talk about his in­spi­ra­tions, Noon­day Dream is dap­pled with some vivid, if gauzy lyri­cal im­agery. On the shuf­fling rev­erie of Some­one In The Door­way, he seems to be bid­ding farewell to his home coun­try. “Eng­land is seda­tive on my tongue,” he mur­murs. “Good­bye, good­bye, that’s all.” It cer­tainly tal­lies with a change in his cir­cum­stances. Life in Devon, where he’d been based for the last few years, was be­gin­ning to make him feel “stunted, cre­atively – I wanted to be taken out of my com­fort zone.” He in­vited some friends to move into his house, while he and Agatha moved to Paris. They spent sev­eral months in the French cap­i­tal last year, and again ear­lier this year. “It’s not a per­ma­nent move. I’m not re­ally anywhere at the mo­ment, liv­ing-wise,” he says. Was Brexit a fac­tor in your de­ci­sion to move to France? “Not di­rectly, but it prob­a­bly wasn’t com­pletely un­re­lated. I think that whole pe­riod opened up a lot of ques­tions for a lot of peo­ple. But for me, it was want­ing a sense of com­mo­tion, a bit of the won­der of the world. I want to be rat­tled by life. Chal­lenged by it.” Howard is a ha­bit­ual trav­eller, even when he’s not tour­ing. Re­cently, he spent a few weeks in the Sey­chelles, surf­ing and swim­ming. He was com­pletely un­con­tactable for the whole time he was there – a bold move in an era de­fined by a de­sire for per­pet­ual con­nec­tion. For Howard him­self, the need for con­stant mo­tion, whether men­tal or phys­i­cal, seems to be part of his DNA. “Change brings out the best of me. When I sit still, I tend to drown in my own thoughts and not re­ally get up to that much. It keeps me mov­ing, stops the rot.” Iron­i­cally, given his an­tipa­thy towards the in­ter­view process, Howard wanted to be a jour­nal­ist when he was younger. A war cor­re­spon­dent, to be spe­cific. “It was just one of those jobs that seemed kind of glam­orous,” he says. “No, not glam­orous. But in the thick of things.” Would you have made a good jour­nal­ist? He laughs. “Well, I’m not do­ing it now, am I? So prob­a­bly not.” Part of his in­ter­est in jour­nal­ism came from want­ing to learn about other peo­ple. Not so much their per­son­al­i­ties as the lives they lead, the choices they make, the thoughts that flash through their heads. “There are so many dif­fer­ent lives I’d love to live,” he says. What do you mean? “So, I was in Kuala Lumpur and there was a guy and a girl work­ing at the air­port. They were maybe 17 or 18, and to­gether, at a re­ally early stage of their re­la­tion­ship. And

There isn’t enough time to do all these dif­fer­ent things. It makes you feel fu­tile and in­signif­i­cant, but it doesn’t de­press me.

I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amaz­ing if you could live their life? Wouldn’t it be amaz­ing to see the world through their eyes and en­vi­sion all the things they see, ex­pe­ri­ence all their thoughts on a daily ba­sis?’ Some­times I’m sad­dened by the fact that you can’t be an­other per­son for a whole life­time, and then do an­other life­time af­ter that. Or live any­one’s life other than your own.” He looks mo­men­tar­ily down­cast. “There isn’t enough time to do all these dif­fer­ent things. It makes you feel in­signif­i­cant and fu­tile, but I en­joy the sen­sa­tion it brings as well. It doesn’t de­press me.” How much he ac­tu­ally en­joys get­ting out of his own head – lit­er­ally or metaphor­i­cally – is un­clear, though there are hints on Noon­day Dream. “Gonna find the root they all chewed on for mil­len­nia, do some­thing better with my time,” he sings on Some­one In The Door­way. It could be a ref­er­ence to Ayahuasca, the hal­lu­cino­genic vine used by some indige­nous South Amer­i­can tribes as a gate­way to en­light­en­ment. Is it? “Well, it’s a ref­er­ence to a few things, isn’t it?” he says. I don’t know. That’s why I’m ask­ing. So is one of the things it refers to Ayahuasca specif­i­cally? “[ Half to him­self] What is it a ref­er­ence to? I don’t know. [ Pause] I sup­pose that’s the obvious one.” Have you tried it? “[ Tetchy laugh] What, is this a ther­apy ses­sion?” No. But you do re­fer to some­thing that may or may not be a hal­lu­cino­genic root in one of your songs, so it’s not un­rea­son­able to ask. Is Ayahuasca some­thing you’re in­ter­ested in? “No, it’s not some­thing I’ve been in­ter­ested in.” He takes a gulp of red wine. Sub­ject closed. Again.

An am­a­teur psy­chol­o­gist might sug­gest that Howard’s eva­sive­ness, to­gether with his re­lent­less for­ward mo­tion, is an at­tempt to keep ahead of some­thing, or es­cape it. But if that is the case, he’s not clear on what he wants to stay ahead of or es­cape from. He’s talked about go­ing through pe­ri­ods of anx­i­ety in the past, not least while he was mak­ing I For­get Where We Were. “I think we all suf­fer from var­i­ous anx­i­ety in var­i­ous guises, don’t we?” he says. “For me, it’s been strong in patches and less strong in oth­ers. But it’s con­stantly there. If you want to tap into it, you can. For me, it’s been quite an in­ter­est­ing and hon­est place to ex­plore.” What about at the mo­ment? “Not at the mo­ment, no. I’m liv­ing an en­joy­able life.” He squints out­side at the rain, and the sod­den French scenery. “When the sun comes out.” He’s get­ting a lit­tle rest­less now. His wine is nearly gone and the band have started re­hears­ing in the next room with­out him. He be­gins to peer dis­tract­edly over the mix­ing desk, through the con­trol room win­dow. It’s clear he wants to get back to work. Ear­lier, he’d been con­sid­er­ing what had changed most in his life in the four years since his last al­bum. “I guess find­ing the joy in things, the amuse­ment. More than I used to. There have cer­tainly been times in my life when I’ve been so fo­cused on what I’m do­ing that you lose the won­der and joy.” There’s still plenty of joy to be had, he says. It’s easy enough to find. A few years ago, Howard went to Sene­gal to check out the surf. When he wasn’t in the sea, he’d hang out in bars in Dakar, watch­ing the lo­cal musicians. “It was wild,” he says. “Great mu­sic. These bands, they’d come into a bar and just play. And we have all this equip­ment. I mean, I’ve got 52 fuck­ing de­lay ped­als…” He smiles, like he knows he shouldn’t com­plain. But there’s an itch in his soul, an urge to cut free from his moor­ings and drift wherever the cur­rents take him, to live some­one else’s life as well as his own, as much as any­one can. To be rat­tled by the world.

Pho­to­graphs: Andrew Whit­ton

Three of the best: Ben Howard’s stu­dio al­bums to date.

Ben Howard, near Biar­ritz, April 2018.

Howard’sway: Ben hits the road again.

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