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…
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.
Three of the best: Ben Howard’s studio albums to date.
Ben Howard, near Biarritz, April 2018.
Howard’sway: Ben hits the road again.