Ben Howard is a young acoustic troubadour who will make you feel as though he is the first young acoustic troubadour you have ever heard. He brings freshness to the form, gives it lustre, making it all seem brand new even as his songs have about them a quality of wisdom and a rootsy authenticity as old as the hills.
He is something of an acoustic guitar whiz, having mastered the art of strumming, plucking and hammering the instrument for rhythmic purposes. And he’s only 24 but already – minus any of the usual army of public relations people and pluggers behind him – can sell out a 400-capacity venue, including some of the capital’s coolest venues, at the drop of a plectrum, having amassed a secret society of fans via Cornwall’s fiercely loyal surfing community that has spread as far afield as Holland France.
Because of his parents’ record collection, Ben is, he admits, “still fairy addicted” to all the classic 60s and 70s singer-songwriters, from Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to Van Morrison and Richie Havens.
Educated in Devon, Ben studied journalism in Falmouth but following a short-lived placement on a surfing magazine in Newquay, he gave up six months before graduation when he realised he could “get away with being a musician full-time”.
“A lot of people said I was crazy to leave that close to the end of the course,” he laughs, “but a friend of mine said, ‘The most beautiful lives are the ones that take risks’, which was encouraging. And my parents were very supportive. They told me to do whatever makes me happy.”
Writing songs was a natural progression from his lonesome strumming, his earliest efforts, committed to long lost cassette tapes are quickly forgotten, “it was what every kid writes about – soppy love songs. I cringe when I look back at them.” His first “proper” song was called Empty Corridors, a “crude” number “about casual love affairs”; the reaction to it from friends and locals urged Ben to pursue music as a career. Gigging relentlessly, predominantly in his locale, he accrued a sizable following. He self-released an EP, These Waters, that reached number 3 on French iTunes and was, for a week, ahead of Lady Gaga in the charts. “I was so excited with that, I turned the chart into my screen-saver.”
His forthcoming debut album, slated for a summer release through Island Records was recorded in a converted barn in Devon, and has turned out darker in its lyrical content than he imagined it would. The melodies come easy, but he worked hard on the words. “There’s a lot of stuff about people and relationships, and about myself – I’m quite self-indulgent in that respect.”
Life on the road with his band – India on cello, and Chris on electric and double-bass and drums – has made them a close knit unit, and given them all a heightened “awareness of sound”. You can hear it too, in the gentle, note perfect harmonies and the fragility in which they are delivered. They hush rooms, scatter the audience with a sense of euphoria, and leave them desperate for much more of the same.
And it’s thus no wonder that Island were keen to sign them, especially after the label witnessed an ecstatic reaction during a performance at London’s prestigious Water Rats.
“I think they were just impressed that we had such an avid fanbase as if from nowhere,” he says, “they sold me the idea on the back of their involvement with Nick Drake and John Martyn. That’s my era. When I saw their roster I couldn’t say no.”
Ben doesn’t have a mission statement as such; he just wants to keep his burgeoning fanbase happy with his sumptuously sorrowful music. Happy to the point that they get emotional, even lose consciousness.
“I had a girl faint the other day,” he recalls. “It was probably because she was so hot. She landed on my monitor. And every now and then they cry – it’s good to spark emotion.”
So there you have it. Ben Howard: so good, he’ll reduce you to tears.