Seeing a new country/city/state through another’s eyeholes is always an interesting endeavor — especially when that “another” is a musician on his first tour of America, gathering new fans and accolades along the way.
Welcome to another edition of Music Meter Monday, where we highlight bands who are climbing the MTV Music Meter. This week, we pinned down English singer-songwriter Ben Howard as he traversed the Midwest after a stint at SXSW. Already quite popular in his homeland, Howard is primed to put scores of folk-loving Americans in his soothing thrall with the upcoming stateside release of his debut album, Every Kingdom (which drops on April 3), as well as a couple of serious festival stops this summer. He will be the first artist to release an album on Communion Records, which was founded by Ben Lovett from Mumford & Sons.
Read on for Howard’s thoughts on SXSW, comparisons to folk (tragic) hero Nick Drake and the preponderance of signs in rural America.
Hey, how are you?
I’m all right. We’re driving through Wisconsin.
Nice. Exotic. Cool, so you just got back from SXSW, no?
Yeah, we did SXSW then went up through Oklahoma City and Kansas City and we were in Minneapolis yesterday.
So how was your SXSW experience?
It was all right. I was freaked out a little bit to be honest. It was kind of a bit too weird, and I think as a musician it was quite hard. It’s supposed to be the greatest music festival in the world, but it was all a bit rushed and I just got freaked out by the whole thing, to be honest.
How many shows did you play?
We didn’t do too many to be honest. We did one a day — I was there for like four days. We did four shows and one official showcase, which is really nice. We did it in a church and it was nice to get away from the carnage.
Was that your favorite performance?
I think so. I did actually enjoy most of the shows. There were a couple of really rugged ones where it was like, ‘Get on, there’s half a pint of whiskey, it’s really hot in here, just play.’ And there were a couple of really fun ones like that where it was rugged and it sounded pretty bad, but it was fun. I remember all of them, that’s for sure.
I’ve read that you’re kind of nervous sometimes during performances. Did doing so many ‘rugged’ shows in a row help with that?
Yeah, I think. A lot of people have asked me what the gameplan is for America — whether we were going to tailor the music to a new audience, an American audience, and their expectations. I was a bit apprehensive what people would think of the tunes and I didn’t know if anyone would know any of the music. I just figured we’d play exactly what we usually play and play what we want to play and what we enjoy. The response has been incredible. But I was definitely a bit apprehensive. And definitely nervous. You always get nervous. There’s no point in doing it if you don’t get nervous.
What’s the most interesting response you’ve gotten from a new fan?
I got a really nice present the other day. We were in Oklahoma City — it was the best present I ever got from a show. I got a hamper full of local wines and local beers and a really nice note. The nice thing over here in America is that everyone is really vocal. In the UK we’re quite timid to say what we think. But over in America, it’s really cool — if people want to talk to you, they’ll talk to you. We’ve had some really funny conversations with people who are just stoked on it all. They’re just really excited. But that present was definitely the highlight.
In light of that response, how are you feeling about your album coming out over here?
I’m looking forward to seeing what people think of it. I know it’s been out on iTunes and stuff like that, but I’m looking forward to seeing what people will think of it all. Definitely exciting times. Just to come over here on tour is a real treat.
So this is your first American tour?
Yeah, basically. First time I played shows over here. I’ve been on holiday to a couple of places. I’ve been to Idaho. Randomly.
On vacation? To Idaho?
Yeah, it’s a cool place. It’s empty over there. There’s not even houses. It’s brilliant.
I’ve never even been to Idaho.
I recommend it. Most American people have been laughing at me when I say I’ve been to Idaho. Like, ‘What the f**k are you doing in Idaho?’ Dunno, I was on holiday! And I’ve been to Nashville before. That was just four days of drinking. We walked into a bar and there was a cover band playing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and everyone was drinking Budweiser. There were loads of cowboys in there. It was brilliant.
Is that how you imagined America?
It was exactly how I imagined America. That was the only bar I’ve been to like it, but it just happened to be our first one.
And you’re heading back to Tennessee this summer, right? To do Bonnaroo?
Yeah, we’re going to Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo and Sasquatch. I think that’s it over here. We’ll be doing shows around them as well. They’re two of the best festival lineups I’ve ever seen, pretty much. Looking forward to having a few days at each one and seeing loads of music and having a bit of a jolly at the same time.
Having come right off of another southern music festival, what tips did you pick up for this summer?
Take it easy on the first day. I think that’s the best advice at any festival, and the best lesson I’ve ever learned is, ‘Don’t go mental on the first day, because you spend the rest of the festival trying to clean up after yourself.’ And you keep meeting people you met on the first night…
Uh-oh, this sounds like a story…
There’s always a few stories… What goes on tour stays on tour.
So on to your music: I heard you signed to your label because Nick Drake was on it.
Yeah, pretty much. Nick Drake and an English songwriter called John Martin. I guess Island Records in the UK, their roster from the day is pretty incredible. They started out with Bob Marley — everyone’s been on there, you have Tom Waits, Nick Drake and John Martin and loads of others as well. I’m constantly getting impressed with, ‘Oh, these guys are on there as well.’ So that definitely swayed me a lot.
Yeah, the first time I listened to your album I thought of Nick Drake. He’s one of my favorites from when I was in high school.
Oh really, Nick Drake? He’s a pretty special songwriter. He’s timeless. Whenever, “time had told me, you’re a rare, rare find,” — whenever that comes on it melts me every time.
So what do you think of some of the people that reviewers have been comparing you to? I’ve heard a lot of Nick Drake and Bon Iver.
I don’t know. They’re huge compliments. You always get comparisons — it’s a human condition, you know. We always have to be compared to people. If I get comparisons like that then I’m obviously over the moon, because they’re people I listen to and that’s music that I love. Sometimes you get funny comparisons that are totally unrelated and weird, but people like Bon Iver and Nick Drake are all people that I’ve always looked up to. I’m a big music fan, so just to be in the same sentence as a lot of those people is pretty cool.
So while you’ve been tooling around on tour have you been working on new material?
Yeah, I’ve got an electric EP that I’ve kind of been working on. I have four or five songs and I’m constantly writing little bits and bobs. It’s hard when you’re on the move all the time. We’ve been touring as a band for the last couple of years in UK and Europe and now over to America. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to stop anytime soon. We’re all over the place. But I have a few little ideas in the pipeline.
You’re pretty young to be touring for so long. What kind of transition was there between going to school and hitting the road?
The transition is pretty weird, to be honest. I’ve always liked traveling and being autonomous and cruising around on your own, so it’s been really funny. I’ve always been really independent and it’s always been a dream to tour like this. Just the fact that I’m driving through Wisconsin in a beat-up camper it’s f**cking hilarious. The transition is a little bit weird. You grow up really quick when you’re traveling all the time, you see so many places and you meet so many people. You definitely grow up pretty quick. But that’s not a bad thing.
Did you go to university and all that?
Yeah, I did a couple years in a journalism degree, actually. I wasn’t very good at it. I always liked writing and that was sort of why I did it. A couple of opportunities came up to play music fulltime so I took them. Luckily, it’s been all right since and I got to America. I finally got to the U.S.A. The home of massive signs and huge flags!
That’s pretty accurate. It’s always interesting to hear people’s first impressions of a place.
The person who makes signs in America must be an absolute billionaire. I’ve never seen so many signs for anything in my life. We’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s signs bigger than houses! Look at that one! It’s huge! What does that one say? There’s a big balloon. There’s loads of stuff out there.