Back when one of Crack’s founders was studying a degree in Falmouth and playing in a now sadly defunct band, a young blonde-haired chap named Ben Howard would often fill in as support. He was always one to draw a captive crowd, and we had a feeling that he could go pretty far. But the success which Ben Howard has achieved in the following five years exceeded every possible expectation.
Due to a healthy musical education provided by his parents, Ben Howard became infatuated with the some of the most significant songwriters of the twentieth century at an early age. While growing up beside the Devon coast, Howard picked up a guitar himself and developed a craft which would one day earn him a rep as one of the UK’s most loved folk artists. The unprecedented commercial success of Howard’s 2011 album Every Kingdom is proof that his music has universal appeal, and the rush of ticket sales that follows every gig announcement shows that his songs translate to big stages, providing diverse crowds with a collective sense of joy. But Ben Howard’s style has always been informed by the most esteemed folk artists – the likes of Nick Drake, Bert Jansch and John Martyn – and his latest record, The Burgh Island EP, sees Howard embrace similarly tender, but darker and more sparse atmospherics.
When Crack caught up with Ben for dinner (we ordered the Trio of Pork dish, in case you were interested), that night he was to complete a sold out UK tour which culminated in a trio of sold-out dates at Brixton Academy. And despite the constant flow of praise and hectic schedule, he’s still the down to earth, laid back guy who’d be flattered by the round of applause at a small open mic night all those years back.
So Every Kingdom went platinum?
Yeah I think we’ve done like 330,000 record sales.
And that’s just in the UK?
Yeah, mental isn’t it!?
Was there a particular turning point where it felt like this was really taking off? When you dropped out of Uni to pursue this full time?
I was laughing about this with another Uni friend who came to a show the other day. When I dropped out, I literally just played Kelly Slater’s Pro Surfer, chain smoked roll-ups and drank loads of tea for a while, and I’d sometimes pick up the guitar a bit and pretend I was working. But since then I think there’s always little moments where there are bursts of achievement. Like, a year ago I’d get to a venue and think ‘woah, it’s amazing that I’m playing here’. The Scala last year was a huge one, we were shitting ourselves. And I look at it now and it’s half the size of the venues we’ve done on this UK tour.
Has it been hard adjusting to this level of success?
We never expected it to be this big, which is kind of cool, y’know. It keeps us constantly amazed. I definitely have a few diva moments now and then. But I think it’s because you do have to take it seriously. I think it’s really important to keep everything the same, everyone who works with us is a friend, or a friend of friend who happens to be really good at their job. But there are hard days. When I started out, I’d kind of drink quite a lot, then it’s expected of you and you become a bit of pisshead really!
And you’ve got old friends coming to see you in every city?
Ha! Yeah, exactly, like “Hello mate, we need have a catch up!” When you start doing it every day it does toy with your head a little bit.
We remember how hard you worked at it in the early days in Falmouth…
It’s crazy, we put so much work in at the beginning, so much for nothing, and it feels bizarre that things got so big. Right at the beginning I used to gig a lot and it was just for fun. I loved playing at open mic nights, I loved playing with different people like Calum Finlay and Isla and just the general piss ups in the Jacob’s Ladder with the Falmouth lot. It was a good crew. It’s a funny one, I’ve never really been part of any scene. The only place was where there was a scene was Falmouth, there was a lot of cool bands there. I saw the guys in Tall Ships the other day, it’s great to see them doing so well. And then there’s Michael who’s doing NZCA/Lines. I still get a song of his he made at Uni stuck in my head all the time. I’ve not been back to Falmouth actually, I’d love to though. But it’s one of those things, we move around so much at the moment that no one place has any gravity to it.
We were looking for interviews with you online, there’s not that many.
Yeah, I don’t really do too many to be honest. There’s not many I want to do. I mean, I get asked a lot, but people just write the same boring stuff. I never really felt like I wanted to be in the public eye too much. So it’s cool that we’ve got here just by playing music, a lot of people don’t even know what I look like, which is really nice. With any singer-songwriter, they’re expected to put a picture of their face on the album cover, and I really got pushed to do that. So we got some really cool shots with Mickey Smith – that’s probably been one of the most exciting things about this year, spending a lot of time with Mickey. We did that underwater shoot, it was nice to get some photos just of me swimming around rather than a photo of my mug on the cover.
So that is you on the cover?
Yeah, that’s me trying to recreate the Nevermind cover!
How were the Mercury Awards, must have been nice to be nominated?
The Mercury Awards was a funny one, I mean I’d never really done the whole red carpet thing, I tend to shy away from events like that. Really fun night though, we got hammered. I didn’t really see us in the running to win it, to be honest, but I was buzzing that we were part of it. I was actually a little bit disappointed that the Macabbees didn’t win, because I love their tunes and they’ve put out some great records, but I reckon they’ve never quite got the acclaim they deserve.
And how was Late Night With Letterman?
Yeah, that was great.
Did you see that Daughter were on there too?
Yeah, I can’t wait for Daughter to put out an album, they’re fucking amazing.
And what about new material, have you had any time for writing new stuff recently?
Not really on the road, no. I mean we’ve all had minor mental breakdowns on the road at one point or another. The Burgh Island came out at a really weird time when there was a lot of stuff going on in my personal life and I had to keep going on the road, playing the same songs and keep putting that front on. A few times I caught myself kind of acting, and that freaked me out, I’ve never been one to act. And then sometimes I’d feel really blasé about it all, but all it can take is one person to make you realise the impact that you have on people by playing music. You can never take that for granted. It’s amazing.
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Words: Jake Applebee + David Reed