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‘You Never Truly Know What You’re Making’
Ben Howard first entered the public consciousness in the back half of 2011 with the release of his dreamy acoustic debut, Every Kingdom. The set struck a nerve in his native United Kingdom, selling one million copies while earning the singer two Brit Awards (British Breakthrough Act, British Male Solo Artist) as well as a Mercury Prize nomination.
He punched up the volume—and introduced a swath of electronic flourishes—on his melancholy-soaked follow up, 2014’s I Forget Where We Were, to delightful, mind-bending effect. And this summer he managed to surprise again as he released the uber-cerebral Noonday Dream. Produced by John Cornfield, the collection is full of wandering melodies, mysterious lyrics, soaring string arrangements, and whirring guitars.
“It does feel like an evolution,” says Howard. “Playing it, it has a joy and a kind of weightlessness.”
The 31-year-old spoke with Esquire.com to offer a peek into his creative process, learning to love a life on the road, and why he feels most comfortable with himself at his current age.
Location doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think.
Howard’s latest came together between Biarritz, France, and Cornwall, England, but the poetry of such settings had perhaps less influence on the LP than is temping to expect. “People often say, ‘Does a physical location matter [to writing and recording an album]?’ And for me, it definitely doesn’t,” he explains. “I live inside my own brain, most of the time. So where I am physically doesn’t really bother me—if the physical place sparks something in my imagination, then it’s a good place.” Copping to his own reputation as an enigmatic scribe, he adds, with a laugh, “I’ve always been fairly vague with references as well, anyway.”
But chasing your muse does.
“Songwriting is full of this knowledge that songs will always change,” says Howard, when asked about the dramatic transformations several of Noonday Dream’s cuts underwent during the recording process. “[But] it’s about trying to maintain the muse in the purest form. The worst thing you can do is try to rationalize [your inspirations].” When through-lines begin popping up across several pages of notes and lyrics, an album has begun. “You start realizing you have a record when you start being able to see the themes yourself and start understanding what the record is,” he adds, before cautioning, “but you will be wrong when you finish. I am a firm believer that you never truly know what you’re making. There are a lot of different elements to [an album] that give it an identity—and most of them are out of your control.”
Time away from music is time well spent.
Following the world tour in support of his 2014 LP, Howard took a chunk of time completely off from music. “I just wanted to do some other stuff for the time being,” he says. “It’s important to be able to take yourself out of your own life. I guess it’s a privilege I have, but I recommend it to anyone.”
His preferred studio routine? No routine.
“I’m terrified of routine,” Howard admits. “So I change the [structure] on an almost daily basis. We usually do two days at a time, sometimes we’ll start at 8 o’clock in the morning and then change it up and start at midday—and then we realize we’re not getting much done, so we start at 8 o’clock in the morning again.” And while it works for him, he admits, laughing, “I don’t know if I recommend it. I think there are probably better people with better systems.”
He’s aware his songs tend to run longer than what dominates radio airwaves.
“It’s the bane of my life and my existence, people telling me to be a little more succinct with what I write.” says Howard. “And most of the time I agree with them, but I do enjoy taking my time! I’m a work in progress.” [Laughs]
He’s embracing his third decade—for the most part.
Noonday Dream marks the first LP of Howard’s thirties, a time which, so far, he’s quite enjoying. “I think thirties, especially for males, is quite a different time. It’s a more comfortable period in your life.” After a pause, though, he adds, “I guess I’m the sort who, if I find something comfortable, tends to push against it. So, at times its comfortable and at times it’s uncomfortably comfortable,” he says, laughing again. “But it seems to be treating me alright at the moment. I’m just at the beginning of it, I’ll let you know how I get on.
Touring his music is uniquely more rewarding than writing music.
“I have a different conversation with an audience than I do to the band members about music,” he says, considering what he gets out of presenting his music live. “Sometimes we don’t understand each other and sometimes we do—and that’s alright. I enjoy this lifestyle; I enjoy being transient and to travel and see so many places is quite a wonderful experience. I wish it on more of us.”
Noonday Dream is out now and available for purchase via iTunes and Amazon. Howard’s tour crosses the Atlantic for a run of North American dates beginning September 20. All shows are listed on the singer’s website.