Ben Howard is a rising singer-songwriter with ties to Mumford & Sons and the burgeoning British folk scene. This summer, Howard will tour the States, with stops at Bonnaroo and Sasquatch! Music Festival, promoting his excellent album Every Kingdom. We spoke with Howard about his first forays into writing music, his idea of the perfect song and more.
When did you write your first song?
I was ten or eleven. It was probably the worst song ever. I’m glad it’s disappeared somewhere, but my mum’s probably got a written copy of it. She keeps coming out with them every now and then, going, “Do you remember this? Look what I found!” I was a little kid.
Do you remember the title?
No, [laughs] I’m glad I don’t. I remember writing a song called “Fields of Gold,” and then realizing a few years later that I’d actually just nipped that from Sting.
What style were your first songs in? Are they the same style you do now?
No, not at all. I was 11 years old or something, so I hope I’ve improved a bit. When I was a kid I started playing guitar because I liked to put words together and make stuff up. I was quite an imaginative little kid I guess. So your standard little love songs turned into your standard adolescent love songs. I think you start getting your own take on things when you’re a late teen. That’s when everything changes.
Who are some of your songwriting heroes?
One of my biggest heroes is [British folk singer] John Martyn. When I was a little kid I listened to James Taylor; my parents played that for me. I’m constantly being influenced. I listen to songs nowadays and I’m like, “Wow, I’d love to write a song nearly like that.” I’ve everything from Bon Iver to The Black Keys to Tom Martin, Dylan, everything in between.
Do you have a typical approach to writing songs?
Not really. I always let a song come to me rather than sit down and do a writing session or do any co-writes. I write anytime I feel like I’ve got something to write a song about. I try not to put any pressure on writing songs or putting a time frame on it. Hopefully something will come up that I feel I need to write a song about.
When that song comes to you do you keep the lyrics as is or do you end up working on them a lot?
Usually I work on them quite a bit. I’ve had a couple songs in the past that you write in a day or two, but there are ones I’ll have guitar music to and I’ll try to put words or a melody to it for ages. I’ll give up on it, then find it six months later and say, “this could really work.” You end up mashing a couple songs together and then you put words on. I spend most of the time on lyrics and vocal melody, really.
What percentage of your songs you start do you actually finish?
I’d say probably around 10 to 15 a year. I never write words down so a lot of them I forget, but I go by the formula that the best ones are the ones you remember.
What’s a song on Every Kingdom you’re especially proud of?
My favorite from the record is a song called “Black Flies.” It’s just one tune that still rings really true. A lot of songs they get older and the people you’re singing about change; the songs develop different meanings. Not that I lose interest in them, but the people and things they’re about change. But “Black Flies” still feels very focused and current in my head. It’s one of the most simple, but it’s got a lot to it.
What’s a lyric on Every Kingdom that you’re especially proud of?
The start of “Everything” always reminds me of home when I sing it so I always think it’s quite a good little lyric because it pictures a place for me instantly. It’s nothing profound, it’s just “and the birds still sing outside these windows where we sat together.” It always reminds me of my little window at home.
What inspires you to write songs?
Mostly places and the people who come in and out of my life, whether it’s a love relationship or a friendship. I think about that myself a lot; I always try to write songs about other people and scenarios. I’ve always liked the idea of making up something completely random, but I always end up having a self-reflective moment and end up writing a song about myself. I’m like, next song I’ll try to write about something else.
Whats a song of yours that’s really touched people?
We get a lot of amazing comments from people. I get little notes every now and then at shows which is always really sweet. I get quite a lot of little notes about “Keep Your Head Up” because it’s an encouragement song more than anything and people seem to connect with that quite a lot. But rather than individual songs, I’ve been trying to worry more about how people have been drawn to the record. It was a little project we’ve had going on in the Southwest. No one really knew about us and now we get messages about the songs all the time. Things are kind of blowing up, and we’re learning to deal with it.
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Not really. I probably read more than write. I wrote a few poems when I was a kid, and I’d write some short stories and stuff. I kind of gave it up and focused most of my attention on writing songs.
What do you consider a perfect song written by someone else?
One is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” I think it’s lyrically an absolute beauty, an amazing gem of a song, and there’s not a single line that shouldn’t be there. It’s really obvious but also really poetic. I’ve always adored that song. The older you get the more you understand it, and the more it rings true.
And Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche.” It’s one of the greatest songs ever written. I just love how much hatred’s in that song, just the attitude and feel of it. In a similar vein, Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Those are the three greatest for me, and perfect in their own right.