Ben Howard Talks Collaborating with Aaron Dessner, Making ‘Collections From the Whiteout’ and Planting Trees in Ibiza

Ben Howard’s to-do list on the day that we speak includes planting trees—an almond and an apple one. The British singer spends most of his time these days in Ibiza, where his grandfather once had a jazz bar on the seafront. Being on the island suits his unhurried approach to songwriting and his preference for mulling over ideas while doing things completely unrelated to songwriting, like, say, planting trees. 

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Howard’s pace of working took on a slightly different flow for his latest album, Collections From the Whiteout. In enlisting producer Aaron Dessner, who recently won Album of the Year for Taylor Swift’s folklore, he experienced the process of collaborating with someone who not only brought out an interpretation of himself, which Howard was unaware existed, but also exposed him to a different way of coaxing it out. “He’s a workhorse,” Howard tells American Songwriter. “That was our biggest battle. It was never about the content of the songs. He’s really good at working and I’m pretty slow. I don’t work fast. I like to sit and think about these things.”

These things include the rise and fall of Russian fraudster Anna Sorokin, the time his father found a dismembered body floating in a suitcase on the Thames River, and the suicide American engineer Richard Russell committed upon stealing and crashing a plane in Seattle. These are just some of the bits and pieces of news stories that inform the songs on Collections—in the skittering ballad of “Sorry Kid”, the flutter of “The Strange Last Flight Of Richard Russell” and the eerily electronic “Finders Keepers,” respectively. 

It’s the furtherest away from his major label debut, Every Kingdom, released by Island Records in September 2011, that Howard’s ever been. The BRIT Award-winning singer, who began his career plying his trade in melodic, folk-based music has been playing in spaces beyond that with each subsequent album release, from I Forget Where We Were in 2014 to Noonday Dream in 2018.

“I don’t think I ever stop writing,” he says. “I do have big patches of down time where I’m probably, inherently lazy. It’s not lazy, really, more deliberate inaction. So, after Noonday, I had little bits of writing, but I was kind of distracting myself with other things. I leave songs for a while ’til they get to the point where they become a menace and you’ve got to do something about it.”

What Howard did about it was go see Dessner, at his Long Pond Studios in upstate New York.

“There’s the famous old adage, ‘We never truly see ourselves, all we see is our shadow.’ You get used to who you think you are and it’s quite nice to have an exposé done by someone else, especially someone like Aaron who is so gifted,” says Howard. “That was enjoyable—to watch someone picking you apart.”

Howard wanted to work with Dessner since hearing songs from the PEOPLE Collective project spearheaded by him along with his brother and fellow The National member, Bryce Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. “I was listening to a lot of stuff that Aaron had been working on, and some of it I didn’t even realize it was him, like he had just finished the Hiss Golden Messenger album Terms of Surrender when we met, and that was a comforting moment for me,” he says. “I realized the versatility of him and that we approach music in the same way and enjoy a lot of similar music. Although the catalogue of music in his brain is far superior to mine.” 

With Dessner at the helm, and a host of other artists brought in to add to the atmosphere of the new album, including jazz drummer Yussef Dayes, Kate Stables from This Is The Kit, and James Krivchenia from Big Thief, Howard says there was a constant fusion: “I’m very familiar with where I’m going musically and Aaron wanted to go other places.”

Rather than draw from inquiry into just his own life for lyrical inspiration, Howard looked to news stories and poetry. “I was really fortunate that Aaron is as precious as me with ideas and realizing that the hub of all music is that these ideas come from nowhere or they’re just very strange,” says Howard. “You do interviews and people always ask, ‘How do you write a song?’ For me, it’s always been a big question mark and one that I’ve never purposefully answered. Because as soon as you start answering how you write a song then you become very analytical of how you write a song and then all of a sudden that seed stops coming to you.” 

He will, however, tell you what he’s drawn to; what makes him want to turn a subject like “fake heiress” Anna Sorokin into a song. “I’m always looking for the people who present a question,” he says. “We’re obsessed with meaning and reality these days, we very much believe what we see. I just think she got a bit of a raw deal. We’re so quick to try and find an answer that we sometimes kind of shut out what is the funny side of the story or the joy. Or the better side of the story gets thrown under the bus.” 

Collections creates the space for more answers, or potential answers, at least. “Sometimes you’re sharing pieces of yourself and sometimes you’re just creating vignettes of things,” says Howard. “I’m more conscious of what I do now than I was before. I understand now the importance of sharing a song. It’s a strange thing. Songs are weird—what is a song? Why do we sing them and write them and expect other people to listen to them? These are all questions I’ve gotten to grips with over the years.”

Photos by Roddy Bow

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