Entertainment & Arts

Ben Howard: Brits star goes electric on I Forget Where We Were

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Image caption Howard was honoured by the Brits after releasing his debut album

Double Brit-winner Ben Howard returns with his sweeping second album, I Forget Where We Were.

When Ben Howard stepped up on stage at the Brit awards in January 2013 to accept his second award of the night for best male solo artist, no-one looked more surprised that the young Devonshire singer-songwriter himself.

What was particularly surprising was that his awards, he also picked up the British breakthrough award, came in a year when he was up against the combined might of Calvin Harris, Plan B, Richard Hawley and... Olly Murs.

"We were surprised to be up there with a lot of people who had achieved a lot," says Howard a year and a half on from that momentous night.

"I thought at the time we might get breakthrough act but when you've got pop superstars like Calvin Harris you don't really expect to be getting best male as well."

Harris and Murs were magnanimous in defeat, with the one-time X factor pin-up tweeting "Big up to Ben Howard!! Well done."

Social networks, however, were less generous about Howard's coup and were ablaze with incendiary comments, mainly from the Murs' fanbase, demanding to know: "WHO IS HE?"

"I think Olly's dad booted off about it, I had a laugh about it because it's not really my thing but it was a fun, great experience and nice to be involved.

"The comment afterwards were quite funny because I guess for someone like Olly Murs, it's probably quite important, it's one of those things that's career defining, but it's quite funny how disgruntled people were."

Even a year later, ahead of this year's Brits, Murs' father, a prolific tweeter, was still a little bitter about his lad's loss.

"They hold my records now," Howard explains about the location of his Damien Hirst-designed figurines. "They were in a box until about four months ago and then I got them out, they now bookend my records."

What seemed to be a point of contention among the populists was Howard's almost stealthy approach to success with his album Every Kingdom, also nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2012.

"We played a lot of live shows, we just kept plugging away and playing music and people kept coming back," he explains. "There was no grand scheme, no big push, there are things I would have done differently now but you make decisions on the hop and it takes you where you are."

Songs like Keep Your Head Up and Only Love quickly became live favourites and Howard released an EP later in 2012, which signalled a move away from traditional folk music.

Image copyright Publicity still
Image caption The new album showcases a new expansive sound

A year later comes I Forget Where We Were - recorded in remotest Devon, where Howard grew up.

"(The title) was something I kept coming back to, it's a general thing about being in your 20s, when you start having a look around a bit at trends and fads and what kids are doing and all of a sudden having a consciousness of all that.

"It's also about myself wondering what my purpose is in it. It's about an overall confusion."

End Of The Affair was the first track to be unveiled from the new album - a brooding elegy marked by its sparse, echoing guitars which give way, halfway through the song, to an afrobeat-style change of pace.

It comes in at a pretty epic seven minutes, perhaps a risky way to reintroduce himself after a year's hiatus.

"It felt quite natural to be honest, the fact that it is seven-and-a-half minutes is a bit strange but I think the musical content is in a small scale of notes," he insists.

The song and its new spacious sound is an indicator of a new direction being taken by Howard, relying less on folksy acoustic guitars and sing-a-long choruses.

"It's grand," says Howard. "I think this record was about seeing how widescreen we could go. Definitely grand is a word I'd use, I think the interesting thing is that there's not a whole lot of instrumentation, it's mostly a guitar record really, experimenting with tones.

Image caption Howard played the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2013

"The nice thing about the success of the first record meant we had the freedom to do anything."

End Of The Affair's sister track, Small Thing - and its math rock style disjointed beat - also displays Howard's willingness to experiment with his new music.

"I wish there was more of that on the record," he says. "I enjoyed playing it, those two are probably two favourites off the album."

Howard's experimentation is perhaps an attempt to extricate himself from the same nu-folk rock bracket as bands like Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling.

"I'm already looking forward to doing the next album, perhaps something more refined, digging into songwriting a bit more.

"I'm not prolific, I go over stuff and it goes for me and sometimes against me. I'm annoyed that I don't do enough stuff off-the-cuff. It's a difficult thing to do something quickly and stand behind it."

The singer has recently announced a European tour, with five UK dates in December in Manchester, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and London. All five shows have now sold out.

Before that he is due to play at the Roundhouse in London as part of the iTunes festival.

He says playing to bigger audiences in large venues has given him "the freedom to extend as much as we like".

He continues: "We spent a lot of the festival season watching other bands, so many people doing interesting stuff, I think by having a bigger sound it means we can go a lot of different ways.

"At the moment, we're playing as a six-piece but I've seen some great horn arrangements on stuff recently and I wouldn't mind exploring that. It depends, I change my mind on a daily basis so we might go more stripped back."

Howard saves some words of praise for singer Kate Bush, who ahead of the opening night of her string of comeback dates at the Hammersmith Apollo in London, asked for her audiences not to film her on stage.

The veteran musician said: "I very much want to have contact with you as an audience, not with iPhones, iPads or cameras."

She added it would mean "a great deal to me" but admitted that it was "a lot to ask".

Howard says: "I think she's got a really good point, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs said the same thing and they got a lot of flak for it but it has become the norm now and it does rob people of that experience.

"A live show is a room full of sound and people and now you have technology where people can film it and take it away and all that is lost afterwards but they have a souvenir.

"It really frustrates me as well. But we play to a lot of young people and a part of me is also like, 'Well it's up to them if they want to do that'."

Ben Howard's I Forget Where We Were, is out in October.

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