Ben Howard: the new boring or the next big thing?

The surfer won two Brits for his affable folk. But, he tells Elisa Bray, he's sensitive to the idea that he's too safe

If you win one Brit Award – let alone two – you can be sure that people will be queuing up to speak to you. But much to the chagrin of Ben Howard's PR, it takes four days to get hold of him. The big winner at last week's Brit Awards, alongside Emeli Sandé, with two coveted Damien Hirst-designed gongs – one for Best British Male and the other for Best Breakthrough Artist – Howard, after spending three days in the pub with friends, promptly escaped to rural Ireland without a phone and has been there ever since.

“After the Brits I put a couple of amps and five guitars in the car and drove here,” he says. “I basically ran away. It was nice to be involved and all that, but it's nice to be away from London and all the craziness.”

You can't blame the 25-year-old – an unassuming, folk-influenced singer-songwriter from Devon who divides his time between music and surfing, and whose manner is more laid-back surfer dude than ambitious, posturing pop star – for escaping the craziness. Born in London and brought up in Devon from the age of nine, he surfed and strummed through his youth along to his parents' vast music collection of Bob Dylan, John Martyn, Jimi Hendrix and Simon and Garfunkel.

His childhood he recalls as “a lot of surfing, hanging out outside in the countryside… a lot of pot. I spent a lot of time cruising around on my own as a kid. I liked writing and read a lot of books.” His first acoustic guitar was from his mother, when he was eight, and he had his first electric at 12, but it was the acoustic that he kept returning to and through which he found a way of writing the sensitive autobiographical acoustic songs that would resonate with so many people.

All 250-plus shows he performed these past two years sold out, including three nights at Brixton Academy. Constant gigging and his surf-scene association is how he built his enormous following, but the Radio 1 A-listing of every single he has released has helped, too. Despite this and the 300,000-plus sales of his debut album Every Kingdom, until the Brits, Howard remained relatively anonymous. If the public didn't expect him to win Best British Male in a category that included rapper Plan B, veteran rock musician Richard Hawley, disco star Calvin Harris and X Factor pop graduate Olly Murs, Howard certainly didn't either.

“Did you see my speech? No, I definitely hadn't prepared one. I went up there and was like, 'just make words!'” In order to make it to the Brits, he had changed a New York date on his US tour, where he'd earlier supported Mumford & Sons' arena shows, with his band members drummer Chris Bond and celloist India Bourne – not because he anticipated winning, but to perform. “It was a bit of a shock. It definitely felt we were the underdogs and that we didn't belong there.” With sales bolstered by 4,600% the day after the Brits, anonymity is surely behind him.

If he felt out of place it was, he says, his second-ever awards show (his first was the Mercury Prize last autumn for which he was nominated and lost out to Alt-J), and Howard is more typically spotted in surfers' attire of Quiksilver T-shirts and jeans. For the event he was kitted out in an Armani shirt and driven around in a brand new Audi.

“That was about as smart as I've ever been. It was the life of a pop star, and it was quite funny to see what it was like for a couple of days,” he says, unfazed, and unlikely to be hankering after that lifestyle any time soon. He remains a keen surfer; when he goes on tour in Australia next month, he will be found riding the ocean's waves when he's not riding the metaphorical ones of success on stage.

So what does he put his success down to? “Women,” he states, although he is at present single. “Women and their impact, good and bad. It makes men write songs. I write about relationships, basically. For me music's always been a personal voyage. It was funny how the album connected to so many people in a way I never really expected. I recorded it back home and it was about people I knew and about relationships I'd had that were very personal, so it goes to show how if you sing about yourself most people have had that sort of experience anyway.”

His primary reason for being in Ireland is to continue writing. An EP in November bridged the gap between the 2011-released debut album and its future follow-up. This year's Brits will go down for its safe choices that recognise commercial success, and its mild-mannered winners Mumford and Sons, Sandé and Howard. But Howard is already taking issue with his music being called safe, before I've even broached the subject of the 'New Boring'. He is adamant that the new songs will challenge those perceptions.

“It was great to put the EP out and silence any critics or lazy journalists who never really got my music and always said it was safe, and obviously never really listened to the record. As a singer-songwriter I definitely think I push the mould a lot. I've always thought I crossed this really weird gap between the pop world and some slightly more left-field singer-songwriter music, but everyone's always comparing me with Ed Sheeran. It's frustrating.” The EP signalled at the new directions in which he intends to go.

“The EP definitely shows some cool places you can go with an acoustic guitar. [My new music will be] a lot more electric, a bit more experimental, just running acoustics through different pedals and amps and trying to find some cool tones and not sitting still and sticking to a formula. That's what interests me.” And will he acquire a mobile phone to cope with the demands of his newfound fame? “I usually have a phone on me,” he insists. “I'm not like a total recluse who lives in the woods or anything. But yeah, I lose a lot of stuff.” Safe, mild-mannered? Maybe not. We're just getting to know the real Ben Howard, and his star continues its ascent.

This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us