Beth Jeans Houghton - The new Jean Genie
Rising folk star Beth Jeans Houghton is only 19, but she's a fan of glam-rock stars like Bowie and Bolan. Two years ago Devendra Banhart pulled her out of an audience – now she's one to watch in her own right. By Elisa Bray
Friday 26 February 2010
Beth Jeans Houghton is turning heads. The 19-year-old is still in her stage costume – an oversized pink swing-jacket over a leopard-print swimming costume, and a big blonde permed wig – as we walk the grounds of a music festival. "People call me Beth No Jeans Houghton", she says, as one guy stops and stares.
"This is from Tesco" she says, pointing at the bathing suit. "But I usually make my own costumes. I was making clothes before I discovered music and writing songs. I like the whole glam-rock Seventies era – Bowie and Marc Bolan. I think there's an element of music that people miss. It's like watching a movie without sound – it could be quite boring."
Houghton is anything but boring. Words trip off her tongue and her energy is infectious. It's quite a different energy from the serenity of her delicate folk-infused songs, and her September- released EP Hot Toast Volume One. From Newcastle, and despite only picking up a guitar three years ago, Houghton has an impressive number of plaudits to her name. Her debut single, "Golden", produced by folk star Adem, quickly sold its limited run of 500 copies. The first run of her EP sold out on the day of release. She has made a name for herself within a burgeoning folk scene, supporting King Creosote, Bon Iver and Tinariwen. No wonder that she is being hailed as the psych-folk singer to watch.
Her songwriting began aged 16, when she fell in love with a Japanese Fender Stratocaster in a shop window, and, having to justify the £500 she had spent on it, quickly taught herself to play. She was creative rather than academic at school, and still smarts from the fact that she was rejected from the part of Tallulah in her school production of Bugsy Malone because "the teacher thought I couldn't sing". Her schooldays were a nightmare of not fitting in. "Some days I'd wake up and know I was going to school and it would be hell. I hated school. I was really not very popular and I had really wonky teeth and I had a brace for ages. But, in a way, it's made me a better person now. I'm glad I stayed at home with music and art, as it made me who I am now, rather than worrying about having friends. And now I have proper friends."
When she started playing, her older brother, a graphic designer, took her to his friend's house to record some songs. "I realised it was really fun and interesting to make your own melodies and add instruments. It's kind of like I've been waiting my whole life for this to happen", she says. Her first gig, when she was, at just 16, under-age for the Newcastle venue The Head of Steam, terrified her. She was so nervous that she rattled through her 12-song set at such speed that she was off stage in 15 minutes, half the time she had been due to perform. A year later, though, she was on stage alongside Devendra Banhart at Green Man Festival.
"I went right up to the front. Then he said, 'does anyone have a song they'd like to play?' and the next thing I knew I was being pulled up onto the stage. Loads of people thought it was a set-up, but it wasn't." She points out a little tattoo of scrawly writing on her wrist. "After the gig I asked him to sign his album, and he didn't write his name but he wrote, 'you mama there's you'. He said: "It means you are your own person and I think you should know that. You don't need anybody.' I got it tattoed on my arm and when I play guitar I can see it so if things go wrong I can just look at it. It's in his handwriting as well." Was she nervous to be up there in front of 10,000 people? "While it was happening I was thinking, 'this feels really surreal'. There was no room to go back into the crowd so I had to go backstage and I was dancing to 'I Feel Just Like a Child' with this girl and it was Joanna Newsom – that was mad!"
It was also the first time she met Mike Lindsay from Tunng, who would record her EP – her first CD release ("I'm a complete vinyl junkie"). When the Tunng frontman suggested the collaboration, Houghton's priority was to keep any mistakes on the finished recording. "I hate hospital-clean records that are completely over produced."
Houghton hails from a close-knit community of musicians and artists in Newcastle, where she met her boyfriend, one of the musicians in her band The Hooves of Destiny, and her old mandolin player. She is now moving to Brighton, the home of one of her musical heroes, Nick Cave.
Her songs tend to arrive at the "worst times, like when I'm on the bus and when I don't have anything to record on, or when I'm having a conversation with someone and it's too rude to say, 'I've got to go,' and when I'm on the toilet. It doesn't just come as a melody, I've got the whole song. I know exactly how I'm going to orchestrate it." Her song "Sweet Tooth Bird" arrived when she and her band were at King's Cross station and she had to sing it over and over throughout the three-hour train journey back to Newcastle to remember it. Songwriting is cathartic ("if I can't talk to someone about something it's easier to just put it in a song. I can release it but I don't have to"), in the same way as writing letters.
With the condition synaesthesia, music is visual to Houghton. "I have a vision of what I want it to look like. And it's kind of like a tribe marching to war. I want that kind of feeling of going somewhere with the song sort of like a communal feeling of doing something really great." Judging by the sheer number of plaudits behind her, Houghton really is going somewhere.
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