Hailing from the provincial coastline of Cornwall in south-west England, 22 year-old folkman Ben Howard isn’t exactly entering into a sparsely populated genre. In the post-Iver musical world, the image of the earnest, usually bearded, twenty-something folk singer with an acoustic guitar has gone beyond archetype, becoming almost a parody of itself. In the UK especially, such artists are popping up all over the place, singing homespun tunes of parochial breakups and rustic landscapes, thrumming away on a battered acoustic and attempting to bear their soul.
Yet the lack of a beard isn’t the only thing separating Ben Howard from the pack.
His first EP, Old Pine, came out in March and since then it’s been a strength-to-strength journey for the fresh-faced Englishman. Propelled by a hefty support network of surfers in the south-west, his music has gradually seeped nationwide, creeping into (and sticking in) the minds of all who hear it.
Marrying his smoky, older-than-his-years vocals with a unique guitar-playing style, Howard’s lyrics are unquestionably influenced by the pastoral surroundings of his life to this point. The title track from Old Pine spins a tale of darkness in the woods, but also paints in broader strokes at points, encompassing those recognisable themes of ageing, natural cycles and personal experience which have fuelled artists from Nick Drake to Conor Oberst. His is a therapeutic, cathartic brand of folk which captures the imagination and soothes aching ears.
What makes Howard’s début memorable is its inventiveness. For most, the guitar is simply a melodic instrument, but for the Cornwall singer it’s a percussive one as well. His riffs can be fierce or tender, but they’re always accompanied with a toe-tapping backbeat, either provided by damping the strings or by using the body of the guitar as a piece of percussion.
New single ‘The Wolves’ reveals a more countrified sound, bouncing off a country backbeat snare riff as Howard’s voice rasps into his upper register, proclaiming “we lost faith in the arms of love”.
What’s also helped Howard’s rise are his excellent live performances. Playing The Tabernacle in London’s Notting Hill last night, every track was warmly received, from the mantra-giving ‘Keep Your Head Up’ to the quieter strains of ‘Three Tree Town’. Howard plays with a refreshing freedom, guiding his band and the audience with an irrepressible energy, and displays his unique acoustic-playing style, involving reverse grips, rhythmic beats and a song played with his guitar laid across his lap.
However, Howard’s playing seems to be more an act of expression than a contrived gimmick, and the effect of this odd approach is that the crowd rarely take their eyes from him.
With his début album Every Kingdom due out in October and ever-growing press and radio coverage, Ben Howard looks like finishing 2011 as a name on many lips, having started it on the stereos of only a few.