Interview: Keaton Henson – ”My songs appeal to people who aren’t afraid of the emotional confrontation”
Photo: Sophie Harris
Written byTommy Juto
Unedited transcription of an interview in part previously published(in Swedish) in Gaffa magazine.
As any Keaton Henson fan would know, the man is virtually a reclusive locked up in his house near Heathrow Airport where he’s fiddling about with painting and songwriting from dawn till dusk. I’ve managed to dig up just a couple of interviews on the web and he’s sometimes answered interview questions with sketches instead of words. For many years I’d wanted to know more about him than what’s googlable but had little to no hope of getting in touch with him when I put an interview request through to his record label now that a new album is coming up. Surprisingly, he agreed to talk to me! So there I was a couple of days later at one end of a Skype call crossing my fingers the mythical, mysterious artist would pick up at the other. When my first try ended without success I began to feel a bit downhearted, but then he called back all of a sudden and I felt a sense of relief upon hearing that low key voice saying hello. Not only did he call back, he also proved to be very talkative indeed, contrary to common image, albeit strengthened by half a pack of cigarettes during the course of our conversation…
Here is our 40 minute chat, unedited. Enjoy.
Tell me about your new album Kindly Now. To me it sounds like a mix of all your previous work.
– Yeah, I think you’re right. I’ve learned different things from every project I’ve worked with and with this album I tried to bring them all together.
You have always been known for your heartfelt and confessional lyrics, but even more so on this one than on Birthdays. Agree?
– I try not to think too much about the process when I start, but because I’m old now I think my emotions have become a bit more complex. When I wrote Dear… I was 18 and when you’re younger I think your emotions are much simpler. With age they become more complicated and conflicted. I still write about the things I won’t speak about. Listening to it now I realize that a main difference is that a songwriter usually tells one side of the story but when it comes to relationships there’s always two sides to the story. I don’t think anyone’s perfect, so I tried to show the imperfection and the wrongs on my part.
”In a lot of pop songs out there it just seems like they’re this nice perfect person and the other person is completely in the wrong. I just don’t believe them.”
Well, you sure did… In my opinion you’re very harsh on yourself.
– It’s just a kind of reflecting. Again, it’s an adult thing. It’s more sad to me when you realize things are your fault. I think there’s a lot of pop songs out there… I just don’t believe them, it just seems like they’re this nice perfect person and the other person is completely in the wrong. I don’t believe them.
Why do you think it’s so difficult to speak about these emotions in conversation instead of doing it in song?
– Especially when you have an anxious brain I think there are a lot of social pressures. When you discuss things in a social situation there’s a social infrastructure in place that kind of limits you slightly. When you’re writing a song, for me anyway, you’re deconstructing feeling, which is a very therapeutic experience. Trying to figure out how you feel, once you figure that out you take it apart, you try and see if there’s anything beautiful in it, how you can shape it and make into a creation. It’s both a distraction and a therapy and while you’re doing it you making these things your own and they don’t hurt as much.
”It’s more just finding your own way of making the things you don’t want to think about bearable. Writing them as songs and painting them is just how I do that.”
Do you think we need to honour our emotions more?
– Perhaps. I can’t speak for you, but English people certainly do! I know there’s a very Scandinavian way, but in England there is an element of hiding emotion. Hopefully that’s an idea I use to kind of laughing through pain. It’s more just finding your own way of making the things you don’t want to think about bearable. Writing them as songs and painting them is just how I do that. I think that’s a positive thing.
Maybe you’re not too keen on discussing this topic, but around the time I discovered you and your music yourself and SoKo ended a relationship and she was very public about it while you stood back. How would you describe it from your perspective?
– Like I said about the album there’s two sides to every story and I believe I can tell my side in song. It’s something I don’t feel qualified to talk about with other people. I’ve learned to not use other people’s names in songs just because I don’t think it’s fair on them. There are so many people in the public eye that use that platform to talk about other people. When it’s not a two-way conversation you’re only giving the world your own side of the story and it doesn’t seem fair to me. So I’m very conscious now of keeping people’s names and so on out of my record as much as possible.
Can you understand that people get very curious about your relationship when she told things the way she did while you did not?
– It’s partially my fault, but when you don’t tell people things they instantly want to know more. In all of my life that’s been a learning curve while I’ve realized it’s important for me to have my own space and privacy. When you leave a hole in the story people either are desperately trying to find out what’s there or fill it with whatever they think. It’s a strange thing, it’s understandable but I think people would be potentually disappointed in how boring my life actually is!
Not that it’s any of our business, but from the outside your relation [with SoKo] seemed so beautiful and at the same time miserable, and still we wanted you to remain a couple.
– Well, it’s a strange thing. Again because people are hearing one side. I think people maybe attribute a lot of my songs to being about a particular time in my life when I actually wrote a lot of my songs long before they were released. I totally understand that, but being on the outside all relationships are human but they can be quite boring in real life. Of course they are immortalized in song and it makes everything appear hopefully a lot more beautiful and less human.
”Dan Gretsch set my bedroom up as a studio, put the microphones in place and said “just don’t touch anything, just leave it exactly where it is”!”
If we go back to talking about Kindly Now, how was it recorded?
– I actually did it all here at my tiny, tiny house. Birthdays was recorded in a studio in Los Angeles like a real studio experience with amazing musicians. I really enjoyed it but I wanted to see if I could take what I had learned there and bring it back to my bedroom and the sound of the airplanes! I don’t obsess over production and sonics, but I think being in my bedroom without someone behind a piece of glass in front of me means my performances could be more emotional and I could do a hundred takes if I want to. So I chose to do it all at home. I worked remotely with a producer called Dan Gretsch, he’s amazing. He basically came to my house and helped me set my bedroom up as a studio and we brought a piano together. He set me up, put the microphones in place and said “just don’t touch anything, just leave it exactly where it is”! So he left me to it and I did it over a few months.
– The orchestral parts I arranged and recorded them individually. Conceptually the idea was that we recorded each instrument very close and placed them in the mix. Hopefully it doesn’t have that pop orchestra sound of them being in the background making everything sound sweet and sometimes too close and oppressive. I wanted it to sound like there’s an orchestra crammed in my bedroom, way too close to your ear and they’re playing quite aggressively, so there’s a push and pull there, the orchestra serving me and helping me and then fighting me and then helping me again.
Could you tell us a little about the song Comfortable Love?
– I had to write a description of all the songs and I was kind of stuck on that one! It may be to do with my age but you get to a point where you’re starting to see a lot of people finding that kind of comfortable love, a kind of co-existence that means you just don’t have to be lonely again. That song is me railing against that, I guess. I’m thinking “Is that the best thing? Do you want to find the comfortable thing or is the painful thing the real thing?”. Wondering what love would be and what it’s there for.
– I’ve been in a lot of relationships which are explosive and it’s kind of addictive, isn’t it? If it’s laced with danger or pain and I think it can be quite damaging. I think that’s song is quite confused for me, I’m at a point where you don’t know whether you want to keep putting yourself through pain or whether you want to find someone whose company you enjoy, which is also difficult for me because I really enjoy my own company. There’s almost an envy of people who seem so comfortable and content but there’s also a feeling of “Do I want that? Is that vibrant enough?”
– As on Birthdays, I feel that the quiet moments in an album aren’t as powerful if it’s just them and to have a quiet moment really means something and it’s nice to have something loud before it. Also, people tend to fall asleep to my albums and I felt like I should have something loud just in case…
Are you difficult to live with?
– Ha ha! I don’t know, you’d have to come and live with me. I very much enjoy living with me. Just because I have so much to do in a day, I try and write a few songs in the morning and spend the rest of the day painting and hopefully more writing after that. I kind of do that until I go to sleep so I probably am. A lot of people know that that’s the way I live my life. The art comes first, always.
I thought since you seem to have a bit of a bad conscience in your lyrics.
– Ha, ha, I think it’s a wrestling, questioning all that stuff.
Once in London I was upstairs on a double-decker bus when a middle-aged lady picked up her phone and the screen image was the album cover for Birthdays. It took me by surprise, I would never have expected her to be a Keaton Henson fan, she was more the typical “tourist type” if you know what I mean?
– Ha, ha, I think that’s really nice. It’s so nice to see so many different people… I mean, I don’t enjoy playing live but when I do I see so many people of different ages and it’s interesting. I think it appeals to people who aren’t afraid of that emotional confrontation. But it usually shows a sort of emotional strength that I always admire in people hearing my music.
”I don’t intend to do very many interviews but potentially this album needs a bit more of an explanation than the previous ones, so it’s important for me to discuss this a little bit before I disappear into the shadows again.”
Like I said in the beginning, I was really surprised that you agreed to this interview as you hardly ever do any. How come you agreed to this?
– Well, like I said before I’m aware that there are these holes in my story instead being filled with things that aren’t necessarily true and as much as I don’t like to step out of the shadows I felt like at this point I should be doing that. Plus I don’t play live or tour so it’s important for me to reach out in some way to people in different parts of the world. Scandinavia is a part of the world that I’ve always been completely obsessed with. Also potentially this album needs a bit more of an explanation than the previous ones. I don’t intend to do very many interviews but maybe it’s important for me to discuss this album a little bit before I disappear into the shadows again.
You mentioned Scandinavia. Have you been here?
– No, I’ve never been. I’ve always had a fascination since I was a child, probably because over there, there’s such a great sense of folklore and I’ve always had a huge admiration for that and mythic tradition. Also, there seems to be this bizarre ability in Scandinavians to write amazing songs. A natural melodic kind of genius. I’ve always enjoyed the music and the art like John Bauer. But I’ve never visited, which probably goes down to my fear of flying and travelling, but one day I hope to. Maybe you’ll find me in a log cabin out there whittling wood! Give me snowy forests any day!
– Are there any more songs you wanted to talk about? It’s interesting to see what songs that may impose any questions.
Well, “Alright” was your first single and obviously I’ve heard that more than the others, then “The Pugilist” is the second. It sounds like you want to fight something?
– I’m glad you mention that, I’ve met so many people who don’t know what that word means. I’ve always enjoyed that word, essentially it’s just someone who’s paid to fight. I felt like that could be a strange way of describing my job, whether it’s fighting with myself or fighting my demons. It’s a song that is about this job and why I do it. It’s always seemed strange to me that so many people have this compulsion to make things, to create art about themselves. Writing the song I started singing this line “Don’t forget me” over and over again and then realized it’s the best way to describe it. A manic, obsessive feeling of not wanting to be forgotten and instead wanting to leave something from yourself to feel important. It came from fighting those feelings and getting paid for it.
“Alright” was written quite long ago, wasn’t it?
– Yes, it was written just after Birthdays was finished.
It feels like it has a theme similar to Birthdays to it.
– Yes, I put it first on the album as a way of saying goodbye to that songwriter, that kid. I felt like I had to do that in order to write the rest of the record. So it makes sense to have it first, as you say it’s slightly more in that world I used to write in. The song itself is about that even if anything will end you’ll be okay and you’ll get on. It’s a love song in one aspect but also about changing and becoming an adult. It’s sad but it’s okay.
“Old Lovers In Dressing Rooms” sounds pretty autobiographical, like you have actually been visited by someone from earlier in your life.
– I can’t say that it specifically mentions one instance. Things like that have happened and do happen to us who are out there when you’re playing shows and when you’re out and about. It’s very strange when you have written songs about people, whether it’s a friend or lover or anything, then you haven’t seen them for a while and the next time you see them they’ve been hearing these songs about them and it creates a strange but kind of beautiful relationship. You can have these encounters and it’s a kind of talking point.
What is the line “They say your record deal is over now” about?
– I’ve gone through some different phases in my career and that line talks about the idea that a lot of people know so much about you. You see someone and you haven’t seen them for ages and ask them if they go to the university or where they are working and they know so many details about my career! It creates this strange kind of dialogue where one person knows exactly what you’ve been up to but you have no idea of what they’ve been up to and who they are now.
– There’s also a line which a lot of my friends who are artists understand instantly, but a lot of people might not get it: “there’s people that you have to meet”. If you’re having a bad moment you feel very alone and then inevitably somebody comes and says “there’s someone you have to come and meet”, important people. I think a lot of artists know that feeling quite well.
Do you want people to feel like they are the subject matter of your songs?
– It’s an interesting thing, I’ve always wondered that. I’m trying my best to not think of you guys when I’m writing a song, because if I let the listener get into my head… I don’t want to start writing for them ‘cause sometimes you can smell that from a song. Someone’s trying to write a song that they think you might like and I’m not sure it always works out. However there’s no limits to how specific about my life I can be. People will always be able to relate to it and make it their own which I think is amazing. It means that I’m free and I can talk about very specific instances in my life.
People make the songs their own and read their own things into them?
– Yes. I can mention literally a time and place where that person has never been and it shows how universal human experiences actually are. There are very few things that no one can relate to at all. As a composer you can use three chords and play it to ten people and they feel exactly the same. Amazing.
”Often when people ask me about songs I feel like ‘I can’t talk about that!’ but at the same time I’ve already talked about it in the song, which is a really strange contradiction”
“10am Gare du Nord” was the No. 1 song of 2013 on my website Songs for Whoever, it’s so beautiful. At the time I requested that you’d share the story behind the song but I was told by your management that you didn’t feel comfortable discussing the intimacy of it.
– Oh, thank you! No, I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. Quite often with songs like that I feel that I’ve sung the song and said all that stuff about how I feel. Then when people ask me about it I feel like “I can’t talk about that!” but at the same time I’ve already talked about it in the song, which is a really strange contradiction!
You’ve already reached the limit of the subject in the lyrics, you mean?
– Yes. There are a lot of artists that I listen to who write beautiful, obscure lyrics which you have no idea what they mean and I wish I could write a bit more like that, but there is something really powerful about stating the fact, what has happened and how I feel. My songs are pretty explicit, that song in particular. But again, I don’t want too much context because some people have told me the song is about unrequited love and others say it’s about requited love and that’s really nice. I wouldn’t want to turn anyone’s impressions around.
To me, that song shows the same vulnerability as when Jeff Buckley performs and Leonard Cohen’s way of describing things with words.
– I couldn’t possibly agree on that! Those two are absolute brilliant minds, so that’s an incredibly kind thing to say. I think Jeff Buckley set the standard for conveying emotion in a song and as you say, Leonard Cohen can describe a simple, universal feeling in a unique way. I’d like to be able to come anywhere close to their ability to do that.