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Ben Howard: 'Fame has given us a lot, everything we have, really'

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It's a weird feeling, sitting opposite Ben Howard in his harshly-lit Olympia Theatre dressing room.

Up close the chart-topping British folkie is a rather twitchy presence, glancing at his shoes and talking in long, meandering sentences.

He isn't unfriendly – far from it. He would, you imagine, make for excellent company over a few lazy beers. However, it's equally clear he does not relish opening up to the media.

Intensely private, he's determined to remain as removed from the spotlight as is possible for an artist in his position.

We're discussing his current tour (in a little over two hours he'll amble from the wings for the second of two Dublin dates). Though the majority of the gigs have been sell-outs, they have not been without controversy. Howard has focused mostly on his gloriously awkward second LP, I Forget Where We Were, performing only a smattering of tracks from 2011's Every Kingdom, the one million seller that made him a star.

Many fans are respectful of his artistic vision. Others wonder – out loud at times – whether he's simply trying to be an awkward sod.

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"To throw the old stuff in feels a bit cheap," he says.

"Occasionally [the atmosphere on the tour] is a bit tense. Sometimes I don't get along with the audiences at these shows, which is an interesting place for me. There is a different ambiance [with the new material]. If I play an older song, it undoes all that."

To casual observers it may seem Howard has sprung from nowhere, a fully-formed phenomenon. Actually he's about as far from an overnight wonder as is possible. A songwriter from childhood by the time he came to the attention of the record industry, he was already a veteran performer, well on the way to a cult fan base. 

Generally, the early adopters were split between surfers and swooning young women.

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Ben Howard

Ben Howard

Ben Howard

The former were as a result of Howard targeting the UK surf scene. A man who enjoys facing the open water with nothing but a board, wetsuit and a sense of fearlessness,  he had an affinity with surfers: they were, he has said, a sympathetic sounding board, interested in his songs rather than the extraneous details.

The shrieking ladies are more complicated. Anyone who has attended one of Howard's concerts will understand that females make up a majority of his fan-base and aren't slow in coming forward about their admiration: the journalist who described him as a 'one-man One Direction" was going over the top only slightly.

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It's curious he should be considered a heartthrob. Up close Howard strikes you as the very opposite of a pin-up. His sandy hair is disheveled, his clothes so workaday that, half an hour later, I struggled to recall what, exactly, he was wearing.

"They love a heart-felt song, the girls don't they?" he jokes. "I don't think about it too much. I seem to meet all sorts. It seems to be the girls that get up the front the quickest – from personal experience I meander into a gig, I never run.

Howard has in the past acknowledged that having so many female fans have been a source of tension in his romantic life.

Nowadays he declines to discuss details with journalists, beyond confirming he has a girlfriend and that she isn't unduly freaked out by the hormonal shrieks that ring out whenever he steps on stage.

He was born in West London in 1987 and grew up in Devon. His parents had faintly hippyish tendencies; his childhood was soundtracked by Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel and John Martyn (the last is a big influence to this day).  Howard wrote his first song aged 11 and, as a teenager, was clear in his mind that music was the only profession that interested him.

Nonetheless, at the behest of his parents he finished school and began a journalism course in Cornwall.  By then, he was gigging around the south of England and building an audience. After an umpteenth sell-out concert, he concluded that the could make a living from music and packed in college. He's been a professional songwriter ever since.

Howard is often depicted as a tortured artist with curmudgeonly tendencies.

It's not that he doesn't appreciate his success: he's enormously grateful to the fans who make it possible for him to continue doing this for a living.

On the other hand, the trappings fill him with unease: in previous interviews he's recalled seeing famous artists behave like premadonnas backstage – clearly he is filled with unease that he might tread in their footsteps.

"You see people throwing their toys out of the pram," he once stated. "There’s nothing wrong with a bit of arrogance, because it’s show-business, but when everyone around them is catering for their needs and they’re still trying to be this larger-than-life character, you just think: “You could be normal in this scenario.”

Howard is a good deal less forthright this evening.  He feels he has been misquoted in the past about his attitude towards fame.

"It's given us a lot," he says. "Everything we have, really. The record, the touring…I'm not reluctant about it at all. It is amazing to be in that position – to see kids buzzing to meet you."

Nevertheless there are limits. He's had to put his foot down, about TV shows and interviews he deems unsuitable. It has caused friction.

"I don't want to pander to [fame]. I don't want to ruin my life with paparazzi and all of that. People give me a hard time about it – 'why won't you do this or that?' I don't think you have to. We are taught these days that being famous is more important than actually doing something. That's the bit I'm reluctant about."

Ben Howard plays Other Voices, Dingle Friday and the 3 arena on April 14. His latest album is I Forget Where We Were


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