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A Quietus Interview

You Can Dance Until You Die: An Interview With Beth Jeans Houghton
John Freeman , February 28th, 2012 06:10

John Freeman goes to Beth Jeans Houghton’s hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to drink coffee and find out why, with the release of her debut album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, her career can finally begin

It's 11 am on a Wednesday morning and I'm sat in a lovely café-cum-bookshop on the east side of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. As usual, I'm spectacularly early. I'm due to have lunch with Beth Jeans Houghton, so I order a coffee in a cup so big it could be seen from space and spend an hour reflecting on the four years I've been aware of Beth's unearthly music.

Very recently, Beth released her staggering debut album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose after two years of "heartbreaking" delays. However, my first exposure to Beth's art was in 2008, when, as an 18-year-old, she played a support slot for Bon Iver. With just an acoustic guitar, a devilish wit and small set of cosmic folk songs, she made a huge first impression. A few months later I interviewed her for another publication and she enchanted me with boundless positivity and tall tales of being related to Billy the Kid.

However, months and then years began to pass; the recording of her debut album with big-shot producer Ben Hillier became more and more protracted. During that time I saw Beth play a number of shows; by then she had acquired a fabulous backing band – The Hooves Of Destiny – and had taken to wearing vast beehive wigs onstage. New songs would be given the oxygen of airtime as the album delay created a stockpile of unreleased material.

Then, last year, one of the best of these new songs – the exquisitely complex 'Dodecahedron' – was released as a free download along with the announcement that Beth's album would be released by indie label leviathans Mute. This seemed to be great news. However, a month later, when I spoke to Beth at length she seemed frustrated, bitter and angry by the situation she found herself in. I was shocked by the change in outlook and genuinely worried for her.

But, what I am learning about Beth Jeans Houghton is that you cannot pigeonhole or second-guess her. Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is a triumph of individuality and bloody-minded tenacity to ensure that art wins out over commercial gain.

Congratulations. The album is finally out after all this time.

Beth Jeans Houghton: Thanks, I didn't think the day would come. It had been delayed five times and I had got used to it not coming out.

How did you celebrate 'release day'?

BJH: Well, it should have been exciting because it is my first full-length record, but I woke up and went about my business that day and it got to the evening and I realised I hadn't really done anything special to celebrate. I didn't do anything special. It was like a birthday you hadn't realised had come.

Has Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose ended up sounding like debut album you always thought you'd make?

BJH: In a way it sounds exactly how it did in my head and in some ways even better than I expected. I could have done the instrumentation and put down all the orchestration parts but I definitely couldn't have made it coherent without Ben Hillier.

How was the experience of working with Ben? When we spoke in 2009 you were being bold about the prospect.

BJH: Really good - it was fantastic. We are a very hard-working band anyway and he is really good at just keeping going and getting us to do exactly what should be done, rather than if something is not working out, getting us to do something different.

I know you have written dozens of songs over the last two years, and that, because of the delay in the album release, you are now sitting on a pile of unreleased material. What are you going to do with those songs?

BJH: There are different options depending on when the label let me record the next album. They do have a say in it as they're paying; if they let me record the next one by the end of the year, then great, but otherwise I will release a free album in between. Whether or not people listen to it, I don't mind. It will be a release for me.

So, compared to the songs on Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, what are your new compositions sounding like? Do you see an evolution?

BJH: Well, it's funny because a song I wrote two weeks ago was like 60s psychedelic pop and the one I did yesterday was dark blues and almost grungey. That's in a period of two weeks and I am sure it will be different next week. The songs for the last record, sorry, for this record, do tie in together, whereas, with the next one there will be a bigger difference in the sounds. I know people might say that's a risk because you can't have a record with completely different genres on it but I don't care.

Well, is there a danger that an artist can be too expansive? What would happen in your record label asked you to make a future album more focused?

BJH: I wouldn't let them. There so many coherent albums out there, that there is no need for me to add to that pile. Some people might be as crazy and mentally unstable as myself and need something different.

Can I ask you about the concept of fame? Do you think about being famous?

BJH: No.

But your job means that there is a chance you might become famous. Is that a concern?

BJH: It depends what you think fame is and at what level your fame is. The music that I make and my attitude towards not being commercial and not just giving people what they want means it would be very difficult for me to get to a level where people would call me famous. Of course, it would be nice to be successful. Fame, to me, can happen whether or not you have a talent; it's just people recognising you for one reason or another whether it is good or bad and feeling like they can judge you or own parts of your life. It just seems like a big charade to me and it is not something I am interested in or something that I will ever have to really deal with.

But you might have to. I'm deliberately skirting around the subject, because I really am not interested in your personal life, but is there a 'line' someone can cross where they become famous? A quick Google search would find paparazzi pictures of you out in LA, doing relatively mundane things, simply because of who you are with. Is that frustrating?

BJH: Well, [pause] I think it is dangerous to be aware of that stuff. That part of, whatever, is nothing to do with my music. I just ignore it.

Let's change the subject. The Hooves Of Destiny now seem to be an integral part of your music. Do you feel like 'one of the lads'?

BJH: Yes, definitely.

How have they been integrated into the way you make music?

BJH: It was me being solo for about a year-and-a-half and then I got Rory on bass and Dav on drums as the rhythm section, when I was 17 or 18. We then recorded [the] Hot Toast [EP] and got Fin and Blazey in. In the beginning it was about bringing the finished song and teaching it to them all. Now, it's more like I will do the chords and the structure and lyrics, so we will have a song that I could play on my own and it is a finished song, but then they all add what they want and we all discuss each other's parts.

Could they ever bring one of their songs to you?

BJH: No.

What makes you say that?

BJH: First of all, they don't write songs and if they did write songs they could have another band – their own band.

So, it sounds like you are the leader. Is that how you see it?

BJH: Well, I write the songs. The records that I make are my songs and the shows that I play are playing my songs. But, a lot of the time we are in tune with the music so I don't have to put my foot down.

I was thinking about how wrong my first impression of you was. I saw you support Bon Iver in Manchester and I thought of you as a girl with a guitar singing lovely folk songs. As I've become more aware of your music, I've realised how off the mark those thoughts were.

BJH: That's what I am trying to get across to people. It's funny because if I consciously try and tell people that I'm not [like that], they almost feel like I am denying it. So many people take from reviews and interviews from four years ago and still think I'm 16. People are just so happy to settle for old news and don't want to find out what is true to the time we are in. For instance, there are five questions that I get asked in 99 per cent of interviews.

Shit. I'm starting to worry.

BJH: You haven't done them yet.

So, [turning over a sheet of questions] what are these famous five?

BJH: Well, stuff like the synaesthesia thing is stupid. At the time I was talking about it to someone, I didn't think it was that big a deal, as it wasn't a big deal to me. Since then, everyone has been asking me about synaesthesia and the answer is always the same. And the answer is in countless interviews on the internet. So, why waste time interviewing someone with a question that everyone knows the answer to. I'm sick of being asked about it. People now say 'we know you suffer from synaesthesia'. It's not suffering and it's not a disease. I don't wake up in the morning, talk to someone and then see colours and rip my hair out.

It's like saying that I suffer from grey hair. I don't. I quite like it, actually.

BJH: Ha ha. Exactly. A journalist once asked me what it was like to be a freak at school.

Please tell me you are joking.

BJH: I was like 'fuck off'. I was a bit of a freak at school but it was nothing to do with synaesthesia.

Last year when we spoke, you told me the one thing you had toned down was your stage outfits. You had banished the wigs and hot pants because that's all your reviews had been focused on. If you'd been a male artist, do you think you would needed to have had the same thought process about the image you were projecting?

BJH: If I was a male artist wearing hot pants and wigs, then, probably.

Ha. You know what I mean. Would Lana Del Rey have received the same amount of vitriol if she had been a bloke singing a nice song?

BJH: I dunno. It is bizarre to me because I never feel like my sex has anything to do with my ability to make music. I'd still be going through relationships, meeting people and writing songs about heartbreak if I were a guy. It is annoying. There is a lot more comparing of female artists to other female artists and lumping all women together. I'm sure all the women I've been wrongly compared to would be as equally unhappy about it as I am. I had someone ask me if Laura Marling was an influence on my music - I started recording the album before I was even aware of her. Actually, no one asks what my influences really are, they just assume.

Okay, tell me about one of your influences? Perhaps one from outside the sphere of music.

BJH: Stuff like Nan Goldin, the photographer. I love the honesty in her pictures and it is controversial in the sense that she makes people uncomfortable but it's not as if she is setting out to create a reaction, she is just documenting her life which happened to include people dying of AIDS and the gay culture in New York.

We've also spoken before about your love of travel. You are about to start playing shows to promote the album, can I assume that the idea of touring fills you with joy?

BJH: Yes, it does. I really like moving around. I like the other aspects of touring as much as playing the shows. It's hard work but I am lucky that I don't have to go to work with people I despise and cannot wait to go home. I was having a meal with my mum and her friend last night and they were talking about when they are going to retire and I thought 'I never want to retire'. It would break my heart if, for some health issue, that I would have to retire because I love my job so much.

Compared to when we spoke last year, you seem to be in a good place right now.

BJH: Yeah, I'm a lot more positive than I used to be. It was just having two years of not being allowed to do what I wanted to do. It was heartbreaking. [Pause] I've been thinking about death a lot recently and it has been making me appreciate life more.

Do you appreciate stuff 'in the moment'? And I don't mean this moment and this interview.

BJH: Ha. Actually, it's nice to talk to someone who is interesting and not a dick.

Thanks. I might have that engraved on my tombstone 'Here Lies Not A Dick'.

BJH: You should. So, I can appreciate it, because, I don't know. I don't have any money but I am an extremely happy person and for the things that I have in life and the people that I have in life, I would never give up – ever – to have loads of money. On tour we are cold and there is not enough money to get us proper food but that doesn't matter to me because I am extremely happy and comfortable in the situation I am in mentally.

I was talking to some colleagues yesterday about how in many parts of the world, people don't know how old they actually are, as they never had a birth date documented. It got me thinking about how different their relationship with age must be compared to ours. You seem, in some ways, wiser than your years.

BJH: That's an amazing thought. If I didn't know how old I was, I'd feel a lot older. From the age of 15 or 16 onwards, I would have felt four or five years older. I think I have a very healthy – or what I think is healthy – relationship with age. I have always hung out with older people. Some people might have thought it was weird. People feel they have an obligation to act their age as they get older. Recently, my dad said to me that he couldn't wear something because it was 'too young' for him. I said 'that's ridiculous; if you like it, wear it'.

I decided when I hit 40 that I couldn't ever dance again. I was too old.

BJH: No. You can dance until you die. Age doesn't matter. I'm the worst dancer in the world and I love it. Just think – you will be dead one day and you will never be able to do it again.

[After the interview we continue chatting. Beth tells me she has written a list of 100 things she must do in 2012. On the list is to perform "an act of kindness" each day. We agree that by informing me that I am not a dick, she has today already covered.]

Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is out now via Mute Beth Jeans Houghton And The Hooves Of Destiny play the following live dates this week:

Wed 29th Birmingham, Hare & Hounds
Thu 1 Mar, London, Hoxton Bar & Kitchen