A conversation with Keaton Henson

A songwriter, poet, and all-round wordsmith, Keaton Henson, is a one-of-a-kind artist. There are few singer-songwriters who possess the skill of being able to show such vulnerability and honesty within their work like Henson can. Since his acclaimed debut record ‘Dear’ released back in 2010, the musician has carved out an interesting and unique path for himself thanks to his introspective and raw projects. Keaton Henson’s past six records have earned him a cult-like following of dedicated fans and numerous accolades. Through it all, Henson has maintained his authentic identity and has only done a few special headline shows over the past thirteen years due to his anxieties around performing live. He also has shied away from interviews, social media, and kept himself to himself. Resulting in him being seen as an enigmatic and illusive figure. Remarkably, in a world where most think you have to be a larger-than-life character and you need to play copious amount of shows to make a living in the music industry, Keaton is the prime example of how you don’t have to let the whole world in. You can quietly work away and let your art speak for itself with no gimmicks or egos involved.

Most recently, Henson has delivered his seventh studio album, ‘House Party’. An album which sees the musician and illustrator take on a more upbeat and confident pop sound. Thematically, the record revolves around an alternative version of Henson. This fictional character gets their validation through attention and craves for the spotlight to be on them all the time, they’ve also made some tricky decisions that have resulted in them being at the top of the music industry. But being at the mountain peak is a lonely place. It’s a brilliant body of work that sees the artist try many different things and I don’t just mean sonically. To celebrate the release of ‘House Party’, Henson spoke with journalists, posted on social media (well, his team has updated his Instagram account on his behalf) and he played a string of sold-out UK dates. Even with all this change, when you listen to the record it may sound more upbeat but if you listen carefully you’ll be met with Henson’s poetic lyricism and unwavering honesty.

For House Of Solo Magazine, I spoke with Henson over a Zoom call on a sunny August afternoon. After being greeted by Henson with his softly spoken voice and charming demeanour, I was keen to ask about how it feels to be seven records deep and what he’s most proud about the new record. It’s certainly a big achievement in itself to have gotten to this stage, so it’s the perfect launching point for our conversation. 

“I do feel quite old and it’s really snuck up on me, seven albums, but I think partly because all I’ve really done is make records most of my life, so like that is my life. With this record particularly, I think what I’m proud of is that I’ve like let go of a lot of stuff. I think I was always holding myself back a little bit from doing anything that might be mistaken as selling out or trying to be pop or like doing something for the sake of it. I’ve always just written about myself for myself and I really don’t think about the audience while I’m writing. So I think every time I have made a decision that felt like ‘oh, that’s something someone might do for an audience’ and I’ve always stepped away from that.”

I think with this record, what I’m really proud of is that I just stopped doing that. I wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’m going to write something that they’re gonna play on the radio. But if I did write something and thought it sounded a bit like something that you might hear on the radio, I didn’t let that stop me. I’ve been really creatively chaining myself to the radiator for years, in not doing that stuff. So I’ve allowed myself to write fun hooks, and guitar solos and make something. I think the thing that I’m proud of, I suppose is that I think I’ve managed to do that but there’s lots of substance underneath it. If you stick with it or you may be on the third listen, you might recognise that guitar solo is covering deep hurt or something a lot more complicated and it’s there for a reason” says Henson. 

If you were to examine Keaton Henson’s career with a microscope, I don’t personally believe that anyone would ever think that his act is an ‘act’ or he has ever done something for an audience. When you look at projects like ‘Monument’ which explores Henson’s loss of his father and more, you can clearly hear the pain and raw emotion in his haunting and gorgeous vocals. Throughout his career, he has been nothing but honest. Honesty is something that Henson not only expresses in his work but if he is listening to artists himself, he’s drawn to those that are open:

“The musicians and artists I love are ones that are honest. I think you can smell dishonesty. I think we’re really good at that as a species that when someone is singing something because they want you to think they’re a certain way, you can just feel it. If what I leave behind is a body of work that feels honest, then I’m happy.”

As mentioned previously in this article ‘House Party’ features the alternative version of Henson. A fictional persona which is the total opposite of what he’s like in real life. This character can be found as a drawing on the album’s artwork wearing an eye-catching bright pink suit. The cover itself was designed by artist Tristan Pigott (the first record in Henson’s career that he has not created himself) and there’s something off about the individual as he’s sat with a mask of his own face in hand. This version of Henson is burnt out and has seemingly lost itself during the pursuit of fame and success. Given that this character is far from the quiet and thoughtful individual on the screen in front of me, when it came to conjuring up this persona, it made sense to ask about whether there were any past experiences Henson pulled from to create this individual. After posing the question, Henson quickly beams: “Yes, so much so”. 

This character is born from the thoughts that have crossed his mind or actions that he has pondered about doing. But ultimately the songwriter has always ran away from these ideas due to his “allergy to attention”. As a whole, this character “gets a sense of love from the attention of strangers.” A persona like this has proven to be a potent and useful elixir for Keaton Henson as an artist, it’s led him to try his hand at things he would never normally do musically. The upbeat and chirpy nature of the commanding album opener ‘I’m Not There’ is a perfect sonic example of this in action. Yet even when it comes to make-believe characters, there is still a sense of truth within Henson’s creation. The character deals with the oddness of being an artist and how weird it is to be perceived by strangers on a regular basis. Two things which the artist does relate to personally. 

“I also wanted to talk about how weird it is being an artist and how being perceived by strangers is odd. I think a lot of stuff that version of me on the record is dealing with ….I also deal with in reality. Every time I put out a record, I feel like I’ve sent an imposter out to live its life and be judged. And they’ll all think it’s me but actually it’s not. It feels quite strange.”

Henson is right though, artists are perceived on a daily basis and it raises an interesting topic. In the social media-addicted world we’re living in right now, it feels like audiences and fans expect too much from artists. Once an artist or band releases a new body of work, they want updates about their personal lives and everything in between. If you go online you’ll often see artists sharing much more than their music and that’s okay if they want to but artists don’t need to share everything and anything with the world. They can just put out the album they want and there doesn’t have to be anything more than what they intend to share. For the campaign around ‘House Party’ the artist has enjoyed making the effort to get involved with things outside of music but also cherishes not giving too much away. Henson shares his thoughts on it all:

“I agree. The very fact that I’m talking to you is…. I made a conscious effort with this record to be like ‘I’m gonna try all the stuff’, all the stuff that version of me would do and then try and do it in an authentic way and just experience it. I haven’t done interviews, I haven’t done social media and I haven’t done lots of photo shoots and stuff before. So it’s been really interesting looking into that. Thinking about my catalogue of work…. it is a really cool thing that nobody really knows where I live, what I eat, or any of the basic stuff. But they do know about the intricacies of my relationship with sex, depression, anxiety, and all these profound things. It’s the sort of stuff that I would have to have been friends with you for like five years before I talked about it with you in person. So people only know the deep stuff about me. They don’t know any of the surface-level things and I’ve always thought that’s quite an interesting relationship to have.”

“I’m still reluctant to give too much of that away and I think social media is just a bad place for people with complicated brains. I’m still going to keep my distance, but I also don’t want to be frightened by talking to journalists and stuff like that. I don’t want to let anything be led by fear. So it’s been an interesting experiment.”

Keaton Henson overall is a multitalented individual. He’s not only a gifted musician but a keen illustrator and composer. Over the years, he’s illustrated album artworks for himself and for other bands like Enter Shikari’s debut effort ‘Take To The Skies’, produced his own collection of drawings, a poetry book, scored music for ballet performances and a film. To be an individual with such a high creative output must be incredibly taxing but as he has a “complex brain”, these outlets would also seem to be extremely helpful for him. For Henson, music and illustration is a two-sided coin, music is the side which helps him process things therapeutically and the other helps him stay mindful. Most interestingly, what helps him get through his troubles is the fact that he produces these songs and illustrations, then makes something tangible which can be sold, in his mind, this takes away the power and scariness of whatever he is going through. 

“It’s become a really interesting sort of therapeutic exercise because what I find quite interesting is commodifying the things that hurt me. There’s quite a lot of power to be taken in. It’s therapeutic and helpful to process emotions by writing about them and thinking about it in poetic terms. But actually, the thing that I find helpful is just taking this stuff that sometimes I don’t even want to look at… There’s a real power in sitting down thinking about them, really thinking about them until you know them well enough to write a song about them, and then commodifying them and making it physical.”

“I think that’s why packaging and artwork is such an important part of it for me because not only can I now look at this thing, but I can give it to people physically. It’s a thing and then it becomes a commodity. That sounds very cold and capitalist actually haha but it’s more just like ‘Oh, this, this doesn’t hurt me anymore, so much so that I can like sell it’. That I find therapeutic and it’s quite often when I’ve finished writing a record I’m just like, ‘yeah, get it out. I need it out as soon as possible so I can do another one.”

Keaton Henson continues: “I always think of it as two essential pieces in the machine that keeps me sane, somewhat sane. The music is music is looking at the scary stuff and art is like a mindful act. So drawing has always been an act of… I’m not very good at being mindful unless I’m doing something that absorbs me. What’s quite interesting is that I think quite often people look at some of my drawings which are loose, terrifying, scratchy, blood-red scary faces and they go like, ‘Oh, wow, you must have been in a dark place there’.  And I’m always like, ‘No, no, that’s me on a really good day’. Then when I do an intricate drawing of a house where I’ve drawn every single brick, every grain on the wood of the window sill… that’s me in a dark place, that’s survival.

As we come to the end of our time together, we focus on the positives that have come from this album campaign. Even though live performances are a rarity and he found his June 2023 tour to be “really tough”, it was still an absolute triumph. For this set of shows, he purposefully asked to play smaller venues rather than the larger ones he has performed at in the past (E.g. he performed at the renowned London venue, The Barbican, in 2018). The intimate UK dates sold out in minutes and by pushing himself to do the gigs he recognised something about his fanbase:

“I did recognise that the people that come to my shows and a lot of people who listen to my music are really lovely people. I think people who are looking for honesty tend to be quite sort of honest themselves. I was still absolutely terrified, it doesn’t really matter to me how nice they were, I just want them to stop looking at me. But what I did recognise is that they’re just lovely. I could feel that It was just a load of really caring people in the same room, which was nice” says Henson.

Through making this seventh album, one of the most important things that Keaton Henson has gotten from it is the confidence to try more things. Now he’s made something which is more of an upbeat pop-rock leaning record and dabbled in orchestral music through his scoring work, he’s realised he can go wherever he wants to sonically. The talented songwriter no longer needs to be scared of the unknown. No longer does he need to stay in one particular musical lane. For Henson and his fans alike, this is an exciting and encouraging idea.

“What I’m excited about is that I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily moved into a new genre or anything, but what I do feel is that I have kind of just added another colour to my box of paints. I think what’s nice is it just means for the next record, If there’s a song that comes to mind is like a ten-minute dark, monotonous, weird unlistenable thing, then I can do that because I’ve done lots of that already. Then equally if I finish that song, and the next thing that comes to me is an upbeat, really hook-y radio track, then I’ll write that too. As I get older, I’m just becoming less afraid, I’m just trying to make it so that there’s no colour I can’t use.”

“So that’s sort of how I feel and even learning orchestral music, that just means it’s a thing I can use now and I’m not frightened by it. So I’m sure I’ll find something else in the next record to challenge myself on but what I think it means is that the next album… I’m not tied to one concept anymore.”

Keaton Henson’s new record ‘House Party’ is out now.

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