Beth Jeans Houghton: 'There's more to me than wigs'

The singer-songwriter talks about her precocious talent, 'bloody folk' music – and why she writes in symbols and colours

Outside, London is melting in early-autumn heat, but inside a sweltering office above the Lexington pub in Angel I'm playing the faintly laborious game of guessing what Beth Jeans Houghton is going to wear for tonight's gig. Three guesses and I hit gold. As someone used to performing in grotesque wigs, nude bras and shiny lamé, the giant tiger suit she clambers into isn't exactly outlandish, it's just… isn't she grown up now?

Three years ago, aged 18, Houghton was on hallowed ground. A frequent name on one-to-watch lists, her debut EP, Hot Toast Volume 1, a blend of gentle, pastoral pop underpinned by Houghton's astonishing vocals, was well received by everyone from NME, which latched on to its poppier elements, to Uncut magazine, which identified a folk "ingénue" rising.

Although she defiantly claimed it was "not bloody folk", the EP certainly smacked of it, and as was the way for young female musicians in 2008 she quickly found herself grouped alongside Laura Marling and Natasha Khan (Bat for Lashes) under this "nu-folk" umbrella. Marling and Khan became huge while Houghton and her band, the Hooves of Destiny, apparently vanished.

Which brings us to 2011 and Houghton, all peach hair, heavy kohl and tiger suit, like an Oxfam Gaga: "The album and tour are being billed as a comeback" she says, "but it's only been two years! We never really went away."

Despite turning 21, Houghton, who still lives in her hometown of Newcastle, says she doesn't feel like a grown-up, but she sure as hell swears like one, and today has arrived armed to the teeth with disdain for the press: "Journalists focus too much on being cool writers" and "I think that good music journalism is a dying art" are just two battering maxims she rattles off in quick succession. It's an unfortunate start. One imagines there are worse places to be at 21 than touring your new album to the hordes of fans who'll later flick their Zippos at your sold-out London gig.

"I just get pissed off with people saying we're a folk band, or people caring more about what I'm wearing than the music," she says, hacking at an avocado with a fork. "There's more to me than wigs." Maybe don't wear the wigs, I suggest, looking at the tiger suit. "Yeah, I know, I mean… I've stopped wearing them. I just felt like wearing this."

In truth, Houghton's real problem with the press probably stems from rumours that she's dating Anthony Kiedis, 49-year-old frontman of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The pair were recently papped outside Mayfair restaurant Scott's and various locations in LA, and in the latest issue of Mojo magazine Kiedis says: "I have a huge crush on Beth Jeans Houghton."

It's clearly on her mind, as she's almost relieved to hear the question. "I thought you might ask," she sighs. Well, are you? "No comment." Once that's out of the way, Houghton becomes charm itself.

After releasing Hot Toast, so named because she's wheat intolerant, Houghton and band supported Tunng on tour, then King Creosote and Bon Iver, and released a single, "Golden", produced by Adem, which, like the EP, sold out its initial run. Early this year they signed to indie label Mute, which counts experimentalists S.C.U.M. as a recent signing, and Houghton has never been happier.

She writes the band's lyrics, a champion feat given that she suffers from synaesthesia, a condition whereby two or more of the senses which are usually experienced separately are joined together involuntarily. In Houghton's case it means she communicates largely through colours and symbols, and struggles to read.

The music is a group effort. She met guitarist, trumpeter and flatmate Ed Blazey through her brother; has known Dav Shiel and Rory Gibson (drums and bass, respectively) for a while, and met facial reconstruction surgeon-turned-violinist Findlay Macaskill at a party, where they bonded over his brogues. They're a tight-knit bunch, with matching hoof tattoos and "real respect for one another". As Shiel says: "We don't fight, ever."

Their debut album, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, due for release in January, was produced by Ben Hillier, the man behind Blur's 2003 "comeback" album Think Tank. Whether they like it or not, there are elements of folk, primarily because of Houghton's voice – a mix of Joni Mitchell howl and Clare Grogan flutter. Otherwise, it's a smash and grab of genres, leaping from gospel on "Veins" to indie-pastoral on opener "Sweet Tooth Bird", and some comparatively grizzled pop on love song "Atlas". Houghton's vocals roll from comically deep to sombre, sounding like a sort of lo-fi Kate Bush. The resulting album is 10 tracks of decent, surreal pop or, as bass player Gibson grandly describes it, "sonic theatre". It's worth a listen for the galloping new single, "Lilliput", alone. Wow, but Houghton can sing.

Houghton's mother, a graphic designer, played bass and ukulele in folk clubs, while her father, also a designer, listened almost exclusively to Frank Zappa. Despite her angelic voice, music wasn't always her bag: "I wrote poetry as a teenager but only realised quite late on that if you can write poetry and stick it on a song then that was music."

She left school at 16 and bought herself a Japanese Fender Stratocaster for £500, which she taught herself to play, and just under two years later she signed to her first label, Static Caravan.

Houghton's initial spikiness is forgivable – it must be tricky negotiating the industry so young, though it seems she's always been switched on. At 16, when a publisher asked to buy 10 years' worth of her material for £3,000, she refused: "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out I won't pay the rent for a decade on that.

"People did talk down to me initially," she continues, "but I think they've started to understand my ideas and know how stubborn I am about them. That's why I wanted to sign to Mute. They're the sort of people I hung out with at school. And I hated school."

The next plan is a possible move to LA. "It's just a nicer place to be," she says. "I find England competitive. Bands, everyone… it's depressing. I mean, the number of times you meet a sound guy who hates you, and his life, and you're like, 'Jesus, do something else'."

Still, swings and roundabouts… it must be nice to have done so much by 21, to be able to wear a tiger suit to work and almost get away with it.

"Yeah, I guess I'm still at that age where I'm unafraid to try things. But I also know I'm not going to be a huge artist. I know I'll go out of fashion. But that's OK. I'm not for everyone."


Morwenna Ferrier

The GuardianTramp

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