Keaton Henson: 'Playing live? I have trouble just holding a conversation!'

The reluctant balladeer on why performing is a price just about worth paying for the solitude of songwriting

Inside Keaton Henson's flat in Richmond, south-west London the walls are whitewashed and busy with curios. A small monkey's skull has been hung opposite a dolphin's jawbone. There's an 18th-century cartoon, "The Bostonians in Distress", and a pencil sketch of a baby with no mouth. The interior is neat, museum-like. Meanwhile, just outside, entirely covering a windowsill, are hundreds of cigarette ends – dead Marlboros left to brown and curl. "They help with the anxiety," says the 24-year-old musician, who is shy, bearded and smartly dressed today in grey tweeds and boots.

I was a big fan of Dear, the debut album of sad, spare ballads that Henson released last year, his voice as delicate, as seemingly fragile as the monkey skull he displays. Still, I'd had no contact with him until December, when I received a card out of nowhere. "Unhappy Christmas," it offered. "Yours earnestly, Keaton." On some level I probably guessed then that this musician (whose second album, Birthdays, is out next week) was the sort who'd wall-mount animal remains at home.

"My family used to call me the Doomsday Kid," he says, settling on a sofa next to the cigarette-strewn sill and directly beneath a shelf that bears a stuffed stoat. The stoat is upright, paws folded in, posed as if about to bolt from a predator. Henson himself is slight and hunched, with the alert, skittish look of someone who might at any moment abandon our interview to sprint away, without another word, down Kew Road. "As you can imagine, I wasn't the popular, rugby-playing guy at school," he says, apologetically.

His dad is an actor and his mum was a ballet dancer but they didn't pass down much in the way of performers' genes. Music was never part of Henson's plan (he wanted to be a graphic artist) because he was sure he'd never be able to get up in front of an audience and play. Moreover, he hadn't written any songs; not since he was a kid, warbling about monsters into a tape recorder.

A first girlfriend changed that. At 18 he fell in love and was in one of those grave, wobbly-kneed relationships that fell apart very suddenly. "I went home and wrote my first proper, intelligible song." In the months that followed he wrote over 100 more, usually fashioning a three- or four-minute track in one sitting, idling on his bed or by the window with a guitar. He likens songwriting to sculpting with hot wax. The raw material hardens quickly on hitting the air: so, work fast while it's warm and malleable and then make do with chipping it back afterwards.

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His first album (initially self-distributed, then given a formal release by Oak Ten Records last March) featured 10 tracks taken from that period of despairing creativity. "Most of the songs were about one day," he says, meaning the day his relationship went pop. What happened? Henson yanks open the window and lights up. "There was someone else involved. That was it really. A very simple thing. Quite a long time ago now." He smokes. "I think a lot of art is trying to make someone love you. Doing a little dance for one particular person. But it's all bigger than that now."

For at least a couple of years Henson wouldn't play his music to anyone. Tracks accumulated in folders on his computer but "like most artists, I was 100% convinced the work was awful. I thought maybe people would hear it when I was dead." Eventually he let a friend listen, and was encouraged to put tracks online. In 2011 Zane Lowe took a fancy to a song of Henson's called You Don't Know How Lucky You Are, and played it on Radio 1. The wracked, pleading lyrics sounded as if they were aimed at a rival who'd pinched Henson's girlfriend, and listeners were intrigued. He suddenly had far more fans than the probing few who'd stumbled across his stuff online.

So a gig was arranged. Henson refers to this, now, as The Incident. "Anxiety got the better of me. I let people down. It's not stage fright, fear of forgetting lyrics… It's a jumble of other anxieties. I got there and pulled out."

He retreated, again, to his flat, writing the tracks that would fill the second album, Birthdays. "I consider myself a writer, with adequate tools for that. But being a performer is a vastly different thing. To be able to work an entire room full of people… I have trouble working one person in conversation." He points out that he's lost friends and girlfriends in recent years, being too blunt in disclosures of his feelings, sometimes through song. "Singing about someone you're in a relationship with," he grimaces. "That's a trap."

With a second album imminent, Henson has been persuaded to gig again. Two nights at south London's Cinema Museum in October went reasonably well (though he recalls, dimly, telling the crowd in the middle of the gig that he'd rather be at home). Recently he played in Glasgow and Manchester. "I'm trying to be realistic. I've been given the opportunity to stay in my room and write songs – as a job. I'll do what I'm asked to do."

He stubs out a Marlboro, another for the brimming pile, and closes the window. "I want people to be interested enough to allow me to keep doing this. Until I feel like I've written what I'm here to write. Then I can go and have a sit down for a while."


Tom Lamont

The GuardianTramp

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