1. Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves Of Destiny.
I love Beth’s music a lot and have written many words about her. Finally, her debut album, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is aboout to be released and the world will fall at her feet.
This is what I wrote about her last year.
A couple of years ago Beth Jeans Houghton was being talk up in hushed tones. Still in her teens and the keeper of an intimidating amount of talent, her debut album was coming along nicely and the music world seemingly lay prostrate at her feet. Last year, however, the trail leading to Beth seemed to run cold. As the weeks turned into months, no news about the album turned into no sign of Beth.
I first experienced the wonder of Beth back in September 2008. Playing a support slot for Bon Iver at Manchester’s terrible Academy 2, she was captivating. A mere slip of an 18-year-old, she regaled an initially indifferent crowd with neat anecdotes, a birthday shout-out to her brother (the artist Ben Jeans Houghton) and a short set of her twisted, psychedelic folk music – just Beth and her guitar. At that point, she had released a gorgeous debut single ‘Golden’ with the help of folkie producer Adem.
A few months later, after the release of her Hot Toast Volume 1 EP, I interviewed Beth. She was a joy, charming me with stories about being related to Billy the Kid, how her songs each come with a clothes outfit that she designed as she composes and why the best way to describe her sound was – and I quote – “marching to war music.”
I then saw Beth play a couple more shows, firstly in a church in Manchester’s boho suburb of Chorlton and again upstairs in a student eatery in Fallowfield. By then, she wore big-wigs and had been joined by her fabulous Hooves of Destiny backing band. At the latter gig, she played a song called ‘Dodecahedron’ which she’d told us she had only just written so “could go horribly wrong.” It didn’t. ‘Dodecahedron’ was beautiful, featuring a melody to die a million deaths for. This bode well for her debut album, which was being recorded with big-shot producer Ben Hillier.
And then it all went quiet. Really quiet. Beth seemed to lapse into radio silence. When I asked her publicists about where the album was up to, they shrugged their collective shoulders and said “Even we’ve not heard from her.” Apart from the odd sweet but uninformative tweet, it had seemed that Beth’s career had taken an unexpected break.
So, it was a spectacularly pleasant surprise when, one inauspicious day, an email plopped into my inbox from Beth’s PR person. Not only was Beth ‘back’, but she had signed to the mighty Mute label and, – and this was the intriguing bit – she had been living in Los Angeles. The press release also spoke of a free download track. It was called ‘Dodecahedron’. I’ve rarely been as excited, relieved and curious about the scribblings of a publicist. I desperately wanted to interview Beth again and a few weeks later I got my chance.
When I call Beth she is still on a bus in her native Newcastle. She had been clothes shopping with the band Warpaint (who were on Tyneside that day for a gig) and was running slightly late. She claims to remember our previous chat, and when I ask her the inevitable ‘Where’ve you been?’ question she is already into her stride. “It’s not really that I’ve been away,” she tells me while trying to find her front door keys. “There have been delays with the record due to illnesses. I didn’t play that many shows over the winter [of 2010]; I was spending quite a lot of time in LA. I’d written the next album already, I’d been practicing and trying out new stuff for the live show, so it doesn’t seem to me that we’ve been away that long. I can understand that it is almost like a comeback, but I don’t feel like I’ve been away.”
I’m still baffled by the concept of LA. Showing a gaping lack of understanding of Beth’s psyche, I tell her that if I had to guess a city that she may end up in, I would have plumped for Paris or New York, Berlin or Barcelona – somewhere with a bohemian chic and not a city of endless freeways and Muscle Beach. “Since I was about seven or eight, LA has been the place for me. It’s like I’m finally doing what I always planned to do. I’ve always felt like a traveler, and I am at my happiest when I’m travelling or moving. What I got from Los Angeles was that wasn’t true, it was just that I hadn’t found California yet. Also, in England, if you get any kind of success, they get really bitchy. No-one wants you to do well. ”
It is the first point in which I hear a note of sourness in Beth’s voice. She is not the carefree whirlwind of possibility she seemed to be when we last spoke. She tells me that she didn’t go to LA to further her career (“I don’t yet have a career to further”) and will be looking to move over to California semi-permanently. “I’m working on getting a work permit as we speak. The band will come over with me, so that’ll be cool. The move is actually nothing to do with my music at all. I’m doing it because I feel I’d be a lot happier existing there.”
Then, as Beth is in the middle of a noble rant about the destruction of music by digital media, she stops mid-sentence and asks, “If there is a bottle of wine next to me, and it was opened yesterday and it doesn’t have a lid, will it have gone off?” I think it will be fine, and assume she’s now helping herself to a glass of vino-cum-vinegar. Back to the rant: “I was talking today with the girls from Warpaint about reading books on their iPhones. It is okay to do that, as long as you still have real books. It is so sad; we are in that horrible future where nothing exists, apart from on a screen.”
The shopping trip with Warpaint must have been an eye-opener for the Californian quartet. Beth Jeans Houghton is not just about the music. She designs her own record sleeves and also makes many of her own clothes. Her stage costumes are wondrous and on many occasions have incorporated vast wigs. Personally, the last time I saw her play live, the ridiculousness of the teetering beehive hairpiece was an annoying distraction, but because I am a coward I don’t tell her that – she brings it up herself.
“I’ve completely changed my mind on that front. What I wear on stage is very often what I would wear in my normal life. That’s what I do. I like dressing up. But, I got really irritated by reviews last year that were saying stuff about what I was wearing, whether it was good or bad. Music journalists were writing more about the fashion side than the music. That just really fucks me off. So, I think that it is the only thing I will compromise, is tone down what I wear so that, hopefully, people listen to the music.”
It seems that retaining control over her artistic vision is critical for Beth. She states that she would never be overtly commercial (“It might make me richer, but I’ve never really had much money”) and that signing a record deal after she had finished her album was also very important. “On this record, it was really important for me to do exactly what I wanted to do, as this was the standard I was setting. If I compromise and give in now, it will be a lot harder to do what I want later. I think I’ll always be stubborn. I think I have comes to terms with that fact.”
I’m interested as to whether she has written any songs in LA, and how they compare to her older songs. Beth again gives me a glimpse of where he head is at. “It was different because of the environment, but it would be different anyway because my musical tastes have changed and what I want to say has changed. I’m a lot angrier than I was when I was 17 or 18. So, a lot of my more new songs are more vicious.”
Angry? This is not the Beth Jeans Houghton I remember. I ask her what makes her angry, but am not sure I want to hear the reply. “I just got fucking sick of everyone being dishonest. You know when people are being polite and they are like ‘oh yeah, I understand’ but they don’t mean it. I know it seems brutal when someone is deadly honest with you, but at least whatever they might say, you can take it as the truth. I wish that was the case with everyone.”
We then talk and talk and talk; the interview has run way over schedule, but Beth seems in a mood to offload. She tells me how she isn’t anything like the oft-compared Florence Welsh or Laura Marling (she isn’t) and how, as a child, she was inspired by Patti Smith. She talks passionately about sexism in the music business and how hurt she has been by those she once trusted. She’s so open that I’m worried my advice about the wine might have been wrong and I’m saddened by how this amazingly talented young woman could be so bruised. Much of the transcript is deleted for posterity.
For some reason, we end up talking about our biggest fears. “I’m freaked out about death,” Beth tells me. “Not the pain or anything, but the thought of not finishing projects or getting out all my ideas or missing stuff. I mean I am terrified of flying, but the fear of dying before I get to all the places I want to go to freaks me out more. The fear of not doing stuff is scarier.”
Three months later I attend another of Beth’s gigs at a mercifully air-conditioned Deaf Institute on a balmy October evening. She is confident, assured and bursting with triumphant, ballsy songs laced with mischief. Gone are her wigs of yore (she’s rocking a man-size Star Trek t-shirt and beetle crushers look) and her Hooves of Destiny band are now a serious(ly good) unit and not merely a jokey skiffle band.
With her (bafflingly-christened Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose) album finally out in January, Beth is quickly up to speed, nailing the geometric beauty of ‘Dodecahedron’ before a hastily-remembered trumpet is sourced for a tingling, galloping version of new single ‘Liliputt’.
What’s most impressive is the airing of new tracks which may adorn the album. ‘Shampoo’ switches from a 1950’s swing beat into a flash of punk, while the self-explanatory ‘You Let Me Down’ is a tense slab of simmering rock. All memories of her folky strumming are jettisoned into history and any hint of wispiness has been snuffed out.
Houghton, thankfully, has not completely lost her sense of fun. The crowd is invited to enter a ‘make yourself burp’ competition, which the singer duly judges herself victorious after a gargantuan display of gastric bad manners. She then organises an audience dance-off before shedding her guitar and launching into a fabulously kitsch version of Madge’s ‘Like A Prayer’. Post-show, as she happily signs autographs behind her artful merch stall, Beth says she has a gift for me. She pulls out a t-shirt, designed at my bequest: it is covered in dodecahedrons. My year is complete.