You hear a voice in a room. It is tender and gentle, but it bites at your bones. You hear a guitar's golden echoes, creating a cocoon you can't leave. You hear the voice of a 24-year-old man whose songs, artwork and poetry are known by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Yet Keaton Henson is a virtual stranger, whose anonymity is no accident. He has never toured, posted on social networks, and rarely leaves his hometown or his bedroom.
He may be delicate, but he is no wallflower: Keaton’s songs are as brutal as they are beautiful.
The voice in the room, Keaton Henson was born in the dying days of the 1980s. As a boy Keaton was hidden from the dark side of life – which only made him long for it more. At school, he was that weird kid drawing strange pictures in a notebook in the corner of the playground, and listening to hardcore bands on the bus. His heroes then were artists and illustrators like Edward Gorey; his heroes now are songwriters like Randy Newman and Loudon Wainwright. All three reveal the kind of artist Keaton strives to be: someone who understands the power of honesty, even when it is heartless, and how only that can make one's art truly heartfelt.
Then the music came. Shortly after leaving school Keaton fell in love hard, was betrayed, and got his heart smashed to pieces. He became even more of a hermit in his solitary world, writing hundreds of songs out of nowhere. Keaton didn't even leave home to work - instead, he started selling art online, doing illustrations for t-shirts and celebrated sleeve art for bands. Eventually Keaton uploaded a few songs for his best friend Sophie’s birthday, who unknowingly passed them on. And then other people started listening – and talking.
Keaton Henson’s debut album, Dear..., was released quietly in late 2010, in a limited edition run, hand-made by Keaton. Here were simple, tender songs, stripped to the marrow, and written without the desire to be heard... though they sold out almost immediately. Fast forward to September 2011 and Zane Lowe is threatening to play ‘You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are’ twice in a row, triggering a frenzy of investigations into Keaton’s identity. Some set up Facebook and Tumblr sites, claiming to be him: others, concerned for his welfare, tried to convert Keaton to Christianity. Amidst a growing audience and a wealth of critical acclaim, Keaton chose not to perform or promote his record in a conventional manner – he was simply compelled to write the next album.
Keaton claims he didn't know who he was until he started listening to his own songs. His debut album, Dear..., showed how lovelorn sounds can mix powerfully with rawness and rough emotion.
Its follow-up, Birthdays, goes even further.
Written and recorded in less than a year, a toughness veins throughout Birthdays, addressing the challenges of newfound and newly-lost love. This is the sound of what happens next, once your private agony goes public overnight. And in more ways than one, Birthdays presents the perils of getting what you wished for.
‘Lying To You’ may sound like a love song, but it reveals how painfully easy it is to be with someone you don't love. Similarly, ‘Teach Me’ longs for someone to convince you to feel something for them, when in truth you feel nothing. And if Dear... was beset by heartbreak, Birthdays presents a character whose desire for intimacy is haunted by an occasional urge for self-destruction: ‘Best Today’, for instance, shows how you can fall in love with a stranger on the tube, and then forget them in a second. ‘Beekeeper’ warns you that this loneliness won't go away. And ‘Kronos’ says it's going to “take your soul, and eat you whole.”
You hear that voice in that same room, and it really does.
Birthdays sees Keaton Henson removed from his comfort zone, both in tone, texture and also his hometown. First ATC Management (Nick Cave, Faithless) sought him out, and snapped him up, overwhelmed by his talents. Then American producer Joe Chiccarelli (The White Stripes, The Shins, The Strokes) said he wanted to work on his record. This meant that Keaton had to travel to California, where he rented an apartment for two months. Keaton was terrified – not just by working with a producer: he hadn’t flown in seven years - but also felt he had to do this. Leaving the solitary boy’s leafy suburbs, Keaton Henson went to Hollywood.
It was whilst decamped in L.A. that Keaton met by chance (and eventually recorded with) several guests across the record. He set up a temporary cave in the studio, recreating his bedroom’s isolation, but allowed others into the fray this time. As such, Birthdays features guest turns from members of Band of Horses (Tyler Ramsey), The Raveonettes (Sune Rose Wagner), Alberta Cross (Sam Kearney) and even an early member of Pearl Jam (Matt Chamberlain). And whilst the record resonates deepest once Keaton is alone with his electric guitar, it is also brought to vivid life by French horns, co-vocalist Jesca Hoop and a ten-piece string section. Occasionally, recalling his hardcore roots, as many musicians as possible joined in together: see the thunderous wall of guitars across ‘Kronos’, or the epic coda to ‘Don’t Swim’.
Surrounded by new faces, and tackling sounds and subjects that he previously wouldn’t have dared to explore, Keaton Henson felt himself unfurling. Nevertheless, even in the famous Hollywood sunshine, he didn't once take off his suit.
Monsters are a recurring theme across the imagery of Birthdays – and perhaps, as ‘Kronos’ in particular suggests, the true monster lies within. But the vanquishing of monsters and fear itself has marked Keaton’s progress since the release of Dear. His debut graphic novel, ‘Gloaming’, addresses spirits lost in a city, seeking escape, taking us from folklore and magic to a new kind of mystery. Further new mysteries await Henson: for he has taken tentative steps in returning to the live arena, firstly performing one-on-one for fans from within a dollhouse, as part of an art gallery exhibiting his work. Incredibly, Keaton recently played two debut live gigs, both located in a dusty old cinema museum in South London. Unannounced, tickets sold out in little over an hour, and were greeted with 5-star reviews.
You hear a voice in a room, and slowly but surely, it might just be coming out - not that Keaton will ever be the kind of musician who will bathe blissfully in the light. But this beautiful boy with a bruised, blackened heart understands the things we want to hear, want to see, want to feel. He writes songs with stories that are slow-burning, rather than quick fixes. Instead of shallow glamour, Keaton Henson brings us truth.
Keaton Henson gets to the heart of us; and on Birthdays, we start to get to the heart of him.