It might not be a top spot on Kelly Slater's bucket list, but cold, foggy Britain actually boasts a thriving surfer community, swears folkie Ben Howard. The part-time short-boarder first discovered this as a kid after his family relocated from London to coastal Devonshire.
"Me and a friend of mine were thinking of what to do, because there was not much going on down there," recalls the 25-year-old musician. "So we just decided to start going in the sea, and I just got hooked. And I've done it ever since, really — for the best part of 14 years now."
That maritime influence is more than evident on Howard's delicate Every Kingdom debut album — from its cover photo of the singer diving deep into the Mediterranean (near his folks' home on exotic Ibiza) to the aquamarine album opener "Old Pine," which recalls the story of his first big surfing trip abroad.
"I was gonna write a song about independence, about being young and for once doing your own thing," he sighs. "But I went to France and nearly got killed by a pine tree."
Of course, the U.K. has its own drawbacks, notes the singer-songwriter. The waters are so cold that wetsuits are required year-round, and you're rarely borne aloft on monolithic waves.
"It's just like this funny little adventure we all go on, and it's usually pissing down with rain, so it's more just about being out in the sea."
Which could explain why Howard keeps returning to tour America — the lure of the Pacific. On one recent trip to Mexico, he recalls his chance encounter with a legendary surfer. "I randomly bumped into Gerry Lopez at the airport — there was this older guy who sat next to me and started doing a crazy yoga stretch, and then I realized who it was. My all-time childhood hero! So we got to chatting, and he lives up in Portland. So next time through I might pick his brains for a few sweet surf spots up there."
While Howard was mastering his board, he was also ransacking his parents' folksy record collection, discovering pensive poets like Donovan and John Martyn — whose "Over the Hill" he covered at SXSW this year. He soon found that both pursuits had one thing in common: laser-beam-intense focus. "I play a lot of live shows, and I really like it because there's so much pressure on," he says. "You go out there and you can't think of anything else, you've gotta give it 100 percent concentration. And if you go out in the sea — especially on a stormy, weird day — you can't think of anything else then, either, just the rugged bits of wind chop and the weather and the space where you are."
So Howard slaved over every word of his debut. You can hear it in his delicate dirge "The Wolves," which he describes as "a song about how you wake up on the wrong side of the bed and you're frustrated with everyone, so you take a look around to see what's going on. And nine times out of 10, it's just something that you see within yourself that really annoys you.
"So I always try and play on having upbeat songs with more serious lyrics to them, because I quite like the idea of people singing along to something that's actually quite dark."