Beth's army would probably be a bit crap, if the truth were told. The singer-songwriter's music wraps her ethereal voice in sparkly acid-folk; it's delightful and divine, and definitely not like any 'war music' we've heard before. “I'm going to make my own genre, I just haven't decided what it's going to be called,” Beth adds.
The 19-year-old Geordie is a delight. She displays boundless enthusiasm, and has a very, very endearing ability in starting most sentences with either “I like,” or “what I really like.” So much so, that her official website contains a section specifically about stuff 'BJH Likes'. And Beth can easily shoehorn her thoughts about ferrets (she likes), Billy the Kid (she's related to him), Balkan gospel music (a future musical direction) or the quirky shape of Noel Fielding's nose into the same conversation.
However, she still struggles with the 'folk' tag. Hmm, her ethereal debut single 'Golden' did sound suspiciously, er, folky. “I did an interview the other day and the woman was kind of like 'If you don't think it's folk then what is it?' and I wasn't quite sure,” Beth admits. “I can tell you what I'm aiming for, but I'm not sure that I've reached it. I want it to sound gospelly - I like full sounds. I'm more 'there' than I ever was, but there lots more songs in me. The folk thing, I can kind of understand it, in that it's about storytelling and stuff, and it's not really any other genre in particular. I used to play folk but it's changed a lot - I have a different set up, I have a drummer, a bassist, a violinist and a trumpeter. I not offended [by being called folk] but I don't necessarily agree with it.”
After supports slots for Bon Iver and a fabled stage appearance with Devendra Banhart, Houghton recently entranced huge audiences at this year's Green Man and End Of The Road festivals. A new EP, 'Hot Toast Volume 1', captures her sense of playfulness and tangential insight, over galloping rhythms supplied by new backing band The Hooves Of Destiny. “My new songs have got more of a purpose and a certain way about them - I really hope that the album is going to be as dynamic. We've redone 'Sweet Tooth Bird' which is [currently] only a demo on my MySpace page. I'm really happy with it - it sounds really gospelly and orchestral; I had more time to work on that. It's a lot kind of bigger and euphoric than the demo.”
The band have added both muscle and mischief to the Beth Jeans Houghton live experience, as she explains, “We had this idea at gigs, when one of the songs goes into the drum solo, we would have laughing gas, and then see if we can hold out for the rest of the song.”
Beth Jeans Houghton - 'I Will Return, I Promise'
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Houghton is currently recording her debut album with Ben Hillier (of Blur, Doves and Elbow infamy) which, assuming she can narrow down the “six album's worth of songs” she's written, is due for a New Year release. “We've done two tracks already; Ben really listens to what I want the album to sound like, which is really important to me. We get on very well, and don't get very much work done because we laugh too much.”
Initially, Beth was concerned about how the working relationship would gel. “It's really great that he's recorded Blur and Depeche Mode and everyone - but that's nothing like my music, and I wasn't sure how he could bring anything to my music. I was really worried that he was going to be one of those producers - who I've worked with before - who listen to what you say and then just ignore it. They say 'this is how it's gonna be done' and put their own stamp on it, without letting it evolve itself. With Ben it's completely different as he said he's not seeing it as a moneymaking project - he wants to do it for the music. It's really gratifying that not everyone in the music industry is a complete twat who is just after your money!”
Beth was born into a creative family, her brother Ben is an artist, and her parents ensured she grew up on a diet of Joni Mitchell and a myriad of 60's psychedelic folk. Daydreaming seems to have played a major part of her formative years. “I had this really weird thing when I was little, because I didn't have lots of friends and I was very inverted and incredibly shy, that I used to create little worlds in my head. When I had created them, I used to have a little wander round them,” Beth says. “I used to daydream a lot about living on an island with a tribe, and living off the land, and not having technology and not being in the modern world. I think a lot of people get stressed these days about little things, which aren't natural things, that wouldn't have been there if we hadn't of made them. It's quite sad that people miss out on the big picture, because they worry about the little things.”
She can still let her mind wander off and admits to this happening mid-song. “Yeah, when I sing songs, I know them so well that I don't think about them. I'm drifting off thinking 'whoa, Noel Fielding's got such a weird nose' or 'which shoes am I gonna buy next?' Then the songs finishes and I come back into the real world and think 'shit, did I sing the right words, because I was thinking of something completely different!' but it all seems to be fine.”
Be it through Houghton's live shows (during which wigs play a central role), her record artwork or her videos, it becomes apparent that the visual aesthetic is critical too. “Before I was into music, I wanted to be a fashion designer. It's still really important to me, I make all my own stage outfits,” says Beth, who performed a set at a recent Vogue launch. “A lot of music these days is really good, but there's nothing much to look at. Bands just wear what they were wearing in the daytime. If you watch a silent movie, there's something missing - if you listen to music, it's always really nice to have something to look at as well. I dress my whole band up, we all wear face paint - I think it just adds something fun. When I hear music, I can see it as well; I'll write a song and then create an outfit to match. It doesn't necessarily match to anyone else because they can't see the colours that I can see.”
Houghton is a veritable one-woman creative universe: as well as music and couture, she “paints, writes and make little films and stuff - it's all kind of one big product.” Is there anything else she can amaze us with? “Yes! I found this out a couple of days ago; I'm related to Billy The Kid! My grandma was doing the family tree, and we had some family in Ireland and half of them moved to America during the gold rush.”
Laughing gas, Billy The Kid, ferrets, marching music and living with tribes: welcome to just a few minutes in Beth Jeans Houghton's world.
Words by John Freeman
Big Chill Festival 2010