Interview: Beth Jeans Houghton
The Geordie says she's a genderless performer who can't wait to move to LA
Words Tim Burrows
Photography Erika Wall
Beth Jeans Houghton, the 21-year-old Geordie with a spectacular voice and knack for writing intelligent, joyous, fiddly songs, is sat at the back of an anonymous coffee shop in a Mayfair side-street.
We’re talking about the protracted period of recording and waiting that has preceded her debut album Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, which will be released in January on Mute. It has been a frustrating time. Most of the album was written and recorded over two years ago, but had to be postponed as producer Ben Hillier (whose credits include Blur’s Think Tank) recovered from illness. “It kept being delayed by a matter of months each time, so it always felt like it was about to come out,” she says, wearing a Star Trek t-shirt and sipping black coffee. “I have got two records’ worth of songs waiting to be released now. I haven’t really listened to it recently apart from using it to pick singles, but I’m still happy with it.”
She should be. Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose is a beautiful debut (aside from the title) comprised of deceptively simple songs that unfold upon each listen to reveal teeming entities of abstract hope, careering desire and tangential confession. They’re as busy and colourful as you’d expect from an artist with synaesthesia (Houghton suffers from the most serious form of the condition that merges colour and sound). ‘Dodecahedron’ comes with a built-in, goosebump-inducing chorus; ‘Lilliput’ is longing distilled; and ‘Atlas’ is all low-down “hawooga hawooga” backing vox and African guitar picking. Throughout, Beth’s high vocal blows smooth like a strong silken breeze.
Despite being the provider of a belting northeast voice, Houghton is in thrall to America. She still lives in Newcastle but is only there for a few days at a time. “I am always touring and travelling,” she explains. “I like Newcastle best out of all the English cities — I’d never live in London — but I wanna move to LA.”
Her desire to decamp to California is a deep-rooted one, owed to an early obsession with music made there. “When I was eight or nine I listened to Ladies Of The Canyon by Joni Mitchell. I always wanted to live in California in the sixties and seventies,” she explains. Then she fell deep into an American rock obsession via the film Almost Famous, which famously features a cleaned-up, sage-like representation of Lester Bangs, and grew up wired to the Nuggets-era garage rock Bangs championed, and the Golden State’s chief outlaw experimentalists, Beefheart and Zappa.
Houghton seems serious about becoming an LA musician and has recently been spending time with a veteran of the city. She’s been photographed with 49-year-old Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, after he admitted he had a crush on Houghton in the pages of Mojo. Photos of the pair have appeared on slebsite after slebsite — leaving a swanky Mayfair restaurant here, a European hotel there — and tongues have been wagging ever since.
“The whole thing is weird,” she says, while keeping a tight lip on the subject. “I’ve got such a small group of friends and I tend to keep myself to myself.” The cameramen hiding in bushes have taken some getting used to. “It is not a comfortable situation. It’s kind of invasive and strange, and something that has never been what I have wanted to be about. But I tend not to think about things that make me feel uncomfortable.”
Houghton started keeping the company of musicians in her mid-teens, and bought her first guitar when she was 16. She’s been gigging ever since. She has known the men that make up her band, The Hooves of Destiny, since she was 15. “At that age, I was hanging out with guys in their twenties and thirties just because there was no weird competitive thing going on with them. It made me want to be a male frontman myself, which could obviously never happen. But it’s like a metaphor for a social situation; you can be feeling one thing, but [if you want to express it] it comes out in a completely different way.”
When Houghton first ‘arrived’ wearing wigs and sequins in 2009, she was attached to the new wave of industry-backed female solo artists that plugged up editorial gaps like so much Polyfilla. But Beth wanted no part of what she calls “the nice little girl thing”, adding: “I’m not a ‘female artist’ and I’m not in a ‘girl band’. It feels kind of genderless to me.”
At the time, Houghton could have had the pick of some of the majors. “I had a meeting with a guy from a big label, but he didn’t even ask to hear my music, and he didn’t really say anything about music at all. He just wanted to talk about genital tattoos and Family Guy.”
She refused to sign to anyone until she had recorded the album, which led to interest waning. Mute stuck around, label boss Daniel Miller having been a fan since catching an early gig. Signing was a no-brainer, but it’s still left this most-determined artist with much to do before what already looks like a transformative 2012. “I haven’t had a manager for over a year. I fired him because I’m too stubborn,” she says. “That means I have to sort promotion, update online stuff, arrange gigs, organise travel when we’re touring… There is too much work, but I like to be in control.”