Is It?

Is It?

In spring 2022, Ben Howard was sat in his garden in Ibiza when he suddenly found himself unable to speak for an hour. It was a terrifying experience—one that recurred a month later. It eventually transpired that Howard had suffered two transient ischaemic attacks—also known as mini strokes—caused when the blood flow to the brain becomes temporarily restricted. These episodes dramatically shaped the songs he was working on for his fifth album, Is It?. “My emotional approach to the songs changed,” the London singer-songwriter tells Apple Music. “My acceptance of the songs for what they were, rather than pondering them too much. It was a great opportunity to just get the songs down and realise that each record is a picture of where you are at a time and a place. And if you can be honest with that, then often it’s a better record that comes out, rather than picking it to pieces.” This more relaxed approach has resulted in perhaps the most fluid, sonically adventurous record of Howard’s career. Recorded with producer Nathan Jenkins, aka Bullion (Orlando Weeks, Westerman), Is It? shines and shimmers with a newfound spaciousness and light—its surfaces reflecting influences one might not have heard on Howard’s more guitar-driven records, including The Blue Nile, Arthur Russell, and Brian Eno and John Cale’s 1990 collaboration, Wrong Way Up. From opener “Couldn’t Make It Up” (which directly references Howard’s first mini stroke) via the mechanic tessellations of “Life in the Time” to the reflective ambience of “Spirit”, Howard has reached a place where he sounds more at ease and creatively free than ever before. Here, he talks us through the record, track by track. “Couldn’t Make It Up” “I wanted to make a song on the harmonium—it feels like bringing sunshine to a room sometimes. They’re quite simple arrangements on this album. I think I was less precious, melodically. I was more free, melodically, and was singing more. That’s a feature on this album, a letting go of that serious singer-songwriter thing that always rears its ugly head.” “Walking Backwards” “The stuttering guitar part with the double delay on it was the basis of this. It had this endless delay on it that had such an urgency to it that I thought really played against the nature of the song, which is a mantra to sitting still and having acceptance, being able to settle into your own ways. After that it seemed that every instrument we put on this record had to be either affected by delay or have some sort of stutter or punctuated time signature to it.” “Days of Lantana” “I think this song in a nutshell is about trying to find a gentle peace with yourself. The vocal sample on this song is Linda Thompson singing [‘Les Troix Beaux Oiseaux de Paradis’]. I felt it was great umbrella of my day-to-day life, the beauty and wonder around us, and then the restlessness that comes and goes. I live in Ibiza, and lantana is sort of like the flowering weed of Spain. They call it the flag of Spain because of its colours.” “Life in the Time” “This was written in full before I recorded it, but there was a scattering of couplets throughout the verses that were constantly being interchanged and moved around, and you can hear that on the record. I quite like that you can hear this really decisive but also indecisive and interchangeable thing. It’s a monologue essentially, but I’ve hacked a few verses out of it because it could have gone on forever.” “Moonraker” “I was climbing the mountains in the Sierra Nevada [in Spain] with my sister, but it’s not necessarily about climbing, more that vantage or viewpoint. Moonraker is a reference to people bootlegging liquor. There’s an old Wiltshire folk tale of guys who told the police they were raking the moon out of the lake in the middle of the night when they were actually bootlegging liquor. The policeman let them off and thought they were just foolish, but actually there was a point to their endeavours. It’s about the joy of fruitless things. So many things in this life are pointless and futile, but in the end seem to have a great reason or a great impact on us.” “Richmond Avenue” “It’s a song very much about nostalgia. I grew up in West London and it really sings to me that song about hot summer days. For some reason, London for me in the heat is more nostalgic than anywhere else. When the heat grows in the city, it’s such a palpable thing. Michael McGoldrick plays uilleann pipes on it. We were so lucky to get that on the record—it’s an incredible instrument.” “Interim of Sense” “I wanted to call this ‘Byzantium Leaving’ but changed the title at the last minute. I did feel unsure about what had happened to me, and I think often when you tune in, you realise that these holes and gaps appear anyway. You make so many decisions of such great intentions and then as time moves, as those plates shift, you realise the true intentions or the reasons you made those decisions weren’t necessarily what you thought they were on surface level. I often find myself in that state.” “Total Eclipse” “The notes I had for this one were about the minor stroke, this black-hole repetition of nothingness. It’s not replicating that moment, but the feeling. All these songs are grasping at feelings. I try and write about feelings, not about specifics. I’m just trying to touch on feelings. I’m trying to explain feelings all the way through. I guess some people are a bit more specific than others, but you’re always trying to allude to something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” “Spirit” “Arthur Russell has always been a big influence for me, and, if anything, we almost shied away from the string arpeggio on this because it was perhaps too similar to him, but it took a hold and you couldn’t get away from it. But there’s always Arthur Russell there somewhere. I’m always trying to find my own little space in music and inevitably you step on toes. Credit to Nathan [Jenkins, aka producer Bullion]: He took the song into a beautiful new world and away from potentially being just another modern act ripping off Arthur Russell.” “Little Plant” “This song is the slow down, the cooling off at the end of the record. It was quite a straight-up song, there’s not too much running around on this one. Three chords and happy days. Maybe a slight pitch shift in the middle. It’s about reality versus expectation and a grappling with the constant spark in lives of other people. In my head, there was also the idea of a young man joining the army, and why we’re pressured to do anything. Why we’re always in this constant movement towards achievement and goals and being encouraged to send ourselves over the front in various different ways—why on earth we do that, what it means and how does it make us feel? That’s only one line, though, all these songs have a lot of different interpretations. I never want to close someone’s interpretation of a song by giving them a definition. That’s my greatest fear.”

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