Keaton Henson passes the first test of this extremely rare interview with flying colours: he shows up. There he is in the corner of the BFI Southbank cafe, all in black, hunched and fidgety, with tucked-back hair and a nest of beard that doesn’t say hipster, more fear of the barber’s.
The musician and artist with four albums behind him – two of anguished singer-songwriter material, one classical and one electronic – has submitted to what he thinks is only his third face-to-face interrogation because he has a busy year ahead and thinks at this point that it needs explaining. “I still highly regard my privacy,” he tells me, apologising for his “mouse-like” voice as I try to ascertain the least intrusive place to put a microphone. “But when I occasionally read about myself, which I shouldn’t but I can’t help it, I think that sometimes people fill in the gaps with things that aren’t quite right.”
The first thing he wants to address is the oft-repeated idea that he has stage fright. His first concert, in a Shoreditch gallery space in March 2012, took the form of a piece of performance art entitled Gloaming. One by one, visitors donned headphones and peered through a hole in a model of a house, where an image of Henson singing live in the next room was projected. He has never toured but has since performed in the flesh in bigger venues, such as Amsterdam’s prestigious Concertgebouw last summer, and in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival in 2014. But it’s never easy, and it sounds like it takes all of his willpower to get through it.
“I think everyone has stage fright to an extent, and I have a healthy amount of it, but it comes from something else which I haven’t actually spoken about, which is that I have chronic anxiety. I really struggle to go to the supermarket sometimes. It’s really hard. You feel that everyone is looking at you all the time, so when you walk onto a stage and they are unequivocally, definitely looking at you, it’s really frightening.”
He says that coming to meet me today is the first time he’s left his Richmond home, where he draws and paints, writes and records all of his music, in three weeks. I find myself becoming his mother and asking this worryingly skinny 27-year-old, the son of an RSC actor and a Royal Ballet dancer, if he’s eating properly. I want to give him my coat and make him some soup. He laughs. “Well, I do sometimes forget because I’m working.” What about money? If he plays live so rarely, which is where so much of the earning power is in music these days, is he comfortable? “I’m awful at thinking about money. I just forget that I need it so I end up in situations where I’ve spent all of it on guitar strings and canvases.” Has he been formally diagnosed with anything? “Yeah. I mean, all the things.”
Nevertheless, a big concert is coming in London next week. It’s part of Roundhouse in the Round, a series for which the train shed has been reconfigured to be a relatively intimate, all-seater venue. Of course he isn’t looking forward to it. “I feel horrible afterwards. It’s like a very mild form of PTSD kicks in,” he tells me. “I think I would react similarly if I’d just avoided a shark attack. There’s a level of relief, of ‘Oh thank God I didn’t get eaten,’ but also you’d rather not nearly have been eaten by a shark. It’s still a harrowing thing.”
So why do it at all? “The main thing is that there’s a demand, and I feel a certain level of guilt not to meet it. I give my fans very little and I do get the sense that I should give more.”
Yet there are plenty of things you can buy besides concert tickets. In the autumn he published two books: Idiot Verse, a collection of his poetry, and 5 Years, a “visual memoir” featuring photographs, sketches and a CD of eight demos of songs. He has a new art exhibition, Almost Beautiful, opening at the Lawrence Alkin Gallery in Covent Garden on February 19. At the moment he’s busy composing a score for a new film featuring his past collaborators, the dance company BalletBoyz, based on their Sadler’s Wells production about World War I, Young Men.
On his website he’s also selling a clock which, instead of numbers, simply says “WHY BOTHER” 12 times. Yet he’s far from gloomy in conversation, enthused about his new work, engaged and funny and also charmingly vague at times. When I ask how old he is, he replies: “Twenty… twenty-seven? Try Wikipedia. I don’t celebrate birthdays.” His mobile phone is a knackered old thing that wouldn’t let him do Twitter even if he wanted to.
His last two albums, a quiet classical collaboration with cellist Ren Ford called Romantic Works, and a dark electronic collection he released under the name Behaving, were both put out as surprises – pretty much the only thing he has in common with Beyonce. But he’s been working on another album for the last three years, planned for an autumn release, which is the official follow-up to his first two and sounds like a bigger deal. He’s gone back to the confessional singer-songwriter style, but with some electronics and also orchestral players, who crammed into his home to record. He says he’ll do a couple of songs from it at the Roundhouse.
“It’s more piano-led, and uncomfortably honest, in that it’s honest but about things that people might not want me to be honest about. I’ve ended up being quite anti-heroic with this record.” On previous albums he has mined a relationship break-up for material. If you want to see what a broken man looks like, sit through his video for his song Sweetheart, What Have You Done to Us. He can be seen wiping away real tears, then running from the camera while distress flares shoot up from a boat in the sea behind.
It sounds like, with his new music, he’s making things even worse for himself. “Once you’ve mined this area,” he says, pointing at his heart, “you can either come back out and start writing pop songs or you can go even deeper and let it get more and more unpleasant the closer to the guts you get.”
I’m intrigued by the idea that such an introverted individual would expose himself so starkly in song. Why not invent characters, like Ray Davies or Damon Albarn, and carry on hiding even when singing? “I try my hardest not to think about an audience, and have a conversation with myself. I don’t know why I do that as it does make it harder. It’s like reading your diary naked. But I keep myself hidden away and try to stay ignorant to the idea that people will hear me.”
We talk for quite a while about whether he could write a great song, then bury it in the garden with no one having heard it but him. “I was intending to do that with my first album,” he says. “But I think the cathartic thing for me is not the burying, but the giving away. To just send it off into the world. I could just give it to one person. Artists all need a pat on the back. There must be some absence in us that is the reason we do it.”
Whatever it is, as he heads back to the safety of his bedroom, be grateful that Henson can continue to find a way to create and share. Gaze and applaud as discretely as you can at his concert. This special, fragile artist must be treated gently, and the music that results is worth the extra care.
Keaton Henson plays Feb 4 as part of Roundhouse in the Round, Jan 28-Feb 6, Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, roundhouse.org.uk)