Ben Howard’s fan base used to be a fiercely loyal secret society of surfers and travelling types, who sold-out every gig he played.
But, since his debut album – the brilliant Every Kingdom – hit the Top 10 last autumn, he’s gained a decidedly larger and broader following.
The 24-year-old Devonian is still selling-out entire tours. And he has achieved all this with very little publicity.
Ben says, at the beginning, he deliberately kept things low-key.
‘With music, you’ve got to learn your trade and the best way to learn is to play loads of shows. That’s the best way to connect with people too.
‘Now it’s blown-up, it’s kind of out of my hands,’ he explains from Paris where he is about to begin his next tour.
Ben’s profile as a talented indie-folk artist with depth and authenticity grew entirely by word of mouth – a medium he appreciates.
‘I’m more inclined to listen to something a friend’s recommend than something I’m force-fed on radio or TV and, at my gigs, I meet a lot of similar-minded people,’ says the singer, songwriter and guitarist from Totnes who is also a keen surfer.
It was the surfing community which gave Ben his first leg-up.
He explains: ‘It really all started with friendship groups.
‘A lot of our friends are surfers and surfers tend to travel.
‘It’s been fascinating how my music’s travelled around the world. We had emails from places like Morocco and Indonesia quite early on.’
Ben says that, despite his burgeoning music career, he still tries ‘to be around the sea and get in the sea as much as possible’.
He studied journalism at University College Falmouth, but gave it up just months before graduating to focus on his music.
‘I realised I could be a full-time musician,’ remembers Ben,’ when a couple of cool things came my way.
‘I was asked to support Xavier Rudd [an Australian surf/roots musician] and I got an ambassador sponsorship deal from Quicksilver [a surfer’s clothing brand].’
Ben adds: ‘Looking back now, that was too early on to decide to try to make a living out of music, especially when you’ve got a band [India Bourne on cello and Chris Bond on bass and drums].
‘You end up throwing loads of money at it because you want to do it but there’s not much money in it.
‘Back then there were a lot of times when I thought “what have I done?” or wondered “was it the right decision?”.’
With a core fanbase that’s now spread outwards into France, Holland and Germany, Ben’s risky decision has paid off.
As one of the most talked about underground artists of 2011, he also inevitably made it onto mainstream radio and TV here in the UK and has performed in high-profile slots at some of the bigger festivals.
Ben went head to head with Bjork in a Sunday night headline slot at Bestival on the Isle of Wight in September. While she had artistic costumes and a huge choir on the main stage, he performed on a bandstand to a quiet crowd sat cross-legged.
It was a memorable gig, says Ben. ‘We were actually laughing at that a couple of days ago when we were talking about eventful gigs.
‘It started out as the worst gig of my life. I had a self-induced sickness, there was a storm coming and I was wearing my girlfriend’s skin-tight jeans because mine had been soaked.
‘The sound was awful and, because it was the end of the festival, everyone was in total meltdown,’ recalls Ben.
He continues: ‘I stopped at one point to say “I’m really struggling. I’m sorry.” But the crowd were so supportive it got me though. Everyone was awesome.
‘At the end there was some sort of crazy stage invasion and Bjork’s fireworks were going off. It was a real Rocky moment.
‘It went from the worst gig to probably the best end to a gig ever.’
Ben’s returning to the area next month, when another sold-out tour rolls into the Pyramids in Southsea.
The singer has never been to Portsmouth (the closest he’s come to the city was his Bestival appearance and a gig in Petersfield), so he’s looking forward to his first visit and he’s delighted that the show has sold out.
Says Ben: ‘We were pretty blown away by the response to the UK tour. It was quite amazing. It was a step-up to some pretty big venues, so we didn’t expect the tickets to go so quickly.
‘I’m playing at venues I’ve seen my heroes in. Were doing two nights at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Just to play one night there was a childhood dream for me,’ he adds.
After the current tour, Ben will be taking his album to America. Then he’ll be back with another UK tour later this year.
‘We’re doing some more dates in the autumn and some slightly bigger venues because a lot of people couldn’t get tickets to this tour. But that will be the last tour for the album,’ says Ben.
‘We’ll get back in the studio after that.’
He laughs: ‘I never used to plan ahead. Now I know what I’m doing in October and November. You have to be careful not to wish your life away.’
But Ben is enjoying the present. He concludes: ‘I’m pretty happy at the moment. I’ve got no complaints.
‘I’ve always been quite driven and stubborn, but I’ve got no great plans. I just wanted to be able to play music as a career.
‘I’m content. I feel privileged to be able to do something I love.
‘The shows keep getting bigger and we’re travelling all over the world.
‘I’ve got no huge ambitions for fame and fortune. I’m just pretty stoked to make music full time.’
DID YOU KNOW?
Ben Howard is known for his unusual tapping, plucking and strumming guitar style.
BEN HOWARD ON...
... the best moment of his career so far
We have loads of great memories. A few of the festivals have been a wake-up call to where we’ve got to. Green Man was one of them and the last couple of London shows felt really good.
...and the worst
Driving from Falmouth to Brighton in a van after none of us had slept at all and we all had the worst hangover any of us had experienced. At one point the support act had to get out to be sick. We were like Gremlins in the back of a van. Looking back it’s very funny.
...headlining at Bestival at the same time as Bjork
It was frustrating because we were gutted to miss her.
...appearing on French TV with Coldplay
It was special to stand side stage and see guys of that calibre at that stage in their career. You think “wow that’s a whole new league”.
...Ibiza, where his parents live
There’s two sides of the island: the clubbing side and then the rest of the island, which is a really chilled place. I’m not much of a spiritual person, but there’s that whole vibe going on on the island as well. It’s really eclectic. I write there a lot.