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Interview: Ben Haenow discusses ‘liberating’ new album Alive and being more true to himself with his new music

The X Factor champ is defying the odds as he forges a new path as an independent artist.

Ben Haenow
Credit: Ben Haenow

Ben Haenow won The X Factor in 2014 and released his debut self-titled album in 2015.

Despite it achieving Gold status, Haenow parted ways with SyCo and set about life as an independent artist. Over the past few months, Haenow has teased fans with the release of four new tracks and last week his new album Alive arrived.

I caught up with Ben to discuss his new music, find out about the freedom being independent has given him, and to talk about what else he has coming up this year.

Your new album Alive is out now. Tell me how this record came together…

I started writing it after the first tour and the initial drop from SyCo so the feel of the album is the story of what happened in between the drop and getting things back together. Production wise it’s a bit more edgy I guess and a bit more towards the rocky side. It just feels a bit more honest overall I think having written all songs myself with my brother. It’s more honest in the lyric and the sound as well.

I actually hadn’t realised until I saw the credits for this album that your brother was in the music industry too. What’s it like working with him? I can imagine it must be quite challenging to work with a sibling?

(laughs) Challenging is a good word for it man! There’s nothing better than having someone you trust implicitly and you’ve known for a long time by your side. In the same vein, knowing each other for that long, we know what pushes each other’s buttons so sometimes it’s been a bit of a struggle writing with him. Generally it’s been great, as I say, to have someone that you know and love there who’s got your back as well. He comes around and does all the gigs and stuff so it’s just nice to have him with me really.

I guess you’re always going to get honest feedback from your brother aren’t you?

Yeah absolutely, whether you like it or not. That’s not just purely down to the music as well, he tries to do a bit of life coaching sometimes, which is good… steering me on the right path and stuff. It’s good overall to have him there but working with an older brother sometimes can be a bit problematic.

Prior to the release of Alive you released four songs from the album. Why did you decide to tease the record in that way?

Do you know what? I just thought people had waited quite a long time for new music to come and we’d written quite a few songs that we were happy with and were ready to go before the album was complete. We just wanted to put some stuff out there to a) keep the profile up and B) give people the new music they’d been waiting for really.

There are covers of songs by Bill Withers and Elvis Presley on the album. Why did you choose those covers?

Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine has always been a favourite song of mine and it was actually the audition song that I did on The X Factor during the first round of auditions. It was just something that stuck with me and it was the first look that people got when I came onto a TV show. Now we’ve revamped the song and done it in a bit more of a rocky style. It feels more like the style I wanted to do it in and we thought why not give that impression again and it shows a different side.

Ben Haenow - Alive

Credit: Ben Haenow

Parting ways with SyCo, while I’m sure hard at the team, must have given you more freedom as an artist to pursue the path in music you want to follow rather than be pushed down a route you weren’t 100% happy with?

Yeah absolutely. The show, the platform and the people that they put around you was fantastic. I’d been thrown into a world that I didn’t know anything about so it was good to have those support networks around me. Not maybe having full artistic control or maybe not getting your ideas heard quite as much when you’re writing with that big factory of musicians, I think it definitely feels a bit liberating. It’s scary being out there and having full control of everything but in that respect it does feel a bit more liberating.

With the industry changing it seems that there’s much less emphasis now on record labels. Obviously the budget side of it is great and the support they can give, but as an independent artist you’ve got all of these new technology platforms, streaming services and social media your disposable. Is that exciting for you to build your fan base that way?

Much more so and I think you’re more connected with the fans that way, there’s no middle man or people second guessing what people want to hear. You can put stuff out there and ask for opinions on stuff that you’re writing and get feedback straight away. The avenues that are out there for independent artists, and just generally to get your music heard now, I think you’re right (they’re great). You know record labels… the support that they give is great but the control that they have and I think sometimes the artistic control that they have can sometimes ruin an artist. In today’s world it’s much easier to get stuff out there as an independent artist anyway.

I remember watching you on The X Factor and thinking you’ve got such a soulful rock voice. I liked your first album but you could tell it was a little bit more polished than perhaps you would have wanted. With this record are you looking to really showcase what you can do?

Yeah definitely. I think that was one of the mistakes from the first album. Throughout the show I was pitted as the rocky singer and when we came to write the album it was so ballad heavy. I think that they maybe has an idea of the direction they wanted me to go in. It really didn’t resonate with what I thought. I think that the reason it didn’t quite catch with the public was because it didn’t represent what they wanted to hear from me from the first album. I’m definitely going back to the roots of rock and blues, particularly in the sound. This album is heading towards the kind of sounds that wanted.

When can your fans see you out on the road performing this record live?

There’s quite a few dates over summer. We’re just building up the festivals and stuff now. Big Day Out in Maidstone is the next big one I’m doing in the UK. We only came off the third headline tour at the beginning of this year. With regards to the touring I think we’re going to probably stick it out till the end of the year again, maybe do something around Christmas. We’ve got loads of lives shows and we’ll just be out there there playing. I’m going all around the world, there’s something in Malta next month… a little festival over there. It’s been good and it’s taking me all over the place.

Touring is so important for any artist but especially if you’re independent. Have you noticed any change in your audience from The X Factor days?

Yeah I think there’s some people during the show that watched and then maybe didn’t take to the album and maybe dropped off there. With going out and playing a lot of these live shows, I think word of mouth has gone round. You see people that you know quite often bringing their friends along or family or people that they’ve told about show. It’s growing the fan base a bit more organically this time and people actually coming to the shows and getting to see what we do. Sometimes a dad might have come with their daughter or been brought along by their wife and not really wanted to see the show but then afterwards they’ll come up and they’ll be like, ‘that was was really great’ and then you’ve won a new fan that way. I think it’s a bit more organic now.

Ben Haenow

Credit: Ben Haenow

Is touring a good way to road test new material and see what reaction you get to new songs?

Yeah a hundred percent. As much as getting into the studio and putting stuff down is great, live is what I live for and the sound with a band and live instruments. That’s where people really get the real feel for the songs. All the songs are written with a band and then put on to an album and sometimes not recorded on real instruments just to add to the production. It’s a great way to get people to listen to the new stuff and see what they think.

We’ve been talking a bit about the changing landscape of music and it’s interesting to see physical formats making a comeback. What kind of music lover are you? Do you prefer the physical format or have you bought into streaming?

I’m 33, and I’m not getting any younger, but for me my experience of going to buy music was always going to HMV and actually buying a physical CD, getting that home and looking through the booklet and reading through some of the stupid thank you notes and stuff like that. I think to have a physical copy of something dude, you own it. Streaming is great but you don’t own anything, you’re just renting it almost. To actually own a physical copy is a bit hipster know isn’t it?

I ‘m slightly older than you so I’m pretty excited that cassettes are making a comeback…

Yeah! I think it’s cool as hell. Actually having a physical copy of something, as stupid as it sounds, people put it on a shelf and can look and show it to people.; I think that for me is what it’s all about. My dad brought us up on records and stuff, and I think being able to pull out a record sleeve. The album art that went onto those old works was incredible. It was something to look at. Nowadays you don’t really get that sort of thing. I think it’s amazing.

I find with digital that I add so many albums that I lose track, forget what I’ve got and it’s much harder to had a look through your collection…

(laughs) People write an album a lot of time to experience the whole album but with streaming people are cherry picking and just listening to one or two songs. It’s great if that’s the songs they like but they’re not getting, from an artistic point of view, the full experience from it. You set out to write those songs for everyone to listen to. I think physical stuff is making a comeback and it’s the way to go.

Are you already thinking about the next album?

Having released four singles, to me and my brother it almost seems like a little bit of an old album now because obviously we’ve lived with it and listened to it. We’ve been writing and developed our style and moved on from there so we’re already writing stuff for the new album. This album Alive, was things I needed to get off my chest in some respect, it’s a bit more autobiographical about what happened in between the show and getting back on my feet. Next time I think maybe (I’ll do) something not quite so autobiographical or quite so serious. I’ve enjoyed writing some more uptempo stuff which is cool.

Ben Haenow’s album Alive is available now. Watch the video for the title track below:

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