Asked what people can expect from her debut album, Beth Jeans Houghton utters one word: “Thunder”.
“Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose” introduces one of the most self-assured new artists of the year, a pop polymath whose blend of psychedelia, glam rock and chain gang folk is quite unlike anything else you’re likely to hear in 2012. Like her utterly unique stage outfits, it’s made from disparate individual elements that wouldn’t work on paper, but sing out like a holy choir in the execution.
On Atlas, a pounding drum beat and twanging guitars give way to soaring vocals and even a freaky spoken word bit, it’s is entirely typical of an album that’s anything but typical. Having spoken about wanting her music to sound like she’s marching to war, the album presents her as a psychedelic Boudica, rousing the troops with near-operatic vocals one minute and counting the dead in moments of smoky-voiced melancholia the next.
Adding muscle to Beth’s far-ranging vocals are her band The Hooves Of Destiny. Comprising Dav Shiel (drums, vocals samples) Rory Gibson (bass, vocals), Ed Blazey (guitar, trumpet, vocals) and Findlay Macaskill (violin, vocals), they’re a crack unit recruited from Beth’s native North East.
Three years in the making, this album was created with producer Ben Hiller (Blur / Elbow / Depeche Mode). Initially, Beth had reservations about working with such a big name behind the desk, being almost punk-like in her attitude and resolutely independent in every facet of her career. “I thought he’d be one of those guys who stamps his sound all over an album,” she says. “I almost didn’t even go for a drink with him to talk about it, but he told me he wanted to do it for fun and be creative. And he said he had a lot of toys in the studio that we could play with, which won me over.”
Over time, Ben and Beth developed a harmonious working relationship, and the album changed shape many times in the making: “I write so many songs so quickly they become irrelevant to me really fast, so it’s hard to put together a set that I’m happy with over time,” says the singer. “Ben and I had a rule: if there was anything about a song that either of us weren’t happy with, we’d scrap it altogether.” Unusually, the album features a song that Beth wrote about her first relationship at 17, named Veins, which sits alongside brand new tracks like the ever-changing single Dodecahedron.
Songs about boys and dreams have never sounded so forceful and proud as these, and there’s plenty more to unpick in Beth’s hugely inventive lyrics: The Barley Skinny Bone Tree is about her mother, and the birth of her brother, and as for NightSwimmer, “When I tell an audience that NightSwimmer is about a guy who sweats a lot in his sleep, I’m not joking,” says Beth.
Having recorded the album without a record deal to ensure complete creative control, it will be released on Mute, the label described by Houghton as “The one that still believed in my record after everyone else had gone to the pub.” Now ready for release, Beth sees the album as “an animal I'm preparing to ride. Grooming it, feeding it, braiding its hair, and I feel that Ben has built me a saddle that is both practical and comfortable to use. And because of this I feel confident in its release.” Don’t expect such an agonising wait for the next one. “I’m terrified of dying before I do everything I want to do,” she says, somewhat perversely given that she’s still only 21. “It’s a race to get everything out.”