The size and venue for tonight’s show isn’t about being on trend though; Keaton Henson’s crippling anxiety and debilitating panic attacks are well documented, and make live shows and interviews almost impossible but, with the impending release of his second album, Birthdays, he surprised fans by announcing a handful of shows in tiny museum spaces. London’s venue is, perhaps aptly, the Freud Museum, off Finchley Road. Imagine a tiny, shrunken version of Bush Hall – chandeliers replaced with information boards about the home’s former owner – and you’re about there.
The lights dimmed, complete silence spreads across the room, as if everyone’s holding their breath, willing him on. After a mood-setting Bach intro from the cellist who will join him sporadically throughout the 45 minute set, the smartly suited, shaggy haired, bearded Henson appears, to hushed applause – as if not to frighten him – and immediately launches into Sweetheart, What Have You Done To Us, from Birthdays. Like most of his work, it sees Henson cast as the victim – wronged by a lover who’s torn his heart in two, as he leans over his mic, whispering “what have you done?” With such heart breaking lyrics and a voice that makes Bon Iver sound like Slipknot, it’d be easy to feel sorry for Henson. His reclusiveness isn’t restricted to face-to-face contact; he shuns social media, so much of what we know about him is related to his anxiety and shyness, but you get the impression that he’d be horrified to think you pitied him. He’s an intriguing character with a good old fashioned, literary mystique; you want to do more than pat his head and say “awww” – you want to get under his skin, to find out why he’s so very, very sad.
Part of the intrigue is born from his brutal honesty. He makes no attempt to dress up what he wants to say; his work is cathartic – a way to expel the troubles this weary 24-year-old clearly struggles to cope with – and often uncomfortable to listen to. Take You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, the first song to leave his bedroom in Richmond-upon-Thames. It’s the ultimate break-up song and tonight, as he tremors his way through it with gut-wrenching emotion it feels raw, as though he’s breaking down right before our eyes.
The set – a mix of old songs (from last year’s debut album Dear…) and new – is performed with precision but the awkward in between moments are littered with sighs and head scratches that are almost painful to watch. He attempts small talk, remarking on how many people there are there, and reminding everyone that his new album is out on Monday, but on the whole interaction is kept to a minimum; he lets his songs do the talking. And they don’t just talk; they muster up an atmosphere rarer than Henson’s live appearances. Close your eyes and you could be by a crackling fire, as he picks away at his guitar, the cello occasionally building up the very simple, deconstructed sounds.
He closes with You, one of Birthdays’ highlights. Whereas Dear…was a DIY, home-recorded affair, its follow-up was produced by Joe Chiccaelli (best known for his work with The White Stripes, The Strokes and The Shins) which meant Henson had to leave his suburban London flat for a studio in LA, and features guest appearances from Jesca Hoop and members of Band Of Horses, The Raveonettes and even Pearl Jam. It’s a fuller-sounding album that demonstrates just how far Henson’s come in under 12 months.
Cynics might find his back story contrived, others might fear it detracts from the music. Whatever your conclusion, as Henson takes baby steps out of the shadows, shows don’t get much more special than this.