Mr Hudson: “Going in and out of the GQ Awards. Am I that guy now?” – Interview

Mr Hudson

Mr Hudson

Second time around, there is a directness about Ben Hudson. He’s shorn of his ‘Library’ agenda, he’s worked with Kanye West and sung with Jay-Z.

So as we sit in his label’s offices to discuss his new album, it’s not a massive surprise to find that he’s come out of his shell considerably since when we last met him, back in 2007.

He looks different too, dressed in a sharp black suit and wearing sunglasses. The latter are easily explained.
“I’m just feeling a bit tender after the GQ Awards last night,” he says ruefully. “It was good fun, but I’m still in unsigned musician mode where you can’t refuse free booze! Every time a glass of champagne comes past you take it, as it’s still a bit of a novelty.”

His new album Straight No Chaser shares its name with a hugely influential jazz composition. But the coincidence is little to do with jazz, as Hudson quickly asserts. “I suppose with the album title I was letting people know I’m not beating around the bush; it’s ‘kick ’em in the nuts time’. There’s no froth on the record, no unnecessary gilding of the lily, not a lot of intros or outros – it’s straight to the meat. It’s a lean, hopefully quality pop record.”

Was that a conscious move? “Yeah, it was. I wasn’t really thinking about A Tale Of Two Cities (the previous album with the ‘Library’). I thought ‘It’s 2009,’ and having spent a lot of time in America and working with American artists I suppose I realised that the world is big – bigger than my postcode – and I wanted unashamedly to punch through all of that noise on a global scale.”

He delivers an uppercut to an imaginary face. “I wanted to make a knockout sound. You get that on Supernova, it comes straight in with the chorus, and that’s what I wanted to do. You can’t really call an album ‘Kick ‘Em In The Nuts’ though, that’s more Sex Pistols territory.”

It’s a move made possible by the open-ended debut, using several styles of music. “If I’d made a reggae album or a rap album you wouldn’t have been surprised. If I’d done just me and a Spanish guitar you wouldn’t have been surprised. I’m glad you said that, I hadn’t thought of it like that, and who knows what might happen on the next album? Even with Straight No Chaser, despite the approach, it’s still got a track with a banjo and a reggae bass line on it. I’m never going to leave my record collection behind, as all those influences are still there, but hopefully what we managed to do was kick in the door and do some interior decoration.” He laughs. “It’s a nonsense analogy, but that’s what happens when you’re hung over…”

“Am I that guy now? One of those guys? I don’t know. It feels weird.” – Mr Hudson is so far baffled by potential fame and recognition.

The safest assumption to make here is that working with Kanye West and Jay-Z opened a lot of doors for Hudson. He nods vigorously. “Musically and socially. When I’m in America I’m Mr Hudson – I’m that guy, on those records, and it’s a bigger deal. I was in New York when The Blueprint 3 (Jay-Z’s new album) leaked, and really Jay-Z is the biggest guy in hip hop, so it would be like the Stone Roses putting out an album in Manchester and having it leaked. People kept calling me up and it was like a reverence, and I was like ‘I haven’t even put a record out here yet!'”

So he had to get cracking. “I’m always reluctant to acknowledge I have any laurels, let alone rest on them,” says Ben Hudson, “and the fact that Supernova went in at Number 2 and stayed in the Top 10 here for six weeks, I had to acknowledge that ‘Ben, you actually have achieved something now’.”

Is he getting used to fame? “It’s weird to have my photograph taken, going in and out of the GQ Awards. Am I that guy now? One of those guys? I don’t know. It feels weird.” A subject for a song, perhaps? “I hope not, because it’s always really boring when people write about being famous.”

But he’s clearly thought about all this stuff. “I remember Alex (Kapranos) from Franz Ferdinand saying there’s a difference between being famous and being a celebrity. People are famed for their works, whereas celebrity is notoriety. I’d like to be famous according to that definition and I’d like my work to precede me, as it does in America, where people don’t know what I look like.”
Are they surprised when they see him? “When I’m introduced, people think I’m a black guy from Chicago! Over here N-Dubz wanted to work with me before they had met me, and I wanted to work with them. I think it’s important I stay over here as I don’t want to be an ex-pat, that ain’t me.”

In the wake of Speech Debelle‘s Mercury prize win, we move on to talk awards. “I’ve been nominated for the MOBOs this year, it’s amazing,” he says proudly. “It’s music of black origin, and while I’m obviously not black, my music is steeped in soul and reggae and hip hop, as well as Nick Drake, Paul Simon and David Bowie. For them to acknowledge that is wonderful, and to be alongside some great artists like Tinchy Stryder, N-Dubz and Beyoncé is amazing. It probably helps that Kanye’s in the video as well though.”

Collaborating is currently bringing out the best in Hudson, as he freely admits. “I’m enjoying writing with other people, and I’ve now got a fun new track with N-Dubz. I love their ambition, and their work ethic, they’re good kids and deserve everything they get.” Yet was it a conscious decision to lose the band name of the first album, and go it alone? “I’ve still got half of the Library in the band”, he says, “they’re close personal friends and there’s a massive level of trust and friendship there.”

As if to offer some telepathic proof, his phone rings. “That’s one of them now!” he exclaims, before politely pressing divert. “But this album isn’t about a band. When they play live, they smash it on tour, and we play every show like it’s our last. We all just want to do our best every night, and we try and see it from the audience’s point of view, we don’t just turn up, play the songs and fuck off. We try and coax everything out of each other.”

So why the change of name? “The first album, A Tale Of Two Cities, that was like three things – like The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars. I think for me it was this time around I’m gonna be Mr Hudson, I’d like people to take me seriously. Before, it was like Mr What and The Who? A Tale Of Two Cities, isn’t that a Charles Dickens thing?”

He’s happy with how it’s turned out. “It worked.” he affirms. “It isn’t about an eclectic bunch of people or an eccentric bunch of North West Londoners in my room making music, this is three years later, with me having travelled, seen a lot of places, drunk a lot of brandy, shaken a lot of hands, worked with a lot of people and making a record informed by all of those experiences. It’s also about having spent a lot of time trying to learn how to produce. And if I can pat myself on the back briefly I would say the production on this album is a step on from the first.”

He considers what he has just said. “For Kanye to say ‘Hudson is a dope producer’, and to be producing for Estelle and for her to love the track, that means a lot to me. It’s like my kids and wedding and birthday and funeral rolled into one, that’s what it means. That’s why musicians aren’t as thick skinned as they’d like to be when they read horrible reviews.”

But with Kanye West’s seal of approval he’s opened up a whole new audience. “(What) Kanye did with 808s And Heartbreak… he was brave enough to be vulnerable. My record is big and brash. It’s like the lyrics to Knew We Were In Trouble, it’s depressing. But the beats are big, and that’s the only way I could get away with it. And that was Kanye’s album to a lot of people. Internationally this is my first record, so I needed to come out with some elbows, if you know what I mean.”

So what’s next? “I have no idea.” he responds immediately. “Ask me again in a year or 18 months. But I’m going to enjoy working with other people, and enjoy touring the hell out of this album. That’s good for me.”

Mr Hudson’s Straight No Chaser is out now through Mercury. Tour dates and further information can be found here.

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Mr Hudson & The Library – A Tale Of Two Cities