Ben Haenow interview: 'It's good to distance yourself from X Factor'
- 24 October 2015
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Former van driver Ben Haenow won last year's X Factor with 57% of the public vote.
Statistics later revealed Croydon-born singer had topped the phone vote for the last seven weeks of the contest - thanks to the unusual tactic of spurning saccharine ballads for full-throated rock songs (in an X Factor first, he performed AC/DC's Highway To Hell).
Haenow went on to bag last year's Christmas number one with a cover of OneRepublic's Something I Need; but now he is ready to reveal his solo material.
Hoping to break the "curse" of male X Factor winners, his debut album is a confident, bombastic collection - although the tracks he previews for the BBC are an unexpectedly straight-up pop songs.
Making the album "was definitely a compromise," says the 30-year-old, who adds that he didn't want to alienate his X Factor fans.
"I think a lot of people would have struggled with the old school rock I was into," he laughs.
The musician speaks to the BBC about the "stigma" of X Factor and turning down a song from Ed Sheeran.
Your new single, Second Hand Heart, is a duet with Kelly Clarkson. Was there a competition between you to see who could sing the loudest?
I wasn't stupid enough to put myself in that position! Kelly Clarkson is incredible. But that's the point about the song: It's two big, powerful voices. And being a duet we didn't want to do something too dreary.
With a different arrangement, it could be a country song.
It actually started out with a country vibe. There was a lot of slide guitar and stuff on there. But once we got Kelly on board there was a conscious effort to make it slightly more poppy.
In the past, albums by X Factor winners have been rushed out in a couple of months. Why did you take so long with yours?
Like you say, we could have just come out with an album of songs that people had given to me and cover versions. But taking time like we did gives the album a bit more credibility.
It is a very commercial album - moreso than people were expecting.
If I was just to release an album of rock songs, particularly the old school rock I was into, I think a lot of people would have struggled.
There are some harder songs but I didn't want to lose the fan base. The commercial pop side got me to where I am today.
How different is it watching X Factor now you know what goes on behind the scenes?
I think you're more emotionally invested in the contestants, because you know they've been sitting around for three-and-a-half hours before they go on stage.
Sometimes, as an outsider watching the show, you think: "Come on, get a grip. Stop crying. You've only sung a song." But to actually live it is a massive thing.
How many auditions did you go through before you were actually seen by Simon and Cheryl?
Let me think... I remember we went for the initial long audition, where you queue up for 14 or 15 hours. So, in total, I think there were three producer auditions and then you go to see the judges.
The viewing figures for the show aren't what they once were - but I wondered if that actually benefits you, as a certain portion of the music-buying public won't lumber you with the stigma of being an "X Factor winner"?
In some respects. It's nice to come off the show and have the momentum die down. It gives you time to emerge again and get away from the show. I mean, it was an amazing platform and it got me to where it got me - but there is still a lot of stigma that surrounds it.
If you distance yourself slightly from the show in the time you're off and writing your album, I think it's quite a good thing.
One of the songs on the album, Start Again, feels more like an X Factor winner's single than the one you actually put out.
Funnily enough, that was the first thing I wrote when I came off the show, so it is absolutely capturing that feeling. I just wanted to shout it from the rooftops.
Is it true you turned down a song from Ed Sheeran?
That was crazy. By the time I got the song offered we'd already got the shape of the album and the sound we were going for. So it was a joint decision by me and the label. It wasn't a situation where we got the song and just go go, that's not good enough. We took a lot of time to think about it. But it wouldn't have fitted onto the album as it was.
How do you make that phone call? "I'm sorry, multi-million-selling global pop star Ed Sheeran, but this song is just not good enough."
That's exactly what I said! The main thing for me is that people like Ed, who have gone out there and sung their own stories, are the ones who inspired me to get my own stories out there. So fingers crossed we can maybe get a little collaboration on the go. And I could maybe take him out to dinner to apologise.
There's a track called Brother, which seems very personal. What's the story behind that?
Before X factor, I was in a band with my brother as the guitarist. We were trying to make it for a long, long time and never got anywhere. So going on the show, I guess, was like me living our dreams one step away from him, because he couldn't come on the show. So that song's a round-about way of saying "whatever happens between us, we'll be okay."
Is he supportive of you now?
Well, he didn't vote for Andrea or Fleur or anything like that. Or so he says!
Was it hard to write the album in LA, with your family so far away?
Yeah, it was massive for me. It was quite lonely in some respects but it definitely helped me towards writing a lot of these songs.
I'd go back to the hotel and get in the foetal position and cry! No... but I think it's easier when you're away from people you love to feel your emotions. Stuff is heightened.
You wrote with some A-list names - JR Rotem (Rihanna, Snoop Dogg), Jim Duiguid (Paolo Nutini) and Amy Wadge (Ed Sheeran). How do you get your voice heard against people like that?
In the first session, you're the newbie and - definitely - you're too scared to suggest anything.
But here's a cool thing I discovered: When you're writing songs as an amateur, you'll come up with a melody sitting in your room going "awooooo," making loads of stupid noises. And you presume that the big producers and big writers possess some sort of special magic formula - but no. We are all just sitting in a room making stupid noises.
What's the stupidest noise you made?
If you listen to the album there's lots of stupid noises on there! When you're writing a melody there are no words so it's essentially just going [sings] "woooo-oooo-ahhh-owww."
Hang on, that sounded great. Most people would kill to make a sound like that.
Well, you know, that's on the album as well. Just an hour of me doing that stuff. It's really self-indulgent.
Second Hand Heart, Ben Haenow's duet with Kelly Clarkson, is out now. His self-titled debut album follows on 13 November.