Within the record industry, the phenomenon of the Difficult Second Album is legendary. Generally speaking, artists tend to make their first album in a rush of vigour and enthusiasm, eager to share the songs they’ve spent years building up. Then they find themselves writing the follow-up in a mad hurry, in the midst of tour dates and promotional commitments. If worst comes to the worst, they end up writing 12 songs about the loneliness of hotel rooms.
For Newcastle-born Beth Jeans Houghton, though, her Difficult Second Album was a very different proposition. Her debut, Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose, full of fleet-footed, unpredictable melodies, had a long, protracted gestation itself, but was released to great acclaim in 2012. She started work on the follow-up when on tour that summer. Then, while playing dates in Europe, she had a breakdown, with terrifying physical symptoms – heart palpitations, bodily spasms and even temporary paralysis. She sought help and thankfully came through it.
Taking stock, though, she elected to ditch the existing recording sessions, work with a new batch of musicians, and explore very different musical territory. The end result, entitled Welcome Back to Milk, was released in May. It boasts a much harder, rougher-edged sound than her debut, packing far more of a direct, aggressive punch. It feels very much like a break-up album, with fire and steel in its heart. Under the surface, though, Houghton’s gift for genuinely original, affecting song writing remains very much intact.
There’s also the important matter of her name change. Rather than Beth Jeans Houghton, Welcome Back to Milk is credited to Du Blonde. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, she explains that other possibilities were floated.
“I had a few other ideas – they all got shot down. ‘Milk’, ‘Flesh’ and ‘School’ were my favourites. It’s pretty damn hard to find a name that hasn’t been used and doesn’t get lost in a load of everyday stuff when you Google it. I changed names because it made sense of the new project. I’ll be sticking with it for a long time.”
On the subject of her debut album, Houghton says: “I’m still proud of it but I’ve moved on musically. Imagine you’re an actor and you’re in stage productions and someone suggests you redo a version of your primary school play. It’s not going to be an attractive idea, not because you weren’t happy to do it at the time, but because it’s in the past and it’s part of your history, but that’s where it should stay. Part of the reason I changed my name was so that I didn’t have to play those songs any more. In that sense Beth and Du Blonde are completely different people.”
In seeking to rewire her sound, the song that first cemented Houghton’s new direction was the thunderous Chips to Go. “That was the first one which came easily and seemed to fit my new idea of what I wanted to be making. I think the difference is, I came up with the vocal melody first, and that became the lead guitar line. A lot of the songs on this record were born of a riff or a lead guitar part, whereas the last record began predominantly with a chord progression.”
Very little survived those abandoned album sessions, recorded in LA in early 2012, but one was the song Mind is on My Mind, a genuinely gobsmacking rush of musical ideas featuring her friend Samuel T. Herring from Future Islands on guest vocals.
“We re-recorded the track with different musicians in London but we kept Sam’s vocals from when I was back in LA. We also rerecorded Chips to Go. Basically the punkier psych songs from the first attempt survived.”
An obvious touchstone for the newly-minted Du Blonde sound is American hard-core – not for nothing is the album’s opening track entitled Black Flag. Then again, Four in the Morning is a gentle, piano-led reflection on intimacy, whereas Hunter is a glorious power-pop kiss-off to an ex-lover. In practice there’s a whole, rich range of influences at work here. As Houghton says: “I’ve been into psych and garage since I was a young teenager. I’ve always loved soul and also the odder artists on the spectrum like Frank Zappa and Wild Man Fischer.”
Du Blonde are currently playing live dates and festivals. After so long spent in the confines of the studio, going back out on tour again must represent quite a gear change, but Houghton insists that both activities are really important to her.
“I love them both differently. Making a record is such a special, weird time. You’re in this kind of vortex and there are these characters you see every day and you see only them. Tour is similar – you’re in a van five hours a day, but you also get to meet these wonderful people you’d never get to know otherwise. There’s a lot of team work involved but the memories made are incredibly special.”
Houghton has always been keen to interact with fans via Twitter and Facebook, sharing song playlists and bespoke videos. “I think one of the reasons why I’ve been lucky enough to hold onto a lot of the fans of the first record is because I never left social media the whole time I was working on other things.”
Her energy and creativity seem almost boundless: she designs all her own merchandise and sells her original artwork through the band’s website. In fact, at the time the album was released, Houghton was actually managing herself. That’s now changed, but she’s not looking to take a back seat any time soon.
“I’ve always been hands on with my career. I have a manager now, but even when I had managers in the past, I was going into work every day. It’s not my style to sit back and let other people do things. This is a job and I treat it like anyone in an office would.”
Amen to that: judging by the results of her working methods so far, Houghton/Du Blonde are doing something very right indeed.
By Andy Murray
Portrait photographs by Alice Baxley, artworks by Du Blonde
Read Houghton’s illustrated account of her breakdown and recovery for Rookie Magazine: