True to his bright-eyed, affable image which won over millions of viewers on last year’s series of The X Factor, Ben Haenow turns out to be a perky interviewee.
Ask the 30-year-old singer from Croydon how he is and he chirpily replies that he’s “living the dream”, as well he might given that after years of toil on the gigging circuit he’s now managed by Simon Cowell and has his debut solo album out on a major label.
Where once it was commonplace for X Factor winners to be whisked straight into a studio to record an album of cover versions and ready made tracks by professional songwriters, these days it seems they are allowed more latitude.
Haenow spent much of the last year in London and Los Angeles working on his first self-titled album.
Explaining why he took his time, he says: “I’ve tried to make it in this industry for the last seven years or so in a band and we’ve always enjoyed writing our own stuff so, for me, covers are great to learn your trade at the beginning but to develop as an artist and to write your own stuff is really where the dream comes in.
“I just wanted to be really heavily involved in it. There were a lot of experiences and stuff that I wanted to write about and listening to other people’s songs, people inspired me to write my own stories so we just wanted to get some original stuff down rather than an album of covers and then fade into oblivion.”
He admits to occasionally worrying that people might have forgotten him in the year since he was on The X Factor but feels it was worth the risk.
“It’s one of those things that does go through your mind but in the same respect to get in there and hide away in the studio and focus on writing the album, I think it’s kind of good a little bit to come off the radar from The X Factor and then reappear, that’s the way I wanted to do it.
“Yeah, I was slightly worried about maybe falling off the end of the Earth and people forgetting about me but in some respects I think it’s good to come back fresh. People might hear the song on the radio and think, ‘Ooh, who’s that?’ and they don’t instantly think of The X Factor.”
Haenow co-wrote all but three of the 14 songs on the album with A-list songwriters such as Amy Wadge (Ed Sheeran), JR Rotem (Rihanna) and Steve Robson (Olly Murs). “We wrote about 60 tracks in total,” he says. “We had a load of songs and kind of went from there. For me, to develop a new style and change a little bit as an artist, and learn some new styles and new songs, was really helpful.”
He describes working with former American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson on the album’s lead single Second Hand Heart as “incredible”.
“She’s an absolute angel to work with, she’s really professional but really funny and down to earth as well and that was something I wasn’t expecting. It was inspiring.”
One of the album’s rockier tracks Brother is addressed to his own sibling, Alex, with whom he’s worked for years, first in the band Lost Audio and latterly in his own group. Haenow says he’s enjoyed “all the memories of being on stage” with Alex. “We were up there all around the country and just looking over and seeing my brother enjoying what he’s doing and being on stage with him, it’s all the time spent with him and generally being in a band, having guys on stage to vibe off and keeping a kind of organic instrument sound, not too supersized and track-based, that’s really what I want to do.”
Alex also offers good moral support. “It’s always good to have someone that you love to have quite close to you as well because it can be quite a lonely thing for solo artists particularly, spending time away from their friends and family, but to have him there to try and bring me up, like my older brother does, is pretty good.”
He admits to finding his recent guest appearance on this year X Factor nerve racking. “I almost felt like a contestant again in some respects, but to go from a year ago being on that stage where my whole journey started to being back on there for my debut single was an incredible feeling.”
As for who he fancies to win this year’s series, he says: “I think Louisa’s got a great chance, I think Lauren’s got a great chance, I also think Che. I think the winner’s definitely in the boys or girls category but there’s still so many great voices, so I’m going to sit on the fence for that one.”
Past winners he most admires, he says, are “people like Little Mix, who are the winner for me that really stand out and has gone for that world domination and Leona Lewis because she’s done fantastically”.
“But it’s a tough one,” he adds, “you’ve got people like Olly Murs who didn’t win the show who’ve carried on great. There’s people within The X Factor that have had great success that are inspiring for me.”
Though a seasoned performer himself, Haenow confesses that playing arenas on the X Factor tour earlier this year was “a learning curve”. Touring academy venues in his own right next April will be “a world away from the three people that used to stand in a pub and watch us play” but he’s looking forward to it.
“It’s going to be an amazing experience to get out there and be able to play to all the people that have supported me.”
As an artist he takes a long-term view. “The next couple of albums we’ll see how the style develops and changes but I’d love to be a household name in the UK and US, that’s really the dream, and just to get out there and gig as much as I can. Within five years’ time I’d like to have a great following and establish myself in my own right,” he says.
Ben Haenow’s album is out now. He plays at O2 Academy Leeds on April 26. www.benhaenow-official.com