HONNE 本音 : one’s true feelings and desires
In little under two years, blue-eyed soul duo HONNE have become the band to fall in love with, and to. “There’s a lot of women at our shows,” says co-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist James Hatcher, “and a lot of couples.” Unsuspecting frontman Andy Clutterbuck – often witness to more than he bargained for as the band’s sensual grooves ripple through certain pockets of the crowd – senses it, too. “We get a lot of people coming up to us afterwards telling us that a track has soundtracked their relationship, from meeting online to their first date, and from break-ups to having babies.” In their very British, buttoned-up appearance, HONNE don’t strike you as the type to open up about anything this intimate, which is precisely the point – ‘Warm On A Cold Night’ is an album where expressing feelings may not come naturally, but one which nonetheless strives for real love in the digital age.
A term with no Western equivalent, the origins of HONNE lie in the Japanese word meaning ‘True Feelings’ (it’s often twinned with ‘tatemae’, roughly translated as the contrasting behaviour or opinions you display in public). It was this fascination with Japan that offered the pair an early porthole into how to transmit their most personal moments into music. Their own backgrounds, of course, were far less culturally exotic: having met on the first day of University, the pair had unknowingly grown up around 45 minutes from another in the South West. Andy’s childhood was farm-life, his youth spent introspectively in a spare room filled with his dad’s clutter (a drum kit, old record players, and musical ephemera that looks like junk but feels like magic to the right imaginative eye). “On your first day at college,” says James “you arrive nerve-wracked about what’s going to happen. Am I going to make any friends? Will they be alright? I instantly knew Andy was sound. He played me a whole album he’d written and put up on online. It was more developed than anything I’d heard from anyone my age.”
Matched at first-sight, HONNE began making music that same night. “It was 2 in the morning,” says Andy, “it was completely pitch black and we just had a microphone set up. We felt immediately relaxed around each other, there was no-one laughing and no-one was being judged.” The perfect environment, it turned out, for the emotional honesty which followed. And as these dusky songs kept coming, their after-hours conversations turned towards the future, to travel, and in particular to Andy’s time in Japan (where he was in a long-distance relationship). During a midnight re-watching of ‘Lost in Translation’, it became apparent that this sense of a partner at a loose end – of wandering through a strange environment, and struggling to convey what you mean – was just as relevant to their lives off-screen. When James found the word ‘Honne’ later on, he knew it was theirs. “I came across it, saw the meaning and was like ‘I can’t believe no-one is called this.'”
All this is wrapped up in HONNE’s mission-statement of a debut track, ‘Warm On A Cold Night’, a widescreen take on late-night lust far removed from the South West student-life the band emerged from. The transatlantic tone first rooted in Japan extends to the song’s West-Coast, US-inspired groove: musically, HONNE take heavy influence from the late 70s/early 80s soul and funk of Quincy Jones, together with crooning, contemporary electro-R&B like James Blake or Frank Ocean. ‘Warm On A Cold Night’ introduced a sound which has become instantly-identifiable as HONNE’s. In Andy, too, the band have a singer of remarkable depth, whose emotional restraint and veneer of self-control would mirror the keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude underlining their snapshots of modern romance.
Over 20 million Spotify streams, several Hype Machine number 1s and sell-out worldwide tours later, HONNE are writing songs which feel both quintessentially of the moment yet charmingly gentleman-like in their worldview. Their debut album captures, they say, “the good days and bad of relationships in 2016” – a time where we’re told to settle for nothing less than a soulmate and yet risk treating dating like any other online experience, browsing endlessly, swiping left or right, and weighing up any of the overwhelming number of choices all around us. “We were terrible at being single,” the band say now. “It’s always been about the search for something more meaningful.”
There are songs, then, about trying to make that connection – the silky, sepulchral ‘All in The Value’ (“I never thought that I’d have the nerve to / tell you my world is crushed now without you”) – and others about the difficulty nowadays of doing that (see recent single ‘Gone Are The Days’, which suggests you go and find someone who’ll appreciate you instead). The gospel-tinged uplift of ‘Good Together’ celebrates that honeymoon-period – however long it lasts – on an album whose sleepy sexuality often lies just beneath the surface, comfortable in its own skin: ‘The Night’ is the sort of attitude-heavy, simmering slow-jam few would dare put into a text, let alone song. And it’s this tension between your public self and what you might privately want to tell someone which is threaded into this debut album, blurring that line where “Honne” meets “tatemae”.
A record so positive in its view of point-of-view on relationships lends itself naturally to a female voice: first with JONES, a fellow online-favourite who the band teamed up with on beautiful EP track ‘No Place Like Home’. Then came a collaboration with Izzy Bizu, with whom HONNE released breakout collaborative single ‘Someone Who Loves You’ this summer: they met over Twitter (where else?) and soon produced a track fundamentally about forbidden love, “but from both sides of the story.” And it’s this empathetic quality, neither Alpha nor Beta, which led to tracks like ‘Woman’, which describes this sense of “knowing you are cared for and care for the ones around you, whether that’s a girlfriend, a mother, or a best friend.”
Here are sincere but never-saccharine songs written for the right reasons, and in the shape of Andy, HONNE have the sort of figurehead that you would almost dub an anti-frontman (a theme which is picked up on in ‘One At a Time Please’, based on their smalltown upbringing). “I feel like there’s a lot of pressure in what people think a frontman should be,” he notes, “and that they should perhaps have an arrogance about them.” James thinks about this. “I don’t think it would be right for someone with arrogance to sing our songs. Andy’s the kind of person who’ll do anything for you, but his parents will ask me privately what’s going on in his life because he wouldn’t tell them. This is about us – and people like us – getting better at expressing themselves.”
And if such openness – inspired by everything from Japanese culture to US hip-hop, all in the sometimes-brutal dating climate – feels unnatural to guys like HONNE, it’s not entirely out of character. “My mum told me only the other day,” says Andy, “that when I was a child I always used to say to my friends ‘I’ll end up in your record collections one day.'” Turning that rare moment of immodesty into a reality has resulted in an album which “isn’t about one ex, cataloguing where things went wrong, or writing something completely devotional either. But when these songs are about relationships, they’re hopefully about the good aspects – trying harder or doing more for the other person, so as to ultimately find something rewarding.” For all its forward-thinking electronics and online noise, then, ‘Warm On a Cold Night’ is ultimately a back-to-basics album – of old-school romance, timeless songwriting, and two very modern souls.