Ben Howard, ‘Call Me Maybe’: Folk Singer Says His Viral Cover of Carly Rae Jepsen Hit Was Like Going ‘To the Belly of Hell’

Ben Howard and Carly Rae Jepsen

Ben Howard and Carly Rae Jepsen

Carly Rae Jepsen’s insidiously catchy “Call Me Maybe” isn’t just a number one single. The song has become a full-blown pop-cultural phenomenon, inspiring memes, viral videos starring everyone from Justin Bieber to the Harvard baseball team, and faithful covers by artists like fun..

From this mass of giggles, giddy dance moves and exuberant singalongs, one particular cover has emerged from the crowd. Haunting, pensive and delivered with just a little bit of a smirk, Ben Howard’s take is a very different beast. Even the motivation behind the British folk singer’s take on “Call Me Maybe” is more like an experiment than straight tribute. Faced with a list of pop songs that they could cover as part of their appearance on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Howard and his band simply picked the least offensive.

“We really didn’t have many options,” the mostly soft-spoken singer/songwriter says. “It was one of those classic ‘choose a song from the playlist things’ and there was just so much shit on the playlist. It got whittled down to about three different options and I suppose Carly Rae Jepsen’s song was the best one of the three, really. We thought it would be funny. If you’re going to look for the devil, you may as well go to the belly of hell.”

While evocations of satan and hell aren’t the most flattering things that have ever been said about Jepsen’s epic earworm of a hit single, Howard is quick to point out that he thinks it’s a genuinely good tune. It’s just not something that you’d ever find in his own personal record collection.

“It’s an incredible song, but it’s not the sort of song that I would listen to. I’d say I’d probably hate it,” he admits with a laugh. “But it’s a great song.”

Oddly, it was the singer’s lack of attachment to the source material that really makes his version of “Call Me Maybe” what it is. It allowed him to play around with the sound and feeling and make it his own in a way that he really couldn’t with a piece of music he genuinely adores.

“I rarely do covers of songs because the songs you want to cover are songs you like, really. But a lot of songs I like, they’re untouchable,” Howard muses. “Like ‘Hallelujah.’ Everyone covers Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ and Jeff Buckley did what is really the definitive version and I don’t see why people are still trying to do covers of it.”

Another song that he considers untouchable is Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” a version of which just so happens to appear on Carly Rae Jepsen’s Curiosity EP, right alongside “Call Me Maybe.” Howard has heard CRJ’s popped up take on the Canadian classic, and he can’t say that he’s a big fan.

“It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” the singer says, admitting that he’s not one to mince words. “It’s really weird, what she did to it.”

Howard finds the cover so distasteful that it makes him question Jepsen’s folk rock roots.

“If she was a Joni Mitchell fan, then surely she wouldn’t have touched that song,” he says.

Luckily for Ben and his crew, the public’s response to his own cover have been far more favorable. Pop and folk fans alike have taken to the song, making it a minor viral sensation. The singer is more amused than anything by the response.

“I think when you do a cover, you’ve got to do something different and you’re going to step on a few toes and people are going to hate it or people really enjoy it. I think, on the whole, it’s been positive,” he theorizes. “It was interesting to branch out into a new audience of a lot of mainstream pop fans and just kind of doing… we just jammed it out in a day and thought it would be funny. And then, all of a sudden, everyone’s got an opinion on it and people are taking it all so seriously. It was a just a laugh, to be honest.”

Anyone who appreciates the singer’s soft and broody cover will likely be a fan of his debut album, Every Kingdom, as well. Although the subject matter isn’t quite the same, trading flirtation for broken relationships and the slightly eerie presence of nature, the raw and passionate folky sound is similar. When asked if his “Call Me Maybe” is the perfect Ben Howard gateway drug, the singer says “Hopefully. I guess we definitely did put our stamp on it.”

Recently converted North American fans will have a chance to see the folk artist in the flesh when he returns for a more extensive tour of Canada and the U.S. this fall. After an impressive first round of shows on this side of the Atlantic earlier this year, he’s eager to come back.

“We had a real fun tour last time, just some amazing gigs,” he recalls. “Better gigs than we ever could have hoped for. The shows in New York and Toronto and Montreal just blew our minds a little bit. We were expecting to play little venues and for people to not really get it, but it was just great vibes off of everyone. So we’re really looking forward to coming back.”

And if karma happens to pay him back in the form of a bunch of Canadians and Americans covering his music, Howard is ready. It’s already started to happen across the pond.

“I’ve heard a few,” he says. “There’s some amazing little covers. I always love watching other people’s interpretations. I think as soon as you put a song into the public, part of it is no longer yours. I’m quite happy to let people interpret it and see how they get on. Some of them are awful, but some of them are pretty great.”

This story originally appeared June 4, 2012 on the AOL Spinner website.

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