English singer-songwriter, Keaton Henson, concluded his 2016-17 tour at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on February 11th. Henson, known for his crippling anxiety and preference for performing with his back to the audience, makes no effort to conceal his aversion to the stage.
“You’re all fucking terrifying –” he said, finally addressing his Dublin audience after the third song “– in the best possible way.”
With a distinctive voice that cracks and fades when he speaks to the crowd, Henson’s warbling croon grows strong when he sings, managing to convey his sorrow. Henson played songs from Dear (2010 debut album), Kindly Now (newest album, released in 2016), Romantic Works (an exclusively instrumental compilation featuring cellist, Ren Ford), and, what appeared to be the crowd’s favorite, Birthdays (2013).
His father an actor and mother a professional ballet dancer, Henson comes from a family of London-based performers. Keaton began his creative career as an illustrator, publishing a wordless graphic novel called Gloaming in 2012. At that time his song-writing was confined to the solitude of his bedroom and it wasn’t until the demand of his cult following grew exponentially in 2014 that Henson began performing live.
Henson referenced his reluctance to performing for an audience when introducing his cellist to the full-house before him at the Olympia:
“A good few years ago when I was beginning to be forced to play live I said, ‘I don’t want to do it alone.’ I said, ‘find me a cellist.’” He gestured to the man with the cello seated beside him. “Reinoud has got me through hell. Thank you so much, mate.”
Henson has emphasized his preference for connecting with his fans virtually rather than physically. While the Internet has enabled Henson to reach his listeners without facing them, live performances are an inevitability for successful musicians. Many other notable artists, such as Adele, Barbara Streisand and Eddie Van Halen, are also said to suffer from stage fright and have described pre-show vomiting, alcoholism and the use of anti-anxiety medication as a result.
Psychiatrists have classified ‘stage fright’ or performance anxiety as a form of social anxiety disorder which afflicts approximately 8% of the population. The condition can be so debilitating to performing artists that it was a topic at a musician’s health conference held in Galway in 2012.
For Henson, however, ingenuity and the Internet have enabled the reclusive talent to reach and affect his listeners from a distance that he finds comfortable. In 2012 Henson achieved an indirect live-performance by launching his aforementioned graphic novel in the form of a ‘live’ music art installation in which guests would, one-by-one, place their heads in a box that displayed a projection of Henson performing from another room. This gallery performance managed to incite a unique intimacy between Henson and his guests, simulating the loneliness his songs allude to while avoiding direct contact, perhaps further underscoring the tone of his music.
When he returned to the stage of the Olympia for the inescapable encore he warned his listeners:
“This is really, genuinely the last one – I couldn’t have asked for a better final audience.”
He left the stage Saturday night to a standing ovation.
Though his Dublin performance was the last stop of his 2016-17 tour – a fact he shared with relief – and he has no gigs scheduled for the remainder of 2017, perhaps this break from the stage will allow him more time in the bedroom to do what he does best: write indie folk music that accompanies melancholia and heartbreak.