Following his run with Everything But The Girl and success as both a DJ and a label owner, the acclaimed British musician now turns his attention to solo work as a singer-songwriter.
BY DAVE STEINFELD
Ben Watt is best known to many people as being the male half of Everything But The Girl. The English duo — which consisted of Watt and Tracey Thorn, who later became his wife — released an eclectic and prolific series of albums between 1984 and 1999. Commercially, they hit their pinnacle with the song “Missing.” Originally released on their 1994 disc Amplified Heart, the Todd Terry remix hit number two on the pop charts here in the States and essentially provided the musical template for their next, more electronic phase. But the fact is, Everything But the Girl (like Watt himself) always defied easy categorization. Their albums drew on many genres, ranging from folk music to boss nova, before the general public took note of them for “Missing.”
Although it was Thorn who took lead vocals on the vast majority of EBTG songs (and, to be fair, has one of the most sublime voices in popular music), to these ears the rare songs that Watt sang were always highlights. “25th December” (which also appeared on Amplified Heart) and “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” (from the earlier Idlewild), were concise, beautiful songs that dealt with family — a subject that Watt has returned to repeatedly in his work.
Everything But The Girl went on an indefinite hiatus around the turn of the new millennium but Watt has stayed busy since then — mostly as a DJ and label owner. He immersed himself further in electronics and dance music, producing remixes for Sade (who first emerged on the scene around the same time as EBTG did), Maxwell, Zero 7 and others. In 2003, he launched his label Buzzin’ Fly (in typically eclectic fashion, Watt took the name from a song by the late singer-songwriter Tim Buckley). He also co-founded the deep house club series Lazy Dog in his native London and, on a more general level, became a presence to be reckoned with in house music for much of the decade… Which is why the two projects he unveiled in 2014 took much of his recent fan base by surprise.
Last year, Watt released both a book and an album he’d been working on for some time. The book, Romany and Tom, is an exhaustive and moving memoir about his parents. (It’s actually Watt’s second tome; Patient, released in 1996, chronicles his brush with the rare autoimmune disease Churg-Strauss Syndrome, which altered his appearance considerably and almost cost him his life.) The album, Hendra, is also his second. Watt actually released a solo effort called North Marine Drive back in 1983 but it made much bigger waves in the UK than it did here. So in a sense, he took three decades and change to release his sophomore album — a fact whose humor is not lost on him. “Sometimes I laugh and think it could be the definition of the difficult second album,” says Watt. “It certainly has been a long time coming.”
Good things often take time, though, and Hendra was well worth the wait. The 10-track disc finds Watt collaborating primarily with guitarist Bernard Butler (formerly of Suede) and Berlin-based producer Ewan Pearson. These two artists provide him with a lush musical background well suited to his lyrics. Hendra is a deeply personal album and many of its songs deal with loss and aging. “The Levels,” which features a cameo from David Gilmour on guitar [see a video of the two above] is sung from the point of view of Watt’s late half-sister’s husband shortly after her death, while “Matthew Arnold’s Field” finds the singer preparing to empty the urn which contains his father’s ashes. The haunting title track is sung from his half-sister Jennie’s point of view. “Young Man’s Game” takes a slightly tongue in cheek look at the club world while “The Gun,” though also inspired by an experience that Watt had, is somewhat less personal and more sociopolitical. All of these tracks are worth hearing and some are excellent. But best of all may be “Forget.” The second song on Hendra, it pulls off that rare feat of being both infectious and haunting at the same time and is notable as much for what he says as for what he doesn’t say.
I had the chance to speak with Watt shortly before the holidays, on one of the rainiest mornings in recent memory, when he passed through New York City on his first series of non-DJ dates ever in America. [Below: Ben Watt in 1982]
BLURT: You have two projects out this year…. I was up last night finishing your book, and then I listened to the album again this morning. And certain songs that didn’t hit me before I read the book hit me in a different way now. “Matthew Arnold’s Field” was one. I didn’t know exactly what that was about until this morning.
One thing that struck me was the chapter in the book where you talk about screaming at [your] therapist about Tracey, about this and that… You said, “I lacked any authenticity in my art.” One thing that’s always struck me about your work, and more so after reading this book, is that it couldn’t get any more authentic. I’m not in your skin but I listen to a lot of music. Your stuff is pretty fucking authentic, you know? So I guess I’m wondering what led you to make a statement like that.
Yes, you’re right. The actual content of what I write I try and make as authentic as possible. But I’m very aware you’re often judged in this business on your form, on your genre. And I sometimes feel that because I present this moving target — one day I’m a writer, the next minute I’m a house DJ, the next minute I’m a label owner, the next minute I’m a singer/songwriter — I wonder whether I don’t give people enough time to get what I’m doing. Therefore, they kind of push me to one side and think “He lacks authenticity because he’s not one thing or the other.”
I think we live in a [time], certainly within music, where people are given credit for doing one thing, sticking with it, [being] true to their roots, never changing. Personally, that doesn’t interest me a huge amount. I really like people [who] work in different mediums, you know, who basically have a central voice which they then use within different forms. But that’s perhaps not as accepted within rock and roll.
Tell me a little bit about what it was like doing a solo album after 30 years.
It was like skydiving. It was just sitting at the edge of the plane and finally just, “Gotta go! Let’s do it.” And there was a bit of free fall about it. I had to make sure there were people around me who were supportive. And I got a great team together, Ewan [Pearson] and Bruno, who recorded the [album], were really great. Bernard, of course, was very central to it and got it very quickly. So that was very important to me.
But I made it out of a sense of compulsion, in the end. I mean, it’s something that’s been at the back of my mind for years. I had an emerging career. When I look back, I realize that my first single was produced by Kevin Coyne… There was a real beginning there. I got a full page in Melody Maker and people were saying, “He’s a bit like Tim Buckley, he’s a bit like John Martyn.” You know, I was on the map. But then, of course, I ran into Tracey. I thought that might take three months and of course it took 20 years. Suddenly, we’re a lot further down the track. And then I got diverted by dance music and electronic music… But I think that small voice of ‘When are you gonna do something on your own again?’ was always there. The real kicker for it was when I was finishing Romany and Tom. Because the person I most wanted to read it — and probably the person who was most looking forward to reading it — was Jennie, my half-sister. And just as I was finishing the book, she was diagnosed with late stage lung cancer. Three weeks later, she was dead and it was like, bang! She never got to read the book and, you know, it knocked everyone for six. I went into that Christmas in a bit of a daze. But I came out of it last year, January last year. And that’s when I realized [that] I had to write something else. It stirred something up in me, and all the songs for Hendra pretty much came out in that period.
So it wasn’t like a storehouse of songs?
No! There were a couple of things. “Matthew Arnold’s Field” — not long after my Dad died in 2007, I wrote the song. But at that point, I was DJ’ing, I was running [a label and] this song came out of nowhere. I didn’t know what to do with it. And because I didn’t think I was going to be making an album with that song, I ended up re-telling the story in Romany and Tom, in prose! Then when it came round to Hendra, Tracey said, “Are you gonna do that song about your Dad?” I said, “Well, I’ve just written about it in the book.” And she said, “Oh no, sing it as well. It’s such a great song.”
Even the songs you sung lead on with Everything But The Girl have always resonated with me. And your book Patient also did because I have a chronic stomach ailment. I read an interview with you in the ‘90s where you said something like, “I go to clubs, I have a big song on the charts, people treat me like gold… And then I go to doctors and talk about my bowel movements. If there’s a God, he certainly has a strange sense of humor.” (Watt laughs) I read that 20 years ago and there’s a reason why I still remember it. You know, I don’t remember certain things that happened last week. But that really resonated with me — the disparity of these two simultaneous pieces of your life. So I wanted to tell you that, and ask you about the weirdness of living two lives at once. I don’t know with Churg–Strauss Syndrome if you’re ever completely in remission.
Well, not really. You know, that trigger in my immune system has been switched on now. I have to take drugs to keep it suppressed — and I take them every day of my life. Without them, it would almost certainly come back. So, you know, it’s managed. I lead a full life and I’m touring the world, I’m playing every night. I can do all that stuff. But of course, it’s always in the back of my mind. (long pause) I don’t know whether it’s a kind of driver in some sort of way. I mean, Tracey would say that I’ve always been driven. I talk about that in Patient. A lot of people [told] me after that experience, “Oh my God! Life must seem so much more gorgeous now. The sky must be bluer, having gone to death and back.” And I say, “Yes, up to a point. But I’ve always wanted to live with a kind of drive in life.” I think it’s part of my upbringing, part of my relationship with my parents. I’ve always had this urge to prove myself, to communicate in a very direct, emotional way with people.
So I’ve always had that about me. But perhaps it’s been slightly amplified by my experiences. I’m very aware that life is fragile.
With the title song — does “Hendra” represent something specific?
Oh yeah. I was talking about Jennie. You know, I talk about in Romany and Tom how she was very unlucky in her early years. Suffered neurosis, fucked up all her 20s, all her education pretty much. She was one of triplets from my mother’s first marriage [and] while her brothers were going to University and getting careers, she was dealing with this shit. It took her a long time to shake it off. She ended up married to a guy called Eddie. They ran a tiny corner shop in a small village in the west of England. Groceries, amenities — nothing glamorous at all. Lived above the shop. Up at five, not to bed until 10 — you know, it was tough.
But [whenever] she could get away, she used to [tell] me about going to this place called Hendra. It turned out that she and Eddie had taken this place on the edge of Cornwall. It was a little house that they used to get to, to try and get away from the shop. When she died, I looked it up. And it turned out that not only was it the name of the road on which this house was located, it was also a very old Cornish word. “Hendra” means “home” or “farmstead.” Dotted around Cornwall, you’ll find all these places: Hendra Farm, Hendra Road, Hendra Beach. It struck me as not only very personal because of Jennie’s connection [but] I liked its sort of semi-mythological quality. It almost sounds like something Greek and unknowable. All these things just sort of came together in my mind. I mean, the album, in a way, is a coming home to something: me coming back to my songwriting. So “Hendra” just bubbled up as the perfect name for the record.
And “The Levels.” My friend Anuja and I both found that song really haunting. Was that sung from Jennie’s husband’s perspective?
Of course, yeah. That’s his perspective now. It’s a song about what Eddie, her husband, was left with. And how he couldn’t hear to go back to the shop, basically, after she died. I just tried to write a simple song about grief and fortitude, if you like, and how the two things have to go hand in hand. You know, you feel you can’t get up in the mornings but you have to get up in the mornings. It’s that Samuel Beckett thing, you know? “I can’t go on, we must go on.”
So yeah, that’s pretty much what that song is about. And I think, in a way, that’s a lot of what the [whole] record’s about. It’s about resilience. It’s about finding those methods to get to the next day after we’re hit by another blow in life. Saul Bellow says, “Life comes in blows.”
“The Gun” is a song that seems a little bit less personal but I like that one a lot. And I think this year it’s probably taken on more meaning, at least in America, than you probably even thought it would when you wrote it. In England, if I remember, policemen don’t carry guns.
No. They have to be licensed to or it has to be kind of activated as part of a specific situation.
“The Gun” was [inspired] again by something that happened to me… I was in southern California a few years ago. I went for a walk along a beach, got lost, tried to get back onto the road and found myself in this gated community. I’d never been in one before and [I] actually found it quite spooky. There was no one around. It was just CCTV cameras, armed response signs, there was a patrol car going by. And these huge, opulent houses overlooking the ocean, just patrolled and protected by private security. At the same time, I happened to read a couple of stories in one of the local papers — one about a boy who was killed by a random bullet. There was another report, in USA Today actually, about the escalation in casual gun use as a recreational sport. And it just [all] came together as a story in my mind. How any amount of wealth, opulence and private security won’t protect you from grief if you live within a casual gun culture. That was sort of the idea behind the song.
What inspired “Forget?”
It’s a past relationship song. About how stuff stays with you and can be very vivid. You may regret the end of that particular relationship, and it may be something that you can never shrug off and wish you’d done things differently. But as with the rest of the record, it’s something you just have to accept.
It’s quite a simple song, really. I think that line in “Forget” is perhaps the most quoted line from the album. “You can push things to the back of your mind but you can never forget.” Everybody seems to bring that up when they talk about the record. It sticks with them. [But] when I wrote it, I didn’t actually register that as being quite so catchy (laughs). I prefer the slightly darker, more metaphorical language in that song. I like the lines like “I saved a creature from the heat of the fire.” [Below: Watt performing in 2014 at Joe’s Pub in NYC]
I do wanna ask you about “25th of December.” It’s so simple but so beautiful. I imagine that was also autobiographical?
Mmm-hmm. Well, obviously it’s set on Christmas Day. I think I talk about being 30 in the song. It sketches a quick picture of what Christmas was like and [also] about how your relationship with your parents remains complicated even as they get older. How it’s difficult for parents being parents. How you can be 30 and still feel you don’t know anything. And then the last verse is in a different location. It’s actually in the Oxford house, where my parents lived in their 60s. You’ll know about that because it’s in Romany and Tom. And just about how this clunkiness in your relationship with your parents keeps going on throughout your life. There’s the image of my mother: she’s stormed out of the house [and] she’s crying on the towpath, by the river. And I’m sitting at the top of the stairs, you know, angry again at how we’ve come to blows in some argument. But then feeling the urge to repair — to pick up a key that’s too big for my hands and somehow unlock this problem between us. I think in some ways [that song] is a precursor to the whole relationship with my parents in Romany and Tom.
Relationships remain difficult. And what do you do? You walk away or you try and unlock them.
On a totally different tack — you said that early on, some of the comparisons with your music were to Tim Buckley. And your label was called Buzzing Fly. I’m just curious: are you a Tim Buckley fan?
I very much like the early Tim Buckley [stuff]. I really like Blue Afternoon and I like the first album. Lots of people go on about the ‘freer’ records, like Lorca and Starsailor, which I don’t really care [for]. But I love that fluidity. It’s like the great [Van] Morrison records — you know, Veedon Fleece, Astral Weeks — where you’re reaching into music that isn’t rock. You’re borrowing from folk and from jazz but you’re trying to create a fluidity — a sort of transcendence within the flow of the music. I’ve always been really attracted to that.
I became aware of those people at a very early age. You know, this was post-punk. But somehow I stumbled people like Kevin Coyne and Robert Wyatt and Tim Buckley and John Martyn. I discovered Nick Drake in 1982. Nobody was talking about Nick Drake at that point! I remember doing a radio session in Manchester for Mark Radcliffe, who’s become one of the leading radio DJs on 6 Music, a modern day John Peel kind of figure. He reminded me when we spoke recently about how I’d gone to do a radio session in his early days as a DJ. We were in this house together and I was rifling through all these records and I pulled out these Nick Drake records. [Mark said], “I have no idea who you’re talking about. Who is this guy?” And now, of course, he’s absolutely lionized.
To bring it full circle, what do you have on the horizon for 2015? Are you gonna continue supporting Hendra? Do you wanna take a breather for awhile? Is Everything But The Girl totally finished? Do you have something entirely different in the works?
Well, the first thing I’d say is I have never planned anything in my life. I just wait for the moment to arrive and then incrementally I seem to make up my mind about what I want to do. I think with me, it’s lots of tiny decisions — which I’m not really aware that I’m making — and then I just suddenly find that this is the position I’m in and this is what I want to do next.
That said, obviously there are two sets of competing sets of pressures on me now. Romany and Tom has done very well; Bloomsbury are very excited with its success. It just got nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize in the UK, which is like a National Book Award kind of thing, which they’re jumping up and down about. I didn’t win it but I got nominated. And they like the style of my writing so now they’re [asking if I would] consider writing a novel for them. My editor is Alexandra Pringle who looks after Richard Ford [and] William Boyd. You know, I’m thinking, “Fuck! Is she really serious? She wants me to write a novel?” (laughs) I’m slightly flattered and slightly daunted by that. So that’s in my mind. But then of course, I’m very much enjoying touring and singing and playing guitar and working with Bernard. I’ve written some new songs recently. So I think I just wanna take a break over Christmas and wake up in the new year and I’ll make a decision [but] I’m not quite sure which one it’ll be.
In terms of Everything But The Girl, it really is on a near-permanent hiatus. I never say never about anything. But in the foreseeable future, I can’t see me and Tracey reactivating the name. You know, we’re both very happy in the solo careers that we’ve carved out for ourselves. We’re creative people and I would much rather be in [this] position than be doing the nostalgia circle and having to live off stuff I wrote 20 years ago.
You know, we all love to go see Fleetwood Mac. But what’s it really like being Fleetwood Mac? I just read [that] they’re headlining The Isle of Wight Festival next year. And I just think we are absolutely obsessed with the past. I think there’s a new generation of young music writers and music fans who are basically jealous that they missed the heyday of rock and roll — you know, the late ’60s, ’70s, up to the early ’80s.
Yeah, I feel like the late ’60s/early ’70s was one heyday and the late ’70s/early ’80s was another. I’m used to people saying, “There’s no good music anymore. It’s not like when we were growing up!” And my response is, “There’s plenty of good music — by both new and older artists.” The difference — at least in America, I don’t know if this is true in the UK — but in America, when I was a kid, you could turn on the radio and hear a lot of that good music. You can’t do that anymore. You have to seek it out. And people sometimes don’t know where to seek it out. I have a lot of it sent to me because of my work so I have an advantage in that sense. But it’s out there!
Of course it is. We’re wading chest-high through a deluge of new music… I mean, the barriers to production [and] distribution of music have come down. You can make great-sounding albums on a laptop, in your house. You can distribute them on the Internet for nothing. You can build up a fan base with very little marketing spent… Inevitably, we are living in an absolute flood of music. But that means there is very, very good music out there. It’s just [that] you need a good filtering system to find it.
But it also drives the rewards in music right back down to base level. [If] the market’s flooded, what happens to the price? It goes way down. And that’s why lots of people aren’t making any money [from] music anymore.
You talk about resilience. Everything is relative but you’ve been dealt a certain amount of success and a certain amount of blows in your life so far. And the blows have been pretty big ones. How do you find the resilience? When you wake up on the days when you don’t wanna get out of bed, what gets you out of bed?
(long pause) If lack of resilience — depression, if you like — is a kind of paralysis of motivation, it’s just trying to find those things in life that make you motivated. At the moment, I do feel very motivated by what I’m doing. In some ways, I feel like I’m just following up my first album. And that feels like a huge battle ahead — which it is in many ways. You know, Everything But The Girl kind of means nothing [now]. All of my success as a DJ and running Buzzin’ Fly [Records] for 10 years means nothing. I’m suddenly saying, “No, actually I’m a singer-songwriter again and this is the follow-up to North Marine Drive. Come and see me on this basis.” And it’s not as though people are flooding through the doors of these clubs to come and see me. It’s a battle. I’m playing to hundreds, rather than thousands, of people — sometimes tens of people! I [went] to Phoenix and I played to 80 people the other night. And I’m not ashamed to say that. I accept that’s part of the process. It’s part of what I was talking about, about presenting this moving target. You know, constantly doing different things. But what it does mean is that the people who do come to the shows are incredibly into it. [Below: Watt DJing in 2009]
Oh yeah! My friend who I brought to your show at Joe’s Pub was blown away. And she didn’t know anything about you. I’m not so much into the dance scene myself, so I really knew your work from Everything But The Girl and reading Patient. When I found out you were doing a sort of singer-songwriter album, I thought “Wow, that’s the guy that I remember!”
A lot of people feel that way. I think what’s happened is that I’ve reactivated that fan base [or] whatever you want to call it. That group of people who remember me from that period who are looking forward to hearing Hendra but hoping I’m gonna sing “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” and “25th of December” and all that kind of stuff. Which I do, because I still love those songs. But I also thought what I’d do is bring a younger generation who’d been interested in Buzzin’ Fly and my DJ-ing along for the ride as well. I think that I’ve been slightly thrown off track by how few of those people have come with me on this journey.
They’re two very different worlds.
Well, they are. We’re going back to [what] I was talking about earlier on. I’m interested in people who have content but do different things with different forms. But perhaps I have to accept that the general public out there aren’t so nimble in their decision making.
You just feel, “Look. It’s not hard to make a connection with people. It doesn’t matter what background they come from. You know, it doesn’t matter if they’ve been into heavy metal all their life or they’ve been a deep house DJ. Just walk into the room, I’ll come to the front of the stage and I’ll tell you some stories that you will see yourself in.” That’s all I’m trying to do here.
Photos by Edward Bishop, Richard Haughton, David Corio and Greg Cristman. Ben Watt will be playing selected UK dates during the spring—there will also be a special “In Conversation” appearance April 18 that also features EBTG bandmate Tracey Thorn. Full details at Watt’s website.