Everything but the Girl’s Ben Watt Comes Full Circle on New Solo Album
Many artists would be grateful for that elusive chance to start fresh with a clean slate and a new sound -- one shot at reinvention. Ben Watt has had almost too many to count. After making his start with an album of solo acoustic pop in the early ‘80s, he immediately dropped it for the numerous iterations of Everything but the Girl, which progressed from jazz influences to jangly guitar rock to smooth R&B on the way towards dance music.
Post EBTG, he put in time as a radio DJ, label head, house music producer and remixer. Now he is releasing 'Hendra,' his first solo album under his own name since 1983, and one that brings him almost all the way back to the sound he started with.
Watt’s open ear is almost second nature. “I am attracted to singers and songs and rhythm not genres,” Watt tells us. Part of this stems from childhood: “My father and my older siblings had wide taste. I grew up listening to everything from Duke Ellington to Neil Young to Stevie Wonder to James Taylor.” Once Watt was exploring on his own, he continued this practice—as a teenager he remembers “seeing Joy Division and George Benson in concert in the same week.”
Watt “wanted to make a record that was true to [his] strongest influences.” Importantly, his formative musical experiences differ from most of his peers, who were changed irrevocably by punk and post-punk. “The years just before that were crucial to me,” Watt says. “I have always been drawn to less adorned records, directness, and ones where beauty is mixed with melancholy. Perhaps I saw a lot of that in early mid-'70s records.” He also sees it in the world around him. According to his website, one of the songs on 'Hendra,' 'Nathaniel,' was “inspired by a commemorative sign [Watt] saw by the side of a road.” He “was struck by its stark, emotional simplicity.”
The kind of early mid '70s records Watt has in mind here include several from the West Coast’s Laurel Canyon scene. In the fall, he wrote a post on his website titled “I love this record” after his first encounter with David Crosby’s 1971 album 'If Only I Could Remember My Name.' He also put a couple of mixes up on Soundcloud entitled, 'Deep Folk,' which offer a path into 'Hendra.' (For other interesting Watt-helmed mixtapes, look here.) The second installment includes, among other things, Bert Jansch, Van Morrison and Neil Young.
Though Watt’s decade as a producer was characterized by one-time collaborations or remixes -- working with Estelle on 'Pop A Cap In Yo’ Ass,' rearranging a Sade track -- he worked with a small group of players for all of 'Hendra.' Watt asserts that he is not in favor of the “slightly hysterical anxious approach to album making where collaborations and multiple producers are common-place.”
Instead, he “chose the musicians … who [he] thought would express the songs in the right way.” Lead guitar is handled by Bernard Butler, who Watt ran into at a barbeque. Butler started in the band Suede and has assembled an impressive and varied post-Suede credit list (Neneh Cherry, the Libertines). His solos sometimes sound like sober, filed-down takes on Neil Young. Martin Ditcham plays congas, as he did on Watt’s groovy remix of of Me'shell Ndegeocello’s 'Earth.'
True to Watt’s intentions, 'Hendra' shows his interest in the direct, the pretty, and the melancholy, filtered through ‘70s albums. Watt’s not the only artist interested in this musical period — Beck, for example, also channeled it on his recently released 'Morning Phase.' But while Beck looks to sustain his own gentle weather system with swathes of strings and reverb, Watt retains an interest in establishing a simple emotional connection and keeps his instrumentation basic.
Most of the songs work around acoustic guitar rhythms, with pointy but tasteful electric work. 'Forget,' the second track, evokes Lindsey Buckingham and vintage pop from Los Angeles, while 'Spring' has the easy keyboard melody of a ‘70s ballad from Todd Rundgren. 'The Levels,' with its mournful slide guitar, could be a country weeper.
'Golden Ratio' slips into a Brazilian tempo, reflecting another of Watt's long-standing sources of inspiration. In his “formative years," he heard the Getz-Gilberto collaborations, which his jazz musician father introduced him to. Watt “loved the warm sad sound,” and when he picked up a guitar, “Joao Gilberto was an early hero.” This will come as no surprise to those who know Watt’s early work. Much of 'North Marine Drive,' his first solo album (especially songs like 'Some Things Don’t Matter') reflects this style, as does 'Each and Every One,' from the first Everything but the Girl album.
In 'Hendra,' Watt battles repeatedly with uncertainty and tries to come to terms with his emotions. In 'No Regrets,' he sings, “Who am I fooling when I say I have no regrets? / You can push things to the back of your mind but you can never forget.” 'Golden Ratio' and 'Nathaniel' find him struggling internally, attempting to control his feelings without causing an explosion of bottled-up sentiment.
He even goes after his heart at one point, demanding to know why the darn thing is “so foolish” and “so weak.” The title track finds Watt conceding, “I must allow these feelings/ and just let them fall / But sometimes I turn the radio up so loud just to drown them all.”
In the graceful “Young Man’s Game,” Watt’s aging: “Not as good as I used to be at the late nights, but just look at me.” This is mere modesty though — he shows few signs of slowing down. His second memoir, 'Romany and Tom,' comes out this summer, and he told Billboard his first novel might be in the works. There’s always another reinvention around the corner.
Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Watt:
You’ve got a Brazilian sound on “Golden Ratio,” and your very first EBTG album had a Brazilian tune as well—in fact, hearing “Each and Every One” was what prompted me to delve deep into Brazilian music. What attracts you to Brazilian pop? What are some of your favorite Brazilian recordings?
To be honest my interest in that style of guitar and production pre-dates EBTG. I grew up with a jazz musician as a father. And when I was child I heard the Getz-Gilberto collaborations. I loved the warm sad sound. Later when I started playing guitar Joao Gilberto was an early hero. Then when I was 15 I heard the English folk-blues guitarist John Martyn and he seemd to take the style into a new place that I really connected with. I experimented with that syncopated chordal style, where you slap the strings of the guitar to add rhythm. It was first heard on my first EP in 1982. And it was a sound I then took into EBTG with Tracey in 1983. I am not an expert on Brazilian music by any means, but over the years I have listened to Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso.
Although you’ve worked with so many people over the years, you chose to work with a small tight group for most of the songs on the new album. What do you like about working with a small group for an entire group of songs? How did you choose who to work with?
Working with a small group of people is actually quite normal in my world. Historically it is how most albums have got made - just look at Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Studio 1, Joe Boyd records. It is only recently we have seen this slightly hysterical anxious approach to album making where collaborations and multiple producers are common-place. I chose the musicians on ‘Hendra’ who I thought would express the songs in the right way.
Your remixes are famous. Are you going to do any remixes of songs on this album? The hook of “Heart Is A Mirror,” for example, seems like it could also work as a great hook for a dance track.
No, at the moment I have no plans to remix anything.
Your upcoming book, Romany and Tom, is different from most musician’s memoirs, which generally tell tales of life on the road, partying, and try to settle scores with old band mates. What was it like to write the book? What made you decide to write a second memoir?
I only ever write out of compulsion. The story of my parents was a story that has been coming down the track towards me for years. I felt I would have to confront it one day. The process was rewarding. I felt I developed a new sympathy towards my mum and my dad - I saw their flaws and the things that made them human like all of us. I wrote it because I thought other people would see something of themselves in my experiences.