For two decades the singer Ben Watt was better known as one half of Everything But the Girl, the musical duo formed with his now wife, Tracy Thorn. But now, after a further decade spent as a DJ and boss of his own record label, Watt has returned to singing and songwriting.
In 2014 Watt released Hendra, his first solo album since 1983’s North Marine Drive. This was followed with Fever Dream (2016) and, at the start of this year, by his fourth solo album, Storm Damage. In March Watt brings music from these albums to Southbank Centre for a gig in Queen Elizabeth Hall.
Ahead of this we spoke to Watt about making that return to recording and performing, and about inspirations and collaborations.
What prompted you to return to singing and songwriting in 2014 after more than a decade away?
I had been fascinated by electronic music and clubland for over ten years in the wake of Everything But The Girl stopping. It led me into DJing and running my own label, but I began to tire of it. I began to miss words, and songs, and writing and playing with other musicians.
The first thing I did was to write a book, Romany and Tom, a portrait of my parents' marriage that was published by Bloomsbury. As I was finishing it my half-sister, Jennie – to whom I was close – died unexpectedly. It triggered another wave of writing – this time, songs. It led to Hendra, released in 2014; it was my first solo album since North Marine Drive in 1983, recorded prior to Everything But The Girl forming. A 31 year gap.
Was it odd going back to recording and performing solo, having been part of Everything But The Girl for so long?
No, it felt surprisingly familiar. Like finding an old well-loved jacket at the back of the wardrobe. There was anxiety and some nerves at the first show, and my voice took a while to find its strength again, but I realised how much I had missed it and how much it was what I had always wanted to do since I was boy.
Your previous two albums, Hendra and Fever Dream saw you working with Bernard Butler. What was that like? Had the two of you crossed paths much prior to the collaboration?
We met by chance at a party in north London in 2013. We knew of each other obviously, but had never met. We circled round each other a bit at first. Bernard came over to play guitar one afternoon and it was a bit awkward, but I didn't really have any material at that point. Once I'd written four of five songs for Hendra I invited him back and it really clicked – that twin-guitar thing. I kept that going up across two albums. It was great, but in the end I felt I needed to explore other ideas too.
You’re going to be joining us off the back of your new album Storm Damage, what was the inspiration behind this recording?
I hit a low point in 2017. My half-brother died. It was only a few years after Jennie. It seemed so random. I found it hard to write. And every time I turned on the TV the world seemed to be imploding. I felt quite powerless. Eventually I found a way out and it was by sitting at the piano not the guitar. And then I got the idea for the sound of the album – a piano trio recorded with a lot of passion, but surrounded by a soundscape of distressed samples, sound FX, lone synths.
What are you hoping listeners will take from the resulting album?
Hope, ultimately. The songs visit some dark places at times but there is always light. And also a feeling for the mood and beauty and human spirit we tried to capture along the way.
Do you have a favourite track among them? Or does that change dependent on the situation?
I like them all for different things. I also see flaws in all of them. Choosing a favourite is perhaps something for the listener to do.
Storm Damage also sees a guest appearance from Low’s Alan Sparhawk. How did that come about?
I met Alan in London in 2004. I was DJing and remixing a lot at the time. I asked him if I could remix a Low song; ‘Tonight’, from the Trust album. Alan was very open to the idea. It was released on my label, Buzzin' Fly. We met again in Minneapolis in 2016, when I was touring Fever Dream. I asked Alan to open the show with a solo appearance. He played some lovely scratchy improvised guitar to start his set. I loved it and said he had to do something like on my next record.
We’ve already mentioned a couple of collaborations, but if you were able to work with any artist out there – one you haven’t yet had the opportunity to do so – who would it be?
I never plan or look ahead. I don't have a bucket list. I just wait for the future to arrive.
What comes next for you after this gig? Writing more music, or writing more books?
Dates across North America, and then across to Japan and down to Australia. I'm not home until May, at which point I'll probably just want to put my feet up. For a bit anyway.