According to legend, Ben Watt found Tracey Thorn pretty much on their first day at Hull University via the uni's loudspeaker system. Both were signed to the indie label Cherry Red at the time, Watt as a solo singer/songwriter, Thorn as a member of the Marine Girls. His album debut "North Marine Drive" was released in 1983. From then on, he only sang alongside Tracey, his future wife.
Calling themselves Everything but the Girl, their songs were lyrically and melodically subtle, striking a quiet balance between jazz and folk before they hit the global charts thanks to a Todd Terry remix of their song "Missing". Exhausted and disillusioned with the ways of the commercial music world, they ended Everything but the Girl in around 1999. After that, Tracey Thorn occasionally sang with Massive Attack and Deep Dish, returning a few years ago with her first solo album. Ben Watt, on the other hand, immersed himself in the London club and DJ scene.
This spring, thirty years after his debut, he followed it up at last with a second solo album, "Hendra". Virtually simultaneously, he published a rather wonderful book, "Romany and Tom", where he delves deeply into the lives of his parents (his father a jazz musician, his mother a journalist). We meet Ben a few hours before he will play alongside the album's producer Bernard Butler at the St. Pancras Old Church in London - a beautifully intimate venue that fits Ben's ruminative new songs perfectly.
How long is it since you were last on a stage with a guitar?
Not that long, actually. I was touring with Bernard only in November. The first thing I did was last August. I was in the middle of writing this new album, Hendra, and I had almost all the songs written, and I decided to do a couple of tiny gigs in London, at the Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell, not much bigger than this, 150 people. Me and Bernard did two nights there. And really I just wanted to get approval. I wanted to know that these songs I’d written would connect. And it was a great night. People loved it. I said: "Look, I’m here to play new songs, I’m not here to play anything I did with Tracey. I might play some very very old stuff from before I met Tracey." 'cause in a way that’s the person I’m re-connecting with now. That person who stopped their career when they were 19 to work with Tracey. I wanna go back and connect with that person again. But everybody that night was great.And really straight after that I said, right, let’s record this record, I’m ready. In September we were in the studio recording. And then me and Bernard went out again for another week in November. Just me and him, and my stuff. I’m the singer and songwriter, he’s the lead guitarist. It feels great.
Is that 19 year old you want to reconnect with very different from the 50odd year old you are now?
It’s strange. I still feel exactly the same thrill in the anticipation of performing that I did back then. I’ve always loved getting on a stage and try to make something happen with an audience. I'm an extravert in that sense. Whereas Tracey is by her own admission an introvert, and she has struggled with the live performance. She prefers singing in studios. But for me, I’m 51 now, it feels very very similar to how it felt when I was 19. Great.
As you get older, you accumulate experience, skill and understanding. At the same time, on the physical side, things become a little more difficult. How are you experiencing this contrast?
Well, I mean – if we’re talking specifically about the live performance, I’d actually say I’m singing better now than when I was 19. I had much less control over my voice back then. I often sang in the wrong key, I sang too high, had less control over my voice. And let’s get this straight – I’ve always been somebody who’s had a problem with my voice. I’ve always been uneasy with it. Throughout the years with Everything but the Girl, I was obviously the secondary singer throughout that period. But when I got my moments to step up to the microphone, whether it was a song like “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing” or “25th of December”, the songs I sang, it was always with a bit of trepidation. Perhaps I was never really allowed much time,you know (pensive). So when it came to this record the first thing I did was just go downstairs, and I just sang, every night. I wanted to impress myself again. I wanted to love my voice. 'cause I thought, I can’t get on stage tonight if I don’t believe what I’m doing. But I actually really like the sound of my voice now, and I think that’s really important. And what I think of every night is – how lucky I am. What an opportunity this is in this age where we spend all day looking at screens, phones, laptops, in these isolated little worlds that we live in, tonight 150 people will get together in the promise of some kind of relationship. And I’m there, orchestrating that moment. Trying to get an interaction going. You should never underestimate how lucky I am to do something like that.
How would you compare this kind of connection, which you haven’t really done for 20odd years, to the kind of connection you made as a DJ?
In many ways it’s exactly the same. There is a great amount of emotional exchange that goes on in clubbing, particularly with good DJs playing good music. Let’s face it, I played a quite specialist form of house music, a deeper sound, usually to smaller crowds, people who perhaps didn’t need such big obvious gestures in the music, happy to go with the flow of the evening, to let the sound build in waves and then subside. I think it was a much subtler way of appreciating club-based music. But some nights, it’s very emotional – if you get the blend right, when you somehow manage to second-guess what it is that the audience wants. And I always used to like DJing at the beginning of the evening as well.
To be able to see how an atmosphere starts to build?
Yeah. A lot of DJs like to go on at peak time, you know, “I’m theSTAR”, but the idea of the empty dance floor tempting people to dance – and, you know, that moment when you first start dancing you’re very vulnerable.You’re saying: I’m exposing myself, in a way. I’m throwing off my quiet life, I’m giving myself up to this music. I felt it was a great responsibility, and an honour to be the person making this moment happen, bringing these people together.
In a situation like that you’re a conduit between someone else’s art and the audience, you facilitate other people to get to know this art. Whereas as a singer/songwriter you are everything in that situation.
But you’re still the conduit in the sense that the evening doesn’t work unless you find something in common. The thing that matters is the thing that we both go “I feel like that”. So my guitar and my voice and my songs are just a means for the audience to get through me to that feeling.
When did you release the last of those records?
I did a series of remixes around the time – between 2001 and about 2003, a series of remixes for people like Sade, Meshell N’degeochello, Zero7, Sunshine Anderson – when I was doing a club night in London called Lazy Dog.And then I set up Buzzing Fly in 2003, and it was mainly me finding young talents and putting their records out. But every now and then I’d do one of my own tracks. The last one I did was an underground track called “Guinea Pig” which was probably back in 2008.
I’m asking because I want to get the picture right. So, really, the last five years you have not released any music or written any songs that are out there. Weren’t you missing this kind of artistic expression?
No. I think at the end of the 90s with EBTG I did get to a point where I was getting a bit tired of words and songs and the mainstream and doing tours where you have to play your album. We just seemed to hit a ceiling.Tracey wanted to bring up the family anyway, and I wanted a change. And I actually discovered the world of clubbing and DJing and the ritual experience of clubbing, the sort of where the event, the evening, is bigger than the DJ.
I remember the last time I interviewed you with Tracey you’d just got into Drum’n’Bass, and it was such a different thing.
Yeah. For me it was like being shown a different instrument with which to express ideas. Two turntables and a mixer. It was probably a bit like when Beethoven moved over from the harpsichord to the grand piano. They said: "Hey Ludwig, have you heard this one? They’ve just made this." And he sat down and went CLANG! He must have thought, wow! Ta-Ta-Ta-Tam…must have sounded great. Must have sounded like an electric guitar to him. So when I realised I could actually move people, make connections with people with pre-recorded pieces of music it was a revelation to me and I was in my 30s. Most kids discover it when they’re 15. I loved experimenting with that for about ten years. It was really good. But you’re right, around 2008, 2009 I was coming to apoint where I thought: I might be getting a little bit burnt out with this now.And I was touring a lot as a DJ. This is the interesting thing with these interviews. I’m talking to rock journalists again now. And for the last 10 years I’ve been talking to dance journalists. And they knew what I’d achieved at that level. I was doing things like playing the closing set on a Sunday at Space in Ibiza which is as big as you can get, you know, I was doing residencies at Cielo in New York, I was doing all this stuff, playing at the Exit festival…
Such a weird contrast. From all we knew about you from EBTG days this hedonistic clubbing lifestyle is not something one would have associated with you.
Mhm. But it’s funny, people always use that word, "hedonistic", for clubbing. But it’s not a word I’d use for clubbing. YES, there is a hedonistic side to clubbing. There’s a hedonistic side to rock’n’roll, let’s face it. But for me the interesting point in all music is the emotional connection with people. I never got particularly wasted when I DJed. I just wanted to get in there and play records to people. If people wanted to get wasted, great. And I’d have a few drinks and relax and play. But it wasn’t like I was taking pills all night and waking up five days later. I was there for the music. And most of the people who came to see me DJwere into the music as well.
Was that an attitude you shared with lots of DJs, or were you out onyour own a bit?
No, I think – you’d be surprised, there is quite a strong strata of DJs who, like me, just like going out and play great music to people. They might have one night where they – you know, get off their head for a bit, but – I don’t know.
Then in the last five years you’ve rediscovered the word in a majorway.
Yeah. It started with writing the book.
How did you hit on the idea? Purely on a formal level, it’s an intriguing idea. Did you have the form from the start, or did you just start writing down your memories?
My Dad died in 2006. And I started to make some notes and stuff about it back then. Nothing really came together. I started the book seriously in the beginning of 2012. And it was only because I woke up one morning, and I didn’t know where it came from, whether it was from a dream or what, but suddenly I knew how I was going to finish the book. I knew I was a going to write this – basically I saved the affair, thegreat moment when my parents came together, I tell that whole section right at the end of the book. So you’ve had the whole experience of them as old people and all their ambitions, thwarted ambitions, and you think you understand them,and finally my Dad dies, and it’s at that point I go back and tell how they met. A lot of people found that very powerful. People have said that that’s quite moving, that part of the book. Which I’m obviously flattered they feel that, it’s exactly what I wanted it to be.
I found it powerful even half way through. I’m not sure I could do that, write about my parents with a sense of closeness, but an observatory stance as well, see the bitterness but also the pleasure.
It’s a question of being unsentimental. Being clear-eyed. That doesn’t mean you can’t be affectionate. But I think you have to have a little bit of distance on the story. If the story is good enough, just tell it.The emotion is what the reader puts into it. If I have to put my emotion into it, I’m trying too hard. You don’t wanna hear my emotion. I’m just thestory-teller. You wanna feel your emotion in there. And that’s my job, really.
Given the bitter blows your Dad received for being a musician, and a musician slightly out of his time, it’s amazing you still went into music yourself.
Well, I don’t suppose I was that aware as I am now exactly what it had meant to him and what had actually happened to him. The fact that his career was in decline almost from the day I was born. He’d had his heyday before I was born. It’s like I say at the beginning – we only ever see the downhill part of our parents’ lives. The golden years we have to go back and find again. But I just grew up with music all around me. My dad was playingJazz downstairs, my half-brothers and sisters were all nine, ten years older than me. Roy Harper, the Beach Boys, Lou Reed, James Taylor, Simon &Garfunkel. Everything from Roy Harper weirdness to mainstream singer songwriters.
You were brought up without sectarian musical prejudices.
Yeah. And my mother used to get albums sent to her because she was a journalist, 'cause sometimes she’d do a pop interview. And basically these free albums would come to the house and she’d offer them to the family, and if nobody wanted them they came to me. So I ended up with Neil Young’s “Decade”,'cause nobody wanted it, and Brian Eno’s “Before and After Science”. And they were BIG records for me growing up. I felt they were mine and no one else in the family knew about them. I played them to death. And I didn’t listen to Decade for years and then I bought it again on vinyl from a secondhand shop about 3 years ago and I played it from start to finish, and I could sing every single word.
That was part of your rediscovery act of you as a 19year old!
Yeah. I suppose. Yeah.
The book, was that also part of this reconnecting attempt?
I don’t think so. That was just me telling the story as I see it now. But I definitely felt I started something when I was 19, 20, on Cherry Red.With my first EP I turned round to my record label and said: do you think Robert Wyatt would sing with me. And they said: No, why would he? I said: He might – can I ring him? And they said: well, you can try. Somehow I got a phone number for him and I rang him up. I said: Look, you don’t know me, BUT you might like this and I’d love you to sing on this. And I managed to send him a cassette. He said it was great, and come over to my house. I went over to see him, he was living in Twickenham. I think some of the music I was trying to make back then, if I listen to it now – the lyrics I find very difficult now because they were very naïve. My voice is stretched and I find very awkward. But the music I’m very impressed by, even now, looking back. It’s not like other people. It’s got a little bit of John Martyn. It’s got a little bit of the Durutti Column. But it’s also me just plugging leads into boxes and trying to make a sound that I think sounds like John Martyn and Durutti Column, but it actually comes out as sounding like me.
How was the act of song writing different when you started to getback into it?
Well, the first thing I did was, I had to retune all my guitars.
To force yourself out of the rut of normal guitar playing?
Exactly, yeah. 'cause I didn’t want to go back to the same old shapes and the same old sounds. And once I’d done it once I got addicted to it. You’ll see it tonight, I’ll have about 6 or 7 guitars lined up on stage, 'cause they’re all in different tunings now. And that’s been very much the sound of the record.
Haha! Folk, really. It’s the origins of folk. Joni Mitchell had 54 different tunings! And I think that was the connection I made, not with Prog, but with people like Bert Jansch, Michael Chapman and Davy Graham and people.I went back and listened to those kind of records.
Isn’t it amazing how Michael Chapman has made a comeback – even Wire magazine is talking about Michael Chapman!
Yeah. I think it was after particularly when Light in the Attic, that Seattle label, they re-released his first two Harvest albums which hadn’t been heard for years, and they are his best albums. And it was ridiculous they were out of print. “Rainmaker” I love, and then “Fully Qualified Survivor”. The way he played as well, because he played with picks on his fingers. Plastic picks with steel strings. You listen to the recordings of those records, really aggressive. It’s like a kind of almost like a punk-folk sound, so bright. Which really struck me when I first heard it.
So you pulled yourself out of the tuning rut, and then you found thewords to go with it.
"Hendra”, where does that name spring from?
The song is about my sister who died 18 months ago, unexpectedly, she was only 58, and she was a shop keeper, a very modest life she had out in the countryside. It used to drive her mad. She finally saved up enough money and bought this house farther out in the country side, and the road was called Hendra. It’s where she used to go to get away from the drudgery of running the shop. But when I looked into it, “Hendra” is an old Cornish word. And it means “Home” or “Farm” and I thought it was just a beautiful word. Cause everyone who hears it thinks: what is it? Is it a mythical figure? Is it a Greek god? What does this word mean. It’s very evocative. And I like the way you don’t really know what it means. I’ve given you the meaning. But I think it’s less literal. I think a lot of the atmosphere of the record has a non-literal kind of feel to it. I wanted the title to reflect that.
Matthew Arnold doesn’t get into many pop albums.
It’s funny. We were rehearsing on Friday, and Bernard couldn’t remember what it was called, and he said: What’s that you’re doing on the piano, “Old McDonald’s Farm”, he said. Hahaha. So it’s now called “Matthew Arnold’s Farm” we’re calling it now.
I haven’t quite got a grip on the lyrics - how does Matthew Arnold get in there?
The story of the song is – I tell almost exactly the same story in the book. I actually wrote the song before the passage in the book. But it’s a song about scattering my father’s ashes. There’s a place outside Oxford called Boar’s Hill where he used to walk his dog. And it overlooks Matthew Arnold’s field. Which is this area of Oxford where Matthew Arnold is supposed to have walked. It’s a well-known beauty spot outside Oxford.
He’s meant to be quite otherworldly sort of poet, isn’t he?
I don’t know. I’m not a great Matthew Arnold expert.
Do you have another book planned?
I don’t know what I’m gonna do next. After I’d finished Romany and Tom, Bloomsbury said would I write a novel, 'cause they like my style. And I was very flattered and I walked about like an idiot for about 3 weeks thinking “hey, I’ve been a DJ, I’ve been a song writer, I’ll be a novelist now”. But of course nothing happened. 'Cause it’s very hard to write a novel. But then I wrote this album. That was unexpected. If you’d asked me a year ago would I be sitting here with a book and an album out at the same time, I’d have said you must be joking! So I don’t know what’s gonna happen next. I’ll write the screen play for a film or something, I don’t know. I’m joking!