Q&A: Ben Watt On Using Twitter To Meet Marissa Nadler, Why He Doesn’t Want To Reunite Everything But The Girl, And His Beautiful New LP
Few artists can boast a career as varied and oddly sprawling as that of Ben Watt. After releasing an acclaimed solo record in 1983, Watt would subsequently spend the next 16 years as one half of Everything But The Girl (with his now-wife Tracey Thorn), who eventually recorded nine albums before quietly going into what may or may not be a permanent hiatus. Watt would then delve into the world of electronic music for a decade or so, launching his own electronic label (Buzzin’ Fly) and traveling around the world as a highly sought-after DJ. In 2014 Watt once again made an abrupt left turn and decided to get back to his first love: writing and singing his own songs. Hendra — his first solo album in 31 years — was a critically beloved return to form, allowing Watt to once again take center stage and cementing what has become an enduring partnership with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. This month Watt will release Fever Dream, a graceful collection of songs largely concerned with aging and relationships featuring contributions from Marissa Nadler and M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger. It’s also worth noting that in addition to having written and recorded some of the greatest music of the past couple of decades, Watt has also written two excellent memoirs (1996’s Patient and 2014’s Romany And Tom), which means he can essentially do pretty much anything.
STEREOGUM: After releasing Hendra in 2014 what happened? Did the experience immediately make you want to go record another album?
WATT: I think what happened was I got to this point with my label, Buzzin’ Fly, and the DJing, where I needed change. I needed to go back to words and songs again. That’s how Hendra came about. My last book, Romany And Tom, came first and then Hendra came right out of it. When I listen to Hendra now, I think it’s a very heartfelt record but I can hear a degree of tentativeness in the approach because it was the first time I’d been an actual singer instead of just a songwriter and guitarist for many years, and I think I was still finding my way. I’m very fond of the record, but I hear that in it. I can hear myself experimenting with things like how to pronounce syllables in words because I hadn’t sung them in so long. Then of course I went on tour. I played 60 shows in support of Hendra. A lot of those were with the band; a lot of them were with Bernard Butler. It basically got better and better over the year. My voice got stronger. My relationship with Bernard really deepened. Playing with the band was very exciting. When I got to December of 2014 with the final dates in the US, I thought, “I need to carry on, I just want to do more of this.” I felt like I tapped into a nucleus of myself in some way. So I just started the New Year with half a mind to maybe write another book because I’ve been making some notes about a book. Actually what happened was, all these fragments of songs started to appear instead and I just decided to take that fork in the road. Once I decided that, I actually wrote Fever Dream fairly quickly. It happened very much like Hendra — in a kind of burst, like a compulsion, which is always the best. It’s right.
STEREOGUM: It’s hard for most people to imagine what it would be like to shift gears so radically over the course of one career. You were a solo artist, then you spent 16 years in Everything But The Girl, followed by over a decade working in electronic music and as a DJ. Did it take a while to feel comfortable in a live setting where all the energy is focused specifically on you?
WATT: I was amazed by how easy it was. For me, I always thought walking into a DJ booth to do a two-hour set in front of a crowd that is really anticipating the moment of your performance is not really that different from walking on stage and singing. You’re still expected to deliver. So that side of it felt very familiar. What I’d completely forgotten was the immense reward there is in playing with really great musicians. I’d forgotten that. You know, I’d been working with pre-recorded pieces of music and samples and computers. I’m very much involved in that way of making music. So just playing with Bernard was amazing right from the beginning. I remember the day it first clicked. He was here at my home studio and we went through “Golden Ratio” and “Hendra.” I was like a kid. I ran upstairs to Tracey [Thorn] who was making coffee. I said, “It’s incredible!” It really sounds the way I wanted it to sound!” I felt like I was a kid again. It was great.
STEREOGUM: How did you and Bernard come to be working together?
WATT: Well of course we were aware of each other for years, but we didn’t actually run into each other until about three or four years ago. Subsequently Bernard has told me that he grew up as a teenager listening to Everything But The Girl’s Eden and Love Not Money, and also the Smiths and Cocteau Twins and Aztec Camera. That was what he grew up on. Of course I was very aware of that huge impact he made with Suede in the early ’90s. I was very impressed with him as guitarist. Then we were invited, just by chance, to a party one night in a garden belonging to the English music writer Pete Paphides. He used to write for Time Out and stuff. He introduced us and we started talking. It was quite awkward at first. I think we were grumpy middle-aged men talking about football and the weather. I thought it was a real opportunity. I think, looking back, what I realized was that Bernard had spent 10 years as a producer in his studio playing slightly invisibly on other people’s records. Meanwhile, I’d spent ten years as a DJ and as an A&R person for my label, and we both seemed to be coming out of it at the same point with a desire to perhaps perform again. It was a very lucky moment of synchronicity.
STEREOGUM: Did you have sense of the kind of record you wanted to make after Hendra?
WATT: Well, lyrically I think it comes from a similar place as Hendra. I’m at the point of my life where I’m looking both forwards and backwards at the same time. I’ve had big upheavals in my own family in recent years. My parents have died. My sister died unexpectedly in 2012. She was only 58. I also have been in this relationship with Tracey for a long time. We’re into our 35th year together now. My kids have suddenly grown up. Our twin girls turned 18 in January. Around me I’m watching friends in relationships that are fracturing. People separating unexpectedly. I just find it a rich vein to tap into in terms of relationship examination, for want of a better phrase. That is very much where Fever Dream comes from. I tried to make the record both literal and almost elliptical in the lyrics as well. I wanted it to be quite dreamlike in places, because that’s the way we think. It’s quite easy sometimes to spell things out in songs. A few occasions I was deliberately looking for a more impressionistic way of expressing my ideas. I think the album hopefully delivers its message.
STEREOGUM: Part of your time away from working as a solo artist was spent writing books. You’ve written two very excellent memoirs. Did the experience of writing those books — and the self-examination involved — influence the way you approached songwriting later on?
WATT: Well, you don’t have as much time. You have to say it much more concisely. I do spend a lot of time on the redrafts of the songs because you only have so many words to play with. I spend a lot of time switching out adjectives and colors and verbs just trying to get to the heart of the meaning of the song as I intend it as precisely or eloquently as possible. That’s an important process for me. I’m also very keen on what words sound like coming out of the human mouth. You can often write two or three great lines and then you go down to your studio to sing them back over the guitar and they come out in a very strange way from your mouth. There’s no flow. I think you have to build that into the equation as well.
STEREOGUM: You also have Marissa Nadler on the record, who is amazing.
WATT: I was just a fan. I’d followed her music and I particularly liked her July album. I thought that was a stunning record. I knew that I wanted her voice — a female voice, not Tracey — on the final track of the record. The song “New Year Of Grace” seemed to be this optimistic end for the record. I wanted the female character in the song to have a voice in the song. I just thought Marissa’s voice would provide the perfect colors, if you like. She’s quite ghostly. She’s quite Gothic, but also very emotional in her singing. That just seemed to be exactly the atmosphere I wanted. I didn’t know how to get to her, so I asked her on Twitter. I said, “What do you think about this?” In case she had no idea who I was, I sent an email to Simon Raymonde at Bella Union, who I’ve known for many years. I said, “Simon if you can do anything to make this happen, just tell her who I am. Please!” He was really into the idea. It was just by chance that she happened to be in London passing through doing a one-off show on the way to festival in Europe. She said, “Listen, I’m in town literally for 24 hours. I have a four-hour window in the afternoon. If you can pick me up from my hotel and get me back within three hours, I’ll do it for you.” So I literally took my car down to King’s Cross, picked her up, drove her back here where we are right now. I put her in the room, set the mics up, made her a drink, and we just got to work — and within two and a half hours, I was driving her back to her hotel again. It was done.
STEREOGUM: Did you know M.C. Taylor from Hiss Golden Messenger before this as well?
WATT: Well, sort of yes and no. There’s a fantastic record store in Indianapolis called Luna Music. Are you aware of it?
STEREOGUM: I’ve heard of it.
WATT: Well, Todd Robinson, who runs Luna Music, is possibly my best friend in the world. He’s always tipping me off to records, and he sent me that very first Hiss Golden Messenger record, Bad Debt, that came out about five years ago. Immediately I thought, “This is great.” The delivery was wonderful. It had a kind of spirituality to it that wasn’t too heavy. It was a very eloquent record. I just wrote to him as a fan and I said, “Listen, I really like what you’re doing.” He got back to me and we started to email each other a little bit. I think there was a feeling of being slightly kindred spirits in that we’d both been around awhile. We both tried different things. He knew my history. He’d been aware of me over the years. We just got talking and we said, “Listen, we must do something at some point.” Finally this record came around and I said, “Look, now’s the moment. Do you want to sing on Fever Dream?” He said, “I would love to.” He just happened to have a moment when he could do it. We had to do it remotely. I had to send him the tapes, but we talked a lot during the process and we got what we wanted.
STEREOGUM: Technology bringing people together.
WATT: There was a great moment when he was in the studio actually doing the vocal and he was like five hours behind me because he was on the East Coast and I was in London. He sent me an email anyway and it woke me up in the night and the question was, “How David Crosby do you want this?”
STEREOGUM: What was the answer? Very David Crosby, or just a touch?
WATT: He wanted to know if we wanted to do that call-and-response thing that Crosby does a lot or did we just want to do stacked vocals? In the end we went for the stacked vocals. I really like the idea of him emailing me in the middle of the process checking if we were in the right area.
STEREOGUM: You have had the good fortune to be able to work in a lot of different genres over the course of your career. Is there a kind of record you haven’t been able to make yet, or some other kind of music you’d still like to try your hand at?
WATT: I actually never ever think like that. I’m always just completely consumed in whatever it is I’m doing at any one time. That seems to me to be the most important thing and everything else that everybody else is doing is wrong. It’s a kind of a myopic, sort of mono-track approach to the world, but it’s the way I work. I get very wrapped up in projects. I just see them through until I feel I’ve got nothing left to say with them. If I feel I’m running out of fuel in some way, I just have to move on. Even if that means stopping at a high point. If I feel I’ve said enough I’ll just drop the ball and move on to a new project. Even if it means beginning again on the ground floor, I don’t mind that. In fact, I find that quite exciting in a way.
STEREOGUM: Do you think you’ll be compelled to write another book ever?
WATT: I think I would like to. Bloomsbury — who published Romany And Tom and did the reprint of Patient — were interested in having me write some fiction. They always say to me that Romany And Tom is like novelized non-fiction. They think that there’s something in the way I write that would lend itself to a novel. “It’s a big ask,” as they say. With non-fiction you have an infrastructure that you adorn and elaborate on and reimagine. With a novel you have to dream it up from the beginning. It’s a lot harder.
STEREOGUM: I’ve been a big been a fan of all of your projects. I’ve read your books, I’ve read Tracey’s book. I love her solo records as well. It’s a hard thing, I know, when you’re in a relationship with someone who’s also a creative person. If one’s person career is going up and the other one’s is not, it can be very complicated. It must be very satisfying that both of you have done such amazing and well-received work outside of Everything But The Girl.
WATT: Well that’s really good to hear! We’re very aware of the relentless voice that asks us, “When is Everything But The Girl going to reform?” I just feel like saying to people, “Well, perhaps never, we did that, and that was then.” We still feel like we are creative people, we want to be doing new stuff as much as possible. I think it strikes both of us that the pop industry is currently very obsessed with nostalgia. If they can get a band to play an album note-for-note from start to finish that they made 20 years ago, they will make you do it. I think we resist that in kind of a punk-like way. It just feels wrong. I think it’s one of those things that would feel amazing for the first three minutes and then suddenly you would be on stage performing the stuff that you wrote 20 years ago and you’d be looking out at the audience and everyone would be 20 years older. I think in the end it would actually be a very melancholy experience. I would prefer to play new stuff to a smaller audience as opposed to playing old stuff to a bigger one, I guess. I think Tracey feels the same.
STEREOGUM: Yeah. I’ll be honest, I’m kind of a sucker for reunions, but I’ve seen more than a few that have left me feeling sad. Sometimes it’s best to remember things the way they were.
WATT: Yes. I mean, no one expected Miles Davis to go on stage at the Beacon Theater or the Festival Hall and play Kind Of Blue note-for-note from start to finish when he was 70 years old. We wanted Miles Davis to keep creating until he died. We want new paintings from David Hockney. We don’t want him to repaint his old paintings for us.
STEREOGUM: Of course. It’s an amazing thing to have had a successful career, but it’s weird to be in the position of competing with your own past.
WATT: With this rebirth of my solo career there are only about five songs from my past which have any resonance for people at all. It’s a couple of songs from North Marine Drive and maybe three vocals that I sang with Everything But The Girl, “The Night I Heard Caruso Sing,” “25th Of December,” and maybe “The Road.” I find that I can actually slip a couple of those into the set every night now and then and it doesn’t feel like I’m being too nostalgic, it’s just a sort of glimpse of those moments again. I actually haven’t performed them very much over the years. Still, I understand the impulse as a fan to want to see and hear the old things. We all want to see Radiohead and we all really want them to play The Bends but we know they won’t. It’s fine.
Ben Watt’s Fever Dream is out 4/8 via Unmade Road/Caroline International. Stream it below.