Ben Watt: “The best things are the intangible, transcendent things.”

Two years ago we met Ben Watt, best known as one-half of Everything But the Girl.  He had just released Hendra, his first solo album in 31 years and...

Two years ago we met Ben Watt, best known as one-half of Everything But the Girl.  He had just released Hendra, his first solo album in 31 years and a huge departure from his DJing and the electronic music he’d come to be associated with in recent years. Hendra, without-a-doubt a “singer/songwriter” effort, he told me was largely inspired by the folk, rock, and jazz he listened to as a youth.  The album, which he recorded with collaborator Bernard Butler (original Suede guitarist and producer extraordinaire) achieved profound critical acclaim and took him on the road for a number of very intimate dates as a duo, including a rainy Monday night at the Tin Angel.  This April Ben Watt released Fever Dream, which continues to explore the themes and sounds of Hendra alongside Bernard Butler.  The album even features guest appearances by Marissa Nadler and M.C. Taylor/Hiss Golden Messenger.  Ben Watt’s about to kick off a string of US dates, where he and Bernard will be joined by bassist Cameron Ralston and drummer Pinson Chanselle of Spacebomb Records.  Ben Watt and his all-star band of sorts will be headlining downstairs at our very own World Café Live next Thursday, June 16th, and the other day he took some time to catch me up about what it’s like to spend the past two years as a solo artist.

Izzy Cihak: So the last time we spoke was almost exactly two years ago, when you more or less first got back into the whole singer/songwriter thing.  What have been some of the highlights of those past two years?

Ben Watt: The best things are the intangible, transcendent things. The writing and recording process can be quite slow and mundane and detailed sometimes as you struggle to get something right, but then you are aware of a moment emerging that is transportive, where all the effort becomes more than the sum of its parts, and it just lifts off, luminous and self-sustaining. It is happening on the current tour. The band is very dialed in and we are improvising sections of songs, and it all just takes on its own life. You can feel the crowd involvement. I love those moments. Better than any review or award.

Izzy: Have you had any particular favorite responses to your solo singer/songwriter work, whether from critics or fans?  It seems to be overwhelmingly incredibly positive, which is pretty great and amazing, especially considering how long it had been since you’d done music anything like this.

Ben: I vividly remember playing in Japan with Hendra. My debut solo album from 1983, North Marine Drive, has been a cult record out there for thirty years, yet I only ever played a handful of shows in London with it. Playing some of the songs from it live for the first time and watching Japanese people my age crying as I played it was very moving. And playing those songs of innocence next to my more recent songs of experience set ups moments of great poignancy most nights. It throws a long perspective for people. In general I am grateful people are getting what I am trying to do, which is be myself, and speak about my life as I see it now. The industry is very nostalgic. Old bands are just meant to play their old records. But I am trying to be about now, and if I play songs from my past, it’s to help deepen an understanding of the present. A man wrote to me the other night saying he had been to one of the shows, and how it had been a long time since he had closed his eyes and got so lost in the music. He said he went home determined to live a more soulful life. I was very touched by that.

Izzy: How do you feel Fever Dream compares to Hendra? What do you consider to be the album’s most significant influences, both musical and otherwise?

Ben: It was made with more confidence. My singing voice had got stronger, my ideas more certain. Simply playing sixty shows in support of Hendra took me up a gear in terms of what I felt capable of. The voice box is just muscle and mine has become more dynamic and so the arrangements on the new album reflect that. Both albums lean on the records that meant a lot to me growing up. I was the youngest by nine years. My dad was a jazz musician. My older siblings played folk-rock and art-rock of the seventies. It runs very deep in me. And the fault line on the new albums lies somewhere between folk and soul and jazz and rock, I guess.

Izzy: “Women’s Company” is one of my favorite tracks of the year so far, which resonates really profoundly with me on a personal level, so I have to ask how that particular song came about?

Ben: It is about the upbringing a friend of mine had. He had a father who made a bad business decision and couldn’t live with it. He felt he had failed his family, and he became a shadow of his former self. The women of the family moved to the centre to fill the hole, and he remembered growing up with strong female role models. Now later in life, he identifies much more with women, and is less easy around most men.

Izzy: How was working with Marissa Nadler on “New Year of Grace”?  She’s one of my favorite songwriters of recent years.  How did the two of you come to work together?

Ben: I too, am a fan. I have followed her work. I wanted the final song on the album to have the presence of the female character in the song, but quite ghostly. Marissa’s voice struck me as perfect. I approached her on Twitter. She wasn’t very aware of my stuff but loved the song when I sent it. She said she lived in Boston and was rarely in the UK but happened to be booked for a European festival and would be in London for a few hours on the way. So I grabbed the opportunity. When the day came I jumped in my car and arranged to meet her outside her hotel. She was at the traffic lights. I just said get in. We went back to my studio, recorded the vocals in a couple of hours and then I took her back to her hotel.

Izzy: I really like your recent video for “Gradually.”  What was it that inspired the video, or was that something you primarily left up to John Jeanes?  I was actually unfamiliar with him prior to this, but he seems quite talented.

Ben: John approached me as he liked my lyrics. He said he was working on a storyline and wondered if it might fit one of my songs. The storyline was about the misunderstanding in a short-term relationship between an artist and a young girl working as a prostitute, who becomes a life model for him. “Gradually” is about misunderstandings that develop in a long-term relationship. I thought the intersection of the two ideas could produce sparks. Yes, I think the film-making and elegance of the John’s story-telling for “Gradually” is fantastic.

Izzy: What can be expected of your upcoming live dates?  It seems like it’s going to be a pretty different show, compared to the last time you were in town, when it was just you and Bernard.

Ben: With Hendra I played initially as a duo with Bernard. We expanded into a trio towards the end – two guitars with drums which was fun, but now we have stepped to a classic four-piece. Two guitars, bass, and drums. I also play piano. I work with delay and Echoplex too, and trigger samples and synth textures with a pedal at my feet. I encourage everyone to play with wide dynamic range, be expressive. In the UK we have been touring with the album band. In the US, we have had to replace the rhythm section but will be touring with Matthew E White’s rhythm section, which should be a blast. They were recommended to me by MC Taylor, who sings on Fever Dream. In my mind, I am picturing some kind of a supergroup.

Izzy: Finally, what’s next for you?  What do you have planned for after this batch of live dates wraps up?  Anything you’re especially excited about?

Ben: I have a couple of summer festivals, and a break, then I am out again in September. Back to Japan for more shows, then Germany, Holland, and more in the UK. That will take me up to November. After that, I have no idea. I never plan. I just act on compulsion and wait for an idea to strike.

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.