Published on April 25th, 2017 | by Gareth Allen0
Interview with Ben Watt
Sonic Bandwagon had the privilege of chatting with Ben Watt on the eve of his gig in Edinburgh at the Voodoo Rooms. Ben Watt is a songwriter and performer who is currently hitting a creative high, making music that has a spellbinding allure, and communicates in the most moving fashion the complexities of relationships and connection in our modern age. In Everything But the Girl with his partner Tracey Thorn, we were left with an impressive canon of work that constantly evolved musically through jazz, indie, folk and dance influences, and always with real emotional impact lyrically. So there was much to reflect on and chat about when we met Ben.
Sonic Bandwagon: There is a renaissance feel to your varied artistic interests: songwriter and musician, author, label owner, DJ and radio presenter. How do these other artistic interests interact with and influence your songwriting and playing live?
Ben: I never plan. I have always done everything on an instinct level. I work out of compulsion. I wait until I can’t not do something, and then I do it. That’s really how I do everything. I really wanted to become a DJ in the late 90s. It was new to me, even though I was in my thirties. That led to running Club Nights, and then getting involved in owning a club for a while; and then a record label. Then becoming an international DJ, and then I sort of hit a bit of a wall with that a few years ago. Then I realised I wanted to get back to writing again. I didn’t plan any of it or map things out. It’s just what’s out there at the time.
Sonic Bandwagon: For these UK shows, you are accompanied by double bassist Rex Horan, who also featured on your recent album Fever Dream. What do you feel Rex brings to your recording and playing live?
Ben: I have always been a huge fan of the double bass; we have used it right from the beginning. When Everything But the Girl was first recording, Chucho Merchan played bass on the first album, a phenomenal bass player from Columbia. He went on to work with many great artists. In the mid 90s I got to tour with one of my heroes, Danny Thompson, for the first time. He played on Amplified Heart, which was the Everything But the Girl album from 1994, and he toured with us on double bass. So it’s a sound I have always liked. Then I saw Rex play at a Bert Jansch tribute show at the Festival Hall. I really liked the way he played, and I had this idea for Fever Dream that I would like to make an album that was a bit heavier than Hendra, but was still a four piece folk-rock combo. So every instrument was driven to its extreme to try and get a drive, almost an emotionally distorted approach if you like. So everyone was really encouraged to throw themselves at their instruments. Rex just has great technique, and so it’s water off a ducks back for him; and he has played with Laura Marling and the Neil Cowley trio. He’s a great listener, and he’s a proper musician. So it’s a pleasure working with him; and he sings great backing vocals, which I never knew, and which is a real bonus.
Sonic Bandwagon: On the previous UK tour, you played with a full band including the very talented Bernard Butler, who you also do duo shows with. How do your songs feel and develop in these two contrasting live settings, of a full band and duo.
Ben: I have never held much stock by the view that each song has a definitive version. I have always been an interpretive player. I think that all songs can be redone and reinvented as many times as you like. If the song is strong enough, it should survive. That probably comes from my background having had a jazz musician for a father, listening to standards and hearing them interpreted in many different ways. So for me I find it interesting to do full band versions, to do solo versions, to do different arrangements of the song. It’s never a problem for me.
Sonic Bandwagon: Sonic played on its radio show last year, the song Gradually, from the most recent album Fever Dream. It has very touching lyrics, which seem to be about the gradual loss of connection and empathic communication between two people. The wonderful accompanying film directed by John Jeanes, offers a parallel journey in a different context. Is the intersection between musical and film narratives something that you would like to pursue further in the future?
Ben: If it comes up and it’s a good idea I would go for it. It’s not anything I have in the back of my mind. In that particular instance John came to me and he was fan of my lyrics, and thought I might be able to write something that would go well with film. He was actually half way through making that film and showed me what he had got so far. I just felt that the lyric to ‘Gradually’ worked really well with it, though it wasn’t how I intended it to be dramatised, I felt it was a new interpretation. So I sent him the lyrics and said I think this will work, and he said yes you are right; and he went off and finished the film. The two married together.
Sonic Bandwagon: What was your feeling when you first saw the completed film?
Ben: I loved it. He was very generous with his time, and the budget. I think if I had tried to pay for it from scratch, I probably wouldn’t have been able to afford it. The production values are really high in it. I think it’s a great piece of work, as a piece of filmmaking. So he was very generous with what he gave me.
Sonic Bandwagon: We would be intrigued to hear your reflections, on how your songwriting has evolved, from your debut 1983 album North Marine Drive, to Fever Dream.
Ben: I always try and write about what I feel at any one time. I try and be honest to the person I am. So at 19 I wrote as a 19 year old, and now I write as a 54 year old. When I look at the songs, I often think the early songs come across as songs of innocence. Being inexperienced, 19 years old, and being in love for perhaps the first or second time in his life. Quite naïve, self-pitying at times, and at times very teenage emotions. I find it quite awkward to listen to some of it now, but I also take my hat off to the intent. And now I just try and write as who I am. I feel quite strongly that a lot of bands when they reach this age, if they go out on the road, they are usually playing a record they recorded 20 or 30 years ago in its entirety note for note, to an audience that are fairly nostalgic for the past. And that was the opposite of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be someone who stood up and said actually this is what it feels like to be in your 50s. And if you are into that buy the records and come to the shows, as that’s what this is about. Then of course I started to play some of the older songs in the same set, and that actually became for me quite moving. Because I could see two versions of myself on stage, the quite naïve 19 year old, with the experienced 54 year old, who has lost his parents, and his sister.
Sonic Bandwagon: I am really struck by what you said about your younger self, that it feels a little awkward to listen too, but also really liking the intent. There seems to be real empathy for that younger person.
Ben: You are always trying to do your best, to do your best stuff. That’s what it boils down too. It might come across as a little bit cheesy or a little bit naïve, or doesn’t quite last as a piece of work. A song like North Marine Drive I think really does last. For me I think it’s probably the best song on that record. But there are other songs that come across as quite self-pitying and don’t last, and are the voice of a naïve teenager. So I think you have to be realistic with your own work. You win some; you lose some basically (Ben smiles and laughs).
Sonic Bandwagon: We noticed on the last tour with the band, when you played Everything But the Girl’s Rollercoaster, it felt like hearing the song for the very first time again. There was a very moving and affecting poignancy in your voice, which brought a whole new layer to the song. We were wondering when you perform a song like Rollercoaster for an audience, are you conscious of drawing on your direct experience and feelings?
Ben: Yeah, it’s a lyric that was very much about that time. When you are on stage you look to re-inhabit the moment in which a song was written. That’s what you’re aiming for. There’s a lot of mundanity to touring, you know the traveling, the checking in, and the sound checks. Things going wrong, and things breaking on stage. And what you hope for when the lights go down and you walk on stage, is that you can somehow transcend that mundanity. That some interaction between you and the audience or you and the other musicians on stage…you lift yourself out of it just being notes and words, and into something that’s a bit more luminous, a bit more hazy. That’s what you strive for. I’ve really enjoyed playing Rollercoaster, just doing it freshly on the wurlitzer, and on my own is a new approach; and I found I was able to re-inhabit the lyrics quite directly doing that way. I will probably play it again tonight.
Sonic Bandwagon: Everything But the Girl, particularly on the first two albums, had a distinctive social commentary, which offered a perceptive understanding of relationships, through the prism of wider societal inequalities. How important do you think it is for artists to reflect back in their art, what they observe of society?
Ben: We have to remember that Tracey and I both wrote lyrics and shared the lyric writing in Everything But The Girl. Perhaps the early days were dominated more by Tracey’s lyrics, and later were dominated by mine, which is quite interesting. And yes there was quite a sense of the personal is political to albums like Eden and Love not Money. Billy Bragg was in touch with Tracey recently saying how much he was playing Little Hitler again (from EBTG’s Baby, The Stars Shine Bright) in the light of what was going on in the world at the moment. Which I thought was a really nice thing for him to say. I suppose there is a little bit less of that in the stuff that I have written recently, but having said that I still write a song like The Gun which is about my ideas about the personal and the political, in the issue of gun control. So I don’t have any flag to wave I just write the songs that come to me, and sometimes they are relationship songs and sometimes they have a more expansive remit.
Sonic Bandwagon: You have written about your parents, describing a lovely empathy that you have developed for them, and their story. Is that capacity to feel empathy, something you are conscious of in the songs you have written, stretching back to those early solo songs and songs for Everything But The Girl?
Ben: A writer said it doesn’t matter what you think, its what the reader thinks. I think you have to be able to put yourself on the other side of the table sometimes. And I think about that very much when I write. I am constantly thinking how will this come across. And some people might say, ooh that’s not real in some way. But I think you have to be aware, because it is an artificial relationship writing a song, and I am always questioning how it is going to come across. I remember when I was writing the book Romany and Tom, I would always read it out loud because it constantly changes how it feels. You are aware of all its faults, if you actually read it front of yourself. That’s the key to what I do I suppose; it’s about working out how that relationship with your audience is going to work. How you can draw them in to what you are saying, and make it feel real to them. So I think you have to see it from their perspective.
Sonic Bandwagon: We talked earlier about your varied artistic interests. If you had to choose only one of those to do, which might it be?
Ben: Probably the next one (all laugh).
With special thanks to Yvonne Wemyss for helping to form the penultimate question; and Christine Carlin for suggesting the final question.
Photograph by Gareth Allen