Fans of Ben Watt’s excursions into singer-songwriter territory have had a long wait between his solo albums – three decades, in fact, with a long and substantial partnership with his wife Tracey Thorn in the band Everything But The Girl then a spell running the electronic dance label Buzzin’ Fly sandwiched in between.
But, having rediscovered his singing voice on the well received 2014 album Hendra, it seems he’s now on a bit of a roll.
He’s just released a new record, Fever Dream, and later this month he heads out on the road for a corresponding tour with a band that includes his current musical partner Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede.
“I think there was an increased confidence there, yes,” he says about his fresh burst of creativity. “I obviously went into Hendra with a sense of trepidation. It was something that I knew I really wanted to do but I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to turn out.
“Looking back, when I listen to my voice on that record I can hear myself trying to work out how to sing again. It’s quite interesting. But then of course I went on tour and I played 60 shows all over the world and my voice literally as a muscle it just got stronger, I was able to do more with it, and my relationship with Bernard deepened and I think I just felt I wanted to go straight back in and make another record.
“Obviously I had to write another ten songs but I was inspired, really, and we just did it. I just wrote the songs at the beginning of last year and we went in and recorded them.”
I still think there’s that very heartfelt desire to push the emotions out there and hope that they hook a fish, hope that they speak to people. I think I felt that at 19 and I still feel it now.
Many of the songs on Fever Dream focus on relationships and the passage of time. The 53-year-old describes them as a “mixture” of the autobiographical and a series of observations on others’ life experiences.
“I certainly came across a lot of people in the last 18 months at various stages in their lives and relationships, friends of mine and complete strangers I met on tour, and I just heard a lot of people’s life stories.
“It was just a really mixed bag. People whose marriages were still going, people whose marriages had unexpectedly split, people starting new relationships for the first time late in life, people struggling with members of their family and I felt very sympathetic towards all of it.
“And I looked at my own life. Here I am right at the mid stage of my life, my youth is behind me, my old age is somewhere up in front and I just turned the lens on my own relationships and my own family as well and wrote a couple of songs based on that and just tried to be honest about how I felt about some things and how I saw other people’s lives.”
Watt doesn’t worry about giving away too much of himself in song lyrics. “I always feel that if I feel it then it’s probably a common thing,” he explains. “And that’s what I feel I’m here to do, really – to make those connections for people, so there is a sense of common experience. You can feel it in the room on the good gigs when you’ve written a lyric that connects with people, you can feel the penny drop and that sort of silence descend on the room and I really love that moment. I feel that’s my job done, in a way, if I can reach out and interact with people on that level.
“Obviously I’ve revealed a lot about my life in many different ways – writing Patient [his 1996 memoir about his battles with the rare life-threatening auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss syndrome], I didn’t hold back on any of the lyrics on [the Everything But The Girl albums] Amplified Heart and Walking Wounded in the immediate aftermath of my illness, I’ve written about my depression in Romany and Tom [his second book] but these are just vehicles with which i hope people can see aspects of their own lives.”
Watt first met Bernard Butler “by complete chance” at a garden party thrown by Times writers Pete Paphides and Caitlin Moran. “It was actually pouring with rain but we went anyway,” Watt recalls, “and we were introduced. Bernard was a neighbour of Pete’s, Tracey was a friend of Caitlin’s, so we just ended up chatting in Pete’s back garden and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is such an opportunity, it would be a shame not to do soemthing with it’.
“I invited Bernard over to play round at my house a few weeks later and the first time we met it was a disaster. We were very awkward in each other’s company, I didn’t have any songs at that point, we scratched around a little bit and felt very self-conscious, I think. Bernard had broken his leg playing football, he was in a bad mood anyway, but then six months later I started writing some songs for Hendra and I could hear the kind of thing I wanted, which was Bernard doing the dark edge to all my lyrical stuff and I just rang him up and said flat out ‘Can we meet again?’ I went round to his studio and I just played him a couple of the demos from Hendra right there in front of him, I think I played him the title track and said ‘Right, what do you think? Do you think you could do this sort of bluesy thing?’ and he went ‘Like this...’ and I went ‘Yeah, just like that’ and that was it.”
Watt says the pair work “very intuitively now”.
“We don’t talk about it very much, I think we both know our own roles,” he says.
Thirty-four years on from his first album, North Marine Drive, Watt says he can still recognise some of himself in the record.
“I still think there’s that very heartfelt desire to push the emotions out there and hope that they hook a fish, hope that they speak to people. I think I felt that at 19 and I still feel it now.
“There are two schools of song writing, I think, in rock ’n’ roll – there’s the sort of cool school, post-Dylan, post-Velvets, sunglasses on, where you’re very circumspect in the emotions you put across, it’s not cool to pin your heart onto your sleeve, almost quite affect-less, and then, of course, there’s the complete opposite where you’re more revealing.
“I think I probably lean much more towards the latter but there are aspects of that art-rock side if you like in some of the musical constructions that i use. But I think that revealing side, the confessional side, if you like, has been there in my music right from the beginning so I definitely think that that’s still there from North Marine Drive.”
He still has the same fascination with “rich chord voicings and guitar mixed with delay”, he adds. “Literally before the phone rang I was on my hands on knees fiddling with an echoplex setting for my guitar whicj I must have fiddled with umpteen times but I still feel if I tweak it a tiny bit more it’ll sound even better at the next gig. I’m still tweaking away.”
Ben Watt featuring Bernard Butler play at Belgrave Music Hall, Leeds on May 26. For further details visit http://benwatt.com/