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March 21, 2014 5:40 pm
Taking 30 years to follow up your debut is pretty unusual, as comebacks go. Ben Watt’s Hendra, released next month, will be only his second solo album, after 1983’s quietly revered North Marine Drive.
A fine folk-rock collection, Hendra is rich in mostly English landscapes and tender wisdom about loss. It’s also laced with some glorious lead guitar from Bernard Butler, the former Suede man, sounding like prime Neil Young in places, elsewhere more like Mark Knopfler. The mood is dreamy at times but often geographically precise. So who or what, in the album’s title track, is “Hendra”?
In Watt’s Clerkenwell office, he explains how his half-sister, Jennie, died of late-diagnosis lung cancer in September 2012. Plagued by psychiatric problems as a young woman, she had only recently found happiness, having married at the age of 50. Hendra, an old Cornish term meaning home or farmstead, turns out to be the name of the road on which Jennie and her husband, Ed, had bought a weekend property. Jennie referred to it in her diary with an almost “mythological” air that appealed to Watt. “It had a nebulous, impressionistic quality, and I wanted the record to have that,” he says.
The songs on Hendra emerged from the personal “fog” of Christmas 2012. Experimenting with open tunings on his guitar, something clicked. “With the suspensions and folky sounds, the songs seemed to hover,” he says. “They didn’t seem too foursquare in their intention. The chords blurred into each other more, and suited my lyrics. I was on a roll.”
It’s not, of course, as a solo artist that Watt is best known, but rather as the male half of Everything But The Girl. In 1996, after they were dropped by their record label, he retooled the largely acoustic duo, founded in 1982 with Tracey Thorn, with a trip-hop/breakbeat sound. Walking Wounded, the resulting album, became their greatest critical and commercial success. Then, for the time when Thorn, now his wife, made their three children her priority, Watt immersed himself in dance music – as a DJ, label boss (Buzzin’ Fly) and club owner (Lazy Dog).
“I had started to dislike the relationship between rock band and audience, that idea of the altar, all facing one way,” he says of Everything But The Girl’s late-1990s peak, when they were playing big venues and “repeating the same set night after night”. The underground dance scene gave him “another way of communicating with people through ritual and communal experience, where the DJ – in the best clubs – is not the most important person in the room.
“With the tropes and themes of dance music, you can stimulate an audience into a sophisticated mixture of emotions that’s often overlooked by people who don’t go clubbing,” he says. “You can take people to the heights of jubilation and you can pat them right back down into something moody and pensive.”
Eventually, Watt began to feel “jaded” and tired as a DJ (“It’s not that you can’t still enjoy a party, it’s the recovery time”). He worried that he was “faking it”, and the lyrics came bubbling back up. Of the Hendra tracks, “Golden Ratio”, with its vaguely bossa motion, is closest in style to North Marine Drive. That was the kind of record Caetano Veloso might have made had the Brazilian master been an indie boy from Barnes. “The Levels”, a moving lament that features Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on slide guitar, is another song inspired by Jennie– or rather her grieving husband.
Coincidentally, it’s set in the low-lying area of Somerset so stricken this winter with flooding. “Oh, no,” Watt remembers Thorn saying to him before a gig in February, “The crowd is going to think you’ve written something topical.” Watt adds, “That’s hilarious”, with a shake of his head.
Watt and Thorn, who has lately returned to the public eye with her own solo material and a memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen , cut 10 studio albums as Everything But The Girl. These included 1984’s Eden (their debut), 1988’s Idlewild (with their cover of “I Don’t Want to Talk About It”) and 1990’s The Language of Life (featuring jazz saxophonist Stan Getz of “Girl from Ipanema” fame). Watt and Thorn were a couple almost from the moment they met at Hull University in 1981, even if they only married in 2009. “To survive, you have to agree to differ, and that that’s not a threat to the stability you’ve created,” Watt says. “Me and Tracey know what we have at the bedrock of our relationship is very strong. If it gets obscured from time to time, if we’re going through a slightly fallow period or if one of us is very busy and doesn’t seem to be very personally connected, it’s not terminal. That’s just life.”
There is a long pause after I ask him what in particular might be uppermost in the Hendra lyric, “Who am I fooling when I when I say I have no regrets?”.
Watt answers by saying that song is about the “acknowledgment of regret” but swerves away from further disclosure. Like much of the album, he explains, it’s about “resilience”, about how we “keep going” with all the baggage we are “tugging behind us”.
Watt has had more than his fair share to drag. In 1992, he nearly died. He still pops pills – “swallowing them like sweets every morning” – to stave off Churg-Strauss syndrome, the auto-immune condition that hospitalised him with a 25 per cent chance of survival. Watt insists, though, that he’s not constantly hungry or lacking energy in spite of losing 80 per cent of his small intestine. He looks lean and scrappily fit yet damaged, like a former flyweight boxer; his skin older than his 51 years.
In 1996, Watt published an acclaimed book about his illness, Patient. Now there’s a sequel, of sorts. Romany and Tom is a memoir about his parents – she a classical actress who became a journalist, he the Glasgow-born leader of a jazz big band – and the illicit affair that brought them together. It also details the depression that, Watt writes, rendered him “as soft as a peeled egg” in his mid-40s and recurrently during earlier episodes.
“It leaves a scar,” Watt says, recalling the emotional impact of his medical crisis. “I can get flashbacks, and most of time I deal with them really well but sometimes it all seems very vivid and gets me down.”
Yet he maintains that the keynote of both Romany and Tom and Hendra “is avoiding self-pity and sentimentality” about one’s predicament. So how do you do that? “By realising that everyone’s the same,” he says. “These just happen to be my set of problems, but they’re not really any worse than anyone else’s. All I can offer is a voice that says, ‘I feel like this; do you?’ ”
Chances are, thousands will.
‘Hendra’ is out on April 14 on Unmade Road; Ben Watt’s UK tour begins on April 15; ‘Romany and Tom’ and ‘Patient’ are published by Bloomsbury
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