Our podcasters chat with one half of alt-pop duo Everything But The Girl about his new album and eclectic career
Ben Watt is a name that will be well known to connoisseurs of 80s guitar pop. As one half of the much loved and multi-faceted alt-pop duo Everything But The Girl, Watt has released eleven studio albums, of which seven have it to made the Top 20 of the UK album charts. In addition to this Watt has released three solo albums and had a noted career as a writer and radio presenter.
The son of Scottish jazz musician Tommy Watt and showbusiness writer Romany Bain, Watt had stardom in his veins and it’s of little of little surprise that he’s taken his musical background into true stardom. Writing together with Tracey Thorn he has become known as one of the best songwriting duos around, and as a solo artist he released his most recent album, Fever Dream, to much acclaim in April 2016. However, as our friends at Sodajerker discover, writing in a duo does not always mean writing together as one.
The idea of relationships changing gradually is quite a striking lyrical idea. Was that a conscious attempt to get away from cliche?
“Gradually is a song about what happens to long relationships and how they change over time, how you can be with someone you’re very fond of and find that even in that relationship you find yourselves travelling at different speeds: you fall out over things, things take time to blow over. Relationships do kind of ebb and flow over a period of time and I just wanted to write a song along those lines.”
The production style and performance style on Gradually seem to evolve as it goes on. Was that planned?
“The whole record was very much an idea I had. I toured a lot with Hendra, having not sung live for a long time and I did about 60 shows. My voice just got stronger and stronger and my playing with Bernard [Butler] became more and more intuitive and I had a much stronger idea of what I wanted to do with the next album, the one I’ve just done. I had an idea of a four piece band playing with very simple hollowed-out bodied instruments: double bass, a simple folk-jazz drumkit and me and Bernard largely on semi-acoustic guitars. And I just had this Pentangle-meets-Crazy Horse idea about the sound, where you had to put a lot of physical effort into the instruments to get the dynamics out of them, because of the nature of what we were playing. I think that just forced everybody to play with a lot of tone, with a lot of dynamics – it’s all about the sound of the wood and the steel on the record – and I just encouraged to really go for it on the songs, to go from very quiet to very loud and to really try and build the songs and make them more than just the sum of our parts.”
There seems to be a theme of change throughout Fever Dream. Is there a metamorphosis over time that you’ve been thinking about on the album?
“I’ve been around doing this for a long time and I think that you are very aware the older you get and the more that you work and create stuff, that there is a past that you’re leaving behind and a present that’s in front of you. I think that it’s about balancing your feelings about those things. I try not to use the past as a vehicle for regret, which is often a very common theme when people look back. I try and write unsentimentally about the past, in a more accepting way, we go through things and survive them, and I’m much more interested in things like resilience and ideas of hope. It’s about finding the optimistic route out of past adversity if you like, rather than dwelling on it and feeling sorry for yourself.”
Does growing up in the home of a musician make a difference?
“It wasn’t just my dad who was a musician. I’m the youngest and I had four older siblings, I was the youngest by nine years and I really grew up hearing a lot of music from the early 70s. There was all my dad’s jazz, my eldest brother Simon was into Roy Harper, the next couple of brothers I had liked more mainstream stuff like Carole King and Paul Simon, then my sister was into more art-rock stuff like Lou Reed – there was always music going on in the house. My mum was a journalist at this point, she was a showbiz feature writer interviewing mostly actors and movie stars. But record companies used to send her stuff in the mail because she sometimes wrote about music and they’d get offered around the family, and if nobody wanted them then they’d get offered to me. I can remember being given Neil Young’s Decade and I must have been only 14 or 15 and I was just really blown away by him.”
When you started working with Tracey as Everything But The Girl, did your writing process change to accommodate her contributions?
“When we met, Tracey had a much greater pop sensibility: she was very much into soul and disco when she was growing-up and then punk and post-punk happened. She was very much into bands like Buzzcocks and The Undertones, Orange Juice and Distractions, those were the kind of things in her record collection, and when we met I had stuff by John Martyn and jazz records by Bill Evans. I think we had two records in common when we first met, one was the Durutti Column album and the other was the first Vic Godard & Subway Sect album and we bonded over those albums. But Tracey had a much more direct, energetic approach to the songwriting. It was a kind of no nonsense approach and I was quite influenced by that when I met her, I thought “yeah perhaps we don’t have to go round the houses so much, let’s just cut to the chase a bit more on some of these songs.”
We heard you say that you and Tracey are quite secretive about your songwriting processes.
Yeah that’s right and we always have been. We tend to like to come up with our ideas in solitude and then when we’re confident with it we’ll present it to the other person. We certainly don’t stand around a piano hammering out songs together! In a strange way, although we’ve lived together so long and of course are very fond of each other, we’re slightly intimidated by each other as well, even after all these years. Which I don’t think is a bad thing, I think there’s a sort of strange respect thing that goes on between us together, especially with the work. I think we both know that we each bring something different which the other person doesn’t have and we need to give each other the time and the space to find it.
I was always impressed by the sheer variety of Everything But The Girl, are you just fascinated by different genres?
Yes, that’s one obvious answer! I feel quite strongly that – up until perhaps the mid 90s – I really felt that there was a feeling about progress in pop music, that you constantly had to keep renewing it. You had to keep absorbing the new technology the new ideas to make a different record to the one you made before. I think that’s very much influenced by the technologies that arrived throughout that period, there was always a challenge around the corner that you either had to reject or take on board. We tried to keep our own identity while absorbing as much of that as we could. But I think now music has somehow splintered and atomised and there’s a much more postmodern sense, where you can do almost anything and it’s acceptable. You can be very niche, you can be very retro and it’s kind of accepted. And I think that’s a big difference to the atmosphere that was around when Everything But The Girl was making music.
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 80 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 54-minute interview with Ben Watt – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.