Beautiful & Sad: Ben Watt’s Favorite Albums
By Jude Rogers
As he releases a new solo record, Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl guides Jude Rogers through his Baker’s Dozen, from Frank Ocean to Paul Simon and Bobby Womack to why male music critics were afraid of Joni Mitchell
Musicians are meant to find their voices when they’re young, to know instantly who they are, then throw themselves, unblemished, out into the world. This narrative is nonsense, and it certainly didn’t apply to Ben Watt. “In my fifties, I’ve suddenly discovered how to sing,” he says today, calling from his basement studio in North-West London. His spoken voice is focused and earnest, thoughtful and kind.
“In my early Cherry Red days, of course, I was singing, but in an untrained way,” he begins; on one of his earliest EPs, 1982’s Summer Into Winter, his vocal partner was the shivery, characterful Robert Wyatt. “Then for years I was singing back up to Tracey.” Tracey, of course, is Tracey Thorn, Watt’s partner in Everything But The Girl, as well in life, for almost forty years now (they met in their first week at Hull University in 1981).
After their 80s success came life’s many diversions. Watt nearly died in 1992 from an auto-immune disease which also hospitalised him for months (he wrote about this experience movingly in his 1997 book, Patient; he still takes medication for it). Then came Todd Terry’s remix of ‘Missing’, which made Everything But The Girl end-of-the-century stars, after which Watt and Thorn had three kids together (two female twins, then a boy). In his early days of fatherhood, Watt also plunged into deep house and techno, running West London clubs Neighbourhood and Cherry Jam, before setting up the label Buzzin’ Fly (note that it is named after the Tim Buckley song). Watt returned to making music in 2014 with Hendra, after he published another book, Romany and Tom, about his late parents, and seen his father, his half-sister, Jennie, and his half-brother, Roly, die.
“I suddenly wanted to get back to song, and reconnect with that boy who wanted to be a teenage troubadour,” he explains, humour hovering around the last phrase in that sentence. “And suddenly, I became the focus. As I sang and made my next few albums, I started to learn more about my voice, realising I have this new, older tone, that my body resonates differently, and I can do different things with it.”
Watt’s new album, Storm Damage, puts his voice front and centre. The lyrics are direct, bubbling with a quiet anger. “Who told you love was absolute?” he rails on ‘Sunlight Follows The Night’. “Thought I had a degree of resistance/But look at me seeking assistance,” begins ‘Summer Ghosts’. “People say, ‘Live in the moment’, but the moment looms so large sometimes,” warns ‘Balanced On A Wire’. Watt’s music dips several toes in his old worlds: an upright piano and double bass reflecting the love of jazz that initially came from his late father; slinking rhythms recalling his excursions into club music; found sounds adapted from public-domain recording archives holding the same ambient, fragile shimmer as his earlier works.
“I didn’t want to reach for plugins or presets – I wanted to map out a world that felt more real,” he explains. Watt’s love of music is enthusiastic too, from all corners of his experience, a living, breathing thing.
Ben Watt’s new album Storm Damage is out on 31st on January, followed by a major tour in the spring, including Queen Elizabeth’s Hall at the Southbank Centre for Eat Your Own Ears – for dates go here.
Click here to read through Ben Watt’s Baker’s Dozen choices.