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Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl
Ben Watt of Everything But The GirlOne mark of a great songwriter is an ability to capture some of the greatest hopes and fears of a generation with just melody and words. Ben Watt, whether he realized it at the time or not, did just that with a song he wrote and sang for his duo Everything But The Girl in 1988. Titled "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing," this tender ballad encapsulated what it meant to be a young, family-ready male during the troubling Cold War. "I've thought of having children, but I've gone and changed my mind," he admits at the start. "It's hard enough to watch the news, let alone explain it to a child."

And what changes his mind? The comfort and beauty of a beautiful human voice (Enrico Caruso) singing. The horror of nuclear weaponry can temporarily make us forget that true beauty still exists in our mad world. Ah, but just a few precious notes from a gifted singer is sometimes all it takes to job our memory back into a much more balanced reality.

Watt is best known as the male half of Everything But The Girl, a pair that featured Tracey Thorn's striking lead vocals. Formed in 1982, this musical (and romantic) couple brought widely varying musical influences to the table (she inspired by punk rock and jazz torch songs; he raised on British folk, jazz and Brian Eno). During its time together, EBTG continuously explored an eclectic range of musical styles, ranging from the guitar pop of Love Not Money (1985), to the orchestral Baby, The Stars Shine Bright (1986).

Although always a popular act in its native England, the duo didn't chart stateside until 1995, when a Todd Terry remix of "Missing" off the 1994 Amplified Heart album rose from the dance music underground to the pop charts, reaching #2 in the US.

Since ending EBTG in 2000, Watt has busied himself as a writer (he's published two books) and as an in-demand DJ. He has also released two solo albums, including his 2014 set Hendra, which is relatively folk-ish, more like EBTG's early music.

In this email interview, Watt answers some questions about the album and his eclectic artistic career.

Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Your Hendra album comes over 30 years after your 1983 solo debut (North Marine Drive). Why the long wait?

Ben Watt: Strangely (he says, trying not to adopt too ironic a voice), I was in another band that took up quite a lot of my time - twenty years in fact. And then I decided to be a DJ and run a record label that took another ten. Does that answer it for you?

Songfacts: You call Hendra "simply a folk-rock record in an electronic age." What caused you to go for more simplicity?

Watt: In part I was reconnecting with the version of myself I left behind in the early '80s - the young boy who signed to Cherry Red, made two promising records, but then parked it all, and went in with Tracey Thorn for twenty years. And I realized the boy who made those records was influenced by things that have never left me, the stuff I heard growing up - João Gilberto, John Martyn, Neil Young, Brian Eno. I tried to simply be true to my instincts, and make a record that flowed out of me naturally.

Songfacts: What is the theme (or themes) expressed on Hendra?

Watt: Resilience. Facing the mounting crises of life and facing them down. In different ways. Defiance. Anger. Strength of character.

Songfacts: You've said your sister's death helped prompt the new Hendra album. Are there specific songs that deal with this grieving process?

Watt: That sounds like the question from a counseling session. Life isn't like that. The title track is about her dreams of escape. "The Levels" is about what her husband was left with.

Ben worked with Bernard Butler on the Hendra album. Butler's post-Suede career path has somewhat mirrored Johnny Marr's after-Smiths years, as he's found his way onto a variety of high-profile projects for The Pretenders, Cut Off Your Hands, and many others. He formed the duo McAltmont and Butler after leaving Suede, before recording a few albums under his own name. In 2004, he formed a new band called The Tears with Suede vocalist Brett Anderson, which brought his career full circle in a way.

Songfacts: Tell me about Bernard Butler as a collaborator? In what ways are you similar? How are you different?

Watt: When we pick up guitars we play in completely different ways. I like this. We can play the same guitar through the same amp and make a different sound. I favor suspensions, unanswered chords, a sense of compromised beauty. Bernard - certainly on this project - reaches for edginess, angst, stress. But then I urged him to play like this. It is the dialogue on which the album is based. We have been thrown into each other's company on this record - touring together. We like our own space but share a dry, ironic sense of humor.

Songfacts: Is there a story behind how you persuaded Pink Floyd's David Gilmour to contribute to "The Levels"?

Watt: We ran into each other by chance at a party just before I started the album. Two musicians in a room full of people from book publishing. We got talking. He invited me to hear his demos. I thought he was joking, but he texted me later to say he was serious. We spent a day at his house and studio, chatting, listening, getting on. It seemed easy. Two weeks later I asked him if he fancied playing on "The Levels." He loved the song, said yes, and it was done in a matter of days. Very simple, really.

Songfacts: You've been doing some solo dates; have these been fun? Terrifying?

Watt: The very first one was frightening for the first ten minutes, which is unlike me. I like the stage. But it made me realize how much it meant to me. After that it has been easier.

Songfacts: Your second book, Romany and Tom, is out. Have you always been a writer? How does writing scratch a nerve that maybe doing music cannot?

Watt: Well, two books in 51 years is hardly prolific. But I found a voice with my first book, Patient, that came naturally. It was a different way of communicating. But making a living through any form of self-expression should be cherished. I feel lucky to be doing it.

Ben teamed up with Robert Wyatt for a 1982 5-song EP called Summer Into Winter, which was released on Watt's label, Cherry Red. Wyatt is a founding member of the influential group Soft Machine, where he was a vocalist and drummer. Wyatt later branched out as a songwriter and musician, collaborating with such differing artists as Brian Eno and jazz player Carla Bley.

Songfacts: What are you best memories about collaborating with Robert Wyatt?

Watt: Cherry Red thought I was mad to ask. He was a somebody. I was a nobody. But nothing ventured, nothing gained. I rang him. Sent him a cassette. He liked it. Asked me round. I took the bus. Sat in his front room surrounded by a piano and soya milk and Charlie Mingus records. He was very thoughtful and gentle. Later, in the studio, he took it all seriously, but came up with interesting ideas like recording two takes of things and keeping both so they overlapped.

Songfacts: Does it ever bother you that your most successful hit was a Todd Terry remix for the song "Missing," rather than the original? How do you feel about the remix of this song?

Watt: Why should it bother me? I have never made music aimed at the charts so why should I worry? I was pleased.

Todd's mix was a serendipitous moment. When he delivered the mix, no-one thought, wow, a hit record. It was seen as a useful club mix. The people decided it should be a hit. They danced to it. Requested it. Our record company had famously dropped us after we delivered it seeing no future. There was no promotional push for months. In the end it was a hit on its own merits. I have always loved that about it. It was the right record at the right time. I am proud of it. Voice, song, arrangement and beat all in alignment.

Songfacts: My favorite EBTG song is "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing." Was this based on real events? Was there a moment when you first heard Caruso sing, and did it permanently change your perspective on fatherhood?

Watt: I wrote the song after driving my dad up to Scotland in the mid-'80s to revist his old haunts. As we stood on the edge of Holy Loch, a nuclear submarine surfaced in front of us. It was a startling moment.

The song is about the redemptive power of music - not just Caruso - to make sense of life, to offer succor and wonder, even when life itself may seem frightening and unknowable.

Songfacts: "The Night I Heard Caruso Sing" expresses fear about nuclear war, which was a real fear in the 80s and at other times in the past. Are you still that afraid about nuclear holocaust, or do you think the world is wiser now about saving itself?

Watt: It was a song that responded to its time. The Cold War still loomed.

Songfacts: Tell me about how EBTG wrote songs. Tracey Thorn has a uniquely beautiful voice; did you ever write songs with her voice in mind?

Ben Watt of Everything But The GirlWatt: Every time I wrote a melody, I wrote it in her range. For years she didn't use her head voice, her falsetto. That has been a recent development.

In reality, during EBTG, she sang within an octave range. I tried to write within that for her. But that aside I don't think I modified my lyrics to suit her. I just tried to find words that would mean something to everyone whoever sang them. But a lot of the time we wrote in isolation, coming to each other with fairly complete ideas. We were never 'Brill Building' writers. Never 9-5. Around the piano. Banging it out.

Songfacts: You and Tracey collaborated together. How did you divide the labor? Is one of you more music-oriented, whereas the other is more lyric-focused?

Watt: When we weren't writing individual songs, of which there are many, I would write music and she would write lyrics. There isn't one song where she wrote music and I wrote lyrics.

Songfacts: Your debut single was "Night and Day," a Cole Porter cover. How influential was Porter on your writing style? Are there other 'classic' songwriters that have had a big impact on your style? If so, which ones?

Watt: It became a single by default. We went into the studio and recorded three songs. Cherry Red chose 'Night and Day' as the A-side. We were quite casual about the record. Didn't really mind what they chose. I had grown up listening to jazz because of my dad. I was interested in chords, harmony. 'Night and Day' just happened to be a song that me and Tracey both knew. We threw it down because there were 15 minutes left on the end of the session and it seemed churlish to waste them.

Songfacts: Please educate me a little more about Churg-Strauss syndrome. How did that make you curtail your recording and touring in the 90s?

Watt: It is an auto-immune disease. It involves a hyper-activity in the immune system. Left unchecked it can rampage out of control destroying body tissue leading to catastrophic organ failure. Before doctors realized what was happening and got it under control it had destroyed 85% of my small intestine. I was in hospital for three months, had five life-saving operations. Does that give you some idea...

Songfacts: In the '90s, EBTG moved more toward dance music. How did your longtime fans react to such a change, and did you lose some? Do you have any regrets about this directional change?

Watt: Change always brings change. We have picked up and shed fans throughout our career. The size of your fan base should not be a determining factor when choosing what to do next. We made records we wanted to make and accepted the consequences. I certainly had no regrets.

Songfacts: Lastly, if you were a betting man, what would you out the odds of an EBTG reunion at?

Watt: At the moment, zero. But only because we are happy where we are.

June 18, 2014. Get more at benwatt.com.

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