If you’re a fan of Ben Watt then you’ve had a very exciting time recently, because not only has Ben published his second book, Romany and Tom, he has also released, with a little help from no less than Bernard Butler and David Gilmour, his first solo album in 31 years, Hendra. Many commentators have approached this startling fact as if Ben has led some sort of reclusive under-achieving life in the intervening years and not been one half of Everything But The Girl and the brains behind the respected Buzzin’ Fly label.
I caught up with Ben recently as he and Bernard toured the country promoting the album and asked him a few questions about Hendra, his busy life and some of the influences on his guitar playing. I started by asking whether the tunes that make up Hendra had always been planned as a Ben Watt solo album. “I just started writing songs in early 2013 with the specific intention of making a solo album” Ben explained, “They came from a need to write again. They weren’t just stuff that was lying around for anyone to sing”
Ben then told me about the details of the process involved in the recording and mixing of Hendra. ”The main backing tracks were laid down live over four days at Eastcote studios in west London in September 2013. An old 1970s studio with a great live room and mixing desk. I then did the vocals over three days at a Hoxton studio with Ewan Pearson. David Gilmour recorded his contribution at Medina in Hove. The synth overdubs were done in Berlin with Ewan, and the field recording of birdsong at the start of ‘The Levels’ was recorded by Ewan’s dad in Shropshire one early morning with a handheld WAV recorder. Total time about 11 days. Ewan then spent about four days sorting out the best takes and compiling the music ready for mixing. We then spent a week mixing – half in Bristol at Bruno’s mix room, half at Air in London.” When I ask Ben about the potentially energy-sapping task of promoting and album and book simultaneously, he responds with an unperturbed “I am happiest when busy.”
We turned then to a question about Ben’s musical heroes. “I don’t look at music like that” Ben replies. “I don’t like lists but my guitar playing has probably been influenced over the years by Joao Gilberto, John Martyn, Nick Drake, David Crosby, mid-70s Joni Mitchell, Vini Reilly, Mark McGuire. Singers who spoke to me early on were Robert Wyatt, Neil Young, Kevin Coyne, Tim Buckley.”
All of these influences and more are present when Ben and Bernard perform for an attentive and appreciative audience at the subterranean Cluny 2 on 16 April. Hardly a word passes between Ben and Bernard during the gig, but they complement each other perfectly throughout, opening with ‘The Levels’, ‘Golden Ratio’ and ‘Hendra’ all from the new album. Bernard leaves the stage from time to time to allow Ben to delve alone into his back catalogue, including the wonderful ‘Walter and John’ from the 32 year old Summer into Winter EP, originally recorded with Robert Wyatt. Before them, Ben tells us about the time when, as a confident young man he didn’t realise that asking Robert to play on his debut EP was in any way unusual. Many of the tracks that make up Hendra deal with deeply personal subjects of family loss, childhood memories and on one of the album’s many high points, ‘Young Man’s Game’, which Ben describes as “a country song about DJ-ing” it ponders whether it may be time to consider leaving some things to the younger generation.
‘Nathaniel’, a song about remembering a departed loved one (sparked by a message seen painted on a trailer parked at the roadside), is played with slightly less of the throbbing urgency than appears on the album version, but this new approach goes down well with the crowd, as does the personal heartfelt message recounted in ‘Matthew Arnold’s Field’.
Ben acknowledges that some of the subjects covered by the album are a little dark and downbeat, but the presence of ‘The Heart is a Mirror’ and the hopeful and uplifting ‘Spring’ provide positive highlights to a concert that prove that Ben is still very much at the top of his game.
Interviewer and reviewer: Neil Pace
Photographer: Edward Bishop