After twenty years in Everything But The Girl, and ten years as a respected DJ and record label boss of Buzzin’ Fly, Ben Watt announced last year he was parking everything to complete two long-planned creative solo projects.
The first – published by Bloomsbury on February 13 in the UK and in June in North America – is his long-awaited second book, Romany and Tom, a dazzling portrait of his parents. The second is Hendra, his first solo album for over thirty years, released on his own new imprint, Unmade Road through Caroline International on April 29th. It is, in Ben’s words, “simply a folk-rock record in an electronic age.”
The album’s title track “Hendra” was premiered today with The Guardian.
“I had come to a plateau with the labels and clubland,” he says. “I had a need to go back to words and music, not just beats and other people’s work. Once I made some space, a lot of ideas just tumbled out.”
It was in 1981 that Ben first appeared on London indie, Cherry Red, as a young nineteen-year-old experimental folk artist. His first single was produced by the maverick Kevin Coyne. With his second – 1982’s Summer into Winter EP – he coaxed alt-folk icon Robert Wyatt into collaborating on two tracks, and soon his work was drawing comparisons in the press to Tim Buckley and John Martyn. It culminated in his debut album – 1983’s North Marine Drive.
“I put it all away when I teamed up with Tracey as Everything But The Girl in 1983,” he says. “But as time has gone on – even in spite of the last ten years in the electronic world – something has made me want to go back to see what I left behind. And I realized I’d left things unfinished.”
“In the end I wrote the songs for Hendra unexpectedly. My sister died suddenly as I was finishing the book. I think it all came to a head. My mind was full of a lot of stuff. I just went down into the basement at home every night and retuned all my guitars into unfamiliar tunings as a way of beginning again and just started singing.”
The upshot is ten songs. Unsentimental. Impressionistic. Songs about close family and strangers, resilience and hope. All set in vivid landscapes where the outside comes inside and clings to the stories.
Recorded in London and Berlin, the music is a meeting of worlds: languid folk, distorted rock and buzzing electronics; in part a result of the album’s two central collaborators, ex-Suede guitarist, Bernard Butler, and Berlin-based producer Ewan Pearson.
“I turned instinctively to Bernard very early on,” says Ben. “I knew his overdriven, string-bent intensity would be the perfect foil to my own warm open-tuned style. It adds tension to the songs. Ewan has a foot in both my recent worlds. He can do thrumming Berlin techno, but also things of great delicacy and grace. I also wanted his vintage 70s poly-synths as a contrasting color, and a burnished 3-D sound, which of course both play to his strengths.”
The album also includes one other unexpected stellar cameo – Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who adds plangent slide guitar and backing vocals on “The Levels.”
“We met by chance in London just before the album,” says Ben. ‘We didn’t know each other. He invited me to hear his demos. I thought he was joking, but two days later he texted me and invited me down to his studio and we got on well. During my album, “The Levels” seemed like a perfect track for him. I rang him up and he loved the song and he did it the same weekend. Wish everything was that simple sometimes!’
How does it feel following up a debut album thirty-one years later?
“Sometimes I laugh and think it could be the definition of the difficult second album; it has certainly been a long time coming,” he says. “Some might see it as a strange fork in the road after Buzzin’ Fly, but everything for me has always been about finding a truthful and vivid point of connection with an audience – whether on dancefloors or in folk clubs. Words, beats and notes – it’s all we have. It’s just a question of playing them in what feels like the right order at the right time, and at the moment, Hendra just feels right.”
Hendra is released on April 29th on Unmade Road through Caroline International on standard CD, 180gm vinyl and digital. The standard CD and digital releases carry the original ten-track album. The 180gm vinyl version has the original ten-tracks on vinyl, gatefold artwork, and the full album plus four bonus tracks on an MP3 voucher.
DJ-ing aside, these are Watt’s first ever solo dates in the US.
US Tour Dates:
4/1: New York, NY – Joe’s Pub
4/2: Brooklyn, NY – Rough Trade
4/4: Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
4) Golden Ratio
5) Matthew Arnold’s Field
6) The Gun
8) The Levels
9) Young Man’s Game
10) The Heart is a Mirror
(MP3 voucher with vinyl only)
11) Hendra (Demo)
12) Spring (Demo)
13) Young Man’s Game (Demo)
14) Forget (Live)
Formats: Standard CD, 180gm Vinyl, iTunes, Digital