Ben Watt, formerly of Everything But The Girl, producer/DJ and solo artist (hear two of his tracks on this week’s playlist …..), label head and author has a new album due in early 2020.
A single, from that album, Sunlight Follows The Night, has a filmclip by filmmaker Rahim Moledina.
Five years ago, after a long break from being a singer/songwriter, he released a new album which was a companion piece to his second book, this one about his parents – and in its way, about him too.
In this interview he talked about the decisions you make, and the ones you don’t make, and how that plays out in lives long or short.
On his new album, Hendra, the former DJ, label head and half of Everything But The Girl, Ben Watt, sings in his low-impact, reedy tenor, “You can push things to the back of your mind but you can never forget”.
It’s more than a lyric, more even than an encapsulation of the record, his first solo album in 31 years after a decade playing, creating and curating house and dance music around the world and two decades with his partner, Tracey Thorn, in Everything But The Girl.
It is really at the centre of a unique, simultaneous exploration of memory and loss and acceptance. An exploration which encompasses Hendra and his second book, Romany And Tom, a biography of his parents which also serves as a kind of memoir and a deeply personal account of living through ageing and death.
"I think I knew, after I had written Patient [about his near fatal contraction of Churg Strauss Syndrome, which attacked his immune system and led to the removal of most of his small intestine] in the mid-90s that I would probably have to go on and confront the story of my parents,” Watt says.
"By the same token it started to dawn on me more and more as the years went by that I would have to go back and confront that boy of 19, 20 years old who chose to put his solo career to one side to work with Tracey Thorn.”
Researching and writing Romany And Tom brought a lot of those thoughts to the front of his mind. In particular there were his complex feelings watching what now he recognises as the manifestation of depression in his father, a successful jazz musician and band leader in the 1950s and 60s, and the impact that, and their heavy drinking, had on his mother whose career as a journalist took off as his father’s career all but ended.
"And then just as I was finishing Romany And Tom, the person I most wanted to read it, my half sister Jennie, died at the end of 2012, unexpectedly from late diagnosis lung cancer,” Watt says. “That was a heavy blow for everybody but it kind of drove me into another creative phase and rather than write another book, which I felt was too much, it drove me down to the studio and I picked up a guitar for the first time in a long time.”
Musically, Hendra draws from the folk, rock and art music Watt discovered in the 1970s before punk hit him, his melodic and almost gentle guitar with a touch of folk intersecting with an occasionally pungent electric one of Bernard Butler.
But it also reflects the twin sides of his parents’ lives, his feelings about them and the experience of serious illness, Alzheimer’s and what we do to get through. In other words, it brings some of the book’s themes to the fore.
"The album lyrically was about these quite impressionistic, slightly poetic descriptions of people's lives or moments of their lives. But where there is a hard edge to it, it’s either through survival or taking a hard blow and getting up off the floor and carrying on," says Watt. “I knew that I needed and musical palette that would complement this.”
Unlike the album, which is for all its tangy cross-cutting of harshness and beauty, is a gently easy to explore collection, there are aspects of Romany And Tom – deliberately written Watt says “in a very unsentimental way" while never being less than tender - which are uncomfortable to read.
This is particularly so if your parents are ageing or their health is deteriorating, but really just as much for anyone coming to the understanding of their parents as no more and no less flawed and valuable as anyone else.
“I began to realise the human scale of their life and that actually the flaws in them made them suddenly more sympathetic than the heroic figures you tend to live with most of your life. And to realise, it doesn't matter your age, when you are 20, 40, 60, 80, we are all still battling with issues of doubt, of self-esteem, of thwarted ambition,” says Watt who has also dealt with depression in his own life.
“That suddenly makes your parents incredibly sympathetic figures and if anything I suppose that is the conclusion I came to."
In 1997 he told me that “there are periods in our lives where we are just incredibly stupid and there are periods in our lives where we do a few perhaps smart moves. I don't think we go through this graph of wisdom.”
Long before Romany And Tom and Hendra, the themes of both had been germinating.
"I still believe that. We think as we grow older, we grow wiser, but that's not necessarily the case,” says Ben Watt. “We are constantly making mistakes which we are then correcting.”