Gone Girl | Ben Watt’s
Everything But the Girl may have been missing from the charts for 15 years, but former member Ben Watt’s made the musical comeback of 2014 – and it all started in EC1.
Everything But the Girl may have been missing from the charts for 15 years, but former member Ben Watt’s made the musical comeback of 2014 – and it all started in EC1. Andre Paine talks to him about his album, acclaimed family memoir and working in ‘buzzy’ Clerkenwell…
It’s been quite a year for Ben Watt, sometime pop star, DJ and record label boss and more recently solo artist and author. As well as releasing his first solo album in three decades, he was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction for his memoir, Romany and Tom. He’s certainly the only writer in the distinguished prize’s history to have once appeared on Top of the Pops.
Watt, who’s based in Clerkenwell and even launched his musical comeback in EC1, is best known for being half of Everything But the Girl with singer Tracey Thorn. They met at Hull University in 1981, released their debut album in 1984 and went on to have a global smash in 1995 with Missing, but have been musically dormant for 15 years. As well as raising three children and getting married in 2009, they’ve focused on solo projects both musical and literary.
Above: Ben Watt photographed at The Venue, London in 1982
“We have to swap childcare – I go to Japan at the end of November,” says Watt, 51, who’s busy touring his Hendra album. While Thorn’s released three post-EBTG records and published her band memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen, Hendra is actually Watt’s first solo record since his 1983 debut. His autumnal folk-rock comeback was worth the wait. “In the same way I try to bring the book to life with detail, I do think every word counts – particularly in a song when you’ve got so few to use,” he tells The Post.
While Watt has an office at Clerkenwell Workshops, a home in Hampstead and grew up in Barnes, his song locations are scattered outside London. The jazzy Golden Ratio – about overcoming self-doubt- is set around the cliffs of Dorset. The Levels, featuring Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on guitar, was written in the aftermath of the sudden death of Watt’s half-sister and is located in Somerset. Inevitably, there’s some crossover with Romany and Tom, the intimate, honest and sometimes funny memoir about his parents. The song Matthew Arnold’s Field tells the story of scattering his father’s ashes in Oxfordshire in 2006. “We only ever see the second half of our parents’ lives – the downhill part,” writes Watt in the book’s opening. “The golden years we have to piece together.”
“It’s often the subject of messages I get on Facebook,” he says. “People have found it’s made them reassess their own parents.” That opening statement became a catalyst for a book that drew on Watt’s childhood but also involved a good deal of detective work. “I obviously began with my own memories and then just gradually worked outwards, adding detail and historical accuracy,” says Watt. “My mother had been a great archivist so that was helpful, and her private letters formed a huge part of the emotional drive of the book.”
Like Watt, his parents had a public profile and he researched those “golden years” at the British Library newspaper archive. Romany was a stage actress who became a celebrity interviewer, while Tommy was a jazz bandleader and composer who won an Ivor Novello award in 1957, but refused to change with the times. He ended up working as a decorator. When Watt’s career took off, his father had to watch as pop music made his son famous at a young age. “I think he was very conflicted,” says Watt. “On the one hand he was very proud that I was a musician, but then I was making a success in the type of music that had kicked him and his sound into the long grass.”
Unfortunately, Romany’s dementia has prevented her from reading her son’s memoir. Critics have praised Romany and Tom, which is actually Watt’s second book. Patient, published in 1996 and recently reissued, documented a lifethreatening illness. His publisher has suggested he try fiction next. Having juggled book readings with concerts, he’s ending 2014 by focusing on the album with a recent tour of the UK and December dates in the US after those Japan shows. Watt first tried out the Hendra songs at the Slaughtered Lamb last year – his first solo gig since 1983.
“I just wanted to road-test the songs and make sure that what I thought was sounding great other people thought sounded good too,” says Watt of the low-key Clerkenwell venue. “I thought it would be a perfect little space.” It just happened to be close to his office at Clerkenwell Workshops, which is handy for his publisher and agent. “I like the walk through Clerkenwell Green, it puts you in a good mood,” he says. “And I like the communal atmosphere [at Clerkenwell Workshops], particularly in the summer with people sitting outside eating and having meetings, it feels quite sort of buzzy which is good, especially when you spend quite a bit of time working on your own.”
As well as working in his basement studio at home, Watt maintains the office for the running of the new label on which he released Hendra. During his DJ years, he launched his dance music label Buzzin’ Fly and a decade on he’s planning a revival. A couple of years ago he issued Tracey Thorn’s festive album, Tinsel and Lights, which is being re-released in time for Christmas. Although Watt missed out on the Samuel Johnson Prize, Hendra did win a unique honour: best ‘difficult’ second album at the AIM Independent Music Awards. He’s not yet decided what’s he’s doing next, and there are no plans for Everything But the Girl beyond album reissues “I’m aware that I’ve always presented this moving target and that it can be quite disconcerting for people,” says Watt.
Just so long as he doesn’t keep us waiting 31 years for the next record.
“Romany & Tom” is published by Bloomsbury.
“Hendra” is on the Unmade Road label.