"Is this cheating on Tracey? I dunno," Ben Watt asked. He felt a little funny performing Everything But the Girl's "25th December" in Los Angeles a few weeks ago without his wife and creative partner, but the moment of intercession and a throwback tune were just what the crowded desired. "I wrote it, for Chrissakes," he laughed, before singing one of his most memorable lines ("Have I enough time, have I just some time, to revisit, to go back, to return, to open my mouth again, and say something different this time?")
Watt and Tracey Thorn made up the duo that brought a soft revolution to British pop in the 1980s and 1990s with the jazz, folk, and electronic inflections of hits such as "Driving" and "Missing." If Thorn's voice is EBTG's subtle siren, then Watt's words and music are its plainly beating heart.
In the past few years, Thorn and Watt have pursued individual projects; this summer Watt put his duties as record label chief behind him to tour America in support of his first solo recording in thirty years - Hendra. Like the aforementioned 1994 Christmas number, the new Hendra tracks also reflect the complications of familial relationships and the regrets of time lost. The album is a companion piece to Watt's recently released memoir about the passing of his parents, Romany and Tom.
"Just as I was delivering the book to [my publisher, Bloomsbury], my half-sister Jennie died unexpectedly [in the fall of 2012]," Watt tells me of his motivation for writing Hendra. "I had more to say, but I didn't want to write another book. I wanted to use a different palette of colors, return to words and play the guitar."
Watt then picked up his instrument, experimented with open tuning and let the words flow into what he describes as a "lot of songs about grief and death." The sounds on Hendra are "languid, suspended, impressionistic and gauzy" with lyrics that "have grit," he says.
Each of Watt's solemn inner monologues comes with a dose of indefatigable optimism. First he's singing about a makeshift shrine to honor a boy who died in a car wreck ("Nathaniel"), next he's assuring us everything will be OK as he watches seagulls at the shore, wishing for a "Golden Ratio" over a samba beat and a breezy riff. Former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler appears on most songs and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour adds guitar textures that contrast with Watt's gentle touch in "The Levels." Overall, it's an emotional ride, but one of the best albums of 2014.
As Hendra travels through a range of sentiments in an hour, it mirrors what most of us experience over the course of an entire year: the laughter and loss of real life. Watt's greatest asset as a songwriter may be his ability to make the rollercoaster of everyday happenstance feel miraculous.
"The death of Jennie made me realize that... we all take a lot of blows and have to go fight another round," he says. "I wanted to write songs that put protagonists in situations where a critical moment arises. How will they deal with it? Anger? Humor? Resilience? Is there salvation or hope?"
If anyone can find poetic glimmers in the dark, Watt can: his first book, 1997's critically-acclaimed Patient, chronicled his death-defying struggles with Churg-Strauss syndrome and transformed him from lyricist into bona fide literati. He channels a bit of that fighting spirit in Hendra's "Spring": the easy groove reflects the influence of 1970s songwriters John Martyn and Dewey Bunnell and the verse contains a line inspired by jazz piano great Bill Evans, but the imagery is classic, clear Watt. As he delivers the words, "Let the early morning birdsong tumble inside," there's no trace of irony.
"As we get older, we realize simple things like the changing of the seasons are the ones that matter, and it's important to put value on them," Watt says. "With 'Spring,' I tried to write a song about how relationships can survive if you just put your faith in the small things."
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Ben Watt (right) and Bernard Butler perform in Los Angeles in June, 2014. Photo by Ian Webber. Courtesy of Ian Webber Photography.