Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt Answers Questions from Low’s Alan Sparhawk, Shares New Single “Irene”

Sparhawk grills Watt about the writing and recording process behind his forthcoming “Storm Damage.”
Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt Answers Questions from Low’s Alan Sparhawk, Shares New Single “Irene”

Sparhawk grills Watt about the writing and recording process behind his forthcoming “Storm Damage.”

Words: Dean Brandt

photo by Antonio Olmos

October 23, 2019

Ben Watt unveiled a new single from his upcoming LP Storm Damage yesterday, and if the ambient, vaguely unsettling guitar and baroque vocals harmonies remind you of Low at all, well, we probably have a cameo from Alan Sparhawk to thank for that.

“I asked Alan to play on the song after we did a show together in Minneapolis in 2016,” Watt recalls of the collaboration. “We have been friends for fifteen years, since I remixed a Low song in 2004. I thought his restless, scratchily emotional guitar style would be perfect.” 

“For years, Ben has been a glaring example of brave and versatile songwriting,” Sparhawk counters—“years” being an understatement, considering the wide variety of sounds Watt has given us over nearly four decades, as a solo artist or with his partner Tracey Thorn as the duo Everything But the Girl. “Our conversations are always about songs and love for music, so it was a great pleasure and adventure to sing and play on his new record. I had to really step up my game to even hang in the room with him, but I’m honored to have been there.”

In addition to the percussion-less, six-minute, mid-album track—streaming below—the pair reconnected for a Q&A for FLOOD, wherein Sparhawk unloaded some long-burning questions he had for the songwriter, which you can read below the video. 

Storm Damage is out January 31 via Caroline International. You can pre-order it here.

Alan Sparhawk: You once told me that there is no such thing as the “right” or ultimate version of a song. If that is so, what are you aiming for when you are putting a song together in the studio? How do you know when it’s done?

Ben Watt: I think that comes from my upbringing. My dad was a jazz musician and arranger. Sheet music was scattered everywhere. I saw that most songs can be broken down into the top line or vocal melody, the chords or basic harmony, the rhythm and the lyrics—four simple components. And at that point you have a choice of the direction you take for the arrangement and production—fast or slow, aggressive or gentle, electronic or acoustic, clean or distorted. It gives you freedom, and no one path is necessarily better than another, but all the time you are looking for a unique combination of choices that keeps things fresh and avoids the generic. 

I think that particular moment is crucial when making music—the palette of colors you choose; sometimes the more limited the better; on the new album I found myself picturing a live piano trio undercut with booming TR-808 kick drums, sound effects, found sounds, lone modulating analog synths—and that became the template. Once the basics are set, the rest of the process should be like painting, the adding and removal of overdubs like color until it feels right, and serves the meaning of the lyrics. I try and be automatic and intuitive these days, making quick decisions in the studio and stop when I have nothing left to add. What is left is just the version I came up with on that day. Another day might be different. Francis Bacon said he wasn’t trying to say something with his work, he was just trying to do something. I like that.

AS: What instrument do you usually write on?

BW: On this record I wrote mostly on the piano. I have tried different techniques over the years, working with limited technology, working with lots of technology, starting with chords, starting with sample, starting with a riff. In the end I mostly return to a basic tool—a guitar, or a piano—and roll those four components, words, melody, harmony, rhythm, around and around until I chance upon something that impresses me.

AS: Are you a words-then-music writer, or a music-then-words writer?

BW: There is no rule. I often find I write from the inside out, and songs slowly reveal themselves. I might start with an image or a chord change that develops outwards. I think songs have powerful forces of their own once you start—hidden codes and paths. It’s as if everything you write is just out there invisibly in the air and all you are doing is revealing it. You are trying to be unique, but also reaching for a potent commonality, and that commonality feels like it is just out there waiting for you to find it.

AS: Do you write more when you travel/tour or do you write more at home?

BW: I never write complete things on tour. Maybe I’ll jot down lines in my phone, or take a photo of something I don’t want to forget, or sing a melody into a voice memo, and go back to it all later and see if it surprises me, but generally I write at home in a single dense period, and as it starts to happen I realise a period of my life has slowly percolated down through the rock and I am just standing there with cupped hands trying to capture it as it seeps out.

AS: Are you always writing, or does it go in waves?

BW: Definitely waves. Sometimes I think I’ll never write anything again. Then, finally, it comes. I sometimes do two things at once—watch TV with a guitar on my lap—hoping that by not really trying to write, something appears from the subconscious in a kind of casual doodle that I suddenly realise is useful. I find I am inspired by other music sometimes, and can write lyrics while another singer is singing at me as if I am picking up on their emotional thread.

AS: Do you still include Tracey, your partner, at some point in the writing process, even just as the first person to hear what you write, in the same way as you did when you were in a band together, and if not, how is it different?

BW: We used to always share things. We’d never write together but would use the other as a trusted sounding board early on. These days we do it less, as if we’re each aware that we’re trying to carve out something of our own after years of collaborating. I also think we naturally have different taste, and we might be better off pursuing our own vision rather than risk a muted reaction from the other that could kill a good idea in its infancy. 

AS: Tell me one thing you get from writing books that you don’t get from music.

BW: Space. Room to maneuver. Lyrics require you to operate in a tight spot, to distill, to say a lot in a single image. Prose allows you to build meaning more slowly, an accretion, not unlike a good DJ set, actually. 

AS: You have a distinctive voice. What is your history with singing? Did you grow up singing, or did you come into it as you started making music as a young man? I feel like I have to work very hard to sing well. What has been your experience with trying to sing well?

BW: I have always wanted to sing. And my voice is unforced. It is largely the natural sound that comes out. I am English so I basically sing in an English accent with a few softened edges. There is a long folk—and, interestingly, punk—tradition of rejecting the American vowel sounds that have dominated rock music, of singing in your own accent. I think I embraced that. I loved punk poets like Patrik Fitzgerald and pastoral experimentalists like Robert Wyatt, Brian Eno, and Nick Drake as a teenager. 

I think my performances as a singer with Everything But the Girl are very mixed. I never really got the chance to sing very much—to train the muscle, if you like. I’d sing as an afterthought in the studio, or perhaps only twice in a whole evening on stage. I really noticed when I came back to solo performance in 2014 with Hendra that my voice just got stronger and stronger from simple repetition, ninety-minute sets night after night. I now have far more control over it than I did even five years ago.

AS: Tell me about the musicians you have been working with, both live and on this new record.

BW: I wanted to focus on a trio this time. Just piano or occasional guitar, bass and drums. Where every note and beat has a purpose. Everyone has a key role. Raw, direct. Human effort, wood, steel. I chose Rex Horan on bass and Evan Jenkins on drums. They have known each other for years. Rex is Australian, Evan is from New Zealand. They play very intuitively. Astonishing technique but gentle ears and curious. If a song needs it simple, they play simple. We worked hard on developing a hybrid sound for this record, mixing vintage drums with electronic tones, sampled 8-bit audio with beautifully recorded acoustic instruments, free-time playing with percolating quantized synths. We’ll take the same thing on the road.

AS: Do you have a favorite guitar?

BW: You’d think so, wouldn’t you. I’m not sure. Each has a character. I have a Guild F50 acoustic six-string from 1973. Big jumbo body. Heavy, warm tone. I bought it for Tracey in 1986, but seem to have commandeered it. I use it a lot. Recently I bought a 1959 Gretsch Single Anniversary that I toured with, but have just replaced it with a 2017 Double Anniversary in the same color because it keeps its tuning better and has more versatility with the extra pick-up—essential on stage. It is also a really well-made reissue. I have a 1972 Gibson Dove acoustic and a 1973 Fender Thinline Telecaster that also get a lot of use. For the song you guest on, I played a metal resonator guitar, a National, which has a lot of character. I used it for “New Year of Grace” on the previous album too.

AS: You’ve made a wide range of music throughout your life. From where you stand now, is it a circle or is it a line?

BW: I think it’s the scenic route. I have always been curious about music. I grew up the youngest in a house full of grown-ups. They each had different record collections. My dad played jazz downstairs. My half-sister Jennie loved Bowie, Lou Reed, JJ Cale. My oldest half-brother played Roy Harper. My other half-brothers like more mainstream stuff like James Taylor and Paul Simon. And I grew up in the independent music explosion of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I absorbed all of it. There is a fascinating interplay of melody, harmony, and rhythm in every style to me—from Detroit techno to Nashville string arrangements. Why restrict yourself in your search for your own sound?