In Conversation: Frank Watkinson on Cheering Viewers Up with Sad Songs
The viral YouTube covers artist humbly discusses his unexpected rise to online stardom.
For all its promise and potential, the internet has, on the whole, failed to deliver. What could have been a technological paradise that enhanced humanity has really just become a cultural wasteland controlled by corporations who seem intent on selling our data and souls, a terrain of exploitative Elon Musk acolytes frothing at the mouth with cryptocurrencies, misinformation, and, now, non-fungible tokens. And that’s not even mentioning the devastating impact companies like Spotify and Apple have had on the artists they’re meant to be supporting.
One of the few glimmers of hope in this digital world, however, is an unlikely hero in the form of a 67-year-old Englishman named Frank Watkinson. A recent retiree, he took to uploading his acoustic recordings onto YouTube. There are unlikely covers—heart-torn versions of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life,” and, perhaps most bizarrely, Slipknot’s “Snuff”—as well as Frank’s own originals, which he freely admits are equally miserable and depressing.
While his songs may be sad, the response they’ve elicited is anything but. People have asked him, through the comments on his videos, to be their grandad. Incredibly down-to-earth and—given the maudlin nature of the songs he’s posted, many of which ruminate on death and loss—surprisingly cheerful and humorous, Watkinson does what he does for the one reason we should all do what we do: For the sheer joy and love of it. He never had any aspirations to go viral, and now that he has, he doesn’t understand why it happened, nor, it seems, why people connect to what he does.
Contacted via Facebook, he agreed to be interviewed, and our chat took place back in early January, a few days after pro-Trump supporters had stormed the capitol. Back then, he had approximately 140,000 subscribers on YouTube. At the time of writing, that’s more than doubled to almost 300,000 and continues to grow. Yet Watkinson—humble, modest, and unpretentious as can be—doesn’t seem to have changed or been affected by it at all. “I don’t mind a chat,” he replied on Messenger, “not that I have a great deal to say.”
That part was certainly untrue. With his guitar by his side, we spoke for over an hour, mainly about his music, but—prompted by the recent events and the Bernie Sanders placard displayed in my window (“I like your Bernie sign,” he said)—also about politics in the U.K. and U.S. For a man with not much to say, he certainly said a lot, all of which confirmed the idea his songs hint at—that he’s quite possibly the purest, warmest person on the internet.
You only started playing guitar because of your cousin, right?
Yeah. My cousin is a couple of years older and he’s always playing guitar, and I thought, “If I could only be as good as him.” So I bought a guitar and used to watch him all the time. In my day, there was no YouTube or “How to Play” anything. You’d hear a song and you’d just wonder how they were getting that sound, and you’d go to the library and get a book for the chords and it would say something like C, F, and G—and you’re like, “That don’t sound like C to me!” But the older you get, you realize that not every C is the same shape.
But anyway, I never got good—I just realized a long time later that I could never play a song as it is. I take so long to learn to play it properly that I didn’t even want to sing the song after that. So when I started doing the covers, because I can’t do the flash bits, I tried to just make everything a song. So I’m basically cheating and I just can’t understand why it’s gone so mad.
Because they’re really beautiful. And it’s clear both your originals and the covers come from the heart.
I’ve always thought that if you’re going to sing a song, you’ve got to try to believe the song. I’ve seen people singing really emotional songs and there’s no belief in it. I don’t like to slag people off, but you get people singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and they’re amazing singers but they’re too interested in their voice and how good they look, and not the meaning of the song. And it gets me angry. A lot of people have also said I should get in the studio and all that, but that’s never been an ambition of mine.
“I’ve always thought that if you’re going to sing a song, you’ve got to try to believe the song. I’ve seen people singing really emotional songs and there’s no belief in it.”
And yet you now have about 140,000 YouTube subscribers.
Yes, and I would say six weeks ago I had 12,000. And I thought that was amazing. I thought, “Wow, look at all these people!” So if someone requested a cover I could probably do it within a week with a little bit of practice. But then somebody put me on TikTok and promoted me on there and said “Look at this man—no-one’s watching him but listen to this.” I sat at the computer getting all the notifications on YouTube of people liking things. It was “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” which was six or seven months old then, so I wondered what was going on. Then someone told me I was on TikTok.
Within three hours I’d got 38,000 subscribers. And now it’s crept to 140,000. Trouble is, it’s got its downfalls. I’ve stopped writing the requests down now because I’ve got over a thousand—and if it takes me around a week to find my version and record it, I haven’t got enough time to do a thousand! But people are also opening their hearts up to me now. They’re telling me their life story and how they’ve lost friends or how their mum’s died, things like that—and that’s when it starts to get serious. You can’t just laugh that off with a joke. My daughter said, “Your sense of humor has got to stop now,” because I can make a joke out of anything—and I’m not allowed to now!
“People are also opening their hearts up to me now. They’re telling me their life story and how they’ve lost friends or how their mum’s died, things like that—and that’s when it starts to get serious. You can’t just laugh that off with a joke.”
That must be a lot of pressure for you. Also because people expect something from you now. How does that make you feel?
Well, the thing is, they may have expectations, but I’m never going to try and live up to someone else’s expectations. You get a lot of comments saying, “Whoever disliked this…” Some of the videos have 35,000 thumbs up and 25 dislikes. Well, I think straight away that one of them is probably my wife and the rest are probably musicians. Because musicians are a jealous breed and they can see that I’m not playing the song right. Some people want perfection. I’ve never been one for perfection. I’ve always said that if I want to listen to “Hotel California” by The Eagles and there’s a group covering it that sounds identical, then—even if they are good and they’ve got it right—I might as well just put The Eagles on.
How old were you when you first started learning?
There’d always been some old battered thing in the house, but when I was sixteen and I saved up and I bought a guitar from the music shop. I’ll never forget it—it was £35 [about $48] and I was earning £5 [just under $7] a week. So that makes it ridiculously expensive, doesn’t it? And that was the cheapest one in the shop. Now this [gestures to the guitar now in his hands] is a £30 second-hand Yamaha that I used most of the time and it records better than any of the others. I’ve got a Taylor and it plays alright, but when I try to record, I can’t get that warmth. And I’ve got an Epiphone Gibson, and that doesn’t do it. And I’ve got a Faith guitar that a friend bought me and that’s still a very bright sound. I do play them, but when I record I nearly always go back to this cheap Yamaha.
But it works. There’s something about that guitar and the way you sing that cuts to the heart.
You won’t believe the amount of people that have said “Will you come and play at my wedding?” And I’m thinking that a wedding’s supposed to be a time of joy, and you’ve got this old man singing the most depressing songs in the world—it’s not going to happen. Maybe at a funeral! But I’ve never played outside of my house. I’ve never played live in front of anybody, and I don’t even think I want to start thinking about that. Because I’ll freeze. What you’re seeing with me on YouTube is someone relaxing in their front room, recently retired, and just enjoying themselves.
It’s not just your covers that sound sad. Your own songs are also very melancholy. Yet you seem very chipper, very happy.
I’m the opposite in real life! I am not that miserable sod in real life!
“Some of the videos have 35,000 thumbs up and 25 dislikes. Well, I think straight away that one of them is probably my wife and the rest are probably musicians.”
So where does that come from?
I just love emotional, sad songs. And in a way they cheer people up. If you’re really feeling down and you put a sad song on, it doesn’t cheer you up, but it makes you feel better. I suppose you get the feeling, “Well, at least I’m not the only one. Someone’s feeling it worse than me.” I just love sad songs. Because if you get too cheerful, the songs tend to get quicker, and I’m too old to go strumming really fast and do too much singing…I run out of breath! But really, I like to tell stories, and it’s a case of putting yourself in the shoes of someone else. You’ve got to get into the mindset of the person who wrote the song or who the song is about—you can’t sing a sad song with a big smile on your face. But I’ve got to get less morbid. I’ve got a song called “Last Trip to Southwold” that’s about a man and his daughter that’s died, and if I get into it—or any of the songs, really—I can get a bit upset.
Has your purpose for doing this changed now that you’ve become more well-known?
No. It’s still me. I’m still a grandad. I’ve still got the dog and the kitten. I got a stack of Christmas cards [from fans] and so many had drawings of him. I like the Americans. They send their family photos. All because I just had the time to put some songs on the internet!
What made you want to post them online in the first place?
Have you ever heard of Bailey’s?
Yeah. That’s what made me post it! And I found out that Bailey’s is actually a liar. Because at night time he says, “That’s a great idea, Frank.” And in the morning you realize he was lying. That’s why I stopped drinking.
Yet here you are. And people love your stuff and you’ve touched all these hearts and lives.
It’s an absolute shock, to be honest. A lot of people don’t realize that I only sing and play when my wife’s at work. Because when she’s back she wants to watch TV in the living room—really important stuff like Coronation Street. She hasn’t retired yet, so she goes into work three days a week and nearly every song I’ve done is when she’s at work, usually about 9 or 10 in the morning.
Is she a fan?
No, not one bit! FL