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Ben Watt’s Second Act: Here’s ‘Hendra’

In a world where the typical career cycle of most pop musicians includes a few singles, maybe an album or two, and then unavoidable oblivion, Ben Watt hasn’t been paying attention.

Ben Watt

Edward Bishop

In a world where the typical career cycle of most pop musicians includes a few singles, maybe an album or two, and then unavoidable oblivion, Ben Watt hasn’t been paying attention. He’s in it for the proverbial long haul. And when the gap between your first and second album is 31 years, that’s one hell of a haul.

The delightful Hendra, Watt’s unexpected, just-released new album, further delivers on the promise offered by Watt’s earliest works. His initial single “Cant” (1981), EP Summer Into Winter (1982) and album North Marine Drive (1983), released on London’s aggressively indie Cherry Red label, were charming works striking both for the musical styles they evoked—maybe a combination of John Martyn, Nick Drake and the Durutti Column’s Vini Reilly—and the comparative youth of singer/guitarist Watt, then hovering around the age of 20. Further, almost scary coolness by association: Separately involved in the making of that early music were collaborators Kevin Coyne and Robert Wyatt, two of pop music’s very finest music makers now regarded as cult heroes of the highest order.

But then a career happened. Watt formed a duo with the Marine Girls’ Tracey Thorn, whom he’d met at Hull University in 1981, and the pair of them became Everything But The Girl. An unexpectedly successful combo, they released nine studio albums in the course of 20 years that tastefully traversed the folk, pop, and electronic genres and sold disarmingly well. They were quite good.

But a lot can happen in 31 years, and forming a band with Tracey Thorn isn’t all of it.

In the mid-‘90s, Watt’s veering toward electronic dance music resulted in a memorable Lazy Dog club and compilation series; further evolution in that direction saw Watt co-founding a few London nightclubs and in the years that followed launching the much-lauded Buzzin’ Fly and Strange Feeling indie labels—names plucked from Tim Buckley’s classic Happy/Sad album and a nod to the distinguished music at the core of Watt’s early career.

Additionally, Watt’s career as a writer bloomed. His 1996 memoir Patient-The True Story Of A Rare Illness, memorably detailing his struggle with a grave, life-threatening illness, won much acclaim; this year, his new book Romany And Tom (available here via Bloomsbury USA), detailing the early, very colorful history of his parents, emerged to similarly enthusiastic reviews.

But let us not forget Hendra, the reason for Watt’s re-entrance into the solo spotlight, and a fine successor to North Marine Drive all these years later. Recorded with the able assistance of Suede guitarist Bernard Butler—himself a very well known figure—and featuring an appearance by no less than guitarist David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, the album is a well-written, well-sung, comfortably textured return to solo form for which we should be grateful.

Both Watt and Butler stopped by Yahoo’s Santa Monica studio recently to offer a live taste of the new album, and if you’re like us, we suspect you’ll like what you see–and hear–very much.

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