Born on December 6 1962 in London to Scottish jazz arranger, pianist and bandleader Tommy Watt and actress-turned-journalist Romany Bain, Ben Watt first appeared in 1981 on London indie Cherry Red as a young nineteen-year-old experimental songwriter-singer-guitarist. His first single Cant was produced by folk maverick Kevin Coyne. The follow-up, 1982’s 5-track EP Summer into Winter featured Robert Wyatt on piano and backing vocals. Watt’s guitar-playing – rich folk-jazz voicings and propulsive echo-delay – set him apart from many of his contemporaries. His early work culminated in his sparse atmospheric debut album North Marine Drive (1983, UK Independent Album Chart, No 9) and featured solos from British alto sax giant, Peter King.
Everything But The Girl (1983 - 2000)
In the summer of 1983 he put solo plans on hold to perform and write full-time with Tracey Thorn in their recently-formed duo Everything But The Girl. The pair had met at the University of Hull in 1981 and released a collaborative single, Night and Day (UK Independent Singles Chart Number 6) in 1982.
Everything But The Girl stayed active until 2000, releasing nine studio albums. They delivered twelve UK Top 40 singles (including four top 10’s) and seven UK Top 20 albums. Remixed by Todd Terry, the duo’s 1995 global hit Missing reached No. 2 on the US Billboard Top 100, number 3 on the UK Top 40 and number 1 on the Canadian, German and Italian singles charts, before being followed by the best-selling album of their career, Walking Wounded in 1996.
The mainspring behind the duo’s music, Watt began as guitarist but soon moved into arranging, programming and production. His work on Walking Wounded earned him a nomination for Producer of the Year at the Q Awards 1996. As co-songwriter, he wrote the music for hits such as Missing, Wrong, and Each and Every One, and music and words for other enduring songs such as Driving, Rollercoaster and Before Today. As a singer - while mostly back-up to the acclaimed Thorn - he took the spotlight on evergreens such as The Night I Heard Caruso Sing, Downtown Train and The Road.
Yet the nineties were nearly a different story: in June 1992, on the eve of an Everything But The Girl tour of North America, he was rushed to a London hospital where - after ten anxious days of worsening symptoms and inconclusive tests - he was diagnosed with a rare vasculitic auto-immune disease, Churg-Strauss Syndrome (EGPA). He spent the next nine weeks in and out of intensive care at Westminster Hospital, enduring several lengthy life-saving operations. Lucky to survive, and 50lbs lighter, he returned to music in 1993 and later detailed his experience in an acclaimed memoir, Patient - The True Story of a Rare Illness, published by Penguin in 1996, and republished by Bloomsbury in 2014.
As Everything But The Girl finally came to a halt at the end of the nineties, inspired by the duo’s later electronic influences he moved into electronic production, DJing and clubland. In 1999 he programmed and produced two tracks for singer-songwriter Beth Orton’s second album, Central Reservation (nominated for Mercury Music Prize) and in 2002 mixed her third album Daybreaker (nominated for Best Album at Q Awards).
For more on Everything But The Girl, read the full history here.
Lazy Dog (1998 - 2003)
Switching focus from the mainstream, as a DJ from 1998-2003 he established the roadblocked Sunday deep house party Lazy Dog with Blackmarket’s Jay Hannan at the tiny Notting Hill Arts Club in west London. Bigger events were soon regularly added at the 1,000-capacity central London club, The End. With a popular tag-team DJ style, the pair saw their reputation enhanced with sparkling US tours and two best-selling mix compilation albums on Virgin/Astralwerks. As a remixer, Watt also turned out an accompanying string of hit dancefloor-oriented productions for Sade, Maxwell, Sunshine Anderson and Meshell Ndegeocello.
Cherry Jam, Neighbourhood (2002 - 2005)
Deepening his ties with clubland, from 2002-2005 Watt was part-owner-founder of two new west London event spaces – Cherry Jam (a tiny 160-capacity basement in Royal Oak), and Neighbourhood (built from the shell of the old 600-capacity Subterania club near Portobello Road). He orchestrated the refurbishment and events policy for both, mixing club nights (where he would often DJ alongside international guests) with art exhibitions, literary salons, rock showcases and fundraisers to help establish their three-year reputation at the forefront of London’s club scene.
Buzzin' Fly Records, Strange Feeling (2003 - present)
2003 saw the launch of his own independent house and electronic record label Buzzin’ Fly Records. As well as fostering new talent, Watt released several club tracks of his own on Buzzin’ Fly including the label's debut release Lone Cat (Holding On), his evergreen 2005 collaboration with Estelle, Pop A Cap in Yo Ass, and his best-selling collaboration with singer Julia Biel and German producer Martin Stimming, Bright Star. From 2004-2008 he also mixed five acclaimed compilations. The label threw regular sold-out parties at The End, Plastic People, Cable and Neighbourhood in London, centred around his DJ sets. 2007 saw the launch of sister imprint, Strange Feeling, with a focus on non-electronic artists. Buzzin' Fly won Best Breakthrough Label at the House Music Awards 2004 and was runner-up as Best Label at the DJ Magazine Best Of British Awards in both 2007 and 2008. Watt was nominated for Outstanding Contribution to Dance Music at the DJ Magazine Best Of British Awards 2009.
His international reputation as a DJ grew widely in 2005 when he was booked on the festival circuit (Good Vibrations in Australia, Homelands and Lovebox in the UK, Coachella in the US, and Ireland’s Electric Picnic). In 2008 he went on to open the Sónar festival in Barcelona, played on the main stage at the Exit Festival in Serbia, and from 2007-2009 was a resident DJ at We Love Sundays on the Space Terrace in Ibiza. In New York he was given a three-year residency at Cielo. He was nominated four years running (2008-2011) as Best Deep House DJ at the global DJ Awards held in Ibiza.
Radio show, BBC 6Music (2007 - 2014)
In tandem with the labels, in 2007 Watt launched the Buzzin' Fly Radio Show, a weekly online radio show focussing on house and electronic music. It broadcast more than 150 editions over three years with re-broadcasts on the Galaxy Network, Kiss 100 and several international networks. Watt finally closed the show in 2009 and became a resident DJ on BBC Radio 6Music's flagship electronic music programme, the 6 Mix until the show moved off the schedule in 2014.
Return to solo (2013 - present)
In March 2013, on the anniversary of Buzzin’ Fly’s tenth birthday, Watt announced a scaling back of the label's activities and a personal change of direction.
He wrote a raft of new songs and teamed up with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and producer Ewan Pearson to record Hendra, his first solo album as a singer-songwriter for thirty-one years. (After a chance encounter on the eve of the recording sessions, the album also includes a rare cameo from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.)
Hendra signalled a return to his earliest roots in folk and jazz and art-rock underpinned with subtle electronics. Many of the songs were written in a series of often-unusual altered tunings for the guitar. The album was in part inspired by the unexpected death of his half-sister, Jennie, in 2012. Watt launched a new imprint Unmade Road to release Hendra and struck a global licensing deal with Caroline International.
Following widespread acclaim, the album won the Best Second Album category at the AIM (Association of Independent Music) Awards 2014 in London from a shortlist including Anna Calvi and Blood Orange. The Telegraph wrote: 'His belated return to where he started oozes class, perhaps because his oeuvre has always existed outside fashion. The gentle mesh of flowing melody, woven instrumentation and mood of hard-earned contemplation adds up to something quite profound.' Watt played sixty live shows in support of the album, travelling across the UK and abroad to North America, Japan and Australia. Japan's Music Magazine made it No. 3 in their Critics Albums of the Year; Rolling Stone (Germany) made it No. 2 in their Critics Albums of the Year; Rolling Stone (US) included it in their '15 Great Albums You Didn't Hear In 2014'.
In 2015 Watt returned to the studio to record the follow-up, Fever Dream. Renewing key partnerships with Bernard Butler and engineer Bruno Ellingham, he also invited guest vocal cameos from Boston’s singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, and Hiss Golden Messenger’s M.C. Taylor. The album was released globally on Unmade Road on April 8 2016. Uncut Magazine posted a 9/10 review. The Guardian commented: 'In his early 50s, he is making some of the best music of his career.' The Washington Post noted: 'Jazzy, bluesy, slightly overdriven, passionate and poetic … Watt has worn many hats but these songs fit him like a glove.'
January 2020 saw the release of a new solo album, Storm Damage, performed by a "future-retro trio" of upright piano, double bass and hybrid acoustic-electronic drums, accompanied by tour dates. 'Evokes Watt's early mentor Robert Wyatt at his most enthralling and adventurous, 9/10' said Uncut. "Continues a remarkable run of beautiful and nuanced music-making ... Wonderful" commented the Sunday Times. American Songwriter said, 'The most adventurous outing of his solo career ... a remarkably cohesive set of songs.'
In addition to his years as a musician, Watt has written two compelling memoirs.
1996 saw his first, Patient - the True Story of a Rare Illness published by Viking/Penguin in the UK (a Sunday Times Book of the Year for William Boyd; Shortlisted for the Esquire Non-Fiction Award 1996) and by Grove Atlantic Press in the US (a New York Times Notable Book of The Year.) The book details his life-and-death ordeal in 1992 with a rare auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss Syndrome (EGPA) during which he was dramatically hospitalised for nine weeks. The New Yorker praised its 'quiet elegance and ringing epiphanic lyricism' calling it 'a nearly flawless telling of his unexpected and drawn-out battle with an extremely rare - and nearly fatal - illness.' The book has since been translated into Spanish, Swedish and Italian, and was republished in a new UK edition by Bloomsbury in 2014.
2014 saw the publication of his second memoir, Romany and Tom (Bloomsbury). Both a personal journey and a fearless portrait of his parents, it was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Prize 2014, and featured in the Guardian’s Best Biographies and Memoirs 2014, and the Guardian's Readers’ Books of the Year 2014. The LA Review of Books commented: 'Watt captures what real life feels like, and he captures it with breathtaking clarity, beauty, and precision … a beautifully written love story filled with pain, truth, raw emotion, and endless complexity.'
Nominations and Awards
- Nominated, Best Producer of the Year, Q Awards 1996 (UK)
- Nominated, Best Deep House DJ, DJ Awards 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 (Ibiza)
- Nominated, Outstanding Contribution to Dance Music, DJ Magazine Best of British Awards 2009 (UK)
- Winner, Best Second Album, AIM Awards 2014 (UK) ('Hendra')
- Shortlisted for Esquire Non-Fiction Prize 1996 (UK) ('Patient')
- Longlisted for Samuel Johnson (now Baillie Gifford) Non-Fiction Prize 2014 (UK) ('Romany and Tom')
- Nominated for Angelo Zanibelli Award 2017 (Italy) ('Patient')
In Addition (with Everything But The Girl)
- Two Platinum Album BPI Certifications (UK)
- Seven Gold Album BPI Certifications (UK)
- One Platinum Single BPI Certification (UK)
- One Gold Album RIAA Certification (US)
- One Gold Single RIAA Certification (US)
- Nominated for Best Single, BRIT Awards 1996 ('Missing')
- Nominated for Best Selling Song, Ivor Novello Awards 1996 ('Missing')