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Ben Watt is back on song with new album Hendra

For a while there Ben Watt thought he'd written all the songs he'd ever write.

"At one point I thought I'd forgotten how," he says, as we sit in the office of his Buzzin' Fly record label surrounded by books (his own and that of his life and musical partner Tracey Thorn) and CDs and the detritus of 30 years in the music industry as DJ, label boss and co-member of Everything But The Girl. "Or as my dad said," he continues, "'I'd said everything I had to say.'"

Watt's dad, Tom, was a jazz musician and composer - and a Glaswegian expat - who'd started playing in the Jack Chapman Band on Bath Street back in the 1940s and carried on until time and musical taste betrayed him. "I thought, 'Christ, I'm exactly the same,'" Watt says.

Turns out he isn't, though. A new album, Hendra, his first solo effort for a staggering 31 years, proves as much. Watt's last solo effort, North Marine Drive, saw the light of day in 1983, the same year Everything But The Girl started making waves with their debut album, Eden.

In a way, though, it was his late father who brought Watt back to songwriting. Earlier this year Bloomsbury published Watt's book, Romany And Tom, about his parents. It's a painful, loving, powerfully written account of family and ageing and his father's artistic frustration. And in the act of writing about his parents he found a door reopening to the songwriter within.

The response of his publisher started it. "Bloomsbury gave me such belief in it that it was a great boost to my writing confidence," he admits. And maybe, too, he had lost a skin or two. The book stirred up a cocktail of memory and emotion, spiked by the death of his half-sister Jennie at the young age of 50. "And I think a lot was bubbling up inside of me and a song came out one day. I don't know how. I just went down to the studio and picked up the guitar and a song came out and I thought 'wow, OK.'"

He could sense there were other songs in there too, so he retuned all his guitars to open tunings to make sure he didn't "write the way I did with Tracey, falling into the same patterns", and kept going. "I played and I played and sang and sang and wrote and wrote. And I wrote a lot of rubbish. The notebook's full of stuff I hope no-one ever comes across. But in the midst of it all these things came out."

You can hear 10 of those things, decorated by guitar lines from Bernard Butler and production by Ewan Pearson (as well as a guest appearance from some bloke called David Gilmour) on Hendra. It's unlikely he'd have invited Gilmour in for a cameo back when he started. Pink Floyd were the enemy back then.

"The music that I was into felt like a rebellion in itself," he says now, three decades (and a bit on). "That was the great beauty of the post-punk generation. A line was drawn in the sand. Everything before it was out the window. It wasn't just Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. I remember going up to university with Tracey in our first year and we just thought we were it, you know. Like the cutting edge. And we had these lecturers in Hull who were really smart, lovely people, the post-1960s generation still into the lyrics of Dylan. One of my lecturers just looked like Nick Drake. They invited us to a party and all our lecturers were dancing to The Byrds and we thought it was absolutely hilarious. It seemed so antiquated. So there was definitely that cut-off point."

Instead, the early 1980s saw the bright young things casting round for other inspirations to bolster the "anti-rockist" notions then in the air. "Whether it was ska or burundi or 1950s cool jazz, these were all topics worthy of exploration. But a lot of it was in my blood and I wanted to write those horn arrangements down on manuscript paper like my dad had done. I wasn't that skilled at the time, I had limited technique and knowledge. But I knew what I wanted it to sound like and that opening horn phrase on Each And Every One that's on the front of Eden, I wrote that down in quite amateurish pencil on charts and gave them to the guys to play and they went 'right, okay, that's how it goes'."

Does he still recognise that young, even arrogant boy he was? "Yes. I think that drive and belief and desire to create something unique - a sound that no-one else was doing in some way - I really recognise that boy. And what I find very difficult now is the naivety with which I wrote lyrics in those days - very self-regarding, not worldy enough. That's what people find charming about North Marine Drive, but I find it difficult to listen to.

"And of course it's what was leapt on by the critics of my work at the time, which I found very hard to take on board.

"The EP I did with Robert Wyatt the year before, Summer Into Winter, was very well received. People were likening me to John Martyn and Tim Buckley, and it was incredibly flattering and I thought I was bullet-proof. Then I go and make North Marine Drive and musically I think it's a great record but lyrically I didn't pay enough attention.

"I didn't realise how they would come across if I was that open-hearted and sensitive about things. I was torn apart by some critics and it hurt me a lot and I was surprised by that so maybe that's something I've tried to correct with the new stuff."

And yet it's hard to listen to tracks like Nathaniel, and in particular Bricks And Wood (about his parents' old house, my own favourite), and not hear just how personal and open-hearted the new album is. Like his recent book it's full of memory and regret and the sad, soft echo of private grief. It's not a young man's record and maybe the better for it.

What does that make Hendra? A songwriter's record. Turns out Ben Watt is still one of those after all.

Hendra is released on April 14 on Unmade Road; Romany And Tom is published by Bloomsbury; Ben Watts reads from the book at Aye Write on April 11

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