Ben Watt didn't mean to become a solo recording artist again. It just turned out that way.
"If you told me we would be talking like this in January last year, I would have laughed," he says, calling from his home studio in London. "It's the last thing I would have expected."
Watt -- best known as half of the British duo Everything But the Girl, though his work in the dance world as a producer, DJ and record label owner is how most younger music fans would think of him -- hadn't worked on a solo album since 1983's "North Marine Drive" and had no plans to do so. He had just finished his second book, "Romany and Tom," a memoir about his musician parents, and was settling into life as an author.
An unexpected album
"Strange circumstances all came together," he says. "I found myself in the studio just playing the guitar for the first time in a very long time. My half-sister, Jenny, who I was very close to and appears in the book, died unexpectedly and it was all a big shock for everybody. I had an emotional kick-start, if you will, and I felt that I needed to say some new things."
The result of those sessions is Watt's new album, "Hendra" (Unmade Road/Caroline), a raw, poignant collection that owes more to his roots in acoustic, edgy folk-rock like the Robert Wyatt-
influenced songs he did starting out than the electronic, dance-oriented music he has done for the past 20 years with his wife, Tracey Thorn, in Everything But the Girl and in his solo work.
"It's been an issue for me on and off for years, the fact that I sort of parked this nascent early career and chose to go in with Tracey and create something completely different," says Watt, who plays shows in Manhattan and Brooklyn this week. "As the years went by, obviously for a long while, I was distracted by Everything But the Girl, but it's been preying on my mind that it was something to go back to. Perhaps it was the death of my sister. Perhaps it was finishing the book. I don't know what it was. Something drove me back into the studio to reconnect with this boy that I left behind in the early '80s."
Looks back, looks ahead
In many ways, "Hendra" -- which drops April 29 -- sounds like a grown-up version of that sweet-sounding "North Marine Drive" boy, equally driven by his love of jazz and his desire to rebel against the mainstream. "Golden Ratio" could have come from that early album, with its spare, acoustic jazz backdrop and pointed guitarwork from Watt's friend Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede.
However, the album's most distinctive track, "The Levels," about the struggle to move on with some semblance of normalcy after emotional upheaval, is something only modern-day Watt could have delivered, including setting up the massive guitar solo from Pink Floyd's David Gilmour.
"That was completely freakish," Watt says of landing Gilmour for the song. "The night before I was going to start recording the album, Tracey was invited to a book launch for a novelist. It was mainly publishers and writers and the people for those sort of things, but standing in the back of the room was David Gilmour, who was there because his wife, Polly Samson, is a writer. We exchanged pleasantries and part way through he says, 'Would you like to hear my demos?' and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, right.' But he texted me, and I got the train down to Brighton, where he lives, and spent the day in the studio with him, listening to his demos. I went home, and when I started working on 'The Levels,' I thought he would sound great on it, so I called him up and said, 'Do you want to do it?' By the weekend, it was all recorded. No managers, only a couple of guitar techs. It was completely organic."
It's understandable that Watt is excited by the new material, which he plans to play with Butler on a short American tour as a duo before the album's release. ("I don't think we'll be doing any Everything But the Girl material," he says. "It wouldn't feel right without Tracey. It would feel like I was cheating on her.")
And Watt, like Thorn, is currently only interested in looking ahead and not at their much-beloved past.
"We both are very adamant that it's important to keep moving and to keep trying to come up with fresh ideas," Watt says. "You can imagine what the pressure is like to bring back Everything But the Girl. It's a question we literally get every day -- whether it's a question from a fan or in an email or on Twitter. We can understand the interest in that. As it stands, we're interested in the work we're doing individually at the moment.
"I prefer to play all new songs to 200 people than all the old stuff to 2,000 people," he adds. "Curating all the old material? Talk to me in 10 years."
WHO Ben Watt
WHEN | WHERE 9:30p.m. Tuesday, Joe's Pub, 425 Lafayette St., Manhattan; and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Rough Trade, 64 N. Ninth St., Brooklyn
INFO $25; 212-967-7555, joespub.com; 800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com
What Watt's been doing
Ben Watt certainly hasn't been sitting idle in the 31 years between his first solo album and his second, "Hendra," due out April 29. He has proved to be a sort of Renaissance man. Here's a look at his main outlets:
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL'S GUY Between 1982 and 2000, Watt and his musical partner and wife, Tracey Thorn, released 11 albums in a variety of styles, landing tons of critical praise as well as the international No. 1 "Missing."
AUTHOR Watt released the well-received memoir
"Patient: the True Story of a Rare Illness" in 1997, a tale of his near-fatal battle with Churg-Strauss Syndrome. His new book, "Romany and Tom," about his musician parents, is due out in June.
RECORD LABEL HEAD Watt launched the independent dance-music label Buzzin' Fly Records in 2003, releasing albums from Figurines, Unbending Trees and Tigercity.
DJ/PRODUCER Through his love of dance music and his well-known DJ nights at Lazy Dog, Watt became an in- demand producer, remixing songs for the likes of Sade and Meshell Ndegeocello.
RADIO DISC JOCKEY In 2010, Watt became part of BBC 6 with weekly dance-music shows that featured exclusive debuts of new material.