Everything but the gull: how Ben Watt fought the Covid blues with birdsong | Music


Cetti’s warbler!” says Ben Watt immediately, elevating a finger to point the new addition to the ambient soundscape. Pay attention, he says, to the opening “chi” adopted by what sounds “nearly like slightly typewriter going off”. Watts does that, interrupts himself, or the silence if he’s not speaking, to announce a brand new fowl he’s seen or heard. “Blackcap!” he’ll exclaim. “Chiffchaff!”

We’re sitting in a fowl conceal overlooking a reed mattress and an expanse of water on a beautiful spring day. A heron stands, nonetheless as a photograph, two metres in entrance of us. It might be rural East Anglia – other than the roar of site visitors and the big arched construction in the background. These are, respectively, the A406 north round and Wembley Stadium. And the place we’re at is the Welsh Harp reservoir, named after a pub that now not exists.

Watt – musician, singer, songwriter, DJ, remixer, label proprietor, one half (with his spouse Tracey Thorn) of Everything But the Lady – would possibly appear to be an unlikely birder, but it was in all probability inevitable. If the music got here from his father, Scottish jazz band chief Tommy Watt, then the birds and nature got here from his mom, journalist Romany Bain, a lover of the pure world. She signed Ben as much as the RSPB when he was seven, obtained him books. “It does stick,” he says. Yeah, I recommend, but birdwatching’s not very rock’n’roll, is it? “Erm,” he says patiently. “I feel that solitary contemplative factor – there may be that facet to all rock’n’rollers. They want a spot to suppose.”

Restorative energy … a coot at Welsh Harp reservoir. {Photograph}: Jill Mead/The Guardian

These two strands – music and nature – have run by means of his life, intertwining at instances. On Field Hill, the opening monitor on Watt’s debut album written when he was 18 or 19, is a snapshot of a day spent at a spot he used to go with his mother and father. “There was a restorative energy to being in nature on a sunny day I wished to put in writing about even then.”

When EBTG went right into a self-imposed hiatus at the flip of the century, Watt, like the grebes right here on the reservoir, dived beneath the floor, immersing himself in the world of digital music manufacturing and DJing, earlier than rising someplace totally different, but not removed from the place he began out. His 2014 comeback album, Hendra, a contemplative return to his folk-rock roots, has extra of nature’s restorative energy. A music known as Golden Ratio is about how straightforward it’s to get wrapped up in self-absorption and negativity even when a stunning day on the Dorset cliffs is staring you in the face. Matthew Arnold’s Area, in the meantime, is about scattering his dad’s ashes in Oxfordshire.

“It’s usually a background to the songs. You already know, large nature – what was it Wordsworth known as it? Immutability. That type of affectlessness of nature that it’s simply there doing its factor no matter what we’re doing. And I suppose that’s why I don’t really feel significantly sentimental about it. I’m awestruck by it, as a result of it’s simply doing its factor and we both respect it or we fuck it up.”

Tracey Thorn doesn’t share all her husband’s hobbies. “She doesn’t like birdwatching in any respect, but she loves strolling and she or he loves crops so we are able to gel on a stroll, with me wanting up and her her ft.”

Final December, Watt, who’s now 58, launched an album known as Storm Harm: a mid-life file perhaps, melancholic definitely, but not maudlin. He had began a UK tour with his trio when Covid struck. The London present was cancelled hours earlier than they have been attributable to go on. Then the America leg was suspended, as was Japan and Australia. “It actually hit me for six,” he says. But Watt discovered some solace right here at the Welsh Harp. He hadn’t been for some time and was struck by its state. “First I believed, ‘Oh, it’s form of gritty and concrete.’ Then I simply seemed out in the future – at the wheelie bins and the neglect, the tideline of microplastic – and thought, ‘That is truly actually dangerous. I have to look into this.’”

Plastic pollution at the Welsh Harp.
Plastic air pollution at the Welsh Harp. {Photograph}: Jill Mead/The Guardian

The Welsh Harp has a vibrant historical past. Constructed in the early 1800s to feed the Grand Union Canal, the reservoir grew to become a trendy centre for leisure boating. The Outdated Welsh Harp was a well-liked pub and music venue. Churchill is claimed to have had a seaplane parked on the water throughout the battle, able to whisk him away from his bunker in close by Dollis Hill. Then in the Nineteen Fifties it was granted website of particular scientific curiosity standing, for its breeding, nesting and migrant birds and wildlife.

But years of neglect and underfunding have left it struggling to breathe. The true horror of the scenario was introduced into focus earlier this yr when the water stage was lowered to disclose a hellish porridge of grocery store trolleys, tyres, site visitors cones, fridges embedded in the silt. Watt photographed it, blogged about it, badgered the native authorities, obtained concerned with clean-ups. “We gained’t get wherever if we keep a human-centric view of life,” he says. “The harm we’re doing to locations, with waste and informal plastic disposal, will contribute to the finish of us. I feel you simply must name it out.” It grew to become, nearly unintentionally, a marketing campaign.

At the similar time, Watt has been placing the ending touches to a brand new six-track mini-album, a stripped again piano-vocal companion piece to Storm Harm known as Storm Shelter, which incorporates a few covers: Ten Metropolis’s home traditional That’s the Means Love Is and Sharon Van Etten’s current synth torch music Comeback Child, in addition to 4 of his personal compositions. He considered abandoning it when Covid struck. “But there’s one thing about them that felt fairly uncooked, self-reliant, which I noticed as issues we’ve wanted lately.”

Welsh Harp reservoir in north west London.
Uncared for … Welsh Harp reservoir in north-west London. {Photograph}: Jill Mead/The Guardian

In 1992, as detailed in his memoir Affected person, Watt was identified with a uncommon autoimmune situation known as EGPA. It price him most of his small gut, and might need killed him. So he has been shielding from the starting of the pandemic, dwelling individually from Thorn and his 23-year-old twin daughters at dwelling, utilizing a distinct rest room and consuming at a distinct time. But he nonetheless managed to go wandering on his personal.

In addition to the ecological destruction, he noticed different indicators of disaster by the shores of the Welsh Harp. A brand new waterside improvement has displaced residents from an previous property, or left them in poor dwelling circumstances. “Additionally, I feel there is a matter with jap European migrant staff coming in and getting trapped in low-paid jobs. Some have been simply tenting by the reservoir as a result of it’s all they might afford. I used to be coming throughout deserted sleeping camps.” He’s donating an advance on album royalties to the homelessness charity Shelter.

Listening to Watt’s information, you would possibly suppose he was a moody bugger, but he doesn’t appear to be one to wallow. When he survived his sickness, “lots of people stated, ‘Oh, life should be that rather more significant now, the sky should be bluer.’ I didn’t truly really feel a lot of that. I simply felt aggravated that I had been sick and that it interrupted my life.”

He’s bringing the similar practicality to the Welsh Harp and the points that concern him. He units out to know, spotlight, do one thing. He has had durations of despair, instances when his psychological well being has suffered. “So something that helps lever your self out of these moments, one thing you draw power from, is of worth.” For him, nature (particularly birds) is that factor. “It helps you be in the now, which is essential. It doesn’t ask a lot of you, simply does its factor.” He factors at the heron. “He’s been right here this complete time. It’s lovely. He’s not fazed by any of this nonsense I’m speaking.” And he laughs.

The brand new mini album Storm Shelter is out now on Unmade Street.


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