A chat with Lewis Watson on songwriting and performing live
He’s gone from producing EPs in his bedroom to recording in the same studio as the Arctic Monkeys, but Lewis Watson still seems unable to believe it all: “It’s just amazing and so overwhelming. I never would have imagined any of this happening.”
Last weekend, Watson played his very first V Festival, competing with the likes of Ellie Goulding. “It’s a tough slot,” he admits. Watson is not at all defeatist, but at twenty years of age and despite his swift rise to success, he demonstrates an insight and self-effacing attitude that makes him instantly intriguing. Still, however humble he might be, he’s third on the bill on the Futures stage for a reason.
Having only picked up a guitar four years ago, Watson has already released four EPs, headlined sell-out tours and currently boasts almost 4.5 million views on YouTube.
“I had wanted to [learn to play guitar] for a very long time,” he explains, “I think at school I was just trying to be the best I could at everything, so I had my options open. I never really had a set ambition until very recently when this started.”
He’s one of those now no-longer-rare artists riding on a wave of online stardom. “I was kinda lucky,” he continues, “with the social media boom it really took off. But YouTube was really a way of me archiving my progression [on guitar], I was using it as a tool really so that I could watch the video back and be like, ‘Oh that was wrong and that was wrong, I could improve by doing this.’”
Watson is a perfectionist by his own admission. Having put a lot of effort into juggling work and recording his first EP last year, he lovingly calls It’s Got Four Sad Songs on it BTW “my baby” but does look back and consider some of the songs “very playground” and “quite immature”.
“I think the production was definitely the best I could do [at the time], but the subjects, I guess seeing them back I think that ‘Oh I would’ve written that differently,’ but I dunno, live with no regrets and all that malarkey, and they definitely helped me to get to where I am now.”
And that isn’t a bad place to be. Due to release his debut studio album early next year, Watson hopes to get another EP in before that.
“I just like having a constant stream of music rather than a body of work that people can live with for a year. But I am very excited to release the album – very anxious, but excited too. There’ll be some old songs on there but they’ll all be re-recorded, new versions. I feel I’d be short-changing people if I was to re-release music so hopefully the majority of it will be new songs. I love writing, it’s just like anything, if you want to get better at football you play football every day, hopefully the songs improve the more I write.”
His songs remain very honest and personal accounts of what life is like growing up in today’s Britain, with of course a little bit of knowing irony thrown in for good measure (latest release Calling’s lyrics say it all: “You know why I’m calling, so don’t spend the night alone / We can sleep in the morning”).
“I still write about things that I’ve lived and that I’ve experienced. I think not only does that enhance the writing process but it really enhances the performance as well because I can relive that moment and I think that that’s what I do. I’d never write about something that I made up or fabricated. I’d feel like I was short-changing people because writing and singing your songs is such a personal thing, for me definitely I hate talking about feelings or something that’s happened so I find this is the way I can communicate that.”
Although his writing ability is what has largely got him noticed by critics and fans alike, for Watson, it has almost always been about performing live.
“Nothing can really prepare you for your first gig; it’s a completely bonkers situation. Personally I loved it and I think what made me want to do this so much was the live side. It was tough because I was used to having that security of being able to record something and if I made a mistake to just delete it and redo it and no one would know, and I think that was the hardest thing. I think it’s a bit easier when it’s on a larger scale just because it’s a sea of faces. I tend to shut my eyes anyway, I get a bit too into it, I think.”
From the way he talks about the live experience, it seems as though playing to a crowd gives Watson the chance to let go.
“I try not to [prepare], to be honest. I practice and I play and sing as often as I can anyway but I think that if I dwell on things I’ll start crumbling under the pressure I think. If I do then I start to think I’m underprepared when really it’s just playing.”
Seventeen-year-old songstress Birdy has also recognised his performing talent, this year inviting him to support her on the Australian leg of her tour.
“I’m a big Phoenix fan and when I heard the cover she did of 1901 I was just like ‘Wow’, and her voice is really haunting. She was very kind to invite me to Australia and I felt welcome, which you don’t always get. I’m forever in Birdy’s debt definitely.”
Judging by the reception from the V Festival crowd, he’s doing what he does best. Watson will continue to perform through to the end of festival season, and then it’s on to touring the UK and Europe, before the build-up to his first full-length album.
Watson’s final words are astute, fittingly modest yet optimistic: “Long-term, if I’m still getting away with being a musician then I’ll just be over the moon. Hopefully it’ll be my career, but if anything did happen and unfortunately I’d have to stop, I think I’d struggle to find something else. It feels right and hopefully it feels right for everyone else.”
All-time favourite song? PYT by Michael Jackson.
Favourite venue for watching gigs? I saw Matt Corby at the Hackney Round Chapel, London, and it was gorgeous.
Favourite venue you’ve played in? That’ll have to be either the Shepherd’s Bush Empire or the Palais in Melbourne was just amazing – an old building built for music.
First ever single/album you bought? Pure and Simple by Hearsay and Hybrid Theory by Linkin Park.
First gig you went to? I think Matchbox Twenty at Birmingham NEC, if not it was Linkin Park at Wembley [Stadium].
Best act at V Festival 2013? Everything Everything, I just love them, and Jamie Cullum was insane. Also a lady called Tori Kelly who I’ve followed on YouTube; she does an incredible cover of PYT. And I’d love to see Beyoncé.
What other artists currently inspire you? I’ve been listening to Matt Corby for about four years now, he’s Australian and a singer-songwriter, kind of more bluesy now, but he’s just incredible. His voice is next-level and his guitar work is just lovely. He’s definitely given me a lot of ideas, purely through just listening and enjoying his music.
Highlight of your career so far? That’s a toughie…probably playing Glastonbury. Not dissing V, it is an incredible festival, I’ll definitely come back, but Glastonbury to me was a festival I’ve always wanted to go to, and I got to play twice there. We stayed all weekend and just had a great time.
Low point of the career so far? We were meant to play Wakestock this year and we’d driven for six hours to get there and our van broke about thirty miles from it, I think, and I had to cancel, which sucked. I hated that. Actually that whole weekend we drove for more hours in the van than we did minutes on stage. We drove for like 32 hours or something, and we just played 25 minutes. That was tough, really tough. I’ve never sat back and been like ‘Oh no I don’t want to do this,’ nothing’s been a game-changer but I think that that was a moment where I was really bummed and felt bad.
Who or what is the most important thing to you right now? I’ve never been asked this one before… Probably my family and my friends just because they’ve been so supportive and I think that if my parents would have said get a real job or something then I wouldn’t be here. But they haven’t even hinted at that, they’ve been so supportive and driven me to every gig, and bought me my guitar so yeah definitely them. Just the people that are around me and help me.
For further information and future events visit Lewis Watson’s website here.
Watch the video for Calling here: