Lewis Watson, it’s fair to say, has put in his 10,000 hours. Still only 27, the singer-songwriter from smalltown Oxfordshire received his first guitar aged 16. He pretty much hasn’t stopped playing – or writing – since.
In 2012, in his late teens, Watson released his first EP, the pithily titled and exquisitely wrought ‘it’s got four sad songs on it btw’. Within a matter of days he was fielding offers from multiple record companies, eventually deciding to partner with Warner Music, not least because of their deep heritage of working with the kind of artists he admired: artisan, self-starting songwriters ranging from Neil Young to David Gray to Damien Rice. Over the next 18 months he released four more EP’s followed, in the summer of 2014, by his debut album ‘the morning’.
“That first record was with a major label and it was about ticking the boxes for them, in ways good and bad,” he reflects now. “But it’s my baby. You’ll only ever have one first album and I’m still proud of those songs, they meant the world to me when I wrote them as a 20-ish year old and a lot of them still mean an incredible amount to me today.”
A heavy international touring schedule followed, as did some soul-searching and re-focusing: having had his fill of the major label system, for his second album Lewis pivoted back to his indie roots, releasing 2017’s ‘midnight’ on revered taste-making champion Cooking Vinyl. “The second album was my rebellious teenage stage: make an album without the input of anyone wearing a suit!” he smiles. “I wanted to release an album that was a snapshot of the music I was listening to at the time.”
And it worked, catching a spark with his devoted fanbase. But this meant, he adds ruefully, “a pretty crazy time for me. I think I did at least 150 gigs in 2017. And honestly towards the end of that year I started to resent being on the road – which I hated! Touring is one of the best bits of this wonderful career I’ve stumbled into. But it got a bit heavy towards the end.”
So by the start of 2018, with those road-miles under his belt – not to mention some quarter of a billion cumulative streams of his songs – he was ready to refresh it all up again. Unable to write on the road, Watson had ideas brimming over and his third album firmly in his sights. “Each record I’ve made has been a very different process. The first album was made over two years with eight or nine producers and their go-to guys on drums and strings and arrangements. The second one was done over two-and-a-half weeks with my band, a super-quick album in the way albums used to be made. I was very much in the control of the sonics, so that posed a different set of challenges.”
For album #3, another change of tack: this time Watson, who studied music technology at Abingdon & Witney college, wanted to co-produce the album with his old collaborator Rich Wilkinson. He’d produced Watson’s very first session for Warner Music, in the famous Church studios in London’s Crouch End, so their history was deep and intuitive.
In the intervening years Wilkinson had built his own studio, 212, in Archway in north London. So, starting in summer 2018, the pair bunkered themselves in 212 for the best part of a year, with Watson taking occasional breaks away to write and hone his new collection of songs. “I’d lost that skill of production – I stopped producing music because I had no time,” he explains. “So with this one it was great to go back into that. We deliberately added lots of time to the making of this album so we could do that.”
That focus, dedication and unhurried pace is there in spades on a warm, enveloping, melodically rich, lyrically empathetic album that Lewis Watson has titled ‘the love that you want’. Explaining the title, he says: “A lot of people think I basically just write sad music. And I agree with that! Sad songs for me are much easier to write, as well as being much more important for me to write. When I sit down to listen to an album, I want it to wash over me, and I want to wallow. Ironically, I’m happiest when I’m sad listening to music, because I relate to that.”
“So while this album is a lot more optimistic than my previous albums,” he continues, “it’s packaged in such a way that we still have that emotional rollercoaster. I’m tricking the listener into feeling those highs and lows, peaks and troughs. But I think fundamentally it’s still a fairly sad-boy album!”
The quietly glorious ‘fly when i fall’ was released as a low-key introduction to the new album in late 2019. “It’s a great song for me because it bridges the gap between old Lewis and this third album where I’m changing it up again.” One of the earliest songs written, one that ripples with strings and piano, it unlocked the creative process for Watson. “It was great to start the writing process with that song. It was like with the second album and the song ‘little light’, that felt like a centrepiece to that album. I remember the same feeling writing that: I want to write more songs that can support this song.”
Another key track on ‘the love that you want’ is the beautiful ‘another song’. It begins with an arresting, vivid lyrical image – “you and I, fell one from the moon but landed as two”– and blooms into a track that is both lament to a troubled relationship and hymn to the power of song.
“It follows a couple who have had this perfect relationship but they’ve kind of drifted apart. And from the narrator’s perspective, they never know how to say or do the right things. But when they do mess up, they ‘write a song’. The ‘song’ is an apology, how they express that they’re sorry, they’ve messed up, please forgive them. And the song climaxes with the idea that, if they get it wrong again, they’ll write another ‘song’ to try help re-forge this relationship.”
Also tapped as a future single is ‘because of you’, which already feels like a live anthem. “This again was one where I had a very good idea of how I wanted it to sound. The 1975 had just released their album A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships, and they had that great song at the end, ‘I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)’. Which was a great tip of the hat to that Britpop time.
“And it reminded me how much I loved all those four-and five-piece bands of the time, and the simple make-up of those songs. So me and a co-writing friend Ian Barter went to do that, to try make a song that would evoke the thrill of hearing Radiohead’s The Bends or Shiver by Coldplay for the first time.”
‘castles of sand’ is another big tune, with a driving, rhythmic percussive frame. “I love this unorthodox beat. My go-to drummer and long-time band mate Rob Austen came in and did this insane drum performance that I could never do in a million years.”
Then there’s the clear-eyed, largely acoustic ‘loving arms’, one of the album’s closing tracks. “This is a song I’m particularly proud of. Not only because it tests my vocal range to the very edge of what I can do. But also because it’s the simplest song on the album: a guitar, my vocal and strings. Because we were producing ourselves, it would have been very easy to throw in the kitchen sink, which we did in some songs. But if a song works acoustically, an album needs that moment of relief and calm.”
But before all those deeply felt album tracks, Lewis Watson closed out 2019 and teed up a busy 2020 with ‘spark’. Cowritten with Iain Archer (Snow Patrol), it’s a big, embracing song that showcases both the relaxed, soulful cast of his voice and his way with a tune.
“It’s the oldest song – I wrote it about 2013, and I actually wrote it for One Direction!” he admits. “But they obviously didn’t pick it up. It’s written like that classic movie scene, where the guy realises he’s messed up and goes to his girlfriend’s house. It’s early in the morning, he throws stones at the window, holds up the boombox, tries to win her back with this final loving move. It’s so cliché but I love it.
“Sonically it’s a great introduction to every texture we have on the third album: the rim hits on the drums, heavily processed guitars as a soundscape layers – all of which combine to make spark. And it has a great anthemic pop chorus. On this album I don’t mind playing that game by writing those kind of melodies, especially after the second album where I was rebelling. But now I’m definitely up for writing for other people,” he concludes.
So, all you former 1D boys out there with stuttering solo careers (not you, Styles), you know where he is. But don’t tap him up just yet. Lewis Watson has a magical third album to take on the road. He’ll see you on the other side, once he’s wowed the world once more.