Interview with Alex Watts
Last Friday, Melbourne singer Alex Watts released his new single, Hopeful, through Astound Records. To celebrate the release of his forthcoming debut album, Watts and his full band will be performing every Wednesday night throughout May at The Grace Darling. In this interview, Watts provides insight into his multifaceted career, the production of his debut album and his endless love of music.
First off, what initially drew you towards writing and playing music?
I’ve always been obsessed with music and creating melodies since as I was very small, but I started playing piano when I was about eight. I absolutely hated it until I discovered there was more to it than practicing Beethoven. I was obsessed with The Beatles by the time I was 11 so I started trying to imitate their songs and it became fun after that.
Can you recall the first time you performed for a group of people? Where were you and what was the audience’s response?
I was in children’s circus and we used to do local festivals like the Moomba parade, so probably something like that. I’ve never had a problem with nerves onstage or anything, it’s always felt very natural to me and I attribute that in part to doing those circus shows from a young age.
How has your approach to creating music matured over the past decade?
I guess musically I’ve just gotten to know my strengths and interests a bit better, as well as learning how to arrange pieces and use of dynamics, tone etc. But a lot of it’s the same as it was when I was bashing out punk songs on my guitar back in the day, I still can’t play the damn thing.
Do you ever experience writer’s block or do the words and melodies just come naturally?
Actually that’s one useful thing I learned over the years, is that for me songwriting becomes increasingly difficult the longer I don’t do it. It’s like a muscle that you have to keep exercising regularly, so I try to make time to play as much as I can. Sometimes when touring or whatever its harder to do because I don’t like trying to write when I know other people can hear me, but I’m always scribbling words down in my phone.
What was it like working with Andrew ‘Idge’ Hehir at Soundpark and Jez Giddings at Hothouse Studio on you new single, Hopeful as well as the rest of your album?
Hothouse is a really relaxed and great feeling environment and Idge, who owns and runs it is just a super chilled dude who vibes off good music and friendly people. So it was really conducive to making music, I had a great time there. Aesthetically the studio looks a little run down but Idge knows exactly where to put his mics and just pulled an incredible sound instantly, I was very impressed. Likewise Jez Giddings, who mixed the song, is a very friendly and relaxed dude and has a great ear for detail while being open to all my ideas and demands, because I’m fairly hands on, even if I can’t technically describe everything I’m after.
Can you briefly describe the recording and studio set up?
This was tracked live to tape, with Hudson on drums in a non-soundproofed booth, so there was bleed in everything, the guitar and bass amps in another booth, Callum, Lewis, Darvid and Henry, who played keys, guitars and bass respectively, together in the main room, and me singing a guide vocal in another booth. Then we overdubbed some guitar, percussion, sitar and vocals into Pro Tools.
On top of being a singer/songwriter and guitarist you have also written numerous reviews and interviews for several Australian music publications, even curating your own website, wordsbywatts. How did you first enter the writing scene and what drives you to continue doing so?
I spend all my spare time reading about and researching music online and in books and record stores. I love learning about and talking about music, it’s a never ending quest, which is part of what makes it so much fun, there’s so much more to consume and it all fits together. When I was younger I imagined I’d like to be a music critic because you got sent free records, but of course now you just get sent a stream, or a download if you’re lucky. I started writing for several different publications a few years ago now and more recently compiled the best bits of those writings into my own site, which I try and add to regularly.
It’s quite common in the music industry for people to have unconventional sleeping patterns. Do you have a balanced lifestyle or is sleep for the weak?
I choose to work long hours because I enjoy what I do, but also because there’s so many facets to my working day. On any given day I might be writing an article, working on music, planning shows, release schedules etc., reviewing a show, or DJing somewhere, which is another thing I do, making posters, etc. So the variety helps keep it interesting and makes me stay up late.
Along the same line, do you often find yourself with spare time or are you always living and breathing music in one form or another?
No I never really have spare time, I’m always trying to cram more into the day, I feel guilty when I take time off or don’t achieve enough each day. I took a week’s holiday last year, which was so good, but I flew directly back from Europe to Bigsound Festival in Brisbane and had some fairly jet lagged meetings.
When you’re on tour, do you ever keep a diary or take photos/videos to help process or reflect on your time spent away from home? Also, how much do you value photographic documentation of your live performances?
No not really, I didn’t even have a smart phone until two years ago and since then I’ve meant to take more photos of shows and stuff but have been too busy doing it to remember to document it. That’s why my Instagram is mostly pictures of my cat doing stupid shit. I like concert photography in general but not particularly of myself, I tend to look so much more serious on stage than I thought I did at the time. Note to self: smile more so they don’t see your anguish.
Five fast questions for five fast responses:
- What do you most commonly eat for breakfast? Muesli with fruit and yoghurt.
- Have you ever stargazed before? Yes, though I’m rarely outside of large cities so it’s much less impressive.
- When was the last time you rode a bicycle? Three hours ago.
- What is the title of your all-time favourite book? I read a lot and that’s hard…pass!
- Who embroidered the EP cover art for Sing Strum & Strut? My friend Fi. It’s pretty good huh? I’ve got the original, she did one for the This Haunting single too.
If you could collaborate with any singers or musicians, who would you choose and why?
Pharell Williams and Robin Thicke cos I just wanna make some sweet cash.
What’s been the biggest challenge faced during your music career and how have you overcome it?
I guess it just took a minute to work out what I wanted to do and how best to go about it. Sometimes its good to just stand back and watch other people do it and spend some time thinking about the best approach before jumping all in. I don’t know if I’ve overcome anything but I’m happy where I’m at.
If you had unlimited funds available for your live shows, would you ever consider booking larger venues or doing something elaborate like performing with an orchestra?
When you hear the album you’ll see that there’s some fairly expansive instrumentation on some of the songs. I would love to be able to recreate that in the live show if logistics didn’t prohibit including all those extra musicians, because it’s such a sound! But in general I’m not a big fan of the band + orchestra format, it’s usually not great.
You and your band will be celebrating the release of ‘Hopeful’ from your debut album with a month long residency at The Grace Darling Hotel, hitting the stage each Wednesday in May. Who’s currently in your new “crack hot band“ and what can fans expect to hear at these performances?
The new live band features some smooth handsome criminals such as Hudson Whitlock and Callum Riley from The Cactus Channel, Lachlan Stuckey from Up Up Away, Tristan Courtney from Blackchords and Tiger and Me, andPiers Gooding from The Melbourne Ska Orchestra. You’ll get to hear songs from the upcoming album getting their first ever live outings, as well as some much loved chartbusters, and I’ll probably do some questionable dance moves.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. Best wishes for the release of your album and upcoming performances!
This interview was first published on 18 April 2016 for Amnplify.