Tuesday 26th September 2017DerbyThe Venue7:30pm - 23:00 pm
You can tell how much Lewis Watson has changed by his hair. Gone is the heavy, forward-swept fringe that was his trademark in his teens, when he was signed on the strength of a single, self-released EP and wrote much of his acclaimed debut album, 2014’s The Morning. In its place are long locks he recently dyed from dark to white – not to shock, but in part to signal a new start.
“I’ve always wanted white hair,” says Lewis. “So I thought, why not? I’m finally in a position to make my own decisions, and not just about my music. The biggest change I’ve made is taking control of my career. Everything I do, everything you see comes from me.”
Midnight, the Oxford singer’s sensational second album, is testament to that change. Written and recorded entirely under his own stream, with friends as collaborators it’s a sonic leap on from his largely acoustic debut – bigger, bolder, beautifully textured and more experimental, but still as brutally honest and achingly intimate as his bewitching early EPs.
“It’s an evolution from my first album,” says Lewis. “It’s grander, heavier and more electronic. I still like acoustic music – and there are some quieter songs on there – but I also love Death Cab For Cutie, Bombay Bicycle Club and Bon Iver. It is a big change, but it’s still me. Maybe me with added spice.”
Recorded in just three weeks last summer at The Vale in Warwickshire and produced by Lewis’ close friend Anthony West of Oh Wonder, Midnight was made without any label involvement. In fact, it wasn’t until Zane Lowe premiered gritty, drums-driven first single ‘Maybe We’re Home’ on his radio show in January that anyone outside Lewis’ circle had heard his new material.
“It was crucial for me that these songs sounded exactly as I imagined them,” says Lewis. “I didn’t want any outside input. In the past, I’ve been forced to write with people I didn’t know and work with producers I had nothing in common with. I’m still incredibly proud of The Morning. It will always be special because it’s my debut, but it was a bit of a Frankenstein. The songs were recorded with a half a dozen producers in six or seven studios over the course of two years. We made Midnight in a bubble, so it’s much more coherent. Every track has my stamp on every aspect. It’s a snapshot of where and who I am right now.”
As soon as ‘Maybe We’re Home’ hit the airwaves, labels came calling. Having left his deal with Warners after their delay in releasing his debut, Lewis was cautious, but when Cooking Vinyl, on both sides of the Atlantic, made an offer, he accepted.
“The musician City & Colour, who is on their roster, is the reason I took up music,” says Lewis. “He was and still is a big influence. He’s a career musician with a huge cult following who makes his own decisions. My aim is to sing for a living for the rest of my life, so the deal had to be right. And so far, it’s gone like a dream.”
Key to Midnight is the stately, stirring, Snow Patrol-esque ‘Deep The Water’, the first song Lewis wrote for the album after a self-imposed six months away from making music in 2015. “I was still playing shows,” says Lewis. “We toured the States and Australia and played a fantastic festival in the Philippines, but for a full six months, I stopped writing songs. I’d grown to dislike the process, which was heart breaking for me because I’ve loved songwriting since I picked up a guitar aged 16. But I needed a break, to be reinvigorated, to learn to love it all over again. I took a step back for as long as possible to see what would change.”
That summer, Lewis found out. He got together with Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht just to jam and discuss ideas, but straight away songs started to flow. The first was ‘Deep The Water’ but in a matter of days, they had completed five songs, among them the album’s sweet, spine-tingling, strings-soaked highlight ‘Hello Hello’ and the epic ‘Little Light’ an emotionally-exposed love letter to Lewis’ girlfriend of five years.
“I’m loathe to use the word magical, but it really was,” laughs Lewis. “It was a joyous, organic experience. ‘Deep The Water’ came flooding out of me on the first day and lifted this immense weight from my shoulders. I’d worried I might not be able to write, but I couldn’t stop. For the first time, there was no one shoving words in my direction or making suggestions.”
‘Deep The Water’ is one of several songs on Midnight about a relationship gone wrong, but it’s also about survival.“It’s about giving the most and receiving the least,” explains Lewis. “It’s based on an experience I’ve had of loving someone who expects you to come running when they need you, but gives nothing back. But like most of my songs, it’s a sentiment that can apply to different situations. It’s about being used, whether that’s at work or by a friend or a lover, the emotion is the same.”
The two oldest tracks on the album are the dreamy ‘LA Song’ and the rootsy, Springsteen-referencing ‘When The Water Meets The Mountains’, both originally intended for Lewis’ debut, but since reinvented.
“The deluxe version of The Morning included a demo of ‘LA Song’, so you can hear how much it’s evolved,” says Lewis. “It’s now built from bass chords with floaty electric guitar on top. The whole album is rich in textures and atmosphere. ‘Give Me Life’, for example, has 28 guitar parts, but a lot of those are just layers and textures. I’ve discovered that songs aren’t simply about chords and a melody. Sometimes what’s not playing is as important as what is.”
Another change is Lewis’ first recorded duet, on the spectral ‘Slumber’ featuring Lucy Rose, whom Lewis first heard at college and has been angling to work with ever since. The gorgeous melancholy there is touched on elsewhere in the likes of ‘Forever’ which is simultaneously Midnight’s poppiest song, but also one of its saddest.
“I’ve always wanted to write a really sad, upbeat song,” says Lewis. “It’s about the frustration of being in a relationship that’s not working, despite you both wanting it to. The setting is so upbeat and instant, it tricks you in to thinking it’s happy until you really listen to the lyrics.”
The album closes with the secret title track, a Joel Pott co-write featuring Josephine on piano that returns Lewis to the stripped-back beauty of his early releases. Whilst hidden from the tracklisting it’s deeply revealing of an artist coming full circle, fulfilling his early promise while expanding his palette in ever more vibrant ways – something reflected in the striking album artwork commissioned from renowned Canadian painter Andrew Salgado, one of Lewis’ favourite artists.
“I studied art at school and cheekily emailed him with an idea,” says Lewis. “He said he admired my gusto and agreed.”
So what does the artwork tell us about the music contained on Midnight, and more specifically about its creator? “It’s an incredible, heavily textured painting of me,” Lewis explains. “It’s not at all clear, so it’s me, but it’s not me. Or maybe it’s a different me, one you weren’t expecting.”
And that’s the perfect image for the album, because with Midnight Lewis Watson has not just evolved but been reborn, creating magic with a new sound, a new look and a new career stretching ahead. This time there is no doubt – like his heroes, Lewis will be making music for the rest of his life.