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British singer-songwriter Ben Watt finds drama in midlife experiences

Ben Watt released his latest album, “Fever Dream,” in April.Tom Sheehan

The British singer-songwriter Ben Watt’s third album, “Fever Dream,” takes on a topic that other artists, particularly in pop music, might normally avoid, or elide.

“I am at the midpoint in my life. I am interested in writing about it,” Watt says via e-mail. “Few people in rock write about being 50. Everyone is obsessed with nostalgia and staying young. I am interested in dealing with the mess of past experiences, accepting them, finding an optimism, a resilience, a roadmap with which to go forward.”

Released in April, “Fever Dream” is a stark, gorgeously rendered portrait of how love evolves. The lyrics possess both the authority of someone who’s lived through quite a few ups and downs and the curiosity of someone comfortable enough with themselves to strive for answers to bigger questions. Watt’s voice is clear yet slightly weathered, giving extra emotional weight to tracks like the gently rolling “Between Two Fires” and the starlit “Running With the Front Runners.”

Watt’s own “mess of past experiences” includes his stint with Everything But the Girl, the shape-shifting duo he and his partner Tracey Thorn formed in 1982. (Watt and Thorn married in 2008, 27 years after they met in university.) Their sullen, longing 1994 track “Missing” became closely associated with the mid-’90s electronic sound after being remixed by superproducer Todd Terry, reaching pop-radio ubiquity and hitting No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1996. Everything But the Girl’s last studio album, “Temperamental,” came out in 1999, but both Watt and Thorn have been creative in the nearly two decades since.


Watt dove even deeper into electronic music, DJing around the world and releasing music on his label Buzzin’ Fly. (A sister label, Strange Feeling, focused on more rock-oriented offerings; it still exists, but Watt closed Buzzin’ Fly in 2013.) Eventually, rock forms came calling again.


“I needed to stop DJing a few years ago,” he recalls. “I hit a bit of a wall. And I wanted to get back to words and songs again.”

In 2014, Watt released “Hendra,” his second solo album — and first since 1983’s “North Marine Drive.” Now, “Fever Dream” builds on the positive reception “Hendra” received.

“Having entered into the recording of ‘Hendra’ with a sense of trepidation — it was my first solo record for a very long time — I went into ‘Fever Dream’ with much more confidence,” says Watt. “People had liked ‘Hendra’; I had toured; my voice had got stronger; my relationship with Bernard had got deeper — I just felt we could make a similar but more dynamic record.”

The “Bernard” Watt refers to is British guitarist Bernard Butler, who crash-landed into the pop consciousness with the bent glam act Suede in the early ’90s before going solo, dabbling in soul and grandiose pop. Butler’s playing balances fluidity with a flair for the dramatic, and counterweighs Watt’s honest poetry.

“My instinct is for a kind of suspended unresolved warmth in the music,” says Watt. “I now use open tunings more and more to articulate this. They hang in the air. Joni Mitchell calls them ‘chords of inquiry.’ They ask questions. Bernard is the foil to this. My lyrics often have an unsentimental, honest edge to them. Bernard dramatizes this, finds the dark edge. But I take the songs to him completed. In my head I imagine what he might play when I write, but we don’t write together.”


Another collaborator on “Fever Dream” is Massachussetts-based singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler, who supplies a floating chorus of backing vocals on the album closer, “New Year of Grace.” The delicate track provides a counterweight to the rest of the album, which can get heady even when the sounds around it are light.

“I wanted a female voice at the end of the record, and something quite ghostly,” says Watt. “The closing song is meant as an optimistic answer to the questions posed at the beginning of the album, a sense that life — however troubled — can be transported by moments of great unexpected beauty. I was listening to Marissa’s album ‘July’ when this thought came to me, and she seemed the perfect voice.”

Watt got in touch with Nadler via Twitter, and the two met while Nadler was on tour in Europe.

“We recorded it in Ben’s home recording studio,” Nadler recalls. “He has a nice setup and offered me tea and, well . . . Tracey Thorn was just upstairs, and it was all a bit surreal. I generally am very happy doing stacked harmonies and backup vocals, so I was in my element. It’s a lovely song as well.”

The resulting album is full of lovely moments, but the desire to dig into and maximize the potential of life — even at ages written off by those who slice and dice demographics for profit — gives even its most beautiful parts an added vitality.


“I am not weary or resigned, which is another common trope of writers in their middle years,” says Watt. “Defiance and hope interest me.”


At Brighton Music Hall, June 18 at 8 p.m. Tickets: $20. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com

Maura Johnston can be reached at maura@maura.com.