words by Liz Watts // photos by Emma Watts
Tulsa, OK // November 2017
Lewis' tunes have been in the background to so many early mornings, late nights, and road trips during the most influential years of my life, so it's safe to say that this interview was a monumental moment in time. When I think of what my world was like between the ages of 14 and 16, tracks like "bones," "sink or swim," and "holding on" play in my head. This was a time in my life where I really started paying attention to my place, figuring out who I wanted to be, and falling deeper in love with music and the people behind it.
Lewis Watson is a singer-songwriter from Oxford, England who started out uploading videos on Youtube about 7 years ago- ya know, before ~Youtube stars~ ruined the internet and it's credibility. Following the success of his stripped-back covers, he pushed out his own music, was signed, and since then he has played sold out shows across the globe. To me, he's by far one of the most beautiful creators of our time and it was a blessing (and a freakin' honor) to be able to sit and chat before he played alongside Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors in my hometown.
When you play the songs that you’ve played since the beginning of your career, how do you not “fake” the emotion behind it, even after playing it hundreds of times?
This is why it takes me so long to write songs. I've already kind of factored in the “I want to sing this song for the rest of my life” and I've spent so many hours trying to make it that I don’t get tired of the feeling. That’s something that was a subconscious decision early on and I'm so glad I made it because every single night and every single time I song those songs, and it could be something I worte five years ago, I'm instantly transported back to the place I was and how I felt when i wrote it. Sometimes it's happy and sometimes it's sad but that’s why I write music. Music is a therapy for me and it's so important to feel and heal and I think that’s what it allows me to do. I would love if I could write two songs a day but they'd just be so diluted and it would be fabricating a feeling. I would hope that the feeling continues and that there's never pressure to rush songs. I want to do this for the rest of my life and in order to for me to want to do this, I can't be faking because you can tell from a mile away. That’s why I've stopped playing some sad songs because it's just diluted and I don’t feel. I just can't do it.
Are you playing a pretty good mix of old songs and new songs?
Yeah, when it comes to supporting tours, I try to play the greatest hits- the songs that are most instant. Although, with this tour I have played music that I think the crowd would enjoy more. It's something I did on night one and have experiemented since. I try to keep it on the happier, more upbeat side, but I don’t have a lot of those so you know, it’s a mix. I basically just roast myself onstage and people laugh... it’s the perfect formula.
Were there any songs from midnight, or even older releases, that you felt came really naturally when writing? As if it were perfect the first time around?
Yeah, I wrote a few songs in a day or some shorter times. I wrote “bones” in like three hours. Sometimes the stars align and I get lucky and the words just fall out. But, I do find that the songs I spend time on really forging and coming back to day after day so I can really finess the melody or lyrics, I really love. I got sick of playing "bones" early on. For me, everyone was so complimentary of it so I though I'd play it all the time. Unfortunately, it quickly became more of a chore and I'd rather play a different song and it mean something to me. I went years without playing it but now I do. The crowd always sings back and that’s the feeling of gain. I can't sit in a room by myself and sing it but if people are singing it back then that’s something that'll make me feel a lot of feelings.
I heard you had midnight finished for over two years before it was actually released. What was it like in the period between having it done and finally releasing it? Did it ever get boring or unexciting?
Yeah, I recorded it in June 2015. It was the hardest thing ever. I was really smart because I knew if I didn't set any rules then I'd be sick of it. I was so proud of this album and wanted to play it to myself over and over and I wanted to show it to hundreds of people but I knew it would hurt the release. I've done like 150 gigs this year and were just ver 300 days into the year, so pretty much every other day I've played a gig and been playing these songs so I rationed it. The first week I had it done, I listened to it a lot and was listening for a purpose- to mix it. I knew I had to listen to it from a sonic point of view rather than musical and then I didn’t listen to it at all. It was super hard, really really hard and my dad was begging for a version. I was living with him and he knew I had the album but I kept saying "No" because I wanted him to be excited when I was excited. He's great and my number one fan, but I knew it would get to the point where he would be like “What about he next album?” and I knew this year would be a busy year and it would take a while before the next. So, for his sake, I wanted to keep away from him for as long as possible but in the end I did give it to him because he is my dad ans I owed it to him. But it took awhile. I really rationed myself and it was really difficult.
How do you think you/your music has changed since the beginning of it all?
I was growing up. I was a teenager when I started and the main thing for me was not only was my musicianship maturing and evolving, but I was as a person. I was so young, I was signed when I was 19 and I knew I wouldn’t have my sound yet. One guy said that musicians really don’t find their sound util they're 30 and I kinda agree.
So do you think you've found it yet?
I don’t know. I'm kinda just experimenting, I don’t wanna settle on a sound. One of my favorite bands, Bombay Bicycle Club, have release four albums and each one is so different from the other and I love that. As soon as I hear a song from Flaws I know that’s from Flaws- acoustic guitar, banjo, drums, folky. I just know that there's four different snapshots of Jack, the front man, and his musical interets. That man is a genius and I wouldn’t be able to replicate that. But already, the EPs are just me in a room then basically muscians around it and the The Morning is me and my band around it, and this album, midnight, is like a band. I gave them free room to make musical parts.
Is that weird, having them write their own parts?
It is, but I trust them. We've been a band now for five years so they know what I like and I'm able to be like “Ok, I don’t like that.” Otherwise, I'm a qute polite guy and would be like not confronational and not wanna hurt feelings, but here I can. I look to them for advice on this stuff and it's just a part of the maturity and evolution of what's happening right now. Ya know, we're already discussing what we want album three to sound like. I think I've got about a third of it done.
Are you gonna wait two years to release it?
Ehh, no, but I do need a break. [The two year break] was so crippling to my career. In 2014 we played to a 2000 and a bit crowd in London and in 2017 we like did two shows and just sold out a 450 venue. The crowd and intrest shrunk so much after drpping off the face of the earth. Like, I'm happy that I did that- I was burnt out. Less so physically, and more emotionally. I found myself tired and not enjoying it and so I needed that break. I would rather have that break and be where I am, kinda starting over. This burn out I'm in right now is different, it is kinda more of a physical burnt out- a couple weeks in bed and I'll be good!
Do you see writing as work? Do you ever want to not do it?
It's not that I never want to not do it, it's just nothing comes out. Especially for me, I'd love to write every day but it wouldn't be as good. I will write whenever I can but I cant just write. I need to love what I'm writing and that doesn’t happen everyday. So no, it's not work. Like I said before, it's therapy. When I need to talk aout something I just write a kind of cryptic, poetic version of my feelings and hope it rhymes and sounds good and people enjoy it. For me, it's definitely not work, but when there's a time frame and people want to hear new work, that kinda puts pressure on it that I guess would put it closer to work. But, ya know, I still don’t have to put on a suit and go into the office.
Going back to you talking about how your little hiatus hurt your career, does that really matter to you? Do you think that makes you less successful? What do you even define as success?
I've already exceeded every expectation I had for myself so I'm the most successful person in my eyes. I never thought that even one person would wanna listen to my music. I mean, I travel the world and sing for a living! That is something that I'm so, without evern talking about money, I'm wealthy in experience. I'm 25 and have been to Australia two times just this year. And to go and work? I never thought I would even be able to go there. So ya, in my eyes I'm successful. That's where I set that mark. I know to other people I'm not and I understand that because we all have different gauges for that thing. Initially when I took that break, I wouldn’t say I cared but I had to reduce my expectations. All the stuff that happened pre-break was just constantly passing my expectations and that was a wonderful state of mind. I've always striggled with self-doubt and being a pessimist and selling myself short. Constantly, I was being reminded ”Hey, you're a bit better than this!” and after the first few months of taking this hiatus, I realized it did hurt me in terms of numbers and momentum which is natural but it happens to most people. I was just shocked because I was used to the earlier feeling. People say "Be ambitious and optimistic!" but I think you should also be realistic. I wasn’t factoring in the two year break and not releasing anything and so I was overly optimistic because I was constanly disappointed. I just had to be like "Lewis, you're good. People are buying tickets. Theres no need to be upset.” I guess I do care, but I'm certainly glad it happened and brought me back to earth.
Do you think you have to factor luck into your success?
That plays a massive part. I always say "The stars align." I got lucky a lot of times in a row and I landed a deal wth Warner Brothers and had a top 30 album and everyone's like "Oh that’s just hard work” and it is, I worked my ass off but there's so many other people doing exaxtly the same as me and having to wait two, three, four, five years longer than me- or it never happens. So yes, there's always luck involved. I do also believe that you make your own luck. I usued to think it was the most stupid saying because luck for me was outside factores helping you out but you do! You can put yourself in situations that can be favorable for you. People always ask advice for singer songwriters and I just say "Keep at it." If you wanna get better at drawing, keep drawing. If you wanna get better at football, keep playing. It's not different at all being in the music industry. You can't just write a song a year and play 20 gigs and keep your fingers crossed because someone else is writing two songs a year and playing 40 gigs. There's so many others who are trying so hard to be in my position that you need to work hard. That's something I wish someone told me before because this industry is extremely relentless and that's something that I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t sign up for because of that, but it shocked me. I thought “Oh, musicians just play gigs every few moths and write and cross their fingers and become famous,” and that’s so not the truth. I've learned to love that hard work, but it's something that you just really have to work at. You can be born with a good voice but if you don’t try to showcase that and improve it constantly then somebody else will take your place and someone else will take theirs. You have to be a hundred percent a hundred percent of the time.