Songwriter, musician, DJ, writer, record label boss; while Ben Watt's career as half of Everything But The Girl alongside Tracey Thorn, saw him achieve musical stardom, it was just one venture in an ever-evolving creative timeline. As a teenager he released solo record North Marine Drive, finding his feet on the UK's folk scene and releasing material with Robert Wyatt of Soft Machine. Through the noughties, Watt became a revered DJ and launched the independent label Buzzin' Fly in 2003.

Now Watt has emerged with a flurry of new output. His acclaimed book Romany and Tom details the lives of his parents: his dad a leftie jazz band leader, and his mother a classically trained Shakespearian actress. There's a new musical venture too. He collaborates with ex-Suede guitarist Bernard Butler on Hendra, his first solo album in thirty one years. It's a record that showcases a very British reticence; a collection of songs preoccupied with tragedy and personal loss, counterbalanced with a delivery that resists straying into over-sentimentality and emotional indulgence. For him, it's not a cathartic process, or an experiment in soul searching, it's just words and music. It's what he does best.

Here, he talks exclusively to the 405 about meeting rock stars at rainy barbeques and the surprising similarities between club music and folk tradition.

It's been three decades since North Marine Drive, how are you feeling stepping out on your own after all that time with Hendra? How are you finding revisiting your folk roots?

In terms of the performance angle, it doesn't really feel hugely different. I mean, a lot of people seem to think that I've been off the radar for a while, but in the last ten years I've been very busy as a DJ, and that is performing in its own way. You know, I've travelled all over the world doing that, played in clubs and played at festivals. So I don't ever really feel like I've stopped being out there playing. But certainly, singing songs every night, one after the other for an hour and a half, I haven't done that since I was... well I don't think I've ever done it, because even when I was 19, I probably only ever did sets that lasted half an hour. So that's been a big change for me, getting used to the sound of my own voice and what it can cope with and what it can do, over that length of time is all new. So there's that which has been quite eye opening. But you're right, the whole folk thing is very much on my mind at the moment because I do think folk music in essence is about opening up that dialogue with an audience. It's about the partnership between you and the people in the room, where you can't place yourself on a higher pedestal to your crowd. You're basically trying to say to them, ''I feel like this and I want you to feel the same; I want you to see yourself in what I'm singing''. I think that's different to the way the rock relationship is, which is very much about, ''I'm the emperor on the stage, and I don't give a fuck what you think, this is what I do'. And it's a slightly more imperialistic way of performing. And I certainly feel with these gigs, it's partly the venues that I'm playing, the kind of songs that I'm singing - I'm very aware of the audience right in front of me and the relationship I've got with them and I'm enjoying it.

It's a very intimate record. 'Matthew Arnold's Field' springs to mind as a really palpably emotional track. To what extent is Hendra in its writing, recording and performing, a cathartic experience for you?

I don't really like the word cathartic. I don't think about it like that really. It's just what I do, you know? I make a living out of self expression, and I'm very grateful for that. There's a lot of people who work in hospitals or in offices. I'm allowed to get up there on stage and do what I want really! I'm very aware that there are lots of people who would love to be in my position. So I mean there's that side of it, where I'm just very grateful that I can do it, and that people still want to come and hear it. And, I don't know, I just write the songs I write. I don't make any great claims for them. I try and be as truthful as I can in what I write because that's what I've always done. I think transparency is the way to open up that conduit between people.

Does playing more intimate gigs with the new material constitute a rebalancing after all those years of DJing in clubs?

Well, in a strange way, I think it's not that different. I mean I think people have a slightly imbalanced view of what DJing is about. Certainly the clubs I used to play and the music I used to play, which was kind of a deeper form of club music, it was very much about opening up a relationship with the dance floor, and it could be a very emotional experience some nights. I mean I've had some amazing nights DJing, some of the best nights of my life. You're second guessing where it is the audience wants to go next, and getting it right, and taking people to places where communally you feel really emotionally altered by the moment, either through jubilation or a moment of pathos. There's a real power to club music, when you get it right. So I don't belittle it in relation to songwriting gigs if you like. I think they both have their place, and they can both be as emotionally fulfilling as the other in a way. It's just that you're using different tools to do it.

So you're still tapping into that same place emotionally?

I believe so, yeah. I know this is a strange thing to say, but I think there is quite a connection between the folk experience and the DJ experience, in that they're both communal, they're quite ritualistic. It doesn't work unless you get that relationship with the audience right. You're basing yourself on the same level and saying, 'Look, we're gonna go through these gears together. Up through this song and out the other side' or 'up through this three-track club mix and out the other side'. It's little waves of emotion that you create, and in a strange way I think there's a lot of similarity between music in folk clubs, or music in a folk tradition, and DJing. Certainly the way I used to DJ, in little clubs with low ceilings. The communal experience was more important than anyone in it.

So what made you, after years of doing that, decide to embark on these two major new solo ventures, your book Romany and Tom and Hendra? Was that a spontaneous thing, or was it a planned thing; 'I've done that for a certain amount of time, now it's time to step out on my own again'?

I never plan anything, and I never have done. I've always acted very much on instinct, and it's an instinct that I'll sleep on and wake up the next day and think, 'is that instinct still there?' And if it is then I tend to slowly move in that direction. I don't have a particular trajectory, or a path that I'm moving down. I just seemed to get to a point where I thought I'd plateaued a bit with the record label, and my DJing, and I needed to get back to words particularly again; I wanted to get back to language. And then there were the practicalities; I couldn't get to that point unless I made some space. And then when I had to publicly announce that it was time to put Buzzin' Fly on a sort of semi-permanent backburner and to draw a line under my Djing for the time being just to make the room. But initially all I thought I would do was finish off Romany and Tom, because that was what I'd wanted to get done first. But then at the end of that, just as I was finishing it, my sister Jenny died unexpectedly. That was a big blow. But that Christmas it just seemed to stir up a lot more stuff, and I went back down to the studio in January last year, seriously for the first time in a long time and just thought, 'I don't want to write another book, I've just finished one, but I do want to start something else'. And that's how I started writing the songs for Hendra. It came out of a compulsion, which I think the best work probably does stem from.

So it was the need for an outlet that prompted the album?

You know, some people have asked me, 'Were these songs knocking around for a long time? Were they ones you wrote for Tracey, that you then sang yourself?' Well no - I wrote almost all of them in a short space of time, at the beginning of last year. Because I had an idea, and because I felt compelled to write them. I just think that's where the best work stems from.

So with the songs from the LP - some of it sounds slightly reminiscent of EBTG material - I think particularly 'Golden Ratio', I can hear Tracey singing that. But at the same time, tracks like 'Nathaniel' are just completely different cases altogether. So did you perhaps make a conscious effort to write songs that sounded completely different to what you've done before, or was it purely spontaneous?

Well, it was very much done on instinct. You can't over think it. I mean 'Golden Ratio', if we're being honest about it I think probably owes more to the music I made before EBTG, which I then took in to EBTG. That style of chordal, rhythmic acoustic guitar playing where you're slapping the body of the guitar, was something I picked up from John Martyn when I was in my teens, and it was a sound that I then took into my early recordings on North Marine Drive and stuff. It was just a style of guitar playing that I've always played in that way. I just tried not to over think it. I just tried to play in the way that I play. I started writing in all these open tunings which I'd never used before too. Almost every song on the record on which I'm playing guitar is in a different tuning to the next one.

Does that explain the wide range of guitars you use live? You get through quite a few.

Yes, that's why I have to use so many, because they're all in different tunings. Otherwise I'd be standing there tuning them in front of you all night! But I mean that it was giving the songs this really sort of languid, gauzy, kind of impressionistic sound, which was great for the lyrics, but I knew that it needed a bit of bite to it; a bit of angst. That's why I turned to Bernard, because I wanted him to be that slightly overdriven, darker voice on the record, because there is that voice in the lyrics. But Bernard, I think, plays a really important role. He is the darker character on the shoulder of the songs, and that's exactly the role I wanted him to play.

How did that collaboration with Bernard Butler come about then? Was it a case of you saying, 'I've got some songs, and I'd like you to play on them?'.

No, I mean I didn't know Bernard at all until a couple of years ago. And then we ran into each other at someone's barbeque in the rain. Pete Paphides, the journalist, who had the barbeque, he invited us and I remember standing there under a tree in the rain in Pete Paphides' back garden being introduced to Bernard for the first time. And we just started talking, and we were a bit grumbly actually, moaning about what we were up to. We both started talking about how we were missing playing guitar. And that was it really. Then about a year later I rang Bernard up and I said, 'Look, do you fancy acting on that night and just getting together?' and he came over to my house and we sat in my studio just jamming for an afternoon, really just finding our way round each other a little bit, because we weren't that familiar with each other. And it was just after Bernard had broken his leg playing football and he was in a funny state of mind about everything.

Actually, that day wasn't very productive. But then about another six months after that, I'd written the songs for Hendra, and I thought, 'well look, I still think it could work'. So I rang him up for a second time, and I said, 'Look, I've got all these songs now. Can I play them to you?' And he went, 'Well, Yeah'. So then I went down to his studio for a change and just literally played them right then and there. I had them on a CD I think. And they were very acoustic the demos, the ones I did for Hendra, and they were in all the open tunings. And Bernard responded immediately, he said, 'Oh, I like this'. And he just sort of picked up a guitar then and there and tried a few things, and I was talking to him about the sort of things I wanted. It just clicked immediately. And then he came round to mine and we just went through all the songs. The first thing we did was a couple of gigs at the Slaughtered Lamb in London, just the two of us. It really gelled straight away, once there was actually some material to play on, rather than just jamming.

It does seem a very natural mix of the two sonic qualities.

It's a classic blend. It's quite old fashioned in a way. Bernard is the lead guitarist. He's playing very much a Richard Thompson kind of role, you know? Or Mick Ronson, with early David Bowie, when he was the playing the overdriven sound against the acoustic stuff. Or even Denny Lane when he was playing with Paul McCartney and Wings. You get that quite lush sound upfront and then Denny Lane plays this much darker role behind.

Giving it that gritty edge.

Yeah. So he is, in old fashioned terms, the lead guitarist. The rock guitarist, you know. I really like that, I think it really works.

Absolutely. In a way you're quite spoilt really, you've got two of Britain's greatest living guitarists playing on your album. How did it feel having Butler and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour play on Hendra, and how did that come about?

Oh, it's great. I'm very flattered that they both wanted to do it, of course. The meeting with Dave Gilmour was complete chance. The week before I started recording Hendra last September, I was at a party in London and he was in the room and someone introduced us. We'd never met each other before. And we just started talking, and in the middle of the conversation he said, 'D'ya wanna hear my demos?' which is not exactly the first thing you expect to hear from Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour you know! But I was really flattered and couple of days later he texted me and said he was serious, and would I like to come down to his studio and hear what he was up to, because he wanted a fresh pair of ears. So I got the train down to Brighton, which is where he lives, and spent a day with him listening to stuff in the studio and chatting and talking and getting on really well. And it was just like being with Bernard; you cut away all the rubbish and it's just two guitarists sitting there talking. And then a couple of weeks later I was doing The Levels in the studio and it struck me that his sound, that kind of plangent sound would be great. So I just asked him. And I sent him the track, he really liked it, and his part was recorded by the weekend. I mean there were no managers, no intermediaries. Very straightforward.

That for me, is the centrepiece of the album, I think it works really well. So, what do you see happening next? You did the 6 mix recently, so is that something you'll keep doing? You've clearly retained a great passion for DJing.

Well I'm not DJing in clubs at the moment at all. And I thought the 6 mix was actually going to come to an end at the end of last year. But then the last two shows have gone down really well, and BBC came back to me and said, 'would you do another one?' At the moment it's just sort of on a rolling basis. I do one every couple of months for them. They take a look at it, see how it's gone down with people. I'm very happy for it to be like that, you know I'm not expecting anything more. And you know I've got a wide range of taste in music, I just love the chance to put together mixes that include folk and vintage disco and house and techno, and link it all together really. So as long as they want me to keep doing it, I'll keep doing that. But in terms of what else beyond that, I don't really know. Like I said earlier on, I don't think like that. I just keep going until something feels wrong, and try and work out what it is I really want to be doing. And then do that. I'm going to America with Hendra, I've got offers to go to Australia and Japan later in the summer with it, which is great. And then we'll just see really, see what comes next.

Ben Watt's second solo album, Hendra, is out now.