Everything but the gull: how Ben Watt fought the Covid blues with birdsong

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Cetti’s warbler!” says Ben Watt suddenly, raising a finger to indicate the new addition to the ambient soundscape. Listen, he says, to the opening “chi” followed by what sounds “almost like a little typewriter going off”. Watt does that, interrupts himself, or the silence if he’s not talking, to announce a new bird he’s seen or heard. “Blackcap!” he’ll exclaim. “Chiffchaff!”

We’re sitting in a bird hide overlooking a reed bed and an expanse of water on a gorgeous spring day. A heron stands, still as a photo, two metres in front of us. It could be rural East Anglia – apart from the roar of traffic and the giant arched structure in the background. These are, respectively, the A406 north circular and Wembley Stadium. And the place we’re at is the Welsh Harp reservoir, named after a pub that no longer exists.

Watt – musician, singer, songwriter, DJ, remixer, label owner, one half (with his wife Tracey Thorn) of Everything But the Girl – might seem like an unlikely birder, but it was probably inevitable. If the music came from his father, Scottish jazz band leader Tommy Watt, then the birds and nature came from his mother, journalist Romany Bain, a lover of the natural world. She signed Ben up to the RSPB when he was seven, got him books. “It does stick,” he says. Yeah, I suggest, but birdwatching’s not very rock’n’roll, is it? “Erm,” he says patiently. “I think that solitary contemplative thing – there is that side to all rock’n’rollers. They need a place to think.”

Restorative power ... a coot at Welsh Harp reservoir.

These two strands – music and nature – have run through his life, intertwining at times. On Box Hill, the opening track on Watt’s debut album written when he was 18 or 19, is a snapshot of an afternoon spent at a place he used to go with his parents. “There was a restorative power to being in nature on a sunny day I wanted to write about even then.”

When EBTG went into a self-imposed hiatus at the turn of the century, Watt, like the grebes here on the reservoir, dived below the surface, immersing himself in the world of electronic music production and DJing, before emerging somewhere different, but not far from where he started out. His 2014 comeback album, Hendra, a contemplative return to his folk-rock roots, has more of nature’s restorative power. A song called Golden Ratio is about how easy it is to get wrapped up in self-absorption and negativity even when a lovely day on the Dorset cliffs is staring you in the face. Matthew Arnold’s Field, meanwhile, is about scattering his dad’s ashes in Oxfordshire.

“It’s often a background to the songs. You know, big nature – what was it Wordsworth called it? Immutability. That sort of affectlessness of nature that it is just there doing its thing regardless of what we are doing. And I suppose that’s why I don’t feel particularly sentimental about it. I’m awestruck by it, because it’s just doing its thing and we either respect it or we fuck it up.”

Tracey Thorn doesn’t share all her husband’s hobbies. “She doesn’t like birdwatching at all, but she loves walking and she loves plants so we can gel on a walk, with me looking up and her looking at her feet.”

Last December, Watt, who is now 58, released an album called Storm Damage: a mid-life record maybe, melancholic certainly, but not maudlin. He had started a UK tour with his trio when Covid struck. The London show was cancelled hours before they were due to go on. Then the America leg was suspended, as was Japan and Australia. “It really hit me for six,” he says. But Watt found some solace here at the Welsh Harp. He hadn’t been for a while and was struck by its state. “First I thought, ‘Oh, it’s kind of gritty and urban.’ Then I just looked out one day – at the wheelie bins and the neglect, the tideline of microplastic – and thought, ‘This is actually really bad. I need to look into this.'”

Plastic pollution at the Welsh Harp.

The Welsh Harp has a colourful history. Constructed in the early 1800s to feed the Grand Union Canal, the reservoir became a fashionable centre for recreational boating. The Old Welsh Harp was a popular pub and music venue. Churchill is said to have had a seaplane parked on the water during the war, ready to whisk him away from his bunker in nearby Dollis Hill. Then in the 1950s it was granted site of special scientific interest status, for its breeding, nesting and migrant birds and wildlife.

But years of neglect and underfunding have left it struggling to breathe. The true horror of the situation was brought into focus earlier this year when the water level was lowered to reveal a hellish porridge of supermarket trolleys, tyres, traffic cones, fridges embedded in the silt. Watt photographed it, blogged about it, badgered the local authorities, got involved with clean-ups. “We won’t get anywhere if we maintain a human-centric view of life,” he says. “The damage we are doing to places, with waste and casual plastic disposal, will contribute to the end of us. I think you just have to call it out.” It became, almost accidentally, a campaign.

At the same time, Watt has been putting the finishing touches to a new six-track mini-album, a stripped back piano-vocal companion piece to Storm Damage called Storm Shelter, which includes a couple of covers: Ten City’s house classic That’s the Way Love Is and Sharon Van Etten’s recent synth torch song Comeback Kid, as well as four of his own compositions. He thought of abandoning it when Covid struck. “But there’s something about them that felt quite raw, self-reliant, which I saw as things we’ve needed recently.”

Welsh Harp reservoir in north west London.

In 1992, as detailed in his memoir Patient, Watt was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune condition called EGPA. It cost him most of his small intestine, and might have killed him. So he has been shielding from the beginning of the pandemic, living separately from Thorn and his 23-year-old twin daughters at home, using a different bathroom and eating at a different time. But he still managed to go wandering on his own.

As well as the ecological destruction, he saw other signs of crisis by the shores of the Welsh Harp. A new waterside development has displaced residents from an old estate, or left them in poor living conditions. “Also, I think there is an issue with eastern European migrant workers coming in and getting trapped in low-paid jobs. Some were just camping by the reservoir because it’s all they could afford. I was coming across abandoned sleeping camps.” He’s donating an advance on album royalties to the homelessness charity Shelter.

Listening to Watt’s records, you might think he was a moody bugger, but he doesn’t seem to be one to wallow. When he survived his illness, “a lot of people said, ‘Oh, life must be that much more meaningful now, the sky must be bluer.’ I didn’t actually feel much of that. I just felt annoyed that I had been ill and that it interrupted my life.”

He is bringing the same practicality to the Welsh Harp and the issues that concern him. He sets out to understand, highlight, do something. He has had periods of depression, times when his mental health has suffered. “So anything that helps lever yourself out of those moments, something you draw strength from, is of value.” For him, nature (especially birds) is that thing. “It helps you be in the now, which is important. It doesn’t ask much of you, just does its thing.” He points at the heron. “He’s been here this whole time. It’s beautiful. He’s not fazed by any of this nonsense I’m talking.” And he laughs.

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