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INTERVIEW: Darren Watson

MORE THAN JUST THE BLUES

New Zealander Darren Watson continues to refine his songwriting craft on his seventh solo album.

by Chris Familton

Darren Watson has been an active member of the New Zealand music scene for the last thirty years, first gaining attention on a national level with his blues/funk/soul combo Chicago Smoke Shop in the 1980s before embarking on a solo career that has seen him continue his exploration of soulful storytelling and some quite sublime guitar playing.

Watson’s new album is wryly titled Getting Sober For The End Of The World. “I picked the title because it would get some attention and piss some people off. I just love the joke of it for something so damn serious.” he laughs, though as many might assume it wasn’t written in response to the hellish last year we’ve all lived through. “I was thinking about global warming, not COVID. I had the title and then I had to write the song around it, about a a serious subject while giving people a laugh,” Watson explains.

When an artist is tagged with a specific genre, across a multi-decade career, it can act as a useful label for media and critics but for many musicians it can also be a frustrating pigeonholing of their style and influences that doesn’t allow them the opportunity to diversify, or accurately recognise the divergent aspects to their sound. In Watson’s case he says that “it’s hard to get through 30 years of being that jumpy blues guy in that 80s band.” Listening to the new album it’s clear that his influences run wide and deep. From the New Orleans feel of the title track, to Rick Holstrom’s (Mavis Staples) swampy guitar on ‘Alison Jane’ and elements of country-folk that permeate a number of other tracks, Watson is drawing on a whole range of roots music styles.

“I love blues but I listen so widely. I listen to early alt-country stuff like Lyle Lovett and I was a big Wilco fan. I’ve always been a massive fan of Dr John and The Meters and I’m really into that half-time feel of The Band that Levon Helm did. I grew up in the early 80s with most of the UK bands like Squeeze, Dexys Midnight Runners and Elvis Costello. That was the gateway for finding the real thing – the real soul music,” says Watson.

A first for the new album was Watson recording, producing and mixing the album at home. That freedom, without the time restraints of a commercial studio, meant he could fine-tune the sound and feel of the songs to his heart’s content. “I really did like that there was no-one to blame but me. When it came to mixing I could spend a day getting the vocal sound just right. I spent a lot more time mixing it than I did recording it. I just wanted to get the feel right, “ he reiterates. “Even though they’re simple songs, making it work as mixes was important and fun for me.”

After a musical lifetime mostly focused in New Zealand, Watson is keen to head across the Tasman once some semblance of normality returns to international touring. “I would love to get over there when there is a bubble. I’d be coming over to play for a few hundred people realistically. I’ve never really focused on it at all before and I’m keen to explore the scene there, where there’s a mix of country and folk and different roots music styles. I’m hoping that I’ll pick up an audience who don’t have preconceptions of what I do and just judge me on what they hear. It’s like starting afresh really.”

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