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Ben Watt shuns the dance floor for the coffeehouse

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Ben Watt is moving from electronic music to a more contemplative, acoustic sound.Edward Bishop Ben Watt is moving from electronic music to a more contemplative, acoustic sound.

Ben Watt just said the last thing a pop star ever wants to admit.

“I feel old,” he says. “We’re not supposed to say that. We’re all supposed to be forever young.”

But since we aren’t anything of the kind, the 51-year-old Watt decided to write a song about this topic on “Hendra,” his new release. Titled “Young Man’s Game,” the piece centers on a middle-aged DJ, musing on his dwindling future in a nocturnal world soaked with sex, drugs and alcohol. The character ponders: “Should I act this out, or should I act my age?”

It’s a quandary Watt knows well. For more than two decades, he has embedded himself in the limber world of electronic music. First, he was half of the international smash dance-pop band Everything but the Girl — along with his wife, Tracey Thorn. Then he was a top DJ, mixer and electronic record company czar.

“It’s easy to party,” Watt says of the DJ life. “It’s hard to recover.”

So he’s pulled the plug on all that. The new album finds Watt trading in spinning turntables and twisting dials for soft acoustic guitars and hushed vocals. He’ll reveal the result at his first-ever New York solo show Wednesday at Rough Trade NYC in Williamsburg. He’ll be joined by his producer, Bernard Butler.

“Hendra” represents Watt’s first solo work since “North Marine Drive,” 31 long years ago. Right after that, he formed EBTG with then-girlfriend Thorn, creating a sound that peaked with seminal ’90s electronica hits like “Missing” and “Walking Wounded.” Those songs not only brought trip-hop to the mainstream, they created some of the most melancholy dance music of all time.

Though Watt and Thorn remain a couple (with three children), they haven’t recorded as EBTG in 15 years. In that time, Thorn has released four gorgeous and acerbic solo albums, plus a riotous autobiography, “Bedsit Disco Queen,” while Watt went on to electronica renown.

But Watt felt something was missing. “I’d been working with beats and other people’s music for years,” he says. “I wanted to get back to words and music.”

In the meantime, sad and urgent inspiration struck. Watt’s half-sister Jennie died suddenly, of late-diagnosed lung cancer. “It was a heavy blow. I had a need to write about it,” he says.

His first attempt didn’t come out well. “It sounded like everything I had played before,” Watt says. “Then I started to detune the guitar, to use open chords I’d never used before. It was like a new technology. It became the key to the door.”

He also had to reclaim his voice. “I only sang one song on an album with Everything but the Girl,” Watt says. “I pulled the short straw next to Tracey Thorn. I had to relearn how to sing and how to like my voice again.”

It’s an autumnal voice. It’s soft in tone and contemplative in delivery, drawing comparisons to introverted Brit-folk stars like John Martyn. Watt extends his songs’ somber tone with lyrics that view nature in slow repose.

I only sang one song on an album with Everything but the Girl … I had to relearn how to sing and how to like my voice again.

“I like the work of Thomas Hardy, who uses landscape as character,” he says. “We’re a product of weather and location.”

One especially sad song, “Matthew Arnolds’ Field,” finds Watt scattering his half-sister’s ashes. Other pieces, like “Nathaniel” or “Picking Up the Gun,” deal with death as a theft.

Watt hasn’t only written about his family on the new album. He also penned a book about his parents, titled for them, “Romany and Tom.” It comes out in the U.S. in June. In the ’90s, Watt made literary waves with “Patient,” about a life-threatening disease he beat, but not before losing 80 percent of his digestive tract.

With all these projects in play, fans shouldn’t set any bets on a reunion for Everything but the Girl.

“We each feel we’re doing complete and good work,” Watt says. “The thought of putting the mantle of that name back on ourselves immediately drags us backwards.”

Anyway, Watt has certainly contributed to Thorn’s solo works over the years. The thing that makes their marriage last, he believes, is that “we’re individuals within the relationship. On our very first date, we couldn’t decide what movie to see. So I went to ‘Southern Comfort’ and Tracey went to ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles.’ We met up for pizza afterwards.”

It may not be so easy to get audiences to accept Watt’s latest move, from dance floor to coffeehouse. “Changing public opinion on your work is like making a tight turn on an ocean liner,” he says.

But the work itself makes the risk worth it. Or as Watt says: “It’s all based on the desire to say with the music, ‘This is how I feel right now. Do you feel it too?’”

Ben Watt

Wed. 8 p.m.

Rough Trade NYC, Williamsburg

(718) 388-4111


Music & Arts – NY Daily News

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