credit: CJ Harvey
You can tell how much Lewis Watson has changed by his hair. Gone is the heavy, forward-swept fringe that was his trademark in his teens, when he was signed on the strength of a single, self-released EP and wrote much of his acclaimed debut album, 2014’s The Morning. In its place are long locks he recently dyed from dark to white – not to shock, but in part to signal a new start.
“I’ve always wanted white hair,” says Lewis. “So I thought, why not? I’m finally in a position to make my own decisions, and not just about my music. The biggest change I’ve made is taking control of my career. Everything I do, everything you see comes from me.”
Midnight, the Oxford singer’s sensational second album, is testament to that change. Written and recorded entirely under his own stream, with friends as collaborators it’s a sonic leap on from his largely acoustic debut – bigger, bolder, beautifully textured and more experimental, but still as brutally honest and achingly intimate as his bewitching early EPs.
“It’s an evolution from my first album,” says Lewis. “It’s grander, heavier and more electronic. I still like acoustic music – and there are some quieter songs on there – but I also love Death Cab For Cutie, Bombay Bicycle Club and Bon Iver. It is a big change, but it’s still me. Maybe me with added spice.”
Recorded in just three weeks last summer at The Vale in Warwickshire and produced by Lewis’ close friend Anthony West of Oh Wonder, Midnight was made without any label involvement. In fact, it wasn’t until Zane Lowe premiered gritty, drums-driven first single ‘Maybe We’re Home’ on his radio show in January that anyone outside Lewis’ circle had heard his new material.
Key to Midnight is the stately, stirring, Snow Patrol-esque ‘Deep The Water’, the first song Lewis wrote for the album after a self-imposed six months away from making music in 2015. “I was still playing shows,” says Lewis. “We toured the States and Australia and played a fantastic festival in the Philippines, but for a full six months, I stopped writing songs. I’d grown to dislike the process, which was heart breaking for me because I’ve loved songwriting since I picked up a guitar aged 16. But I needed a break, to be reinvigorated, to learn to love it all over again. I took a step back for as long as possible to see what would change.”
That summer, Lewis found out. He got together with Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht just to jam and discuss ideas, but straight away songs started to flow. The first was ‘Deep The Water’ but in a matter of days, they had completed five songs, among them the album’s sweet, spine-tingling, strings-soaked highlight ‘Hello Hello’ and the epic ‘Little Light’ an emotionally-exposed love letter to Lewis’ girlfriend of five years.
‘Deep The Water’ is one of several songs on Midnight about a relationship gone wrong, but it’s also about survival.“It’s about giving the most and receiving the least,” explains Lewis. “It’s based on an experience I’ve had of loving someone who expects you to come running when they need you, but gives nothing back. But like most of my songs, it’s a sentiment that can apply to different situations. It’s about being used, whether that’s at work or by a friend or a lover, the emotion is the same.”
The album closes with the secret title track, a Joel Pott co-write featuring Josephine on piano that returns Lewis to the stripped-back beauty of his early releases. Whilst hidden from the tracklisting it’s deeply revealing of an artist coming full circle, fulfilling his early promise while expanding his palette in ever more vibrant ways – something reflected in the striking album artwork commissioned from renowned Canadian painter Andrew Salgado, one of Lewis’ favourite artists.
“I studied art at school and cheekily emailed him with an idea,” says Lewis. “He said he admired my gusto and agreed.”
So what does the artwork tell us about the music contained on Midnight, and more specifically about its creator? “It’s an incredible, heavily textured painting of me,” Lewis explains. “It’s not at all clear, so it’s me, but it’s not me. Or maybe it’s a different me, one you weren’t expecting.”
And that’s the perfect image for the album, because with Midnight Lewis Watson has not just evolved but been reborn, creating magic with a new sound, a new look and a new career stretching ahead. This time there is no doubt – like his heroes, Lewis will be making music for the rest of his life.
Programming descriptions are generated by participants and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of SXSW.