Today’s generation of aspiring young musiciansoften have just one choice in their pursuit of a career – to take the plungeand independently mastermind a digital cottage industry from which their songscan be discovered by a like-minded audience. That’s precisely what Oxford’stwenty-year-old singer-songwriter Lewis Watson did. After gradually buildinghis own fan-base, his economically-produced debut EP ‘It’s Got Four Sad SongsOn It BTW’ topped the iTunes singer-songwriter chart on the first day of release,outselling the likes of Adele, Madonna and Ed Sheeran in the process. It’s amodel that plenty of artists aspire to recreate, but few ever make any seriousprogress with.
“Peopleare calling my age group the broken generation, yet we’re getting out there,doing what we want and being successful with it,” says Watson, citing otheryoung singer-songwriters such as Gabrielle Aplin, Orla Gartland and HudsonTaylor as examples. “People aren’t going to talent shows; they’re breaking themould by writing meaningful songs and getting out there through social media.There are two talents at work: creating music and promoting yourself.”
Acomparative latecomer to music, Watson first started playing after receiving aguitar for his sixteenth birthday. “I’ve never had lessons,” he admits. “I justenjoyed playing guitar so much. I’d play for hours a night, and try out newthings to make sure it didn’t get stale.”
In thesummer of 2010, Lewis uploaded a cover of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ‘Swansea’ toYouTube (as HolyLoowis, to avoid the attention of his friends) and receivedenough positive feedback to create a succession of other home-filmedperformances of songs by artists such as City and Colour, Ben Howard and BonIver. “As soon as I picked up a guitar, I was writing songs but I didn’t havethe confidence to put them out there. People were requesting original songs, soI finally uploaded one [‘Sides’ in September 2010] and I got a really greatresponse. From then on, I thought I should take my own songwriting more seriously.”
Watson’sYouTube following grew organically as he continued to mix original materialwith performances of his favourite songs. His stripped down take on TracyChapman’s ‘Fast Car’ suddenly changed everything. Shortly after, his steadilyaccumulated 1000 subscribers had snowballed into 23,000. “It really took me bysurprise because every time I logged on, I had another thousand subscribers,”he says, still almost with disbelief. “It kept going and going and going andnow I’m over 45,000 subscribers. It unbelievable to think that potentially thatmany people are going to watch what I put up. It’s very strange.”
"AfterWatson played a gig supporting his former music tutor Joe Porter (producer/songwriter at tBeat Music), Porter suggested that he could produce the youngmusician’s first proper material. Recorded in just three days on a very limitedbudget (“Joe was generous, saying he was focusing on my talent instead ofmoney. I’m extremely thankful to him and he’s free to call in a favour wheneverhe wants”), the result was the debut EP ‘It’s Got Four Sad Songs On It BTW’which highlighted Watson’s emotive vocals across four intimate songs based onhis own experiences."
“I setthe songs on that EP out like a story,” he explains. “‘What About Today’ wasabout quite a rubbish situation where I was being used, and that was the taleof the end of a relationship; ‘Windows’ was looking back after the relationshipended; ‘Bones’ is about meeting someone new; and ‘Nothing’ is about being happywith that person.”
Thesuccess of the EP and his continuing popularity posed a fresh problem forWatson’s songwriting style. Suddenly his personal songs were being delivered toan audience of thousands. “I’d never want to write a song that wasn’t reallypersonal to me, but at the same time it can’t be too personal,” he notes. “It’slike telling 45,000 people a secret that I didn’t want to tell anyone.” At thesame time, he added an intimate touch to the release by customizing the first1000 physical copies of the EP with an illustration of the buyer’s choosing.That was a fine plan, he laughs, until someone asked for a picture of a llamaplaying the guitar and wearing a top hat.
Withindays of the EP’s release, Watson had attracted the attention of just aboutevery record label in the land and soon inked a deal with Warner Bros. Records.Part of the appeal, he says, was the label’s long-running success with malesolo artists as diverse as David Gray, Damien Rice and Neil Young. Recentmonths have found Watson holed up with a huge number of collaboratingsongwriters and producers including Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys), RichardWilkinson (Kaiser Chiefs), Iain Archer (Jake Bugg), Kid Harpoon (Florence + TheMachine) and Mr Hudson.
Watson’scollaborative work also included a trip to Australia where his EP had alreadycharted. In between sessions, he also played a number of free guerrilla gigswhich were announced just hours before via Twitter – a set at Melbourne’sFederation Square attracted over a hundred people at similarly short notice.“If that happened in my hometown I’d be completely overwhelmed, but this was onthe other side of the world,” he trails off, still awestruck. “If this had beena ticketed gig with months of promo, how big could it get?”
Already,Watson is beginning to take further strides towards his glowing future. Herecently played his largest gig to date when he supported Birdy at Shepherd’sBush Empire (he calmed his nerves by seeing one of his favourite bands, TwoDoor Cinema Club, at the same venue the week before), while next month’sheadline tour is already sold-out and prompted the addition of further dates inDecember. His next EP, ‘Another Four Sad Songs’, will be released in October.
Retellingalmost any part of his story to date prompts Watson to observe: “…and I neverthought that could happen.” By dictating his own destiny, he’ll need to suspendhis disbelief for some time to come.
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