He built his fanbase from his bedroom using YouTube, has had five top 10 EPs on iTunes, and is just about to release his debut album The Morning with Warner Bros. Records. Lewis Waton is the new generation of troubadour – and he’s here to stay.
Lewis Watson is just one representative of a growing number of singer-songwriters finding fame and record deals after uploading original tunes and a few covers to YouTube. The 21-year-old from Oxford first established himself by going the independent digital route, working to build his audience online and firming up his position as the shining star of the YouTube singer-songwriter era.
He’s escaped cyberspace now, and it’s a new dawn for the trendy guitar-toting troubadour; he’s signed to Warner Bros. Records and, as we sit in the label’s HQ in West London, he couldn’t be happier. Since uploading videos to YouTube in 2009 having taught himself how to play the guitar, Lewis has had five chart-dominating EPs on iTunes (a couple hit the top spot), making it hardly surprising that on my way to Kensington that morning, I’d already heard his latest single ‘Stay’ on the radio.
‘Oh, really?’ he gushes. ‘I’d no idea it was getting played today. That’s cool,’ he says, sipping a take-away coffee and lugging his Hiscox guitar case onto the table in front of us.
The transition from playing covers in your bedroom to being played on daytime radio used to take a while. Well, a lot longer than a year or so, anyway… In a short space of time, Lewis has captivated an assured international following with his combination of pop-fueled guitar licks and folky memoirs; not to mention his tousled hair and skinny jeans – that, along with his poetic way with words and pangs of young love, explains why thousands of his followers happen to be infatuated young women.
That’s where the boy-next-door charm ends, though; it has been lost for sight of the new generation of troubadour. Watson crafts powerful melodies with an introspective longing, making his songs hanker for the big-time limelight.
While more often than not, other young male artists swinging an acoustic guitar have been moulded into something with, er, ginger hair, Lewis hasn’t – and that’s incredibly refreshing. He’s got an endearing charm and intelligence about him, but there’s already an elephant in the room – that guitar case. I know what’s inside, but I’m waiting for him to bring it up.
‘That’s my Eggle!’ he says, unclipping the buckles on the case, lifting out the all-mahogany guitar, and handing it to me.
Patrick James Eggle has an enviable roster of artists young and old; Lewis is the latest addition. ‘It’s a bit out of tune, sorry,’ he apologises, as I strum a few chords and reach for the tuning machines. Given that it’s still a young instrument, it’s got one noticeable battle wound (thankfully, he’s not scared to gig it – a quick search of Google shows all his latest live outings have featured this Eggle). As I question him about the chunk that’s been knocked out of the top, though, he’s quick to defend his treasured guitar.
‘Ah, it was just one of those things. We were rehearsing for the tour, and my mic stand fell into it while I was playing – it was a rubbish stand! It happened in slow motion, I could almost see it was about to happen,’ he writhes.
Ok, so he’s ticked most of the boxes already – and we’ve only been sat here for 10 minutes – but has he got the guitar prowess to be taken seriously? Er, yes. In abundance, actually.During our interview and shoot, he’s constantly plucking intricate melodies on his guitar. You’ve only got to skim through his debut album The Morning (out via Warner Bros. Records on July 7) to hear his deftly picked guitar tones, while his earnest and heartfelt lyrics are illuminated by anthemic, head-in-the-clouds choruses – a swoon-worthy singer-songwriter, if ever there was one.
Hot off the heels of his latest EP Some Songs With Some Friends, and the impending release of The Morning, Lewis has been holed up in tour production rehearsals (with a scattering of intimate church gigs in between) for the whopper this September – Lewis is set to play his biggest headline tour to date, including an evening at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s been an exhausting couple of weeks for Lewis, but after our interview – as well as hosting a radio show the same afternoon – he gets to spend a week away on holiday in the Canary Islands.
‘I’ve not been on holiday in ages,’ he smiles. ‘I had to snap it up; yeah, it has been busy, so I’m looking forward to going away. This [‘Stay’] is my first single; we’ve never pushed a song on radio before and Radio 1 has been really supportive of it. I was lucky to be included on the In New Music We Trust playlist – I just hope it connects.’
It’s taken five EPs for Lewis to realise that it was time to release an album. Classing the EPs as a work-in-progress, he’s not just repackaging old material to make his debut full-length release.
‘I wanted people to be able to see the journey of me as an artist and the evolution of the songs. These versions on the album are more polished than the EP versions.’
Sat flipping the album sleeve in my hands, Lewis flashes a smile as I ask him about his favourite track on the album. I quickly tell him I’ve got a favourite and he replies with an air of caution.
‘You do?’ he says, glancing sideways, dropping his eyes to the album in my hand. ‘Ah, I feel a little slimy saying I have a favourite song of my own,’ he tells me, looking for a little extra time. ‘Probably track four, ‘Outgrow’. To me, that song was written about a really vivid memory I had when I was younger about my brother, my sister, and me. I think that song means the most to me, I guess. Also, I’d been trying to get that drumbeat onto a track for so long and it just fitted and worked with this song.’
‘What’s your favourite, then?’ he returns. As I tell him ‘Castle Street’ is my favourite, he instantly recalls the track number.
‘Oh yeah, that’s track 11, thanks. These last few months I’ve really learned how to appreciate the acoustic guitar – I’ve always loved it, but I’ve just learned how great you can make it sound on a record,’ he says after I tell him that the reason I picked ‘Castle Street’ as my favourite is due to its stripped back nature, with his guitar at the forefront.
The Morning aptly demonstrates Lewis’ growing guitar and songwriting prowess, and although the album features lush reworkings of some of his older material with added instrumentation, this is very much a guitar record – not a glimmering and overly clinical pop record. It’s a rootsy, organic, and classy album with crisp lucidity and soaring triumphant choruses you’d expect from someone who’d spent years honing their craft.
‘I didn’t want it to be just an acoustic guitar, I wanted to find a completely unique acoustic guitar sound, and you really can’t put a price on how much that adds to a song, and the record. I’m really glad that I’ve learned that and I can appreciate it. We put a lot into the getting the acoustic guitar sounding right on the record. Patrick [James Eggle] made me this Linville, and I love everything about it. You can really see the grain of the wood, and it’s got the LR Baggs Anthem in it, too, so it sounds great live.’
Lewis is a bit of an all-‘hog guy; his previous two acoustics (both Martins) were all-mahogany. The next tonewood craze? Probably.
‘What I really love about guitars that are 100 per cent mahogany is that you gain low-end on them. There’s a small loss in the mids but you gain so much in the low end; as I have a smaller body on my guitar, it kind of compensates for that a bit. I think for my next one, I might go with a cedar top because it might level it up a bit. Patrick was telling me that someone came into his workshop about three years ago. He told Patrick that his neighbour had died and that he had the job of clearing out the contents of his garage, which was also a home workshop. In there was a lathe sitting on a very big and very old plank of mahogany. So Patrick bought the mahogany from him and managed to get about eight guitar sets out of it. One set was used on Jake Bugg’s parlour guitar and another was used on my Linville. This is the last of that batch,’ he says, placing his palm on the guitar’s top. ‘It looks great, but it really sounds great, too.’
‘He said that he’d like to make me a guitar and I accepted straight away. He came to my show in Cardiff, and he brought a guitar he had made to the show with him. As soon as I picked it up, I could tell just by the weight of it that it was completely handmade and just sounded incredible. We had a few meetings, and I said I just wanted it to be really simple and mahogany, and he got it done. I’d been aware of Patrick because he’d made a couple of guitars for Frank Turner, and I had seen the bone inlays on the fretboard, but I remember seeing it and thinking how amazing it was. I’d never heard one of his guitars at that point, though.’
Having now owned and become accustomed to the sound of the Linville, how does it compare, sonically, to a Martin? Both equally incredible guitars with a similar lust-factor, but one custom made…
‘The main thing was that when I picked up the Eggle, I knew that no one else had this guitar in the world, and I’ve never had that feeling with anything before. That revamped my passion a bit, I think. We were in a busy coffee shop when he gave it to me, so I couldn’t hear as well as I’d have liked, but it felt like nothing I’ve played before. Martins are incredible guitars, but I cracked one of mine when I was travelling to Australia. I’d just had electronics fitted to it, and the crack kind of ruined how the guitar sounded for a while, even after I had it repaired, which is such a shame. The Eggle goes through an LR Baggs preamp pedal on stage, and it just sounds so good. It’s so cliché to say, but you do know as soon as you pick it up whether you love it. I’m really picky about size, too, and I’m used to a certain size. I’ve tried dreadnoughts and I feel like this on them,’ he says, outstretching his arms as far as they’ll go. ‘I’ve tried smaller guitars too, which also feel weird for me. The Martin I was playing before the Eggle was a 00 [00-15M], and I told Patrick not to make it that size, because I knew he wouldn’t want to make a copy. He just got it so spot on.’
Lewis’ profile has grown exponentially since th release of his EPs; each of them made the top 10 on iTunes and his latest EP, Some Songs With Some Friends, offers up, well, just that – collaborations with Gabrielle Aplin and Hudson Taylor among them.
‘I’d never collaborated in a studio before that, so it was nice to be in there with someone who does it for a living. It made me kind of think: “Oh, phew, I’m doing it right.”’
While his EPs were making their way up the charts, his numbers on social media were also on the up, including five million YouTube plays, 100,000 likes on Facebook, and five million Spotify streams. With the internet changing the way things are done, this new era of connectedness means a word-of-mouth following can make or break you. Lewis’ early word-of-mouth, do-it-yourself attitude has only stood him in good stead for everything he’s worked for so far: his album release.
‘It’s crazy; I still don’t fully understand it. I think social media is great. Actually, the internet is great, because it allows you to say something and then have it go global within seconds. We’re really lucky to have that but it’s important not to put all of your eggs in one basket; at the start when I was doing internet stuff, it wasn’t just that – I was playing an open mic every night and making sure that I had that local foundation. I wouldn’t be here if it was not for the internet, though.’
‘I’ve been signed for two years or so now, so we’ve been recording the album since I first got signed, really. I always wanted to do the EPs and, fortunately, the label has been behind me with that as well. I guess from a label point of view, if you sign somebody and they want to put out five EPs, it’s a bit like: “Oh, hang on, that’s going to take two years, or whatever…” but they’ve been behind me for that. I always wanted the EPs to be low-fi versions and monitor mixes; I never wanted someone to listen to the third EP and say “Yeah, that’s him, I get it,” because that is not me at all. I knew I’d be developing over those two years and now I look back in hindsight and notice things I’d have done differently. How we’ve done the album has given me the luxury of hindsight. I know how important your first record is – I’m never going to have a first record again and I wanted it to be the best music that I can make at the moment.’
As well as the standard 11-track edition of The Morning, Lewis will be bringing out a hugely comprehensive 37-track edition, collating The Morning with all five EPs to date, as well as some previously unreleased songs and demo recordings. Having written nearly sixty songs, whittling down the final 11 hardly bears thinking about…
‘I’m really glad we’ve made the album over the two years but, yeah, there were lots of different track listings,’ he laughs. ‘I’m glad we’ve settled on the one we have though. I would like to experience the “here’s six weeks to make an album” approach, but I am glad The Morning was made like this. I was writing so much last year, on my own and in sessions with other people. I’d only ever written on my own, so co-writing brought me out of my comfort zone and I think I’ve written some of my best songs with other people. We had built up such a huge catalogue – it was all on DropBox, actually – but I had a good idea of how I wanted to layout the record. I guess it’s a good problem to have, more songs than not. I hate listening back to myself, too,’ he confesses. ‘Have you ever left a voicemail and then listened back to it? It’s like that, but because I’m trying to sound as good as I can it’s even worse,’ he laughs. ‘I listened back to the album a lot, but it was listening out for the levels and stuff, not the songs, as such…’
Hearing ‘Stay’ played on the radio at the minute must be difficult for you then, I say, jokingly…
‘Well, I like hearing what the DJs have to say about my songs. I remember hearing Zane Lowe talk about a record and then go: “It’s Lewis Watson” and I was like: “Oh, shit! That’s me.” It’s amazing to think that my songs are on national radio – I used to have Radio 1 as my alarm, so now to be on that is amazing. What I do with ‘Stay’ is listen to see if it’s the radio edit – which I can tell from the first notes of the intro – and as soon as I hear that I’m like: “Brilliant, good, and off it goes” but my dad will listen to it really loudly, anyway! One thing I really didn’t want was for the album to be self-titled. I don’t know why, but I just didn’t, and we’d tried for so long to get a title, timing was getting really tight. I was just going to call the album Songs because the title really doesn’t matter to me. I’m kinda glad I didn’t…’
Lewis Watson’s The Morning is out on July 7 via Warner Bros. Records. Lewis tours the UK throughout September. Lewis plays the London Acoustic Guitar Show on Sunday 14 September, 2014, in association with Patrick James Eggle Guitars. Tickets are on sale now from lags.blazefuture.wpengine.com