Ben Watt Explains How He Picked the Openers for His Upcoming Tour

Check out the fresh crop of talent that Watt is bringing on tour.

I’m always trying to shine a light on new talent. I came up through the U.K. independent post-punk scene of the early ’80s as a raw, experimental singer-songwriter myself; I know what it’s like to open for future stars, do demos in cheap studios, dream. My band with Tracey Thorn, Everything But the Girl, was lucky to see a lot of success, but when we hit the pause button in 2000, I left the mainstream and decided to launch and run two independent record labels for ten years that specialized in new music; I was a resident DJ on a flagship show on BBC Radio 6 Music for four years preparing and presenting shows of new music; and I now compile a regularly updated Spotify playlist of new music and new discoveries.

I am very aware how much talent languishes in the ever-lengthening long tail of the modern music business. Many artists will, as a result, never have a chance to give up their day job, but many — luckily for us — get a chance to be heard, due to low barriers to production and distribution. This results in a plethora of hidden gems and unsung greatness.

Starting on June 15 in Washington, DC, I begin a two-week coast-to-coast North American headline tour in support of my new solo album, Fever Dream — the second since my return to solo performing as a singer-songwriter in 2014. I have a great band in tow: friend and album collaborator Bernard Butler (ex-Suede) on lead guitar, and Cameron Ralston and Pinson Chanselle (Matthew E White’s rhythm section) from Spacebomb Studios in Richmond, Virginia, guesting on bass and drums respectively. But I have spent a lot of time trying to select great openers in every city, too. They’re all unsung or lesser-known artists who I knew already and admired, or ones who surfaced as I researched each local scene. All are artists I would want to watch myself.

So, in support of the opener, and in support of fresh talent, I urge you to check out this selection, all of whom deserve the limelight in their own right.

Zachary Cale

Originally hailing from the small town of Enon, Louisiana, and now based in New York, Zachary Cale first came to my attention in 2013 with his fourth album, Blue Rider — in particular the opening cut, “Unfeeling.” The skillful open-tuned finger-picking, the background strung-out, echo-dipped electric guitar, the sense of space — it all points to roots in experimental folk and American primitive. But what gives the music extra edge is Cale’s engaging, sly voice, which seems not so much to sing as to slope through the songs, wily and inscrutably authoritative. Like a young Dylan, he appears sharp and inviting, yet also hazy and indistinct. Zachary Cale opens at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, DC, on June 15, and at the Mercury Lounge in New York, New York, on June 17.

Gem Club

A couple of years ago, my then sixteen-year-old daughter and I bonded over a Gem Club track called “Red Arrow (John).” Both of us had discovered it by different routes, each captured by the hovering, diaphanous sound of Christopher Barnes’ alt-chamber trio. I am told Barnes once lived in a disused Boston piano factory and listened to his neighbors arguing through the walls at night. Could we imagine anything else when we hear him — hesitant, bruised and defiant — murmuring his nocturnal ballads? For all the slow, outsider melancholy, there is also a fragile grace and starlit romanticism to the trio’s music that tugs at the heart — the same feeling you get when listening to such bands as the Antlers or Arrange or the Blue Nile. Gem Club open at the Brighton Music Hall in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 18.

In Tall Buildings

Once a student of jazz and sound recording at the University of Michigan, Chicago’s Erik Hall worked with several bands on the local scene before launching his solo project, In Tall Buildings, in 2010. He appeared on my radar with his second album, Driver, in 2015. I hear the soft-voiced reedy strands of Elliot Smith and Sufjan Stevens in his voice, but his background in production and music theory has added smartness to the arrangements, especially where percolating synths bubble up effortlessly around simple unadorned drums, guitars and tracked-up vocals. The songwriting is deft, and the harmonic movement often subtly moving. Driver is definitely an overlooked album. In Tall Buildings open at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, Illinois, on June 21.


Stark programmed drums, raw buzzing synths and post-Siouxsie vocals mark out Toronto’s Nyssa as a potential serious contender. There is dismissive confidence to her delivery, an unsentimental edge to her lyrics and a vibrant trashiness to her arrangements that calls for attention. Neo-glam? Post-new wave? Whatever. I’m told she puts on a good solo show. I’ll be there. Nyssa opens at the Drake in Toronto, Ontario, on June 20.

Alan Sparhawk (from Low)

I have known Alan from Minnesota fuzz-rock-folk band Low for more than ten years; in fact, I once even remixed a track of Low’s, placing co-singer Mimi’s vocal over a simple deep house sound-bed in an attempt to take her affecting voice onto the unsuspecting dance floors of west London. This time I actually approached Alan — a local to Minneapolis — with a view to finding a possible unsung local opener for my show.

As the options shrank, I felt like we were two people awkwardly left on a date until I tentatively said, “You wouldn’t fancy doing something on your own, would you?” I was thrilled when he said yes. Low could fill any ballroom in town. Not only that, but Sparhawk is lending some vintage amps for the show, and this is a chance to see a great minimalist rock singer and writer solo and up close. We are playing the intimate Dakota Jazz Lounge, where Prince once had his own secret table. I told Alan to dust off some Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood covers. Let’s see what happens. Alan Sparhawk opens at the Dakota in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 22.

Matt Kivel

In my favorite work of Matt Kivel’s there is something reticent and longanimous about his hushed voice and guitar; threads of soft-picked chords circle above murmured half-swallowed lyrics, as if he is improvising unfinished lullabies in a darkened house. I invited him to open for me in Los Angeles at the Echoplex in 2014, where the addition of a perfectly miked drummer (Chris Cohen guesting), FX pedals and a fine line in endearing self-deprecating humor between songs had the neutral audience leaning in for more. Lately he has been working with Scottish folk musician and producer Alasdair Roberts adding chaotic, atonal codas to his atmospheric songs. Intimate, thoughtful, witty, often unexpected, Matt Kivel opens at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, California, on June 23, and at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles on June 25.

Karl Blau

Since the mid-’90s, Karl Blau has been an offbeat, heartfelt and prolific voice in the Pacific Northwest. Experimental and lo-fi, he has made more than forty records, many self-released in handmade sleeves and mailed by hand to his subscribers. Then, suddenly, this spring, he has appeared in his press shots pictured against an indigo night sky wearing a white cowboy hat and suit of lights. The reason? A gorgeously recorded new album of alt-country cover versions produced by Tucker Martine (My Morning Jacket, the Decemberists). Placed, perhaps for the first time, in front of an expensive microphone in a professionally soundproofed space, his voice is revealed as a cracked and worldly instrument of great expression. The warm, rolling ten-minute version of Link Wray’s “Fallin’ Rain” is worth the admission price alone. It is destined to be one the tracks of the year. Karl Blau opens at Columbia City Theater in Seattle, Washington, on June 23.


Hailing from the Colorado Springs area, Desirae Garcia and Inaiah Lujan of in/Planes make hushed and unadorned minimal pop steeped in an early ’60s classicism. Listening to tracks such as “The Sunshine” and “Why Didn’t You?” from their debut EP of early demos feels like stumbling across a low-key Memphis or Brill Building writing session. Occasionally coy, but often touching in their gentle pathos, in/Planes open at Daniels Hall in Denver, Colorado, on June 29.



Ben Watt Band feat. Bernard Butler play:

Jun 15 DC, Rock n Roll Hotel, with Zachary Cale

Jun 16 Philadelphia, PA, World Cafe Live, no support

Jun 17 New York, NY, Mercury Lounge, with Zachary Cale

Jun 18 Boston, MA, Brighton Music Hall, with Gem Club

Jun 20 Toronto, ON, The Drake, with Nyssa

Jun 21 Chicago, IL, Lincoln Hall, with In Tall Buildings

Jun 22 Minneapolis, MN, Dakota, with Alan Sparhawk (Low)

Jun 23 San Francisco, CA, Great American Music Hall, with Matt Kivel

Jun 24 Seattle, WA, Columbia City Theater, with Karl Blau

Jun 25 Los Angeles, CA, Bootleg Theater, with Matt Kivel

Jun 26 Denver, CO, Daniels Hall (Solo), with in/PLANES

Jun 29 Indianapolis, IN, Luna Music (Solo), no support

Best known for his sixteen years as songwriter-performer-producer with Tracey Thorn in multi-million-selling alt-pop UK duo Everything But the Girl (1984-2000), London-born Ben Watt is also a prize-nominated non-fiction writer, record label boss and DJ. In 2014, he returned to his earliest folk-jazz roots as a solo singer-songwriter with the award-winning album, Hendra, his first for thirty-one years. The follow-up Fever Dream was released in April 2016. He has also written two memoirs; the first, Patient (1996), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, the most recent, Romany and Tom (2014), was long-listed for the UK’s premier non-fiction award, the Samuel Johnson Prize.

(Photo credit: Tom Sheehan)