He’s beholden to the blues, and it seems, the capital. Darren Watson has done his time in Chicago, been feted in Nashville and competed in Memphis, but remains firmly rooted in Wellington. Never really known for having a political fist he almost-inadvertently landed some meaty punches in the run up to the General Election with the release of his satirically dismissive single Planet Key. For many around the country it would have been the first they’d heard of him, which perhaps gives the title of his subsequently released new album, ‘Introducing Darren Watson’, some meaning. It is, after all, his fifth solo album release, as Michael Hollywood reveals.
Darren Watson is very much a man in demand – more so than he’s ever been before – across three full decades of music making.
The night before we meet for a lunch time chat at a busy café in the heart of the capital’s ‘Cuba’ quarter, Watson played an album release party gig to a “chocka” audience at San Fran in Wellington, just up the road. The previous weekend he played Galatos in Auckland to promote his new album, ‘Introducing Darren Watson’ – his fifth solo release, and seventh full-length album effort overall.
An hour prior to our meeting, Watson was up at Radio NZ talking about the album and earlier in the week there was a feature spread in the Dominion Post. It’s been a whirlwind time for Watson since releasing THAT song, Planet Key, the one they banned amid much controversy and legal wrangling, but he’s somehow taking it all in his stride.
The current status of the song is that it’s off the air, off the charts, and off the new album. A more definitive decision on its fate is expected later in the month.
Watson’s position – and that of his lawyer, Wendy Aldred – is that the Electoral Commission’s decision to have the song (the video’s pictures were added by Jeremy Jones) banned from broadcast is heavy handed. And it fails to account for Watson’s right to freedom of expression under the NZ Bill of Rights Act. As he rightly points out, there’s not even any direct reference to John Key in the lyrics. It does seem ludicrous. Given the proliferation of ‘uncensored’ pre- and post-election music of a far less subtle political bent, I ask why he thinks his Planet Key was singled out for special treatment.
“The success of the song was the problem. It was popular, so when it became bigger, some attention got paid to it. And that was when it got banned. Which made it worse, or better, depending on how you look at it.”
Of course the extra publicity and news of the ban gave the song an even greater profile than it might otherwise have enjoyed, rendering the Electoral Commission’s efforts somewhat self-defeating.
“Yeah, for a little while there it went nuts. I’m not sure it was all good publicity. I got hate mail, and some people who had pre-ordered my CD cancelled their orders. A lot of people got upset about it.
“I mean, you just don’t know do you? People’s political beliefs or feelings are quite strong sometimes. But that’s cool. I mean, if I wanted to make a career move I don’t think a good one would be to attack the most popular Prime Minister in the history of NZ.”
Planet Key gained chart momentum and a level of commercial exposure (however brief) Watson hadn’t seen since the halcyon days of Chicago Smoke Shop’s success in the ’90s.
“I don’t measure success by that [chart position] though, I never have, otherwise I’d have given up years ago.
“Every time I do a new record my measure is – is it better than the last one? Is there something that I’ve moved on, or something that I’ve made happen. That’s why I do it. Otherwise I don’t think anyone would do it just for money. Because there is no money.”
Sales and income aside, one measure of success he must have enjoyed was taking first place in the blues section of the Nashville-based International Songwriting Competition in 2009 with his song All Going Wrong. He also placed third the following year with Can’t Get Enough Of You, and even more satisfyingly was selected to compete at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2011.
Watson has been able to embrace and use that momentum to good effect during the roll out of his latest album.
“As far as recording it goes, there were a couple of sessions at Surgery to do some rhythm tracks, and then we pretty much did the rest at my place, with Andy Downes engineering. It took a year, so we didn’t hurry it. I’m a perfectionist but I’m also learning to know when to stop, so that it’s still got some edges to it.”
“We went overseas to do some of it and ended up not using it. We ended up using a local horn section even though we had an option to use guys I know in Austin. Mainly because we got there and drank tequila instead of working,” he laughs.
“It was actually our old trumpet player from Smoke Shop who’s been living in Austin for years. He’s got a band over there called Mingo Fishtrap, and they’re doing really well. We were supposed to record with their section there but we were just having too good a time!”
‘Introducing Darren Watson’ features eight Watson compositions plus a couple of Bill Lake tunes.
“We ended up chopping about six of the tunes we recorded, we had about 16, and got it down to 10. We did I Wanna Be With You, which Midge (Marsden) has done a few times. I just wanted to rock it up a bit. And we also did Bill Lake and Arthur Baysting’s Thought I’d Seen It All. It’s a beautiful song, it really is. Last night we just stopped the room with it… it’s a NZ soul classic really.”
Watson speaks passionately about what we both loosely call the blues.
“What I’m hoping for is that it gets people away from that biker image of the music, that bogan thing, because at its best it’s way more than that. It’s as funky as any R&B or reggae band you’re gonna hear in Wellington. It’s got groove, it’s not just head banging music for oldies.
“But I don’t really think about target audience anymore. That’s what was interesting about last night – there were a lot of people my age, and older, but there were also a lot of young cats there as well. A lot of faces I hadn’t seen before.”
Now deep into his 40s, Watson has a solid reputation in the US particularly, and has often been the go-to guy for roots and blues exponents touring in this part of the world – playing supports for Robert Cray, Koko Taylor, George Thorogood and many others.
“The international acts are not coming very often these days. I’ve done a few things around the States, just some informal playing, but to work there is really difficult, with all the visa implications and stuff.
“I think you’d be surprised how different we sound compared to what’s going on in America right now. Especially because we mainly do our own songs. Most bands over there are just doing a lot of covers, and the original stuff doesn’t sound all that original. I think we sit out here in isolation and don’t realise that we’ve developed our own thing – in all the genres. Even our country bands don’t sound like other country bands.”
One difference he acknowledges from a decade ago, when he last sat down to talk to NZ Musician, is that he is now dealing with the promotional side of things a lot better. Social media has allowed Watson to do a lot of the legwork in terms of publicity and distribution.
“It’s like a little community hopefully. And I enjoy that. I meet people for the first time at gigs and it turns out I’ve been talking to them on Facebook for two years. I just hope neither of us is disappointed with the reality,” he laughs again.
That’s about the only thing remotely ‘new school’ about Darren Watson. Ultimately he’s a pioneer within a very niche old school genre. A bluesman happily fulfilling that long held genre-specific obligation to keep playing until the arthritis sets in, or at the very least until the fingers bleed.
“I think the thing we need to keep reminding ourselves of, is that every musician, even if you don’t like someone’s music, everyone who’s out there working, doing it, they deserve respect, at least. Because it’s so hard.
“The big eye-opener for me on the last couple of trips to the States is seeing guys as good as I am, if not a little better, who can’t make a living there. And if they don’t, there’s no backstop, they’re toast, they’ve got to work at McDonalds. And if they get sick, tough.
“Don’t start me on what drives people to go that step further. I don’t know. I still don’t know to this day. The sensible thing for me would have been to do that law degree… but yeah, nah, apparently not. I got the bug instead.”