Today’s generation of aspiring young musicians often have just one choice in their pursuit of a career – to take the plunge and independently mastermind a digital cottage industry from which their songs can be discovered by a like-minded audience. That’s precisely what Oxford’s twenty-year-old singer-songwriter Lewis Watson did. After gradually building his own fan-base, his economically-produced debut EP ‘It’s Got Four Sad Songs On 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 a model that plenty of artists aspire to recreate, but few ever make any serious progress with.
“People are 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 other young singer-songwriters such as Gabrielle Aplin, Orla Gartland and Hudson Taylor as examples. “People aren’t going to talent shows; they’re breaking the mould by writing meaningful songs and getting out there through social media. There are two talents at work: creating music and promoting yourself.”
A comparative latecomer to music, Watson first started playing after receiving a guitar for his sixteenth birthday. “I’ve never had lessons,” he admits. “I just enjoyed playing guitar so much. I’d play for hours a night, and try out new things to make sure it didn’t get stale.”
In the summer of 2010, Lewis uploaded a cover of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ‘Swansea’ to YouTube (as HolyLoowis, to avoid the attention of his friends) and received enough positive feedback to create a succession of other home-filmed performances of songs by artists such as City and Colour, Ben Howard and Bon Iver. “As soon as I picked up a guitar, I was writing songs but I didn’t have the confidence to put them out there. People were requesting original songs, so I finally uploaded one [‘Sides’ in September 2010] and I got a really great response. From then on, I thought I should take my own songwriting more seriously.”
Watson’s YouTube following grew organically as he continued to mix original material with performances of his favourite songs. His stripped down take on Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ suddenly changed everything. Shortly after, his steadily accumulated 1000 subscribers had snowballed into 23,000. “It really took me by surprise because every time I logged on, I had another thousand subscribers,” he says, still almost with disbelief. “It kept going and going and going and now I’m over 45,000 subscribers. It unbelievable to think that potentially that many people are going to watch what I put up. It’s very strange.”
“After Watson played a gig supporting his former music tutor Joe Porter (producer/ songwriter at tBeat Music), Porter suggested that he could produce the young musician’s first proper material. Recorded in just three days on a very limited budget (“Joe was generous, saying he was focusing on my talent instead of money. I’m extremely thankful to him and he’s free to call in a favour whenever he 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 on his own experiences.”
“I set the songs on that EP out like a story,” he explains. “‘What About Today’ was about quite a rubbish situation where I was being used, and that was the tale of the end of a relationship; ‘Windows’ was looking back after the relationship ended; ‘Bones’ is about meeting someone new; and ‘Nothing’ is about being happy with that person.”
The success of the EP and his continuing popularity posed a fresh problem for Watson’s songwriting style. Suddenly his personal songs were being delivered to an audience of thousands. “I’d never want to write a song that wasn’t really personal to me, but at the same time it can’t be too personal,” he notes. “It’s like telling 45,000 people a secret that I didn’t want to tell anyone.” At the same time, he added an intimate touch to the release by customizing the first 1000 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 llama playing the guitar and wearing a top hat.
Within days of the EP’s release, Watson had attracted the attention of just about every 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 male solo artists as diverse as David Gray, Damien Rice and Neil Young. Recent months have found Watson holed up with a huge number of collaborating songwriters and producers including Mike Crossey (Arctic Monkeys), Richard Wilkinson (Kaiser Chiefs), Iain Archer (Jake Bugg), Kid Harpoon (Florence + The Machine) and Mr Hudson.
Watson’s collaborative work also included a trip to Australia where his EP had already charted. In between sessions, he also played a number of free guerrilla gigs which were announced just hours before via Twitter – a set at Melbourne’s Federation Square attracted over a hundred people at similarly short notice. “If that happened in my hometown I’d be completely overwhelmed, but this was on the other side of the world,” he trails off, still awestruck. “If this had been a ticketed gig with months of promo, how big could it get?”
Already, Watson is beginning to take further strides towards his glowing future. He recently played his largest gig to date when he supported Birdy at Shepherd’s Bush Empire (he calmed his nerves by seeing one of his favourite bands, Two Door Cinema Club, at the same venue the week before), while next month’s headline tour is already sold-out and prompted the addition of further dates in December. His next EP, ‘Another Four Sad Songs’, will be released in October.
Retelling almost any part of his story to date prompts Watson to observe: “…and I never thought that could happen.” By dictating his own destiny, he’ll need to suspend his disbelief for some time to come.