As frontman/guitarist for Mercury Music-prize winning Gomez, Ben Ottewell knows a thing or two about songwriting. Here he talks about his new solo album, A Man Apart, and how his craft has evolved.
While indie band Gomez remain on their extended hiatus, singer and guitarist Ben Ottewell continues his highly successful solo career with a new album, A Man Apart, and a tour to promote it.
When we speak to Ottewell, he's at home in Brighton, keen to discuss his new collection of songs and the inspirations behind the album. “It really extends my love of Americana,” he begins. “It’s a very transatlantic record. It was written and recorded pretty much half here and half in the U.S.
“There are songs about responsibility, and about being a musician currently. I find that the messages in songs become clearer from a distance,” Ottewell says. “I can think about a song I wrote 18 months ago and think, ‘Ah, yeah, that’s what that is about.’ But I’ve been doing this long enough to know that a healthy amount of ambiguity helps.”
Any musician is aware of the fine line between maintaining an identifiable sound and moving forward musically, with something fresh to offer to the listener, but it’s often a difficult line to straddle, as Ottewell can testify.
“I sometimes feel as though I’m falling back on things I’ve done before,” he confesses, “but you have to remain true to your songwriting. I’m fortunate to have a voice that is instantly identifiable.”
We also wonder if, when working on his new album, Ottewell considered Gomez’s back-catalogue and how his solo stuff compares? “No, I avoid thinking like that. I never consciously try to make a different sounding record, but I think a back catalogue shows the sound of someone growing up; who's still growing up.”
“I think I’m better when I get stuck on a song,” he continues. “That was never a problem when we started with Gomez because we had so much time - we’d sit around and play guitars and songs would just come. But when I do have an idea, I’m more adaptable in terms of finding my way through it.”
This writer has lately had A Man Apart on repeat, with our favourite track being the beautifully stark Bones. It seems to be a favourite of Ottewell’s, too. “Yeah, Bones is the one for me. When we finished that song I thought, ‘Yes, I’ve got a record now. I love Back To The World as well, especially the way it came together with a 7/8 section. That reminded me of the way we used to write in Gomez, when we were looking for a way for a song to go, we’d put a 7/8 section in. There is also a kind of freedom in doing it as well.”
Musical forms are usually explored by artists listening to their musical heroes. For Ottewell, there’s one name that will always stand out. “Paul Simon,” he tells us, with little hesitation. “If you listen to the songs on his first solo album, he’s at the top of his game. It’s still one of my favourite albums.”
When it comes to guitars, we wonder if Ottewell uses the same guitars on stage and in the studio? “I tend to. I use a Gibson J45 as a standard guitar, and I’ve got a Martin 000-15S at home that I use for writing. It has a mahogany top and sides, is slightly larger than parlour size and has an open headstock. It’s a lovely guitar. I’m not really one for masses of effects, which is why I like the J45’s because they’re very straightforward guitars to tune and play.
“In my career, I can be playing to 300 people in a theatre one night and then 60 people in a pub the next, and I don’t want to be walking in with loads of tone boxes and loads of controls on the guitar. I do use a lot of different tunings, so I have two Gibsons and can alternate between them. I like the two Gibson guitars I have because they sound very similar. I love being able to get the dynamics from just my voice and an acoustic.”
As for audience expectations, Ottewell is optimistic: “I’m finding now that people are coming to see me on the back of my solo stuff, and I’m getting some nice comments about my guitar playing from people who can really play. It’s a bit intimidating coming from being an electric guitar player in an indie band to being an acoustic musician finding my way through songs, but I love it and that’s what counts.”
A Man Apart is out now through Sunday Best Recordings.