Kerri Watt discusses the influence of Van Morrison and Sheryl Crow and how female artists still need to work extra hard to breakthrough
It is not very often that an artist who has just released their debut album has a sufficiently developed backstory to warrant a full interview with AUK. Scottish americana singer-songwriter Kerri Watt is an artist who proves to be an exception. While ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ maybe her debut album she has had quite a lot of life and performance experience since she was a 16-year-old performing arts student in California. She has built an impressive live reputation appearing at Glastonbury, Celtic Connections and AMAUK AmericanaFest UK Showcase. ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ was recorded in 2018 in Austin, Texas, and mixes Kerri Watt’s americana singer-songwriter style with the sound of producer Machine. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Kerri West to discuss her new album, the creative benefits of experiencing life before recording your debut album, recording her vocals wearing a bass backpack and why Austin was a great place to record.
How are you, I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID?
I’m well thanks. It’s been a struggle for everybody in all different ways but I’m healthy and so are my family and that’s all that matters.
You recorded ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ in 2018. Why is now the time to release it?
The record was supposed to come out in 2020 but for obvious reasons, we pushed it back. Before that, I had wanted to ease my audience into the sound I’d been developing rather than give them the full album all at once so I spent 2019 sharing glimpses of what I’d been up to in the form of singles. This past year while at home has been a really nice time to connect with my audience on a more personal level and get to know them through social media while live shows have been off the table so it just feels like the right moment for them and me.
You are 10 years or so into your career, and this is your debut album. What are the particular lessons and experiences that have most influenced your debut album ‘Neptune’s Daughter’?
Like anyone navigating their 20’s, I’ve learnt about life, love, heartbreak, loss, fear and joy and been grateful to be able to express some of that through music. In ‘I Wanna Sing For You’ the final track of the album I sing to my Grandmother and my Auntie, both of who I lost unexpectedly while writing for the record. In tracks like ‘Hellfire’ and ‘Cut Me Loose’ you hear me sing about the struggles of relationships, not only romantic ones but also those of my experience with the music industry. One of the most important tracks on the album is ‘Chasing Aeroplanes’ which ponders my future as a woman starting a family while building her career.
You recorded the album in Austin but you seem to have included a wide range of sounds on the album. Austin is still synonymous with americana but it also has a thriving music scene that goes beyond americana. What drew you to record your debut album there?
One of my favourite artists is from Austin, David Ramirez. I had the opportunity to tour with him a few years ago and after that, was always drawn to checking out the scene over there. When I got hooked up with my producer Machine and found out his barn studio was in Austin, it felt like fate so that had to be the place. When I went out there to make the record I didn’t have in my mind that it would be americana or country or alt-rock or any of the other genres that it’s been described as. I simply wanted to make great music inspired by sounds and visuals that had informed my songwriting. That’s everything from the Doobie Brothers to Sheryl Crow to the Eagles, Rolling Stones plus movies like ‘Dazed & Confused’ and ‘Thelma & Louise’. For me music is so much more than sounds, it’s a landscape from which to create an experience and I hope that’s what my listeners get from this record.
How helpful has the Scottish americana tag been to your career?
I mean, people seem to love the Scots! So it can’t hurt. I never tire of talking about Scotland and people are often interested to hear how I ended up with such an American sound in my music. But then I tell them how I spent my teens going to high school in Southern California and it starts to make sense.
How did you go about recording the tracks with Machine? What was the creative process in the studio and was there ever any moments of tension?
Machine and I did a few Google Hangouts before I went out there and really got on a level with each other. We shared everything from playlists to favourite movies, hobbies and I even sent him some Pinterest boards I made so he knew how I literally ‘envisioned’ the album. Once I got out there, we’d sit each day going through the tracks and sharing our exciting ideas for them. I would play the songs acoustically to our incredible session players and we would start building a shape for each track. We’d have a few rehearsals and then hit record. Almost all the takes of the band are live on the record and I think the great vibe of the room comes across in the music. Final vocals were recorded after we had the parts down and it was always a laugh with Machine trying out quirky ideas. Truthfully I don’t think I’ve ever felt less tense than those five weeks. Working with Machine and those players was one of the most inspiring, chilled out and fun times of my life.
How did you go about selecting which songs to record for your debut album and were any written during the recording sessions?
When I went to Austin, I’d whittled my long list of songs down to 15 and from there we had to get it down to 12. Once we started playing with different sounds, it became quite obvious which 3 didn’t fit with the feel of the album. So we let them go and focused on the 12 that sounded great together. The only thing I wrote while I was out there was the middle 8 for ‘Hellfire’. I didn’t have one and every time we got to the end of Chorus 2 with the players, it felt like the song still had somewhere left to go. The pianist tried out some chords and I improvised a melody over the top. I tightened up the lyrics before going to bed that night but otherwise, that middle section is pretty much exactly how we played it that first time.
You were pushing yourself during the recording process, were there any brave attempts that ended in disaster?
No disaster thankfully though I did wake up to my car full of red ants once which was terrifying and every night I had to battle scorpions that had congregated around the door handle! One of my favourite memories of recording vocals with Machine was when he gave me this bass backpack that he got sent as a gift. Basically, you put on this tight backpack that plugs into the system and the bass part literally pumps through your body. Apparently, DJ’s use them on stage so they can kind of feel the pulse of the audience. It was awesome and I ended up wearing it to record vocals on most of the tracks!
Who played on the album and what did you learn from working with Austin-based musicians?
On the album, there’s me, Julian Garguilo, Allen Golden Jr, Jared G Wilson & Zach Landreneau. Jared and Zach were in a band together that I loved! (Blue Water Highway) so they already shared a deep musical connection. Throw Allen in the mix who plays with Jared at their church and we had a solid rhythm section. Julian was the engineer on the project and I didn’t know when I first went out there that he was also a killer guitarist. As soon as I heard him noodling, I told Machine he’s our guy! I learnt a lot about collaboration from those guys. They knew how to take each other’s ideas and translate them onto their own instrument while totally complimenting the other. There was a day when Allen and Jared weren’t available so we pulled in a couple of other players Jonas Wilson and Mark Henne who played on ‘Kissing Fools’ which is actually one of my favourites. And finally, my brother Fraser Watt provided all the backing vocals! He also produced all the acoustic tracks on the extended version of the album. Having him involved was so much fun.
Do you think you can be successful enough in the UK to sustain a long term career or are you making plans to build your career in America?
It’s impossible to know what music is going to take off. All I know is I’ve made music from the heart that I hope will connect with the people who hear it, wherever they may be, and as for where it goes from there who knows? I can tell you that I’ve worked in the entertainment business since I was a kid, long before I started writing songs, and it’s not something I plan to give up any time soon!
An unfair question, but is there one track on ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ that you are most proud of and is the best representation of Kerri Watt the artist?
The album is being released by Cooking Vinyl, did they fund the Austin sessions or did you simply take the completed album to them? Has having a record deal made this year easier for you than if you had been an independent artist?
I recorded the album before I was introduced to the label and had originally planned to self-release it. When they got wind of the record and offered to be a part of it, that was super exciting. It’s certainly been helpful to have them set up releases and put together the album campaign. As for this past year, as an artist, it is what you make it. No label or manager is going to write the songs or play the live streams for you. So I think it’s been tough for every artist to power through, stay inspired and keep engaging with an audience you know you won’t get to play live in front of for a very long time.
As a songwriter and musician who have been your biggest influences that have stayed with you?
Van Morrison and Sheryl Crow are the two most notable. I grew up listening to Sheryl Crow and just loved how carefree and breezy her music made me feel. Paired with great and quirky lyrics, I just thought she was the coolest. I remember the first time I saw her live just thinking wow. Such a killer performer and musician. Van the man is really the ultimate when it comes to creating a landscape with his music. The feeling of hearing ‘Astral Weeks’ for the first time ever from start to finish has stuck with me for years and is still my go-to every time I need to escape life for a while.
2020 has been a tough year for all musicians, but it seems that female artists were particularly successful during the year. I’m thinking of Emily Barker, Emma Swift and Diana Jones. Do you think that the climate is changing for female artists and that it is becoming easier to win acceptance for your music?
The climate has been slowly changing in the last few years but female artists do still have to work extra hard to be included. Playlists for example are so male-heavy, in every genre, on every platform. What I love about the community of female artists at the moment is how supportive they are of each other. We are all trying to make our way and I see so much encouragement and collaboration among artists in the trans community too.
What do you hope to be doing in 2021?
I have my fingers crossed for a safe return to live music at some point in 2021 and my first headline tour. The exciting thing about music is you never know what opportunities are going to arise. For example, 18 months after its release, my song ‘Cut Me Loose’ has just been synced with the video game ‘Call of Duty’ and suddenly I have a whole load of new gamer fans. I’m also working on a musical that I hope will come to fruition in 2021 and I’m getting married.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which three artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
Lucia & The Best Boys.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I’m wishing you a positive and healthy 2021 and hope to see you on the road soon.
Kerri Watt’s ‘Neptune’s Daughter is available now on Cooking Vinyl