With a chart-topping new album, Too Many Millionaires, and a recently sold out national tour, Darren Watson is living proof that, at least when you're playing the blues, everything gets better with age.
Congrats on the record – you stripped things back for this one what brought that on?
Thanks Greg! I've been playing mostly acoustic gigs since about 2013 and folks at the end of shows would come up to us and inevitably ask which album was acoustic, like the show they just saw. Frankly, it got embarrassing saying "well, this one has one or two acoustic numbers on it". Basically I finally got embarrassed enough to do something about it. So we set up a crowd-funding page and raised the dollars to get it made and pressed to vinyl. And I'm really proud of it. Might be the best thing I've done so far? Certainly that's how I feel about it.
How hard is it being a musician in NZ?
Oh man. It's almost impossible I reckon. You have to do a bit of everything to make ends meet — so I teach a lot, and play only the gigs I want to. Mentally it's really tough and it seems to just get harder as you get older. The rewards are few and far between and the bleak spots are numerous. I'm really glad my daughter showed no signs of following in my footsteps. I really am. There aren't many in New Zealand who make a living from playing original music. Funnily enough though, there is a whole industry built up around it.
What brought you to the blues in the first place?
A desire to be unpopular? Ha ha, I really don't know apart from it being the first music that struck me 'spiritually' in the gut. I have no idea why some kid from Waiwhetu got so excited about music from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. But, you know, Muddy Waters is still cooler than Simon Le Bon will ever be.
Muddy Waters is still cooler than Simon Le Bon will ever be.
Biggest compliment you've had from a fellow musician ...
I was sound-checking at a gig opening for Joe Cocker about 10 years ago. I checked my vocal monitor by doing a few bars of my tune All Going Wrong with the band. Joe's keyboard player (Mike Finnegan, now with Bonnie Raitt) came running on stage, hugged me and started raving about how soulful my singing was and stuff, which I figured he didn't do every day. That was pretty flattering coming from a dude with chops and experience like that. You know, he played on Hendrix's Electric Ladyland and I knew his work from Taj Mahal's Phantom Blues Band. It's nice when someone at that level has a few kind words to say about you, I reckon. Helps to remember shit like that when you're in one of those 'I'm deluding myself' funks that happens to me and I know a lot of my fellow creative souls.
Favourite blues album ...
Wow, that's a bit tough. There are so many different kinds of blues. But I guess if I had to pick one it would have to be BB King's Live At The Regal. A great singer and guitarist captured live at the absolute apogee of his power in front of an all-African-American audience who were allowed to holler but the Regal had rules about no dancing. It really is an astounding document. BB was 38 years old, a superstar of the blues but still yet to 'make it' with white audiences. Thirty-eight, man!
Favourite blues guitarist – and why ...
Equally unfair question. And you probably think I'm gonna say BB King? And I love him and the other Kings too, of course. But I fell in love early on with Earl Hooker. A Chicago session guy who played some of the best slide guitar ever put on wax. Not a singer, like most other blues guitar heroes. Just an amazing, expressive guitar player. Not really star material.
There's a political punch to many of your songs — can a song truly effect change?
Maybe not on a broad, societal level but in a person's heart? I think so. I think 'political punch' is present in many songs that are not explicitly or overtly political too. Otis Redding's Respect was written about male/female relationships but in Aretha's version it becomes as much about race and civil rights as a sassy man/woman thing.
I sense a lot of other influences in your music — country, rnb, soul…
Oh, hell yes! I'm just a sucker for music that speaks the truth. Be it to power, or just your lover.
You teach guitar also — does that feed into your writing?
Any time I pick up a guitar feeds into my writing. I constantly find stuff out about my own playing that I'd been unaware of until showing it to a student. I'm really blessed to have a bunch of deeply committed students in Wellington and around the planet.
What's next for you?
Right now I'm having a breather after 12 months of getting the album and tour into the realm of the achieved. I'm quite exhausted. I'm thinking about recording an album of my 'greatest hit' (Midge Marsden's singular contribution to how I think about these things!) The best of my back catalogue recorded in the same manner as Too Many Millionaires. We played a few of the old tunes on the tour and they sounded even better than the original versions to me. I reckon that'd be a blast. Then again I have a bunch of new electric-based songs that might need finishing before I do that ...