The trajectories of most musicians’ careers have ups, downs and roundabouts but occasionally you’ll find polar shifts like that of Alex Watts’ journey to becoming a solo rock balladeer.
You may be familiar with his work in The Foreign Tongue, but for those big into their music trivia, Watts also knocked around the punk and ska scene playing in Dirty Sanchez and Trojan Horns. A far cry from those days, he’s now about to tour nationally his first solo EP, Sing, Strum & Strut, and is taking along one of Australia’s sassiest voices in Kira Puru to help him do it.
Like many of his generation, Watts chose to take a break overseas during his young adulthood. He spent some time in Italy making his bread teaching English, but when musical inspiration hit him he found a lack of outlets to explore – and that eventually brought him home.
“Where I was living in Naples there was no real music scene,” Watts explains. “It was just DJs in clubs or traditional Italian music, so if I actually wanted to play rock or pop music, where else would I go except back to Melbourne?
“I had a feeling like something was coming and I went home and wrote a song. That felt really good and it all just carried on from there. When I got back I got a job and at some point quit that job, which was another moment of thinking, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ It’s admitting you’re willing to take [music] seriously without full-time income. Either you wait until you think you’re going to have time to do it and things are going to align properly or you just risk it and say, ‘Fuck it.’”
Although Watts’ first musical adventures were vastly different from his now mostly acoustic brand of slow-burning rock, it seems the seeds for it were starting to take root even back in his punk days.
“I still to listen to The Clash all the time and Joe Strummer is one of my favourite musicians of all time,” he says. “Back then I was always listening to Crowded House, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan. It’s always been a part of my musical pedigree but I just got better at it. In Dirty Sanchez, the band had to convince me to sing and we actually had to audition other singers because I didn’t want to do it.”
Watts’ development continued with Alex Watts & The Foreign Tongue.
“The idea of starting a band and putting my name in front of it meant I had the versatility of being a solo artist as well as being in a band. I could do solo shows and band shows and if the band broke up I wouldn’t have to start all over again. I would have done it earlier but I just didn’t have the confidence. I thought, ‘I can’t sing like that, so I need to cover it up with all these drums and guitars.’”
Watts is unabashed in describing his music as “pop-rock”, which seems a daring move considering the genre doesn’t really have a grassroots support network to draw an audience from. While he concedes that point, he also thinks if you’re good enough then it doesn’t really matter what style you’re playing.
“People will find you if you’re visible enough and good enough but you just have to work a bit harder. When I was playing in punk bands straight out of high school and hanging around the ska scene it was cool because you could have your first gig on a lineup with a bunch of other ska bands and play to a packed-out Arthouse [in Melbourne]. If you’re a guy with a guitar singing songs it’s not the case, but you just have to find your audience and build.”
Sing, Strum & Strut out now through Astound Records. Catch him with Kira Puru, Lester The Fierce and Fanny Lumsden at Petersham Bowling Club on Sunday August 31. Also appearing with Kira Puru and Emma Swift at The Great Northern, Newcastle on Friday August 29