What is that ever-elusive x-factor that makes a good band great? Perhaps the question is essentially rhetorical; it’s like attempting to determine the precise recipe for a hit song – there are too many variables that need to be factored into the equation to provide a consistently predictable result.
Nevertheless, success in the music industry is often dependent on the uneasy relationship between persistence and coincidence. Add to the mix a little pinch of this and a little dash of that, some worthwhile songsmithing, and voila!
If stirred correctly at suitably simmering temperatures, you have Watershed. And they have the X-factor. Unquestionably. But it’s a one-off kind of thing, and they are rare indeed.
Since the time they dared to step onto the front porch of the pantheon of popular music in 2000 in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of fame, Watershed have revealed themselves to be an outfit who can produce songs that are instantly recognizable and yet utterly unique. The fact that they are South African is a source of pride to their huge local fan base, but totally beside the point. Their musical language is wonderfully universal – a fact that their latest release, Staring at the Ceiling will definitely underscore. They’ve arrived; they have been granted citizenship of our musical world. And they are first class citizens.
Craig Hinds, the band’s lead singer and primary songsmith, first revealed his enviable ability to craft enchanting material on In the Meantime (2000), produced by Brian O’Shea. The album delivered several hits, one of which was to allow them their first glimpse beyond the borders of South Africa. Indigo Girl is a hauntingly beautiful ballad with a profound introductory piano figure. It was picked up by a German disc jockey who happened to be on vacation in South Africa. The song made such an impression on him that he took a copy of the album back to his radio station and the song was playlisted. The momentum caused by the instant popularity of the song led to EMI Germany’s promotion of both the band and the album. A three-week tour of Germany followed and a repackaged version of In the Meantime was released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The stand-alone single release of Indigo Girl sold remarkably well, earning them a place in Germany’s Top Ten. It was no small feature.
Watershed like to regard themselves as a touring band. In fact, Craig Hinds attributes much of the band’s success to their relentless, grass roots touring strategy; it’s a simple matter of taking your music to the people, if music for the people is what you’re trying to make. By the time Wrapped in Stone followed in 2003, In The Meantime had been a real success story. It had gone way beyond Gold status in South Africa and one still frequently hears songs like Indigo Girl and Shine On Me on various radio stations around the country.
Also produced by Brian O’Shea, Wrapped in Stone did much to affirm Watershed’s standing as South Africa’s premier act in its genre. Exactly what that genre was, was giving rise to an interesting debate, however. Initially classified as ‘acoustic rock’, the band soon transcended so restrictive a label. Attempting to go to the source to establish how Watershed saw themselves, didn’t help much.“I guess we’re kind of piano-based rock,” Hinds mused, thoughtfully, but clearly uncertain.
In spite of these uncertainties, Wrapped in Stone proved to be a tour de force: a masterful blend of superb songwriting, impeccable musicianship and a production aesthetic that showed inspirational commitment to giving voice to the soul of the songs. There were several remarkable tracks. Lovely Day, Light of the Moon, Closing Down, and Hurricane revealed both musical depth and lyrical distinction as well as instant accessibility to anyone listening. The brass and 14-piece string section added an air of poignant sophistication. The songs on Wrapped in Stone were intimately personal and universally themed, resonating with an ever-expanding fan base.
Commented Craig Hinds: “I am very happy with the album now, I think it’s great – very well balanced and a solid album in the true sense of the word. But to be honest there were a whole load of additional songs that we could have included. The process of getting 30 songs down to the ones that landed up on the album was not easy. I believe that you can never force yourself to go and write. If I did, it would be complete panic stations. But the songs come very naturally for me and I think you can hear that on the album.”
Wrapped in Stone was launched at a concert in Nelson Mandela Square, Johannesburg, attracting well over 10 000 people. The subsequent nationwide tour was an unprecedented sell-out to huge audiences across the country. The album also won a much-coveted SAMA Award.
Invited to perform at Nelson Mandela’s inaugural 46664 concert ,held in Cape Town in 2003, with a stadium crowd of over 40 000 and a world-wide television and web cast audience of millions, they performed magnificently alongside the likes of Queen, Bono, Beyoncé, Annie Lennox and The Corrs. They were, for all intents and purposes, now an international act.
Mosaic, the third album, was released on the 10th of October 2005 in South Africa and mid 2006 in Europe. The album, once again written and composed by Craig Hinds and performed by Watershed, was produced by renowned local music guru J.B. Arthur. The work was done in Johannesburg and London, where Mark Hunter and Saul Davies from British rock group, James, came aboard to help write and produce the album’s debut single Live Another Day, as well as Monday Train. The album (Mosaic) is a collection of my own personal thoughts on love, life and pretty much everything else,” explained Hinds.
The result was an album that not only delivered a harder, more back-to-basics sound, but also deeply emotional, introspective lyrics that could only have been written by a man who knew what it was like to have been there. Close My Eyes, the fourth track on the album, was co-written by Jamie Hartman (one of the writers behind Will Young’s success). The song takes a poignant look at how relationships can be taken for granted. Hinds and Hartman also collaborated on Letters.
The songwriting on the album deals with rejection, too: Outside contemplates the frustration of not being accepted, whether it is by a love interest or just ‘the crowd’. The melody was co-written with Ali Thomson, a British based songwriter/producer who has had considerable success in both Britain and the US. Cloudy Day, one of Craig’s personal favourites from the album, was also the result of their collaboration.
Without any unnecessary polish or embellishment, and revealing a fundamental and unfettered honesty, many music critics regard Mosaic as the finest of Watershed’s three albums so far. Ironically, perhaps, Watershed’s success in Europe resulted in something of a backlash at home. The pursuit of international recognition had made them leave South African shores too readily, the complainants argued. It was their local fan base that was supposed to be their first and most important port of call, wasn’t it?
Watershed took the complaints very much to heart and decided to focus their touring in support of Mosaic on South African audiences. They were after all, Craig Hinds affably noted, a South African band. The loyalty paid off: Mosaic sold in vast numbers locally, placing the album well beyond platinum status.
All has been forgiven, and the stage is set for August 2008’s follow up… Staring at the Ceiling has certainly been a long time coming, but the album will be well worth the wait, Hinds claimed recently. While it will still subscribe to Watershed’s distinctive, organic sound, the band felt it needed to shoot for the stars and capitalize on its global fan base. “We pulled out all the stops this time around,” he enthused. “A copy of Mosaic ended up in the hands of some major talents in England and they asked if they could get involved in the production of the new album. Of course we’re first and foremost a South African band; we always will be. But opportunity knocked with that kind of talent at our disposal.”
And he really is talking major talent: members of the eclectic 1990’s rock outfit James were revisited, musicians who had worked with the likes of Amy Winehouse and George Michael lent a hand, and – in particular – producer Eliot Kennedy offered his services. Kennedy’s list of production credits reads like the Who’s Who of the international music production business – including Take That, Bryan Adams and interestingly, the Spice Girls. Watershed were also fortunate enough to once again work with Ali Thomson on some of the new tracks.
“We felt Watershed needed some special sonic tweaking if our aim is to break out beyond the borders of South Africa and get our material heard and accepted by a wider, global audience.” Constantly traveling between South Africa and Sheffield in Northern England where Kennedy is based was quite an undertaking and a very expensive one; no less so working with musicians and producers of such high calibre.
“We had absolute understanding for where Craig’s head was at and where he wants the band to go,” claimed Michal Kaczmarczyk, Product Manager – International Marketing for EMI South Africa, Watershed’s record label since they started out. “We have enormous faith in their abilities and felt it was time to put this level of financial commitment where our mouths were.”
As a teaser for the new album, the single Breathing was recently released to much critical acclaim. It clearly reveals the sonic touch of the UK’s musical magicians. “Working with Eliot and Ali proved to be a revelation,” said Hinds. “It’s all about capturing emotion; that’s how you touch people’s hearts. Their guidance was invaluable – it really kept us focused.” Breathing is simply breathtaking. Finding its own acoustic space in what is current and out there, the song shows Craig in fine voice and the band in fine form. Craig was clearly delighted with the end result.
“There’s a breathlessness that runs throughout the song,” he enthused. “But I’ve learned not to be prescriptive in terms of what my songs are about – I’d like people to figure that out for themselves.” Lost love, perhaps? Craig laughed. “Not in my case,” he said. Though hardly impenetrable, the song’s lyrics allow for wider interpretation than the first listen might suggest. Phrases point toward loss and a determination not to give up as well as a measure of obsessive affection. Breathing is both hauntingly melodic and unquestionably catchy. What about the other 11 tracks? Is Breathing representative of the whole album?
“In the sense that Staring at the Ceiling is contemplative,” Craig pointed out, somewhat evasively. “The album is about thinking and dreaming and daring to do both.” Thinking and dreaming and daring to do both is what has gotten Watershed this far; they are a great band. Now, in August 2008, Watershed stands poised to take a giant leap forward in following in the footsteps of fame.
Watershed is :
Craig Hinds - vocals, piano, acoustic guitar
Nic Rush - lead guitar, vocals
Peter Auret - drums
James Sunney - bass
Hylton Brooker - keyboards
Visit Watershed's website