“Blue thumbs and hearts, put them in a line and sniff them all up, the new cocaine without the shame.”
-Ivory Lake, “My Phone”
The embedded screams of abuse remain stationed in his memory as Josh Watts bashes sticks and hammers pedals against the plastic skin that surrounds him. A sound that was once absorbed in the womb to be rediscovered 14 years later through the pulsing rhythmic influence of Lars Urlich has now consumed his limbs as an adult. He was lost but found sanctity in applause.
Watts is all of Ivory Lake. The talented young musician composes for and creates on each instrument during production of his original material. For live shows, he has assembled a grouping from the deep talent pools England and Spain have to offer that embodies chemistry like only musicians can. His drive and the obstacles he has had to overcome have formed a budding artist in the alternative/indie pop scene.
Labels, however, are meant for industry, and occasionally the mood of the sound overpowers the meaning of the lyrics. With influences that range from the Beach Boys to Metallica, Watts has accomplished a rare blend of style that has the possibility of broadening his listeners.
“To be able to give people some kind of meaning would be an amazing place to be,” Watts said.
He has the platform to showcase his abilities and now he yearns to share meaning with new audiences. He needs to share his story to satisfy an understandably involved, somewhat damaged mind.
“They’ll never remember, they might just remember.”
Ivory Lake is a beautiful backcountry part of the Waitaha River in the west coast region of New Zealand. The water is surrounded by mountains, like an exclusive spring reward for only the most devoted of campers and hikers. It’s somewhere Watts had never heard of before, but a glowing rippling pool one evening ignited his imagination as he visualized elephant tusks stabbing the water. Capturing inspiration is part of his creative process.
With English and Jamaican heritage running through his veins, Watts spent a majority of his childhood in Crookes outside of Sheffield, England—and his father spent the majority of Watts’ childhood in prison. His mother, on the other hand, was a musician and played in a band with her sister. Treacle was an all-female melodic rock band, and Watts’ mother managed the drums and provided vocals—something that was obviously passed down.
Watts recalled, “I can always remember the sound of them rehearsing in my grandparents’ cellar. After they were finished and my mom would let me have a bash on her drum kit, that was always the best bit for me.”
That beat, that sound that resonated upward through the floorboards, whether performed on an amplifier or streamed out of speakers, wasn’t just meant to influence, but rather drown out the issues young children should never be exposed to. Watts, along with his brother and sister, were forced beyond their control to listen to the vulgar words and witness the physical assault of domestic violence.
“We could always hear what was going on. We weren’t physically abused, it was more psychological. You have to understand the effect that seeing the person you love most getting their head slammed into a flight of stairs has on a young child; it’s something I relive almost daily. I know the victim is my mother, and I can’t speak to her experience, only mine and being five years old and frozen at the top of the stairs, unable to help or move or even speak. It’s the absolute worst feeling I have ever felt and I regret not being able to help to this day, even though I know I couldn’t have if I tried.”
Though memories struggle to exit, forms of relief have the ability to enter the mind. Music has been an outlet for Watts in order to curb the anger and release his thoughts. It has reduced the pressure of recollection and given direction to simmering uncertainty.
“You expected the pain, but you didn’t expect to feel like this.”
Pain can be an enhancer when it comes to lyrical composition, but also a hindrance to expansion if not blended into the sound correctly. Another obstacle Watts has had to overcome is the fact that he is dyslexic.
During grade school, he began struggling with core subjects such as literature and math; it was frustrating to make sense of what others seemed to solve with ease. He was an outsider without an answer until being formally diagnosed at 12, a year after moving to Spain with his mother and siblings.
The relocation was needed after the violence had become too much to deal with and his struggle in the classroom were just an added obstruction at an important developmental phase of life. Just like his mother rightfully fleeing from the abuse, Watts had to address his disorder to pursue his dreams as a composer.
“It’s like there’s a jigsaw puzzle in my head but none of the pieces look like they fit,” Watts shared. “My songs still have the meta narrative, but then there might be references to 12 completely unrelated stories that only I know about in there—which I think can help open the songs to the listener’s own perspective.”
His songwriting has found a home in alternative/indie pop, which helps tremendously with a jumbled mind. The style is experimental at times, and if properly contained, albeit contradictory liberal, the blend of sound and voice has the ability to branch out from the norm without straying from structure and theory. Occasionally, a listener will be entranced by the standard poppy cadence, chord progression and major-key positive emotions and fail to process the darkness of the words. On the contrary, if revealed by the ear, the lyrics may be more accepted with a broader emotional response. It’s different than falling victim to complete sadness through minor bleak signatures and depressing stories—which there’s a time and place for when sought. In a sense, and this is by no means a professional analysis, the blend of different styles and themes is a form of stabilizing an unrelated unbalance.
Watts’ music could also be derived from a subconscious connection to his mother’s ‘90’s melodies. They both had to overcome obstacles and found hope and promise of new beginnings at the same time. In addition, music has the tendency to repeat itself every thirty years, not necessarily the sound, but the resemblance, attitude and meaning. Perhaps it’s the generational bond between parent and child that creates these era revolutions, or perhaps it’s the shared influences of adult and youth listeners under the same roof.
“You couldn’t help the ones you loved, but now you learned that love is hard.”
Watts saw his first concert when he was 14, which happened to be Metallica during their World Magnetic Tour. Metallica didn’t truly find mainstream success until the early-‘90s when Watts was exposed to not just his mother’s music, but other artists of the time.
Along with the heavy metal idols, Queensryche didn’t find mainstream success until around the same time in the late-80s—though their foundation happened in the late-70s. Their records were successful enough the decade between to keep afloat before becoming an act that still tours to this day. Yet, along with Metallica, the band found prominent radio success in the early-90s.
Ex-lead singer Geoff Tate was an important part of Queensryche’s earlier success, but has since sought solo endeavors. Enter influence and opportunity for Watts. The drummer was selected to play for Tate’s band during the singer’s 2019 tour. Watts performed over 100 shows in 26 countries in just six months.
Tate said of Watts, “He’s a talented singer and songwriter as well as an incredibly solid drummer. He’s been able to play all the Queensryche material so well, and that’s serious stuff for a drummer.”
Landing a spot on Tate’s act was vital for Watts’ exposure to not only the industry but the experience of a major tour and performance fresh into his songwriting—even before releasing any material. He was able to bond with other artists and build a strong network by relying on his personality and skill. He benefited from staying true to himself.
“Josh Watts is so easygoing and such a pleasure to work with,” Tate added. “He’s all about the music all the time.”
Through inspiration, influence and first-hand knowledge, Watts has received a better understanding of sound and structure which has led to the construction of quality songs.
“I wanted to sleep, my head wouldn’t let me, I thought about the way you see me, and why don’t you hate me.”
Though his influences could be traced back to ‘80’s and ‘90’s metal, his sound varies from the heavy distortion and monotone vocals of the high-octane genre. Yet, the deep dark lyrical themes remain. Enter inspiration. And don’t forget the underrated alternative melodies of the ‘90s and ‘00s which was found in Treacle’s sound. Though Watts has difficulty listening to songs that were meant to drown out the abuse to this day, inspiration was maintained.
Besides the connection, the words and hints of past melody, Watts has been able to use his modern influences to shape his style. Artists such as the 1975, Tame Impala, Father John Misty and Phoebe Bridgers have all served as inspirations on his path to crafting his idiosyncratic alt pop craft.
Watts explained, “Although the music I write is on the lighter side of things, a lot of my lyrics could be classified as heavy in a way. Light, fun and interesting with darker subject matter.”
There is a complex method to the madness. Humble enough to not claim expertise on any one instrument, Watts considers himself competent enough to write and play the drums, piano, guitar and bass. He’s a dedicated father to two small children, so the free gaps in the day are meant for practice and creation whenever presented. Therefore, a majority of his composition comes while alone in the dark hours of the evening. He is, however, unapologetically and undeniably himself during his practice, and also understands that in an ever-changing world, there’s always room for growth, and adaptation is necessary to survive genre and personal shifts. Change is inevitable and can affect the whole process from draft to final cut, and an artist must be open to critique and alterations that produce the best track possible.
Writing alone can only take an artist so far. Currently, Watts works with The Animal Farm records in London and producers Mat and Ville Leppanen (Alien Feelings, Alex Goupil, Seprona), and he recognizes the great contributions of the company, including maintaining an assembly to his songs when the drafts can be all over the place.
The Leppanen brothers said of Watts, “We’ve found it very motivating to work with Josh because he’s a talented, skillful and versatile musician with great work ethic. It’s always a pleasure to work with people like that.”
Watts touched on composing, “I don’t really have any structure to my writing, and my lyrics can be complicated, putting them together in my own dyslexic way. I like it that way because it leaves a little wiggle room for the listener’s interpretation, and I think in music that is a huge part of what makes people feel connected to the song.”
Ivory Lake has three songs out now and commitment to the craft can be found in each one.
“Nothing here is physical to you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was bittersweet for Watts, as it was for others. Many people suffered tremendously dealing with various forms of loss, but it also offered perspective. Watts used his unexpected free time to first spend quality time with his family, but also find himself as an artist and experiment as a songwriter, mastering his craft.
In 2021, Ivory Lake released three singles, “Pillows,” “Lazy” and “My Phone.” The debut EP features “Pillows” as the title track, and the song is a great example of what Watts is going for with his sound. Structurally, it’s fantastic. A high-octave, slow-tempo soft piano intro transitions into Watts’ indulgent melodic vocals and strumming of an acoustic guitar. The build-up is what is key here, though soft, about a minute in, the listener experiences that familiar indie pop piano chord progression found in bands like Jukebox the Ghost. The song is then in full compilation as the verse flows into the chorus.
“I’m most proud of ‘Pillows,’ Watts admitted. “It’s the song that took me the longest to write and it really came together in a beautiful way.”
Musically, the song is beautiful, but lyrically, it’s deceptive. The theme is the effect domestic violence has on children who witness the assault; it’s a very personal song to Watts. The key, tone and tempo all promote joy, but the theme of the words is dark. The listener is experiencing a moment; not the violence itself, but the mental consequence that affects others. The sound is purposely meant to soothe the situation, almost saying it will be “all right.” With the decreasing dynamics of the bridge vocals and the comforting brief guitar solo that follows, it’s like the audience is under the pillow as well. The music stands for avoidance and misdirection while the lyrics serve as a reminder that the memory is always present, with hope to primarily be dormant. The structure of the song is the in-and-out of a traumatic situation. The coda then matches that lovely intro.
“Lazy” begins with a similar cadence, now cementing part of Ivory Lake’s style. The light intro rhythm becomes the verse, and then there’s a nice pick-up in vocal and musical timbre during the pre-chorus. The transition into the chorus flows perfectly, and the additional elements during the shift out of the chorus and into the second verse are done well. The theme of the song is depression and the vicious cycle the mind gets trapped in, consuming a person with the lack of motivation. However, the tone and tempo of the music and Watts’ vocals capture the mood of attempting to lift out of the state. Yet, the character apologetically succumbs to depression though the will to rise is there, but just can’t be found. The words are the disorder; the music is the cure yet to be discovered.
The last single, “My Phone,” shows Ivory Lake’s versatility, primarily in sound and tempo. It also displays Watts’ ability to flawlessly construct a pop song. “Pillows” may be Watts’ favorite song, but “My Phone” is an absolute hit. In each part of the track’s structure, the elements provide catchiness among the subtle differences. This is a record that could be played in a variety of settings. Lyrically, it’s fantastic. The words are relevant to modern society and relationships and how technology has consumed many, and could potentially replace the most human of emotions and traits. The “happy” beat masks a different trouble, not one of personal adversity or obstacles, but rather the problems society is creating for itself.
Even though Ivory Lake has a catalog of just three songs, future releases should be greatly anticipated by listeners.
“Don’t tell me just how it ends when I don’t know where to begin.”
Watts has the ability to take Ivory Lake far in the industry. He is an excellent musician, a great songwriter, and already has major performance and touring experience serving as the drummer for Tate.
“I have listened to and enjoyed his solo material,” Tate shared about Watts. “I see nothing but success for him in the future.”
The multi-talented singer-songwriter realizes the effort that must be put toward his goals. His dedication is proven, his abilities have been showcased, but he also understands that balance is a necessity. Luckily for Watts, music also serves as a form of decompression, a relief from his anxiety.
“I have a very busy mind that often evolves into panic attacks,” Watts confessed. “So when I’m creating something, it’s the only time I can really feel my mind go quiet and go into auto pilot.”
That, and his love for exotic animals. From years spent watching Steve Irwin and David Attenborough as a child, Watts began collecting unusual species. Iguanas, tortoises, terrapins, snakes, leopard geckos, salamanders, tropical fish and tarantulas among many others were always of the utmost interest to him. Witnessing the beauty and magic of the life cycle became a side passion, a different avenue to channel his emotions and thoughts.
We all have our idiosyncrasies that lead to ascertaining some idea of significance, and whatever Watts is doing, it’s working. His overall approach to life is admirable, maintaining a warm heart though a product of a troubled past and damaged mind beyond his control, and making sure his children are never exposed to the same issues. The perseverance to overcome and find meaning in art, discovering splendor in the darkness, and recognizing that deep-seated gloom is always present have shaped his sound and personality. Watts’ life created Ivory Lake. His creation has no ceiling.
“My drive comes from self-loathing and not believing I’m good enough, it just makes me try harder and put in the hours. I can only really hope to sprinkle a little bit of who I am as a person into the genre and watch it unfold from there,” Watts said. “There is no telling where it will go but I’m excited to find out.”
He has done his best, he has tried, and listeners are rewarded for that. This is only the beginning, and we all have been given perspective to reflect upon through Ivory Lake’s music and Josh Watts’ story.