Best of 2020: “I’m always saying the most ridiculous things out loud, because that’s the only way they’ll ever happen,” explains Andrew Watt, the 29-year-old songwriter, guitarist and producer who has charted hit singles for the likes of Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Camila Cabello and other modern pop stars. Now, he's the newest axe man for Ozzy Osbourne, taking his place in a rarefied space alongside iconic shredders like Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee and Zakk Wylde.
As for the “ridiculous thing” he said out loud that got him here? That involves another pop icon and frequent Watt collaborator, Post Malone - who, as the story goes, was at legendary Sunset Strip hangout the Rainbow one night when, motivated by his longtime love for the Prince of Darkness, he purchased an Ozzy photograph straight off the establishment’s wall.
Recalls Watt, “When I heard that, I got this vision in my head of Post: he’s got his face tattoos, he’s got a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, and he’s walking down Sunset holding this photo. And I said, ‘How cool would it be to make a song with Post Malone and Ozzy Osbourne?’”
Not long after, Watt ran into Ozzy’s daughter, Kelly, at a party, and said as much to her. Kelly, in turn, took the pitch home to dad.
“She asked me, ‘Would you be interested in doing a song with Post Malone?’ ” recalls Ozzy, seated beside Watt on a couch at his L.A. home.
His response to his daughter?
“I said, ‘Who the fuck’s Post Malone?’”
With this, Watt lets out a big laugh. But suffice it to say, Osbourne also agreed to do the song. And the result, Take What You Want, became his first top 10 single in more than 30 years. And while Take What You Want is decidedly more Post Malone trap-pop than Ozzy-style hard rock, Watt, who produced the track, also tacked a shreddy, shit-hot solo to the outro.
Which means, Watt says, “there’s now a song with a tapping guitar solo on pop radio in 2019, which is amazing. For me as a guitar player, that’s the biggest victory I could ever have.”
Well, maybe the second biggest victory. Because not long after completing Take What You Want, Ozzy had an idea of his own: He asked Watt to help him write and record an entire album's worth of material, which became the new Ordinary Man, Osbourne’s first solo effort in a decade.
Sounds crazy? Perhaps. But before long-time Ozzy fans lose their metal-loving minds, let it be known that while Watt is something of a modern-day pop prodigy, the man can also play some mean rock guitar.
And don’t just take our word for it. For starters, check out the 2014 self-titled album from California Breed, the ridiculously rocking power trio that featured a then-very-young Watt alongside legendary Deep Purple singer/bassist Glenn Hughes and drummer Jason Bonham.
Or pick up a copy of Watt’s guitar-heavy 2015 solo EP, Ghost in My Head. Or talk to the guy and hear him wax rhapsodic about a childhood spent worshipping six-string gods like Jimmy Page, John Frusciante, Tony Iommi and, most of all, David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson.
Better yet, just listen to Ordinary Man, which is jam packed with the sort of slamming riffs (Straight to Hell, Eat Me) and shredding solos (Goodbye, All My Life) that we’ve all come to expect, if not demand, from an Ozzy Osbourne record. But make no mistake: Ordinary Man is no one-trick metal pony.
There’s also big, bold, melodic rockers (Today Is the End, Holy for Tonight) massively hooky anthems (first single Under the Graveyard Scary Little Green Men), a punky, MC5-meets-Motorhead rager (It’s a Raid) and, in the title track, a sentimental, strings-adorned ballad that is quite possibly Osbourne’s most affecting song to date.
Just how affecting is it?
“It made my sister cry,” Ozzy admits to us. “I said to her, ‘It’s not that bad!’”
That song, Ordinary Man, also features piano and vocal contributions from none other than Elton John. But he’s hardly the only star lending a hand on Ordinary Man. Watt also pulled in Slash (who solos on Straight to Hell and the title track) and Tom Morello (who adds trademark six-string squeals and scratches to Scary Little Green Men, as well as some jet-fueled riffage to It’s a Raid) and assembled the all-star band, of Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith and Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan.
The result, with Watt as producer, guitarist, key songwriter, chief motivator and, in a sense, creative caregiver (Osbourne, who had been reeling from a year of injuries and illnesses, characterizes Ordinary Man as “life-saving”), deserves to be called an all-hands-on-deck, stone-cold Ozzy classic.
And Ozzy knows it.
“People have told me this is my best album,” he says. “And working with Andrew was so great. Some producers I’ve worked with in the past have been fucking assholes. You do what they say and they crack the whip. But Andrew, he’s like a brother now. I found a friend for life.”
Watt laughs. “Ozzy always says things like that to me - how he’s made a friend for life and he’s eternally grateful. And I’m like, ‘Why are you fucking saying this to me? You’re Ozzy!’ I just feel so blessed and so lucky to have been able to make this record with him. I don’t even feel like I made it. I feel like I left my body. It’s crazy.
“So for any little kids that are out there that play guitar? Dreams do come true.”
Ozzy, you first worked with Andrew on the Post Malone song, Take What You Want. What led to the decision to then record an entire album with him?
Ozzy Osbourne: "The way I looked at it, I’d been fucked up for the last year with the surgery I had on my neck and this fucking spinal problem. I was getting down and depressed. [Osbourne spent 2019 in and out of the hospital, dealing with a potentially deadly staph infection in his hand, a flu which turned into pneumonia and complications from a fall that required spine and neck surgery; in the process he canceled several tours and suspended all musical activity. Additionally, just after this interview he went public with a diagnosis of PRKN 2, a form of Parkinson’s].
"And doing what I do - music - it’s the best tonic you can have. And for whatever reason Andrew and I got on so well. So we went from making the Post Malone song to making an album. It was off the cuff, which is always the way I like to do it, because very often when you plan something it doesn’t work out. But it came together so quickly with Andrew."
Andrew, what was your first reaction to the suggestion of doing an album together?
Andrew Watt: "Well, Kelly suggested it first, and then Sharon [Osbourne, Ozzy’s manager and wife] wanted it and Ozzy was into the idea. And I was like, “That sounds awesome… but I don’t know if I’m the guy for that.” I mean, I know my history of rock and roll and it’s what I love. But I also didn’t want to make a shitty Ozzy album! He’s my favorite music ever. So I had to think about it - not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I just didn’t know if I was capable.
"But I picked up the phone and I called Chad Smith, who’s a really good friend of mine who I make so much music with, and I was like, 'They want me to make an Ozzy album. What do you think?' And he said, 'You’re fucking doing it! You’re an amazing guitar player! What are you even thinking about? It’s Ozzy! I’m coming over!'
"He was pushing me and giving me the confidence to do it. And then I thought, We have to get a bassist - who would be the best rock bassist who’s not just a great player, but also a great songwriter? And I got in touch with Duff. And same as Chad, he said, 'When are we doing it?' So I was like, 'Fuck, OK… I guess we’re doing this!'"
How did the three of you work together as a band?
Watt: "Duff and Chad came over to my house, where I have a studio in my basement. We sat there, the three of us, and I pulled out some riffs. We started like that. Duff and Chad would help me make them better, and then Duff would start coming up with some shit, we’d move naturally to other parts, and we’d go from there.
"And the whole time we’re just listening to Sabbath and getting influenced and playing music. And in four days we made 10 songs. Like, stream of consciousness. And those are the songs on the album."
You wrote the music for the album in only four days? How does that even happen?
Watt: "I can’t give you the answer to how it happens because I truly believe some things are ordained. We’re in the studio and I’m staring at Duff from Guns N’ Roses. I’m staring at Chad from the Chili Peppers. I’m the worst one in the room and that elevates me to go to another place. And we’re all thinking about Ozzy, right? He’s the hot girl we’re trying to impress."
Ozzy, what was your reaction when you heard all of this music?
Osbourne: "You know, I just got on with it. Because when things come that quickly, you go, 'Is it really good or is it my enthusiasm?' But then you play it for somebody else and they go, 'Fucking hell - that’s great!' And the proof is in the pudding."
Watt: "It was like lightning in a bottle. From start to finish we did the whole thing in a month. After we did the music, Ozzy and I wrote lyrics together, and then he sat in a chair in my studio and sang on a mic. I sat right next to him counting him in. That was it."
Osbourne: "But his fucking studio is downstairs, and for a long time I couldn’t even walk. I was thinking, I’m going to go there one day and fucking land at the bottom! But every day I’d go to the studio and I’d come home with a new song. And Sharon would ask, “What are you guys doing down there?”
"But you know, I’m just a singer. I don’t play an instrument. I feel music. I have the melody in my head. And I came with melodies and we bounced off each other, and that’s the way to do it.
"I’m not always right but I’m not always wrong. Neither is Andrew. So the best ideas got through."
Andrew, someone in your position wouldn’t be blamed for just writing a bunch of heavy riffs, playing some shredding solos and then just calling it a day. But you managed to do something more expansive, while at the same time including a lot of key “Ozzy-isms,” for lack of a better word, in the songs.
Watt: "Well, one thing that’s cool about Ozzy is that because he doesn’t play instruments, it gave us a certain freedom. We could go anywhere with the music. And he knows his way around a melody. He’s touched by something. You know, in a song like Ordinary Man, there’s a lot of switching from major to minor. He grabbed onto that and his voice just kind of floats above it.
"But I remember on the day before I first got together with Duff and Chad, I was listening to all my favorite stuff - all the Sabbath albums, all my favorite Ozzy albums, all those songs that I love and asking myself, 'What makes them great?'
"I made little notes in my head: Why does everyone love War Pigs, besides the amazing riff? It’s because you’ve got Ozzy singing in the holes. [sings] Generals gathered in their masses. Nothing but the vocal… and then, bam!, a riff. So we’re coming up with the music for Straight to Hell and I go, 'We need a hole, and Ozzy has to sing in the holes. People will love that.'"
That song also starts off with a classic Ozzy phrase.
Watt: "Right. I’m like, “Okay, Ozzy Osborne is making an album for the first time in 10 years. The first fucking thing I want people to hear is, ‘All right now!’. That’s Sweet Leaf. You hear that and you’re in. And then a song like All My Life, I love the sound of Ozzy singing really melodic in front of the 12-string, like on Mama, I’m Coming Home.
"So we tried something like that. Basically, my whole time making this album, I’m 12 years old. What do I want as a rock fan from Duff, from Chad, from Ozzy? What do I want to hear? What are fans going to want to hear? And that was kind of the idea behind it.
Osbourne: "The music was there, and the melodies just came. Scary Little Green Men, that came into a song in an hour. So did It’s a Raid. It’s great when that happens."
To put it bluntly, Ozzy is known for having hot-shit shredders in his band. Was that a lot of pressure to have on your head when it came to laying down solos?
Watt: "I tried to not think about that at all, because that can be your worst enemy. But you know, we’d write the songs and I’d be like, 'Who do you want to play the guitar solo on this?' Because I want to be precious to him and his fans. And Ozzy would say, 'You’re playing the fucking solo!'"
Osbourne: "He’s a great guitar player! And what I admire about Andrew is, in that space for the solo, a lot of people would just shred through it. I mean, we all saw the wheedle wheedle wheedle thing in the fucking '80s. Every fucking hair band was wheedle wheedle wheedle. On everything. And you go, 'Oh, for fuck’s sake!'
"But Andrew thought melodically. He would start with the melody, and then he would go off, and then he would come back to it. He’s got a flair. And it’s tastier when someone can complement what I’m singing. I mean, Zakk Wylde, he’s fucking insane, he’s great. But so is Andrew. And Zakk’s heard a couple tracks. My drummer Tommy [touring drummer Tommy Clufetos] has heard it. He said, “I love this stuff. It’s great.” They understand."
Watt: "Zakk was so supportive. Everyone’s been so supportive. We worked so quickly and I just did my best. And Ozzy gave me the confidence to play these solos - there’s a reason why he’s had all these legendary guitar players in his band. We’d write the song and then he’d say, 'I want you to play this solo with a bottleneck.'
"So in Goodbye, there’s four different solos on the song. He was like, 'Do this part this way, and then try this.' He knew exactly what he wanted and he was able to help me pick what to do."
How did you go about constructing your solos?
Watt: "In general, I like to have the solo quote the vocal melody or the phrasing. So I didn’t do any of the guitar solos until the end - I don’t ever put a guitar solo on a song before the vocals are there. Because you want to be able to pull from melodies of the vocal and then make the guitar solo a step up.
"But I approached the guitar solos the exact same way I approach songwriting. When I’m writing a song, I try to always make sure that the verse has a certain note range and the pre-chorus has a different note range, and we don’t ever touch the chorus high note in any of the sections that precede it.
"That way the chorus soars and it’s a different thing. It’s like that with solos. To me, the guitar solo is like a bridge, and I made sure we were either quoting notes that were there, so it’s familiar to the ear, or touching on notes that weren’t there before and it’s building.
"For instance, the solo in All My Life is one of my favorites, because it has a theme. It does a thing and it repeats itself and goes back. And Slash’s solo on Ordinary Man quotes Ozzy’s vocal, which I think is really important. And then he put all his Slash-isms and stuff around that."
What was it like working with guitarists like Slash and Tom Morello, not to mention musicians like Duff and Chad? How do you direct them as a producer in order to get what you need?
Osbourne: "See, with Andrew… [Pause] He goes, 'Well, I can’t tell Slash what to play.' I said, 'Fucking tell him what you want him to play! You’re Andrew Watt!'"
Watt: "[Laughs] Well, I always start by letting someone do their thing and get it out. So that they don’t feel stifled. What are the things that make Slash the best? What are the things that make Chad Smith the best? I mean, it’s just my tastes and my opinions of what I think are those things. But I tried to get those things out of them, and then we collaborated."
Osbourne: "Andrew’s a fucking producer. I mean, with the vocals, I didn’t have to sing much. When I did the Black Sabbath album with Rick Rubin [2013’s 13], and this is no disrespect to Rick Rubin - I love him to death. But he goes, 'One more time. One more time.' And you go, 'How many fucking times…?'"
Watt: "The way I always like to record, and Ozzy likes it, too, is that there’s no control room/live room situation. We’re sitting in the room just like we’re sitting on this couch. He’s got a mic in front of him. We’re both on headphones. I’m sitting right next to him. We just finished writing a lyric, and the second it’s done we record it. So the emotion is fresh. It’s raw. And Ozzy, he does one take and it’s fucking perfect.
"It’s just like, 'Okay, he did the take, double it. Next line.' It was all very quick, because he was just bringing it. And he came up with the coolest concepts for the songs. We’re playing a piece of music and he drew a picture of an alien. He said, 'We’re going to write this song about scary little green men.' Who else could sing 'scary little green men,' and turn it into a melody?"
Osbourne: "You’ve got to have fun, man. And with Andrew we were just having a jam. My sister said, 'This album’s the best album yet.' And I go, 'That’s because I enjoyed making it!'"
I think a lot of fans were wondering if we’d ever hear any new Ozzy album at all.
Osbourne: "And the whole thing was an accident. I didn’t plan on doing an album - I was in the middle of my farewell tour! And then I got that staph infection in my fucking finger. That was one. Combat that with pneumonia. I said, 'What the fuck?' But working with Andrew, it got me going. I was lying on my back for a fucking year. I’d been in so much fucking pain. This was the best medication to get me back in the game."
Ozzy, it seems to me a connection can be made between the effect Randy Rhoads had on you when he came into your life and what is happening now with Andrew. Just in the sense that, when you met Randy, you were at a distress point both health-wise and career-wise, and he helped you turn that around. Likewise, prior to meeting Andrew, you were dealing with so many medical issues, and while your career has been strong for decades, increasingly strong, you hadn’t made any new music in a long time. But Andrew has clearly had a huge impact on you personally and creatively.
Osbourne: "When I met Randy and when I met Andrew… sometimes fate is the fucking greatest thing in the world. And I’m a believer in fate. When you think of how many people are in the world and you only meet a handful of the population, certain things are meant to happen.
"I was lying on the couch, I felt like shit. I was in pain and couldn’t fucking move. So your emotion dies. And when Kelly came in and said, 'Do you want to do the Post Malone thing?' I said, 'Fucking great. I don’t know who he is but I’ll do it.'
"And if I hadn’t done it I would have never met Andrew. It’s like a fucking higher power, if there is one, has put him in my life. And we had so much fun making the album. We’re going to do another one soon. And not five years from now - like, now.
Andrew, are you in?
Watt: "Absolutely. Till he doesn’t wanna do it anymore, I’m making Ozzy Osbourne records. Sign me up!"
Osbourne: "It’s like a surfer. You’re waiting for that fucking wave, and you finally get it and you go, 'It’s bigger and better than I even thought.' There’s records that I go, 'Fuck, that wasn’t a good time.' But we didn’t have that with this one. With every track we had a giggle and a laugh… And that’s the way I want to make music."