LEWIS Watson is a star – a huge star in fact, with a keen fanbase all around the world.

Yet bizarrely, the softly-spoken, quietly intelligent singer-songwriter is probably better known in New York or Melbourne than his hometown of Oxford.

One of our city’s less-trumpeted success stories, the former Kidlington lad, who made his name partly at local open mic nights, but more significantly on YouTube, went seamlessly from playing pub back rooms to arenas – performing at Sydney Opera House three nights in a row.

Now, after taking a bit of time to craft a second album and chill his boots, he is back – and heading back for a hometown show.

But because Lewis does not do things the predictable way, you won’t find him on the listings for the O2 Academy or New Theatre – but in a tent.

“I am coming back to play a marquee at Magdalen College School,” he laughs. “I am unsure why they chose me. I certainly didn’t study there and the only time I’ve been was for a county cricket trial when I was 12 – so maybe they liked my leg-break bowling!”

The 25-year-old alumnus of Bicester Community College who, until a year ago lived in Kidlington, will headline Oxford Festival of the Arts, the multi-venue fiesta of theatre, spoken word, art, comedy and music organised by Magdalen College School – and which is centred on a marquee plonked on its pristine lawns. For Lewis it is a timely homecoming.

“The reason I’m gigging at all, and not just playing in my bedroom to a laptop, is because of an arts festival I was persuaded to play at Brasenose a few years ago.

“My parents forced me, kicking and screaming, to do it, and it gave me the lift I needed. So when this offer came round it was unexpected but welcome. It’s a pleasure to come full circle.”

Lewis began dabbling in music when he received a guitar for his 16th birthday, teaching himself to play it.

Quick to realise the potential of the internet in getting his music to a wide audience, he uploaded a video of himself covering a Bombay Bicycle Club tune, using the name ‘HolyLoowis’ to escape the scrutiny of his mates.

Other songs followed and a couple of years later, in 2012, he released his self-explanatory debut EP It’s got four sad songs on it BTW.

In the process he set out his stall as a purveyor of heart-wrenching music – most about girl troubles.

Fans included Warner Bros, who signed him up and released his second EP, the equally Ronseal-like Another Four Sad Songs.

He went on to tour Australia with Birdy, racked up festivals, supported Benjamin Francis Leftwich and released further EPs of his own tunes and covers.

But it was his debut album, 2014’s The Morning which propelled him into the big time.

Fearing burn-out, he stepped out of the limelight and concentrated on writing his richly-textured, heavier-sounding follow-up, Midnight.

The album released last year with indie label Cooking Vinyl, features the grand Deep The Water, the melancholy Forever, and a duet with Lucy Rose, Slumber.

Now living in London, he is working on his third long-player.

The Oxford Times:

“I’ve been writing almost every day, locking myself away,” he says. “The only shows I’m doing this year are this one in Oxford and two in London – so this is definitely the time to come and see me.”

He goes on: “I played 150 gigs last year and spent a lot of time on the road.

“I toured the hell out of the second album and while I was glad to do it, it got a hold on me and I needed to cool my heels and write as unfortunately I don’t have the talent of being able to write on the road.

“I need to be in a familiar place with a bottle of wine to be able to write about my sad feelings,” he laughs.

“I wanted to get off the road and give everyone a break and write my third album – striking while the iron’s hot.”

He pauses thoughtfully and adds: “I hope people don’t get sick of waiting and take their loyalties elsewhere.

“It could be tough to build it up from the ground again.”

He lists his career highlights so far as touring the US and Australia, and, more bizarrely, supporting Coldplay at a record label party in a village pub in Somerset.

“I got very lucky,” he admits. “My stars aligned. But I have paid my dues. I did the open mic circuit for months, playing the Half Moon, Cape of Good Hope, Port Mahon and Far From the Madding Crowd, building up a small, humble local following.

“But I was also focusing my attention online and playing on the world stage and applied myself to that. It was the best worlds.”

He was helped by the expertise of his lecturers on his Music Technology course at Abingdon and Witney College, which he credits with equipping him with the intellectual tools of his trade.

“It saw me go from playing to 50 to 100 people in Oxford to touring Europe and Australia and playing Sydney Opera House.

“Everybody needs a bit of luck!”

And he is keen to retain his local connections.

The Oxford Times:

“My roots are in Oxford so whenever we tour, I almost always play here – sometimes against the wishes of management,” he grins. “It’s a chance to see family and people I went to school with. I never want to lose touch with my hometown. That’s the appeal of this show – regardless of the opportunity to headline a festival.”

Now happily settled with his girlfriend Sophie, isn’t he in danger of losing inspiration for his trademark sad songs? “I’ve experienced my fair share of sadness,” he says.

“To dip into those bad things and make music is a valuable skill I’ve had to learn.

“But I am sounding more optimistic and people wanted that.

“They are probably feeling a bit eroded by my sadness – and I never want people to get sick of what I write.

“I still find it incredibly exciting to be able to hop over to Europe and play songs I wrote in my bedroom, to thousands of people” he says.

“And I just want to be able to do that for as long as possible.

Hear him

  • Lewis Watson plays Oxford Festival of the Arts next Friday, June 29, in the Festival Marquee at Magdalen College School.
  • Tickets £10 from artsfestivaloxford.org