Originally published in The Irish Times, June 10th 2011.
THE CRY of the wolf is a lonely howl, a shriek that pierces the night sky and sends small animals scurrying under the nearest rock. Patrick Wolf, however, is an entirely different proposition. Although the singer is lithe and gangly-limbed, the comparisons end there. Big Bad Wolf? Not with this shy grin and cheery demeanour.
Life is good for the Londoner right now; things have changed personally and professionally over the past few years. Having spent the early part of his career being categorised as some sort of oddball folkie, 2007’s kaleidoscopic pop record The Magic Position installed him as a musician with a vivid imagination and the skills and smarts to turn those ideas into engaging albums.
Then came 2009’s The Bachelor , which featured contributions from Tilda Swinton, Matthew Herbert and Eliza Carthy, and which was funded by fan donations via the now-defunct Bandstocks platform. The money raised through the website was supposed to finance two albums, but the strain of being his own boss took its toll on the 27-year-old’s creativity. He eventually signed to Mercury for his fifth and latest album, Lupercalia , although he retained a degree of control by self-producing and releasing it through his own subsidiary, Hideout Records.
“I’m so proud of The Bachelor , but one of the pitfalls was that [Bandstocks] really eclipsed the work that was actually made from it,” he nods, folding his lanky limbs into a comfortable position while nursing an orange juice backstage at Dublin’s Sugar Club. “Eight out of 10 interviews talked about Bandstocks and the business model, and I just really wanted to talk about the record. I learnt a lot from it, but I did feel like my head was filled up with too many facts and figures, really, and it was taking over. I wanted to be back in that safe space of not being a businessman, so it was important to sign again.”
The subsequent reduction in his stress levels has made the resultant album a bright collection of love-themed pop tunes with folk and electronica undercurrents, yet it wasn’t always planned that way.
Beginning life as The Conqueror , a companion piece to its predecessor, the majority of the tracks originally earmarked for inclusion were ultimately discarded.
“Originally, I went to LA and started doing some work with a dance producer, and when I was driving back from the studio and hearing what was on the radio at that time – all the AutoTuned stuff and dance-club music – I felt like I just didn’t want to be part of that,” he says. “On the other hand, I had all of these beautiful orchestral arrangements, and I just thought it was maybe braver to be focusing on the orchestra and the human parts of the production. So I did a whole 180-degree turn and sacrificed about 10 songs.”
Although he’s never had what you might call a “hit”, Wolf’s new tunes are already outperforming his previous material, with singles The City and Time of Your Life picking up significant airplay on UK radio stations. It’s emblematic of the album’s buoyant mood, although “creating a hit” is a concept that does not compute with the fiercely independent-minded songwriter, who claims that his records just seem to “find their own life and make their own way in the world.” Heck, so uplifting are some of these songs that there’s even generous usage of saxophone on some of them. Explain yourself, Mr Wolf.
“One thing that I’ve not really talked about it that my dad is a saxophonist, and he did the original demo on The City ,” he laughs. “I wanted to choose a brave instrument for it; something that you have to play with all your lungs, almost like a shout. In a way, it’s a bit of a nod to my dad for all his support.”
Family is something that informs much of Lupercalia’s lyrical content, too. Contrary to rumours, the singer was born in London, not Cork, although his maternal family, the O’Donovans, hail from Clonakilty and many of his childhood summers were spent there. There are several nods to his Irish roots dotted throughout the album – a “top of the morning” here, a “Father England, Mother Ireland” there – while he speaks of a desire to research a story about his grandfather and Michael Collins and jokingly suggests a concept album based around it.
“I think a lot of my creative side comes from my grandparents, and the storytelling – all those stories you just hear again and again, seven days a week,” he smiles. “And there’s having that WB Yeats thing of another life, too – being in England, but your heritage and everything people talk about is Ireland. That made a really exciting dichotomy for me as a writer. It’s an English blood, Irish heart kind of thing.”
Apart from parental lineage, there’s also the small matter of domestic bliss. Wolf became engaged to his partner William (the subject of the song of the same title) last Christmas, and their relationship is one of the reasonsLupercalia is the “bright daylight” to The Bachelor’s nocturnal mood. Songs such as the gentle folk of The Future and the disco synth sweep of Together , both underpinned by his distinctive quivering croon, are especially sweet.
“The last album was asking existential questions about myself, whereas this one is knowing myself more. I’m over always being the Little Boy Lost at this point. I don’t want to be stuck in that place mentally any more, and now I feel like I can take more responsibility for my emotions, in a way. I think it’s down to somebody coming into your life and saying, ‘Look, you’re worth more than what you tell yourself.’ So you make these changes for that other person, because you want to make them happy and proud of you. I went to therapy for a while, to understand a bit more about my life and the things that have changed mentally, and I could start to see the wood for the trees a bit more in my life. And that definitely influenced the writing.”
As with any non-heterosexual public figure (Wolf once proclaimed his sexuality to be “kind of liberal”), however, there’s also the matter of being classified by your sexuality.
“It’s only since the third album that people thought I was old enough to not be embarrassed to answer those questions. I think when I was younger and doing my first interviews, the last thing you ask an 18-year-old is about their private life or their sexuality. So later on when it started to happen, what I found quite strange was that suddenly all these prefixes came along in the press. It wasn’t just ‘Patrick Wolf’, it was ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ – and then if they didn’t want to say ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’, they’d say ‘flamboyant’, or ‘camp musician’. I’d think ‘Well, are you just resting on the stereotype of what you think a gay man is?’ I’ve been confused by it a lot of the time, but it’s water off a duck’s back, really.
“I can’t get upset by it. You know, a lot of people that I really admire get it. PJ Harvey and Björk, two of my favourite musicians, still, at this point – after everything Björk has achieved in her life as a writer, and the respect that she commands – 90 per cent of the press label her as ‘crazy’ or ‘quirky’ or ‘bonkers’, while PJ Harvey gets ‘screaming banshee madwoman witch lady’,” he laughs.
“And the things people say about Kate Bush before they talk about her production or her lyrics . . . but if you’re a fan of those people, you don’t pay attention to that. I take it in my stride, really. People will think what they think, and as long as the right people hear my work, then I’m happy.”