Artist Interviews

Q&A: Patrick Wolf

By | Published on Wednesday 3 April 2013

Patrick Wolf

Marking a decade since his first EP release, Patrick Wolf last year recorded new acoustic versions of a selection of songs from his back catalogue. Split into two halves, ‘Sundark & Riverlight’ explores both Wolf’s darker material and his more hopeful work.

Having toured with a show based on the acoustic reworkings of his songs, Wolf returns to London this Saturday to perform at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London’s Southbank Centre.

Ahead of the show, CMU’s Andy Malt caught up with Patrick to find out more about ‘Sundark & Riverlight’.

AM: What inspired you to re-record a selection of your songs?
PW: I wanted to spend some time connecting with my instruments, playing totally live music again. On my ‘Lupercalia’ tour I had a big band so that I could perform and sing, but during that time I also started relearning the Celtic harp and, after touring around Eastern Europe with 22 people in one bus, I craved some musical solitude for a bit.

I had been invited by Tilda Swinton and Sandro Kopp to sing a couple of songs at the opening night of Sandro’s art exhibition in New York. After that big tour, for that show I simply took a baritone ukulele and sang a few of my songs acoustically in a gallery. It reminded me of how I started out, just me and my instruments singing for my supper in folk clubs.

It was an inspiring week, and I felt so shattered from the tour that I quickly fell into a warm loving winter embrace with New York and stayed there in an old monastery. I was in discussions about writing an autobiography, but realised I was only 29 and not about to die, so it might be more fun to spend that time making a kind of musical biography instead, marking the ten years since my first EP release.

AM: How did you select which songs to re-record?
PW: I wanted the album to be as spontaneous as my live shows are, where I change the setlist every night depending on the country or the weather. So I went to [Peter Gabriel’s] Real World Studios with just one week booked and 100 songs I had written in the ten year period. I had every song title up on the studio wall and crossed out songs as I played them.

AM: How did you approach rewriting or reinterpreting those songs?
PW: I really have age to blame for this. At 29, my voice has grown a new baritone area, and over the years of touring a lot of my songs have grown strong and anthemic. As a result, some of the songs seemed slightly immature to me when I heard the original recordings.

My relationship with my songs is that as long as I keep playing them, they keep on evolving. I find new ways of playing them, and different aspects of the song with age and experience. I make records by my own rules and the rules of a nineteen year old are very different to the rules of a 29 year old!

I really love Joni Mitchell’s ‘Travelogue’ album where you can hear the age and experience in her voice singing songs from her past, telling a story of her life so far.

AM: Was the recording a difficult process then?
PW: It really did my head in, to be honest, but where I am as a writer now is so exciting because I have learnt so much about my repetitions of words and melody, it was the best kind of brain cleaning and learning process. I ended up staying at Real World for two weeks and breaking my ‘one instrument and one vocal’ rule by adding compositions of the string and woodwind arrangements.

AM: At what point did you decide to split the album into two halves?
PW: I always want my albums to have a narrative, and the Sundark and Riverlight double concept came when I realised that most of my work split into two blood types – firstly, the solitary introspective type looking for purpose and asking questions to self, and then secondly the more philanthropic person, loving and caring.

AM: In terms of the recording process, presumably that was very different to your usual approach, with the songs being so much stripped down. How did you find that compared to previous records?
PW: I was ready for it and, in a way, was experimenting to see if the song became stronger without the original productions. The music that I keep listening back to over the years has had simple productions – Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Buffy St Marie – I wanted to hear a powerful production from using as little as possible, it was really exciting and challenging to me, and has definitely changed the way I will approach future recordings.

AM: Speaking of which, what are your plans for a completely new studio album?
PW: I’m very excited to say that I’m setting my own studio up this month and it will be the first time I can have all my instruments in one place since I was about 21, because of all the touring. My first project is to produce an album of modern day Appalachian folk songs for a really gifted singer songwriter I met called Calpernia, who hails from Nashville, then a film score for a film by John Jenkinson called ‘Pelicans’. I also have a lot of songs prepared to give to other bands and singers that I want to finish off first.

AM: You’ve released music using the major label system, self-releasing with the fan-funding model, and now via your own label as a subsidiary of a major. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each and why did you come back to the label system?
PW: Actually, and I’m sure this will be read by people who have worked with me who will laugh at this, but I really like being told what to do sometimes, at least to have some form of protagonist, and I still would like to meet a real David Geffen character in the music industry.

I read an amazing book called ‘Laurel Canyon’ about the history of the American music industry and I still have a romantic idea of Joni Mitchell and David Geffen supporting each other and entering a long-term relationship of releasing albums.

To be honest, I would love to say I made six great albums with a record label like Joni did, or PJ Harvey has with Island, but I’m really proud of the adventure I’ve been on. I’ve learnt so much about the industry and still feel I haven’t compromised my music or lost any passion for making it.

Of course, there are advantages to working with a major: I have a big imagination and love to make amazing videos, to bring in wonderful huge string sections, and to record in the most beautiful studios in the world. The big labels have the scale and budgets to achieve this. Though major label budgets probably used to be bigger in the past than now. But either way, I always make the best of whatever I have.

AM: How do you feel about the music industry today, compared to when you first entered it? It is a more positive place?
PW: Well, I think it’s quite the opposite. There was a certain gung ho and risk taking attitude when I started that seems to have disappeared with the panic of the digital age. I guess it’s a sign of a long recession, but something will kick in. The United Kingdom is so pretty depressing right now, I really hope the music and entertainment industry still remembers it has some duty to inject some colour, character, bad behaviour and excitement into society and make waves.

For me everything seems too staged, produced and conservative. I would love for Malcolm McLaren to come back from the dead and to take over ITV or the BBC. The talent show era is ending now, but there doesn’t seem to be an alternative breakthrough moment for the outsiders, like ‘Top Of The Pops’ or any TV show that helps the music industry launch a star into the mainstream, apart from award ceremonies I suppose. It would be nice to have at least one or two shows people could connect with.

I do think it’s an exciting time for new artists, with all the free online publicity available, and I like that there’s a huge return to live performance and vinyl, that’s quite exciting. But away from the computer this seems to have been a very culturally vapid and meandering decade, empty high streets and Frankenstein music. And being online seems to take away some of the enigma needed to create something otherworldly to inspire people.

Some new movement is going to happen soon, I hope. We now have unbridled amounts of potential with technology, but we are just at the tip of an iceberg of what’s to come. Growing up in South London I remember as a kid the bleakness of the 80s recession and cherish the fantastic stuff that came out if it. Things have to get bad to get better.

AM: You’re performing at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London this weekend. Are you performing acoustically, or will it be the full-blown Patrick Wolf experience?
PW: It’s ‘Sundark & Riverlight’ live, so its totally acoustic, but the point was to make acoustic medieval folk be an interesting sound again. As a band, we hold down a tight rhythm between the accordion player and my violinist. I go between the grand, my viola, the Celtic harp, the uke and my new tenor guitar, which adds so much weight to old uke written songs.

I see people get out their seats and dance a lot, I encourage any questions, heckles or requests, and I want the evening to feel like you’ve asked me to play some songs for you after a long dinner at my house. It’s a different kind of full-blown experience, I guess. There will be guest turns and David Coulter will be playing musical saw, Serafina Steer is an amazing harpist singer-songwriter and I hope we get to sing a song together.