wo years ago I saw Patrick Wolf perform a stripped-down set in a Devon arts centre; just him, a violin, ukulele, piano, and a drummer. It was wonderful—intense, solemn, austere, and beautiful. Patrick was dressed in the manner of a Victorian street urchin, and carried his remarkable songs with his even more remarkable voice. A couple of weeks ago I went to see him play Bristol Thekla, a boat moored in the city’s old dockside where the stage exists below the waterline, practically in the bilges of the barge. This time he had not just a drummer accompanying him, but also a cellist, a second violinist, and a guy firing electronics from a PowerBook and a Korg. Rather than austere, it was effervescent; Patrick's hair a shock of red, his face decorated with glitter, his shirts sequined, and his songs painted in glorious technicolor. He forgot the lyrics to one song and, laughing, asked someone in the front row what to sing, laughing some more when they told him. His smile was extraordinary. An impromptu second encore brought out a solo “Wind in the Wires” after continual calls from the audience for it. Patrick Wolf has come alive.
I had been hoping to meet Patrick before the gig, but garbled communications lead to a phone call being arranged for the following day instead. Things didn’t go according to plan then either though—that night he was due to play at the Soundhaus in Northampton, my alma mater, and the old market town was practically snow-locked. His tour manager couldn't find him. We rescheduled for me to ring back in a few hours. A few hours later she still couldn't find him—he was stuck across town somewhere, in the snow.
Eventually I called again, some five hours after the interview was scheduled, and Patrick was there, phone plugged in, and we talked. Like all these things it was a touch stilted initially as we sounded each other out, my expectations meeting his reservations in a slight hesitancy, but after a few moments we both eased, and found ourselves chatting away.
For a man with a reputation for lying (early interviews were littered with off-the-cuff falsehoods and yarns about his childhood that had his family mocking him), Patrick Wolf is incredibly open. It's not really surprising though—keys, both the type that open locks and the kind you sing in, are mentioned repeatedly and explicitly on The Magic Position. It’s not that he’s obsessed with locksmithery, just that keys have been important to Patrick’s life over the last year or two—“I was burgled three times and I found myself living somewhere where I needed a big bunch of keys. I had seven; for the gate, the garden, three on the front door, keys for the window.”
Previous records have had a strong sense of being tied to locations and characters. The Magic Position has no such geographical links or dramatis personæ though—this time it’s all about Patrick. Partly this is because “[the record] was written really internationally; one verse would be composed in Spain and the second in Germany,” and partly it’s because he fell in love, an experience he describes as having his brain and heart “unlocked” and which gave rise to such emotions that he began writing in a different key, a change documented explicitly on the title track of the new record. “I realized that I’d spent the last four or five years just writing songs in the minor key, and the moment that I felt a positive emotion and was able to start writing in the major key it was a big thing. When you’re writing a record and you’re obsessed with a certain emotion, it seeps into all of it. The idea of keys opening secrets, and treasure chests, and falling in love—it's a very natural thing.”
After having his first two records released by independent labels (Faith & Industry and Tomlab), Patrick was signed by Loog, a subsidiary of Polydor, for The Magic Position. “There’s a misconception that people at major labels are only concerned with money. I can’t speak for the other majors, obviously, but the people I’ve dealt with are there because they love music.” The process of stepping up hasn’t been easy though; “I’ve come to blows with a lot of people,” he says—the company hired a year ago to do his management now only does his PR, while he essentially manages himself. A sense of control over his career, and especially his music, is of utmost importance. “I have a vision and I want to see that out to the bitter end. Some people find that… hard to work with. It sounds stupid and people think I’m a control freak, but I don’t see it that way. Why hand over a string arrangement to the second violinist? There are people that can help me see out my vision, but I’ll be the producer and the arranger of my music to the end. There are people I’d collaborate with, but really I love the solitary aspect of working in a studio with great engineers, I find that really exciting.”
He sees this sense of total control as more of a female than a male thing—few male solo artists with any degree of popular acclaim have exerted the level of control that the likes of Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush have on their music. Speaking of whom, Patrick treats comparisons to the likes of Kate Bush, and also David Bowie and Scott Walker, with a degree of amusement; “It’s obviously flattering, but I try to ignore it. I get compared to Kate I think because I had dark hair and play piano, and Bowie's been mentioned because I’m from South London and Scott because I have a strong voice, but that’s it. It’s nice, but it’s silly. I try not to think about those things too much.”
The last record he obsessed over was the Joanna Newsom album. “I had a really intense affair with it for about a week, but I had to snap myself away, say ��hang on, I am a musician, I need to concentrate on my own music now!’ It’s difficult to always enjoy other people’s music as much as you’d like when it’s your job.” Likewise he is good friends with Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), even asking Owen to be his second violinist on tour (the Canadian had other commitments), but hasn’t heard He Poos Clouds—“Owen sent me a copy but I’ve not played it. Because he's my friend it's weird. I'm sure I'd like it but I'd hate to not like it, and he's my friend without him making records.”
There is a tattoo of a unicorn on his chest that I noticed the previous night. “I had it done when I was drunk!” he says, with a faint air of adolescent pride. “A friend dared me to do it; I’d been up for three days. I think being up for three days helped it not hurt… It’s been kind of my logo for ages, since the first album where it's on the sleeve, I wanted to take something imaginary, something fantastical, and make it reality. It’s what I try to do with my music, I think, make imaginary things real. I think he was taking the piss when he said I should get a tattoo, but it seemed obvious to have that.”
Asked what he can cook, he replies, “What do you want? I do a mean bread & butter pudding!” and describes how he survived living alone as a teenager, cooking stews large enough to last him a week at a time. I get the impression that, like instruments, he could turn his culinary hand to anything. The last book he read and loved was I Left My Grandfather’s House by Denton Welch, a romantic, picaresque semi-memoir. When I ask whether he prefers hot-air driers or paper towels he claims to be “a bit of a lady when it comes to going to the toilet—I like to sit down in a cubicle, I’m not a urinal person!” (He wipes his hands on his jeans, mostly.)
Family looms large in Patrick’s life—he may have moved out at 16 but he’s clearly still close to them. His sister, a musician as well, has played live with him. His parents even took the step of forcing him to have a day off recently—and took him to see Pan’s Labyrinth. “It was wonderful. I was really busy with mixing the album and stuff, and hadn’t stopped to think for months. So my mum and dad said to me ��Patrick, we’re giving you a day off and taking you to the pictures’ and they took me to see it.”
Growing up, his mother was an artist and his father a musician—not just jazz as reported elsewhere, but ska and punk too—he was in the Snivelling Shits, a group of music journalists and musicians who smuttily satirized the spirit of '77 through a string of 7”s. As a result, Patrick was surrounded by art and music from a young age, and not just common-or-garden pop music. “I grew up with my dad playing double bass, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet… just instruments around the house, and Charlie Parker records and stuff. I mean I hated jazz until I was about 14, I thought free jazz was the most awful thing I’d ever heard. But when you have it explained, when you realize the history and lives, you see how amazing it is… I’m really glad my dad wasn’t like ��hey, do you wanna learn this guitar riff by The Rolling Stones?’ I like that my upbringing was a little more avant-garde.” He decided that he was going to be a pop star when he was eleven, and that he definitely wasn't going to be “just another bloke with a guitar.”
Wolf is, unsurprisingly, not the name on his birth certificate. Recently he has talked about himself in interviews in the third person, prompting me to ask if he is a construct, if there is a line between who he is and what he does. “It’s actually not a persona, more an extension of myself; to make good music there has to be a marriage of the two. I don't really think about the divide between at all, until the journalist asks.
“I’m at the beginning of a journey, I’m three albums in to this thing that I decided to do at a very early age; there’s no plan b, there’s no plan c—this is it. It’s my responsibility to see it through, to keep it alive. Patrick Wolf is like 150% myself. I’m not kicking against anything, it’s definitely not a reaction to what’s going on around me or in music; I think it would be a futile reaction to have. If you do something as a reaction then it’s like you’re doing it just to piss people off, and that can’t be why you do this. You’ve got to be true to yourself. No one who gets into this does it for the money, because there isn't any.”
I ask if he thinks we're starved of real pop stars, of glamour and mystery and personality and magic; if he's a one-off. “If there’s no one else around like me, then that’s the way it is, and if there are people like me, that’s the way it is too. I guess I’m just a one off right now. No one else is doing this kind of thing and aiming for number one in the charts.”
That idea is key to understanding both the drive and the appeal of Patrick Wolf; it’s useless being a pop star if you’re not popular, but popularity isn't the ultimate goal. What he does—what he has—is star quality, and it comes effortlessly to him; onstage at the Thekla he was dressed in a sequined shirt, shorts decorated with fluffy dinosaur spines, silver-heeled shoes, and make-up—but he dresses like that almost wherever he goes. It could seem like an affectation but it isn't—he smiles as if no other expression makes sense to him, and the people he sings to smile back at him.
I ask what the future has in store, musically. “I’m not going to tell you! I made the mistake with this album of talking about it a lot a long time before I was able to get it out. It was meant to be out nearly a year ago! I played the whole thing live early last summer [at a one-off show at London’s Barbican], and then people have had to wait. Part of it is being on a major label—there’s more to sort out, more artwork, videos, more press to do, and arrangements to make. With the next one, I’m not going to talk about it and no one’s going to hear it until the day it comes out! It spoils it, too many expectations get built too high, and they can never be met.”
The pull of his music and his charms is phenomenal; a week later we succumb again, and drive 200 miles up the M5 to see him perform for a second time, in Birmingham. The show is different though; Patrick is in a mood and not shy to tell us so. There are no costume changes, little banter, scant smiles, and certainly no laughter. The set is brief and edgy; "Child Catcher" and "The Libertine" are aired and this bitterness that creeps in does them both good, if less so for "Augustine," which Patrick butchers with a detuned ukulele rather than caresses with a piano. There is no impromptu second encore here. A friend sees him the following night, in Nottingham, and tells us he was back to happy again—costume changes, smiles, less songs about being captured, homeless, or abused.
There are precious few people making music today who imbue it with as much flair as Patrick Wolf. He stands out as a magician among carpenters. But it's dangerous. There is a naivety to what he does and who he is, a lack of protective barriers, perhaps. The mystery illness last summer that delayed the release of The Magic Position may simply have been a broken heart, caused by the relationship documented on the record dying. He's opening himself up to criticism from all sides—fans of the first two albums may be put off by the new, brighter, brasher Patrick, but he’s still far too ambiguous, obscure, and dangerous to be taken alongside James Blunt or Kaiser Chiefs. It’s a long time since the public has been confronted with a character and a talent like this. Too long.
By: Nick Southall
Published on: 2007-02-26