"In My Happiest Times I'm Thinking About Death": An Interview with Patrick Wolf
His first EP came out when he was 19 years old, his first album a project a decade in the making. Now, turning 29, the flamboyant, domineering Patrick Wolf revisits the songs that have defined him, developing a new relationship with them, all while stripping them down to their bloody core ...
When Patrick Wolf released his first album Lycanthropy, he was a 20-year-old who had been working on this project since he was nine. In this album, which perfectly epitomizes the flamboyant intimacy of Wolf's oeuvre and his world vision he shows a penchant for drama which makes sense considering he'd written most of these songs as a teenager; however there is also a timeless, haunting quality to them which helped contribute to that idea that Wolf is a time traveler, a contemporary of Oscar Wilde who suddenly found himself among us.
It's strange to think that it's been ten years since Wolf first burst into the scene and that it's been so long, that he's re-recorded these songs for a compilation album charmingly titled Sundark and Riverlight. The album consists of the two parts in the title, one which deals with clarity and hope, the other with loneliness and songs written when, in the artist's words, "not thinking about other people."
I've admired Wolf's work since as long as I can remember, because he made it OK to be who you were before other pop artists made this their whole shtick. At one point, when studio execs were trying to turn him into a "male Kylie Minogue", he refused to give into this easy path and started his own label. His music, which combines medieval tunes with lyrics sung by Tilda Swinton feel as erudite as it is refreshingly joyous.
As I got ready to call Patrick Wolf, I couldn't help but have preconceptions about who he would be. His larger than life personality and the overpowering, baroque majesty of his songs had always intimidated me, as much as it had inspired me. I knew that his singing voice was completely different than his every day tone, which forgoes the intensity of his performance "mode" for a soft, almost whispery tone. On the first, of what would be three attempts of conducting this interview I sat by the phone as my life was about to enter one of its biggest changes yet. I was moving from what had been home for seven years, to New York City.
The first time around, due to some mishaps Patrick and I were on different schedules and we ended up missing each other. The second time, I reached out to him and can't help but confess I was delighted when I heard his voice on the other side of the telephone. After asking where I was, and listening to my confession about being in the tropics, he ooh-ed and replied "how glamorous", even if he himself was in Los Angeles, widely regarded as one of the most dazzling places on Earth.
I immediately got the feeling that Patrick wasn't as imposing as his songs made him out to be, and just when our conversation was getting interesting, a thunderstorm made us postpone the call. He asked me to call again the following day -- right after lunch --and I used this extra day to do some more research into his persona, only to realize that we shared similar life experiences (up to a point of course). Like Patrick, I too had trouble finding a place I could really call "home" and like him I too had been victim of a hate crime because of my sexual orientation.
On other occasions, the more you humanize the subject, the less interesting it tends to become, but in Patrick Wolf's case, the experience was absolutely gratifying. On the third day, we finally made it through the whole interview ...
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How did you select the songs to include in Sundark and Riverlight?
I had dozens of sheets on my walls. I never knew I had these many songs and then there it was, an entire life just hanging from the walls ... I got drunk and had fun and thought about my life and my favorite songs. It was a long, arduous process but I just trusted myself when I started to get loose a bit. I knew I needed to be in a place with no pressure and then I just selected 20 songs.
Why did you feel the need to redo these songs in acoustic form?
If you're going to transform something you have to redo it completely. Also, people can relate a lot to the sincerity and honesty of one person and one instrument and I knew there was a truth about these songs that needed to be said in a different way.
You've said in the past that you're a musician first and then you're a lyricist. With this stripped down versions, did you feel this was the moment for people to concentrate more on the lyrics of your songs?
Yeah, maybe that's the right thing. This might be the best lyrical selection yet. I chose the songs with the strongest messages, and I think they all speak on a broader level, other than just being confessional. When you write the songs, you're thinking about yourself and then it's weird when you know people -- your fans -- relate to them ... so for this album I've also taken into context when people say songs mean something to them. It was definitely a test as a writer.
You have said that this album is your biography ...
It's more of a self-portrait at 29. It is biographical in terms that it uses terms of the past, but as an album it's a self portrait.
If someone listens to these songs for the first time would you want them to know the original versions first?
I love these songs for what they are, they don't mean as much as they did when I first wrote them, back then I would've been more protective of them, but for this album I decided I would find a new relationship with the song. I also love the experience of being in a recording studio and wanted to apply that discipline to songs. Now I know about the best mics, the best piano, I have learned more about my voice. Things I never knew at the beginning, I don't wish I did, because it makes the record what it is.
Are you done with the other songs for now? Are you saying goodbye to an era or just celebrating its existence?
I wouldn't call it a celebration, it's something more of a funeral. Or a graduation ...
this is a rite of passage; this is what these songs need to go through. It's my personal jubilee, 10 year anniversary!
You mention that songs reveal new meanings with passing time. Can you give me specific examples of how songs in your new album say different things to you now than what they did once?
[silence] In "Paris" for example -- there is something in the lyrics that doesn't resonate anymore. I know was about 16 or 17 and suicidal and really thinking of not thinking past tomorrow when I wrote that and I don't feel like that anymore. It's a song for me and others that means don't give up in a very complex way. Writing it I didn't think it'd be that way, I thought it was a confessional and I see now it works on a deeper level, it helps people.
Some of these songs which at the time I thought were lyrically idiosyncratic ... I've had people in Dubai have write to me "the song 'Paris' means the world to me" and they've never been to Paris! The songs take a deeper level. "Oblivion" too ... there is something about it and people relate to them. Working with poetry you never understand why people relate ...
In the album you divide songs by whether they're "dark" or "light". Do you think fans will be shocked by how you've categorized some of the songs?
I never thought of "Hard Times" as a dark song for example ... there are element in the titles, songs written within darkness, searching for happiness, "Hard Times" really is like that, it's a bit like "Libertine", where I'm saying "this is what's wrong, show me resolution". On "Libertine" it's a positive message, it doesn't mean when you're in periods of darkness you don't wanna be searching for happiness.
Riverlight songs were written in happiness, I'm constantly morbid, even in my happiest times I'm thinking about death. I'm not saying that's me but a lot of people feel the same way. When we are most happy and we have everything, we think everything will end soon. This is the human condition.
You say that you're done with London at least in your songs. Have you found a new city to obsess over?
Quite a few. I want to not see London a bit, I really feel very happy in this house in Laurel Canyon, I wish I had the means to live here in terms of writing and not drinking. I would love to stay here for a year and write, but we have other cities to visit.
Have you been working on new material as well?
Yes, lots and lots, I've been writing songs ... understanding what the next big statement is going to be. If I learned anything, I have to think two, three or four times about things to make sure I've got the concept right. I need privacy now, so the album won't happen till next year and it won't be anything expected.
I'll be posted, I was very sorry to miss your last show in New York.
[laughs] Oh that's alright, the shows kinda sucked too!