A recent visitor to our shores, Patrick Wolf talked to Larry Heath before a show at Culture Collide in Los Angeles about the new record, the pressure of Major Labels, and wanting to thank every fan who covers his songs…
How was playing at the Opera house?
It was really beautiful. My Auntie was there, she travelled all the way to see me because she was so proud. It was really something I could write home about.
It’s interesting with that venue, because you hear a lot of bands and artists on stage saying ‘my mum’s come down from Baltimore.’
Well it is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.
I was out of state at the time, so I didn’t get to see it, but congratulations. I saw you a while back, at The Metro, I think.
I’ve played in Sydney four or five times now, so it’s all blurring into one beautiful memory.
Now, tonight you’re performing an unplugged set to give everyone a taste of the new album.
Yeah, well, I have my wonderful accompanist here. She’s playing the viola, the violin, the musical saw, and the piano, so it’s sort of a duo tonight.
Is that what you had in Australia too?
Yeah. I think with my music… it consists of a rhythm and chords, and then a top line on violin or an oboe or a musical saw. So it’s quite hard to boil it down to just one instrument and vocals.
I would imagine! Let’s talk about the record. I confess I haven’t had a chance to listen to it…
I’ll tell you everything you need to know! It’s fantastic, it’s five stars out of five!
Great, great! How would you compare it to your earlier work?
Over the last ten years, I’ve realised that some people don’t see me as a singer-songwriter, when for me, that’s all I’ve ever been…
Why do you think that?
In some countries, there’s a certain lack of vision, when it comes to the things that people can be within the media. In my own country, and some others, I’m known for having crazy outfits, and for making songs that wouldn’t be played on the radio. But for me, I’ve always tried to do a more modern-day version of a singer-songwriter – somebody that’s interested in technology, and pushing different things into the mix, the production. Obviously the rest of the world didn’t think that…
But this time I wanted to make a more traditional songbook, because I’ve seen a lot of people covering my songs, via youtube, or other bands playing them, and they do it in this more traditional way. And I love when people cover my work, I think it’s literally the most flattering thing, and the most rewarding thing. When people think that song relates to them enough to sing themselves… I don’t care if it’s some person on youtube who’s never picked up a guitar, or can’t sing… I just think it’s beautiful. It’s one of the biggest surprises over the last eight years. I always want to message them and say ‘thank-you’, because it’s the hugest gratification as a songwriter. Some people release albums, and no-one cares…
Anyway, this is sort of like me covering my own work. And I’ve always wanted to pay tribute to Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen… people that make these really beautiful, simple albums with just the power of one instrument, one vocal. So I thought it was time to do that, and set in stone the songs I thought were strongest for it, because sometimes if you strip the production out of a song it will sound like nothing. But the 16 I chose still stand as folk songs.
Where did you work on the album?
It was all done within the studio, and Real-World Studios, which is Peter Gabriel’s [frontman of the English band Genesis] studio, and he lent me his grand piano.
There’s going to be some history to those keys!
Yeah. It was really beautiful. The bottom keys were painted black instead of white… it was a really loved piano, and it really came through in the album, I think. It’s a very intimate, warm sound. And I had to go to four or five different studios to get it, because as a producer, I really went in with a mission, knowing what it was meant to sound like, which is quite rare. Normally I’m just experimenting for weeks, I just sit at home on my lap-top, or a with sampler.
So there wasn’t that sense of experimentation outside of the studio this time?
No. I was in a residential studio, which has a 24 hour lock in, and the people that work in those studios are used to working four days straight… by hook or by crook. But they were tough cookies, and they stood by me through each re-writing of the string section, and the woodwind. And we were calling in stuff really last minute, so it was a really beautiful, organic process.
Did you feel there was freedom with this process?
For this album I was the director, the record label, and the producer, so nobody came close. I had no-one coming in from management or anything like that. And it was really liberating, if slightly lonely. It drove me slightly insane, but that’s very healthy for a good album. When you feel too calm when you’re making an album, there’s something wrong. You need to feel slightly suicidal in order to feel like it’s going to work!
Pushed to the brink!
Yeah. Yes. Definitely! It was a test, but it’s something I was used to when I was younger. I slightly lost it by being signed to Major Labels, because you’ve got tons of people breathing down your neck. I didn’t have any of that this time. Just the cook at the studio, who wanted to hear the songs… but I wouldn’t let him.
Does going through that Major Label process give you different insight into making this record?
I think it’s quite inspiring to have that platform, but all the pressure is very distracting to the spirit of DIY. I don’t think it affected my production of this album at all, because I always try to start on a fresh page, but songwriting-wise… some of the songs come from a period where there were people really bearing down on me. So this is a chance to re-invent them in my own way. As a bit of a ‘fuck you’, because this is how I wanted them to sound.
That really was the concept, to look back on the past and see what didn’t come through as true, or well-executed, but still had an essence to the lyric. Like “Overture”. It’s on my third album, but I didn’t have any skills as a producer, and I was working in this big studio. I just got 5 people to play tribal, Brazilian drums and sang over the top of it, and thought that sounded cool. Listening back to it now, I can’t hear what the song was about, so I thought it was time to re-interpret it as a 29-year-old.
So what does the rest of the year hold for you?
I’m staying here in LA until the next show in Munich, which is really exciting. Normally I fly straight back to London. I’m going to stay in Laurel Canyon, which is my dream place. There’s something in the air, and there’s a little studio there, so I might start working on the next album. I’m really inspired about what will happen next. I think having a little space from Lupercalia, and this album, which is about looking back, has given me a bit of time to think about the future… rather than just album-after-album of new material.
That’s a really nice sentiment to leave it on, so I think we’ll stop here! Thank-you for your time.
The new album, Sundark and Riverlight will be available on Australian iTunes from October 19.