On the mantlepiece in Patrick Wolf’s living room is a framed reproduction of The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis (1856). Chatteron was a poet who committed suicide at the age of seventeen, driven to it both by poverty and the rejection of his work. He was later celebrated by the Romantic poets as a genius. Shelley paid tribute to him in ‘Adonais’ and Keats dedicated ‘Endymion’ to his memory. In ‘The Sun is Often Out’ from his new album, The Bachelor, Patrick laments the death of his friend Stephen, a poet who committed suicide by throwing himself into the Thames. It is an arresting song, stripped bare to Patrick’s vocals and accompanying strings.
“Although there are lots of explorations on this album of darker times and dark feelings and negativity, I never want to inspire that emotion in anyone else,” Patrick said of this song, which reaches toward its conclusion with the uplift of a choir singing the title. “I want people to explore it and maybe feel some empathy, not to bring them down.” Patrick’s work is steeped in literature, history and art. His work is a tribute to the creative mind and the redemptive power of art, both of which are all too often lacking on the conveyor belt of the music industry.
Two things are striking about Patrick Wolf: first how tall he is, and second how young he is. Although he turned twenty-six at the end of June, The Bachelor is his fourth studio album and it is released on his own record label, Bloody Chamber Music. His first album, Lyncanthropy (2003), was recorded when he was eighteen. This was followed with the practically flawless Wind in the Wires (2005), and the more commercial The Magic Position, released on Universal Records in 2007. Polari talked to Patrick on the eve of his world tour and the release of The Bachelor.
“I feel like I’m only just starting,” Patrick confides. “This album has a confidence about it. I almost feel like it is a debut album. With my own record label my work is now becoming what I want it to be.” The writing and recording of The Bachelor, which was originally intended to be a double album entitled Battle, was bound up with Patrick’s conflict with his record label, Universal, and the consequent contractual obligations.
“Battle was a perfect name as I was going through a lot of battles with Universal at the time in order to produce the album myself, as well as creative battles and personal battles. Battle will be the name of the two albums together at one point. When I decided to release it on my own it seemed to be the most ludicrous shot in the head, to finish the production of two albums and then to finance it. It would easily have been something I’d have wanted to milk out of Universal, definitely, but when it came to my own label I thought, ‘I’m gonna fuck things up myself’. To make two effective albums at the same time, it’s a big feat.” Patrick smiles and adds, mischievously, “Nobody wants to make double-albums anymore. Which made me really want to do one.”
“It was very clear at the beginning that I had about forty songs. I didn’t want to have to throw away some just for the sake of the traditional music industry release plan, or having to wait six or seven months in between releasing one album and recording the next. Normally by the time you’ve finished promoting one album you’re tired of even performing, and you don’t want to go into the studio again, you don’t have the energy to do it, so I didn’t want that to happen again.”
“I knew there were two periods of work being written and documented at the same time. There was the time of The Bachelor years, from when I was 15, 16, about real loneliness and disbelief in love. You’re desperate, reading Thomas Hardy and listening to Joni Mitchell, and just really believing in it, searching for love, but being very skinhead-boot, ‘fuck you, love is for cowards and losers’. Then there was suddenly finding love at the end of that process, but not being able to get into the studio until 6 months later, in the Summer of 2008.”
“I didn’t want to make a schizophrenic record again. I think lots of my albums have had too many personas. Growing older as a writer I want to streamline my ideas more, to make purer communications, so it was good to do The Bachelor, and then the follow up, which wouldn’t be The Groom, but coming away from that thinking and feeling.” The companion record, The Conqueror, is “chaos leading to order”, as Patrick describes it in a press release, “a tribute to a solid type of love, not an exuberant, temporary kind of love, like I sang about on my last album”. The album will be released early 2010. “I’m just finishing off the lyrics for it now,” Patrick discloses, and adds in a conspiratorial whisper, “as we speak”.
Patrick’s own music label, Bloody Chamber Music, was created to facilitate his creative process. The name is taken from Angela Carter’s short story collection The Bloody Chamber (1979). “It was a book that really changed my life. There are three wolf stories: ‘The Werewolf’, ‘Wolf Alice’, and ‘The Company of Wolves’. When I was at school and found out that Little Red Riding Hood had been turned into an Angela Carter story about puberty, about a girl coming of age, I asked my English teacher about it. She explained to me how fairy tales were metaphors for a situation, for life and for experience. I suddenly thought ‘that’s why I want to write lyrics’. It was an awakening, that lyrics could be metaphors. It totally changed my perception of writing.”
“The Bloody Chamber was my first of those books. I was thinking of a name for the record label that was music of the heart, music that wasn’t commercial, music for reasons other than being famous. It was just for the heart. I thought that although the story ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is about a womb, I could interpret it as a heart. It was another chamber made of blood. It seemed perfect.” At this point Patrick reverts to his playful self and adds, “And I had played a lot of chamber music when I was young, and I used to think ‘bloody chamber music’! Also it can be like EMI and BMG.” He smiles and pronounces the acronym emphatically: “BCM.”
“It’s just a mad world, the Disneyland of record contracts,” Patrick recalls of the battles with Universal. He does not betray any lasting bitterness about the experience, however, and remains upbeat and jocular when talking about it. “It was a total blessing in disguise. It left me in a really creative empowerment phase. I am happy when I wake up as I don’t have to argue about what I do.”
“I can talk about it now but at the time I was caught up in contracts. It was a tricky period.” He laughs and adds, “It was my Prince ‘Slave’ period.” For an offbeat artist like Patrick, it was the age-old battle of the mainstream conflicting with the alternative. “I never had anything happen against my will. But there were always arguments that had to be had to get things to sound and look the way I wanted them to. It got to the point where it was really counterproductive to even try and make anything. They thought it was just too weird. I was just getting put to the bottom of the scrap-heap of ideas at Universal.”
“I put so much into the album, I thought I had this great idea of where it was going. I was two days away from going to the studio with the strings and the choir. All the arrangements had been finalised. Then there was this phone call saying Universal were too focussed on ‘Orange Music Unsigned’ and working on the Duffy Coke advert than actually caring about where my album was going. They just saw me as a troublemaker.”
“Basically they pulled out at the last minute, when the album was about finished. There were some lyrics, which will be on the next album, about Catholics and Muslims, about Turkish people and English people losing their power over love and identity. Contractually I couldn’t talk about any religious minorities, or majorities, in order not to alienate a certain market. That is one of the ways they got me out of contract.”
The record industry is, so often, advanced capitalism at its purest. It is about creating product first and foremost. The business mind and the creative mind are in conflict in this system when the primary concern is how a work fits into a business model. The rule is that of the lowest common denominator. This invariably leaves no room for one of the primary functions of art, which is to challenge. Patrick is attuned to this on the practical, business side of the industry, but he is also mindful of how the perceived expectations of the audience can be as damaging.
“It’s dangerous to think about the audience too much. If I had I would have compromised more. The litmus test was if I felt uncomfortable with a lyric then it would be the right thing to release because I was pushing my boundaries and not thinking about the type of audience that would be upset with what I was doing. You have to disregard your back catalogue some times, and make what you feel needs to be made, and I think this album was like that. Disregarding your fan base, your audience, and the expectations for you as an artist. Otherwise you might be stuck. The trick is to keep forgetting what you’ve done before.”
That is not to say that Patrick is the archetypal head-in-the-clouds artist who is not aware of how to function within the system. “Real pioneers keep their creative integrity by keeping a good business sense,” he adds. “I hadn’t really heard of the word ‘marketing’ until album three. It was this mad mad word that no-one ever dare spoke in the Indie world. Now I see why it was important to the last album. It’s another headspace I can’t …” He pauses, and shakes his head. “I don’t understand it that much, but I know how it can go wrong. I’m hoping that word of mouth, and the power of blogging, and the spontaneous almost radical punk things on the internet help,” he eulogises and concludes: “Bring power back to the people that really care about music.” That said, Patrick does not discount traditional forms of marketing and advertising. “Really, the tour has to be advertised somewhere.”
Touring, as Patrick tells it, has become a fundamental part of the machine. “It was a huge part of my life at the beginning. I thought that maybe as I get more established and known and successful it would be something I would do less, but it is something I have to do a lot more. It balances out financially the losses that came throughout the last few years. You don’t make money from the album. You make it from live income, and merchandise. So it’s important in order to raise funds, to stay independent and not sell out. If you can create funds there and funnel it back into the creative process, it’s a good place to take it from.”
Patrick is more than aware that the opportunities for musicians have changed in the Web 2.0 era of social networking and illegal downloads, that there is a decidedly negative side. “The internet is just seen as one way of sharing information for free, and the live world, the tactile world, is still seen as somewhere you can make money, to create funds from. I performed at the Tate Modern last year. Nan Goldin, the artist, asked me to do a 45-minute classical piece. That could never have been performed if everyone got in for free. That work could never have happened. Nan could never have come over from New York if piracy was involved.”
“People need to realise that it is the same with albums. They need to invest in the music industry in order to make sure they get good quality work produced in studios. I can list 6, 7, 8 studios that I thought were amazing and would work in for the rest of my life that have closed down because everyone would rather record on GarageBand and LogicPro tools. It keeps their costs down. But with a good studio you can really hear it in the sound recording.”
“It’s a funny time. A state of flux,” Patricks adds, and then slumps in his chair and adds with an air of mock horror, “There should be a positive soon or I’m just going to sit here and get more bitter and miserable”.
It is the side of the internet that has shown its worse face in social networking, in the preference for instant sensation over reflective cognition, for anonymous bullying and for mob rule, that brought this feeling on. “99.9% of the world sits on the fence for far too long and never gets anything done and never experiences anything. If you start to delve into the psychology of a lot of people who spend most of their time on internet, you find they’re not there to change the world, they’re there to masturbate and download free My Chemical Romance songs, and rip people off. Maybe it will change at some point.”
The real problem for an artist like Patrick is that this circles right back to the rule of the lowest common denominator. “So many people think that although they don’t have any journalistic experience, or knowledge of the music industry, or even social awareness, they can still comment on everything in a public forum. I find that very strange. It was not something I was used to when I was younger. The easy scapegoat is the person who is doing something different. When the internet came along the ‘freak’ they wanted to mock they could mock in a very public, Mediaeval English way. Let’s stick them in the stocks and throw rotten apples at them via the internet. I am a big target for a lot of those type of people. I’ve developed a very thick skin. It reminds me of being at school again.”
“I wish that didn’t have to come with it. That wanting to be free, the liberation of just being yourself, that’s why I wanted to be a musician. I thought I could be myself, sing dance and write and have no judgement. But that is exactly what you get: judgement first, ridicule second, and then … bankruptcy third.”
The companion to this is, of course, the all too predictable homophobia. The subject of his sexuality is important to the new albums because of how his relationship with his partner William has defined them. “I won’t put up with it,” Patrick pronounces, and rises in his chair, the air of militancy upon him. “I got it when I was a kid. I’m not doing this anymore.” He laughs, and rolls his shoulders, and says “‘I’m just gonna freak you out by being so sexy you just want to dump your wife and run off with a man’.” And then jumps to his feet to tell a story.
“I was up at six in the morning and I was walking down to London Bridge. These truck drivers stopped and shouted “faggot, pussy boy, lick my arsehole”. I was taking money out of the cash machine, and I was wearing combat shorts and thirty-hole skinhead boots. I thought, if I was sixteen I would turn around right now and walk off and be really upset. But instead I turned around and shouted “lick my cock you fucking dickheads, come up here and lick my cock; actually, no, fuck off because you’ve probably got herpes”. Then they stopped and went silent.”
“And then these tramps behind me shouted ‘You tell ‘em! We’re gonna fight for you’. And these four tramps were behind me – it was like the Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ video. I said “get right down now and fight us. How tall are you when you get out of your truck?” They were waiting for the red light to change. Then one of them shouts again, “Faggot, pussyboy”, and I walked up to them and said, “Come right here I’ll piss in your face”. The lights changed and they sped off. And all these tramps are high-fiving me. And at the end one of them said, “’ave you got a pound?’.”
The performance over he laughs, and notes, “People who are really fucked up, and do really dirty things where everything is smoke and mirrors, they’re the ones that always shout at you.”