Patrick Wolf’s new album The Bachelor is waiting in the wings, having recently been showcased in his striking new stage show. Ahead of its release he took time out for a chat about the personal experiences behind his return to the spotlight.
The Bachelor, funded with the help of fans through Bandstocks.com, is a strident, passionate work; shot through with images of struggle and combat, with a take-no-prisoners sensibility that we haven’t seen from its creator in a long time.
It includes guest spots from fellow fiddle player Eliza Carthy, Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton and a first-single collaboration with Alec Empire (Vulture), and it’ll be no surprise to anyone familiar with Patrick’s music that it comes from a very personal place: but in this case, where?
“I’d been through a tough time and the songs on The Bachelor are my survival messages.” What exactly has he survived? “Hedonism. Being selfish. Being over-emotional. Depression. Sadness and exhaustion. Public criticism.”
For many musicians, it’s the rock star lifestyle that brings on those feelings: the highs and lows of performing and touring, the drugs, the media spotlight, the fears of failure. But for, Patrick Wolf, those feelings come from everywhere else – from inside himself, from relationships, from society. The world of music and performance, then, are a medium for expressing those feelings rather than the engine which generates them.
“It’s like the song Oblivion,” he explains, referring to a dark, electro-driven highlight of the new album. “Oblivion is not a ride at Alton Towers. It’s a place of pure darkness that I was in… a place of nothing – no feeling, no love, no light – nothing. I was in that place where I wanted to feel nothing, and for a while I didn’t want to think, or kiss anyone, or create anything, and that’s a lot of the theme of the album. And yet it’s better to have been there, when a lot of people surround themselves with things that are safe so that they never feel that. Now I say ‘fuck you, oblivion’ – now I want to love and embrace and feel happiness!”
Such visceral, rollercoastering emotion was largely absent from the pastoral melancholy of Wind In The Wires or the straightforward celebration of The Magic Position. To find an equivalent level of turmoil in his work you need to return to his debut, 2003′s Lycanthropy. “After three albums I felt I was back to exploring myself, and those albums are similar in that they’re both about survival and confidence. By the end of writing The Bachelor I felt really confident about myself, just as confident as I felt after writing Lycanthropy.”
Where Lycanthropy was about a personal journey out of a difficult adolescence, The Bachelor – the first of a two-part release, with The Conqueror set to follow in 2010 – is outward-looking, sounding at times like a rallying cry to other dogged individualists and outsiders. “My touchstone is often thinking of myself at school in the toilets with my Walkman, hiding from the conservative establishment around me, and waiting for class to be over so I could run home. I’d be listening to people like Pulp, The Pixies, Bjork… I used to read a lot into their lyrics, and everything that gave me the impression that this conservative establishment could be overcome by just being yourself.”
Does he see himself in that position now, inspiring others to fight the status quo by being themselves? He remains modest on the subject: “I’m not actively trying to be that person… I just work and I create. It’s not my responsibility what other people make of it. If I thought about it too much and I thought about the consequences it would all go wrong. My main concern is whether I am doing my creativity justice, that’s all I worry about and everything else will follow.”
This sense of confidence is most apparent in his new stage act, which has been showcased via a few warm-up dates, with a full tour due to hit the road in May. Multiple costume changes, fluid and flamboyant movements, strutting the stage with a headset mic: a far cry indeed from the coy urchin of old. So what inspired the all-new stage persona?
“I’ve taught myself to be a lot more free with my body now, a lot more communicative. I actually recorded myself performing last year in order to work out what the audience sees when they see me on stage. I wondered it was like from the audience perspective, and it was very disappointing. I said to myself ‘This is really boring, Patrick you need to try harder!’ I was my own Simon Cowell that day. ‘What are you doing with your hands, why are they flapping all over the place?’ I would be a fool not to want to do better.”
“So I booked myself into a dance studio and recorded myself dancing, and now I am really performing what I feel. In my head I think of Kate Bush… someone who was the champion of expressive performance… that thing of expressing your body in the same way you would express yourself through writing a song. And of course she took all those ideas from opera. Madonna was the next one to pick up the chalice of the headset mic and that kind of full-on performance. I am using it specifically because it’s a dream of mine specifically to do a headset mic performance. Being able to walk anywhere on the stage is great and I like to move all the time.”
As an audience member, though, I was reminded more keenly of Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera. Something to do with the hair extensions, perhaps. As a musician with a classical pedigree, how does he feel about those kinds of comparisons? “That’s great… I’m a modernist and I embrace that. To be compared to Christina Aguilera – I take it as a huge compliment.”
The fabulous costumes and sheer theatricality of his new act, the references to Madonna and Christina, the emotion and drama behind the music, enlisting the vocal talents of Tilda Swinton and Marianne Faithfull (who appeared last time out) on his albums… no amount of self-control could hold me back from using the word diva. Is that what you’re aiming for, Patrick?
“Oh, I would love to be called a diva. People say diva as an insult, but to me that means someone who wants to be master or mistress of their own craft. If that means I get into arguments, then so be it… I celebrate diva-ish behaviour, it’s something to be celebrated in a time when people are really fucking lazy. Prima donna: that’s another one that people use as an insult, but it’s not an insult – it means the first woman. Maybe I’m the prima don, then: the first man.”
And in any case, maybe what the world needs now is some all-out, high-octane performance that only a diva or a prima donna can deliver. “A lot of people are looking for a big performance now. Look at Lady Gaga: she’s at No. 1 and is definitely from that school of performance art where she is just putting it all out there. It’s a good time for performance: for people to deliver something that maybe wasn’t needed a year ago. Times have changed – it’s hard for people with money and everything, and it’s always the time that people have least money that they have more need for creativity. During the Blitz there were burlesque performances in the tube stations. People need an escape, and live music is the best way to experience that escapism. You just have to work harder to escape the humdrum.”
In the midst of all this activity and reinvention, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who could accuse Patrick Wolf of being humdrum. And with the next-but-one album nearly ready for release too, he’s certainly working as hard as he can to keep it that way.