Though a relative veteran of the music industry, Patrick Wolf is still a young man in most of the world’s eyes. 2012 marks the tenth anniversary of the UK singer-songwriter’s recording career, and presents a resolute conclusion to a somewhat turbulent formative epoch. In many ways, Wolf is a survivor. At 28 years of age, Wolf has conquered the morbid construct that is the ’27 club’, all the while overcoming the follies of the oft-rabid British press. As it turns out, surviving is what Wolf does best. As a schoolboy, he spent a week in a coma after a freak coach accident. Throughout his teenage years, he was the victim of bullying. As Wolf explains, these trials only prepared him for the fickle, and at times vitriolic, nature of the beast they call the music industry.
“When I was 12 I fell out of a coach on a motorway in Belgium with one other choirboy, and everything changed from then on. I survived this moment, then I survived a period of bullying. But at the end of the day it’s not just survival instincts, you just have to toughen up;” he muses. “If you want to do something original, or if you're going to put yourself in a place of ridicule from those people, then it’s going to help you later on in life. Then if you’re experiencing it all throughout your 20s – trying to straddle some ground between the underground without compromising to the mainstream – you may as well be wearing a t-shirt saying ‘asking for it’. You have to realise you’re wearing that t-shirt and be proud of it. I have regrets, but they’re the things most people wouldn’t think I would be regretful for.”
It’s a reflective age for Wolf, one that will be articulated by a stripped-back acoustic tour and a complementary full-length record. Though the bombast of the full live band performance won’t necessarily be present, Wolf’s trademark charisma is sure to be in full force. “I’m sure there would be, by the public’s perception, an element of histrionics on it in the way I sing. This whole thing is about this year being the ten-year anniversary of the release of my first EP. Back then I used to have no money and just go busking with an accordion on the bridges in London. I didn’t really have the idea that I would ever have a band, and I would just take whatever instruments I could carry to different places around England. Then I’d be invited to places overseas and I’d just bring a suitcase full of portable instruments. I guess this tour is quite cyclical, going back and readdressing the way I want to move forward in the future. The first ever show I did like this was actually in Sydney in 2007, when I couldn’t afford to bring the band over. So I booked a little show in Sydney and went back to how I started off communicating, which was no computers, no record company, nobody breathing down my neck. All the pressure’s off, it’s just me and 200 people a night. It gives me a chance to go through the back catalogue, of which there are five albums of work. I don’t have a setlist, I don’t think about it – it’s just a recital from the bottom of my heart. I talk about the stories of the songs, how they were made. I feel like I can bare my soul a lot more than I can with the regime of touring with a 19-piece crew and a six-piece band. It allows me to feel really connected to my music again. That’s not to say I don’t when I have the big rock'n'roll show. I find it to be more of an intimacy with my work before I even think about the audience. So I want to celebrate this ten-year anniversary by doing that.”
As you would expect, the acoustic setting exacerbates some of the hidden aspects of the extensive Patrick Wolf back catalogue. It’s something that Wolf utilises without inhibition. “It’s really exposed the messages of the songs. Sometimes in production and packaging and with music videos, people are distracted by all these layers and can’t really hear what I actually do. That’s fine, it’s just that people can sometimes only take one piece of information at a time. Sometimes I’ve bombarded people with an extreme visual which sometimes contradicts the lyrical content of the song,” he reflects. “I’ve chosen to do that because I want to express the diversity of being a human being – you might feel one thing but look another way. For this [tour], I can literally recompose the song on the spot and focus on what I feel – whether it be something in the newspapers, a letter from a fan. I take requests from Twitter and Facebook and while we’re there. It’s about forgetting about the theatre of it, forgetting about rehearsals, and just becoming a vessel for the audience for two hours. It’s a bit like being possessed by past work and with what people want from you that night. Some messages really come to the forefront, and it’s just a time to forget about the rest of it.”
Buoyed by a distinctly erudite perception of his career to date, Wolf offers metaphors of bereavement and graduation when reflecting on the narrative which lead to where he is today. “I think that I rationalise it by seeing it as my ‘training’ time. These are my stabilising years, I’ve managed to come out of those ten years with a few nervous breakdowns and a couple of bad habits. But I’ve managed to knock it all on the head and overcome public aggression,” Wolf explains. “I had a moment of egomania, a moment of manic depression, and I've gone through spats with journalists and pop stars – just making a fool of myself publicly. Then I get to 28 and all I want to do is just forget about all that stuff and just focus on my work – which is what I’m doing now, to re-hone my craft. At the end of the day, all of that stuff was written by me, I wrote that narrative. There were no cowriters, no managers telling me what to do like there are with most pop stars. Every word of it was written by me. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I’ve left a bit of a destructive trail behind me and now’s my time to reassess that before I move on. I feel like I’ve been in university and now is my time to graduate and really take control of what I do and have a better understanding of the music industry and the world as a whole. I’m just starting. This album that is coming out with this tour is just me putting a gravestone on what has happened before. I can look at it and enjoy it, but I’m still forgetting the past and moving on into the future. Not that I suffered through any of that, I enjoyed every moment of it.”
For an artist so accomplished, Wolf still projects an endearing self-deprecation – an attribute which he has managed to harness into a motivational asset. “I do have days where I have no motivation, but that doesn’t come from feeling like I haven’t achieved what I haven’t achieved, it comes from an overwhelming feeling that I haven’t achieved anything with my life and a crippling feeling that I’m sure everyone in the world feels no matter what they’re doing with their life. You have this driving ambition, and no matter how hard you flex that muscle of ambition, sometimes you just end up with disappointment,” he ponders. “I’m not talking about money, career or chart positions, I’m talking about artistically. That’s a wonderful feeling a well, because it gets you out of bed and into the world to keep on creating. I’m totally dissatisfied with everything in my life, but that’s something between me and my psychiatrist, I guess,” he laughs. “It’s something most people feel, and you just have to utilise this feeling to do greater things with your life. When I’ll be lying on my deathbed I’ll be saying ‘I still want to make that one more album, I still need to make something from the bottom of my heart’. I think life is about being dissatisfied and continuing, otherwise you’re dead in your heart.”
As for his next album, Wolf reveals that it will be a revisionist retrospective of sorts, subverting the notion of the greatest hits package which often coincides with Wolf’s current career point. “It’s all recorded, I’ve got two days of vocals this weekend, then I’ve got mixing at the end of the month,” he explains. “It’s basically all back catalogue. It came from doing these acoustic shows, when I sat at the piano and forgot about what it sounded like on record or with a band, and thought about how it should sound in 2012. So new lyrics would come up, some of them retrospective or things I was too scared to say back at the time. Some lyrics feel wrong, like Hard Times I’ve sort of rewritten as I feel the message is screwed up with that song, promoting aggression rather than resolution. So I’m readdressing and rewriting the back catalogue. I’m not really choosing the most obvious songs for the record. I think it came from the notion that after ten years you do a greatest hits – I don’t have any hits,” Wolf smiles. “It’s kind of an invalid format now anyway, you can choose 12 tracks from your favourite artist on iTunes. So I thought it was better to readdress the back catalogue as sort of a songbook.”
BY LACHLAN KANONIUK
PATRICK WOLF plays The Forum II on Tuesday September 11.