Riverlight: Patrick Wolf

“I know that as a musician I crave comfort..."

Hitting 30 is a very daunting prospect whoever you are, the realisation you are edging ever-closer to Saga car insurance day by day is enough to put anyone off. So, rather unsurprisingly when I mentioned this to Patrick Wolf he gladly passed the subject off as just another milestone. 

Another milestone, though, is exactly what this is when you’ve survived a decade in the fickle and ever-changing music industry.  I mean we all remember last year’s X Factor winner don’t we? Ah, yes the familiar guy with acoustic adorning his neck and a flat cap perched on his head. His name was, errm…ok, so I can’t remember his name and this proves that longevity within this industry is a tough nut to crack. Patrick Wolf however is celebrating his tenth year with a double album entitled Sundark & Riverlight. The album consists of new arrangements and re-recordings of songs from his career to date and documents his struggles and euphoric moments on each CD.   “This project started when I realised I had reached a 10 year jubilee as a recording artist. My first EP came out when I was 19 and in the 10 years hence, my voice has grown with me. I started out playing with just one instrument and singing with no microphones in folk clubs, on the streets and galleries”.  

His debut album Lycanthropy was just the start of knowing how bright and alluring the lights of the music industry could be and by time the tour of third album The Magic Position had come to a climax, Patrick found himself in the midst of a public meltdown and the feeling of longevity in the business had never resonated louder. “I know that as a musician I crave comfort and especially after last time being so domesticated, so rooted and settled I thought that lyrically there was no way I could do it again. So I like to move around from week to week, not knowing where I will be living from one week to the next. I think that it is quite healthy as a writer and musician that I don’t become stagnant”. 

The idea to make copious amounts of money is what attracts the majority of budding musicians to the industry, and certainly myself back in the day when I was too, a budding musician. Patrick Wolf is differs from your ordinary artist by quite a stretch, though.   Music is in his blood, it has been since he was a young fledgling running around on a school playground. “The reason why I started making music when I was Ten and Eleven wasn’t to be popular or to impress anybody, more then anything it was to make myself feel better about living, waking up every day and going to bed.  I realised that musically this journey that I was on had to be about creative fulfillment, and not that I had to do things to impress over people then I couldn’t be let down.  I don’t have ambition to get a number one in the charts or sign to a huge label with my work.  When I was younger I realised very quickly that it was more important to be happy then achieve instant success”.

Each stage of Patrick’s life is documented within this double album and it is clear to hear the stages of progression throughout his ten years in music.  Albums that are now instantly recognisable such as 'The Bachelor' and 'Wind In The Wires', didn’t receive the acclaim they deserved at the time of release and press who are now fighting to talk to him, were almost non-existent.  I wondered what emotional effects, if any, it had on Wolf and the difficulties he faced having slaved over albums he just wasn’t receiving the credit he desired. “Well, The Bachelor is a pretty prime example of an album I released at the time that received hardly any press, people were confused by it and my fan base just really didn’t get it at the time.  Because that album was such a personal statement I didn’t care if nobody was going to buy it, I was just so happy to have the album finished. However, now people are going out and saying ‘Oh, I love The Bachelor, The Bachelor is a great album’.  The thing is that you could write a song now and it might actually mean a thousand times more in like forty years then the song that’s in the charts at the time.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that your song is any less powerful, it’s just sometimes it isn’t the right time for your song to be popular.  I think you defiantly need to make sure that something you do is good for you first and that way I feel it gives your song a longer life”.

Many artists write an album to close a certain chapter of their lives and once the hard work is completed they tour, move on to the next record and the cycle continues.  Patrick has never been one for any sort of routine or cycle to abide by, as you may have grasped by now. Although he doesn’t really work to a set pattern, he does admit he found it rather strange trawling back through the years in order to produce Sundark and Riverlight. “Doing the Sundark and Riverlight project was realising that, at the end of the day, these songs are going to be here longer then I am and hopefully that is the dream of every songwriter.  Also songs that are now ten years old, and songs that I wrote as a teenager and are on this album still seem quite alive to me.  It really didn’t feel like any of the songs that appeared on my first or second album were a flash in the pan.  I think you just have to ignore time and make your own time and calendar, y’know?”

Time is one element that mainstream artists have very little of – the pressures of touring, making albums under strict time constraints and talking to press take their toll.  Without adding partners and family into the equation this would be sufficient to send anyone over the edge. So when Patrick parted ways with Universal, you would expect his days to be numbered as a high flying musician, however he admits it was one of the best decisions he had made. Time, flexibility and directional influence were once again his own. Sundark and Riverlight, then, was bound to be different from the word go, but being a double album were these decisions any easier? “I think this album was the best in terms of being a producer because I put all my knowledge of working in studios into it.  This album was the first one I had made where I was 100% within a studio and it’s funny the things you pick up about how to record your voice properly and really stuff I had no idea about when I was starting out.  So, I think it was maybe the most professional and deep recording I’ve done.  The recording session was all done in analogue in a residential studio, so I tended to get a slight bit of cabin fever.  But I once went to a residential studio about six years ago because the major label put me in there and I went absolutely bananas, I could not deal with myself and not having any space to get away from the music.  Where as this time I loved it and I think that just shows what I can do at 29, and couldn’t do at 19 – it shows a level of progression I think”.        

In terms of making and the recording of music, Patrick differs from other artists because over the past decade he has bought the rights to his songs back of labels, this also avoids, like I have mentioned earlier, the parting of ways between labels and the distribution of rights and ownership of songs, where a lot of money can sometimes be lost. “Well, during the length of my career I have bought my songs back of labels so I now own all the rights to them.  I just didn’t see the point, when I’ve spent a lot of time and money buying the rights to my songs recording them with a label. I set up a label a long time ago for The Bachelor and I still have that now, so I thought there was no point in taking this album to a label because I knew exactly what to do.  I didn’t have any form of A&R and there was no manager until the album was completely finished.  So I think this was a really private project y’know, and I really wanted it to be that way. I think such a personal project from the past shouldn’t be allowed to be touched by anyone else and it should be kept that way”. 

A truly unique and spellbinding double album from an ore inspiring musician who over the past decade has delivered some of the most breathtaking and challenging albums people have experienced. The past decade for Wolf has been one that has defined him as an artist and the ‘Wolfpack’ is growing ever stronger.  As for hitting 30 I’m sure Saga car insurance is the last of Patrick’s worries with a fruitful and buoyant career that is showing no signs of slowing down. “It's time for me to be retrospective about the last ten years before I move onto the next ten”. 

Words by Ben Gilligan

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