October 8, 2007

Patrick Wolf on style, art, and his favorite position

Glittery British folk-popper Patrick Wolf has accomplished a lot in his 24 years on this earth: He’s made three critically acclaimed albums, mastered five instruments, played an almost infinite amount of shows and festivals, and dyed his hair at least three different colors at once. Wolf is currently touring North America to promote his new album, The Magic Position, and took a few moments to talk to the Chicago Maroon by phone from a tour bus on the road to Montreal.

Chicago Maroon: So you’ve been doing a lot of touring. Aren’t you doing four continents right now?

Patrick Wolf: Yeah, I’ve been touring for over a year for the album. Been to a lot of places this year…got Japan, Australia, then England. So, I’m kind of gearing myself up before Christmas, seeing as much as possible, and communicating my songs as much as I can before it’s time to kill off a set of songs, in a way, and shed a skin—start new and afresh. It’s a healthy process that happens with each album, like, sing it until it’s dead, and then go make new life, you know?

CM: I know The Magic Position is about love and falling in love; did you achieve what you hoped or set out to convey with it?

PW: Oh, yeah, definitely. It’s finished, and it’s perfect, you know, and I do that with all my work, I make sure it’s perfect and the goal was achieved. So I’m very happy with the record—haven’t listened to it for a long time, but I kind of treat my records—things that I’ve achieved—as things I’m proud of, so yeah, sure.

CM: I think you’ve got a very striking look visually. It almost reminds me of Roxy Music, in the sense of being very high fashion. How did you decide on it?

PW: About Roxy Music, I don’t really know much of their work. I kind of missed it slightly. But talking about an era when people did present themselves, when it was a more acceptable thing for men to dress as colorfully as females have been able to over the years, or to dress as smart, or as expressive...I think, over the last 10 years, as a male creature, you’re told to be conservative and conform and look like a man, to spread your seed around, and attract the ladies. And I couldn’t care less about any of that kind of dressing to be attractive, or to be like an advert. So I just dress the way that I feel and encourage other people to do so. If you feel like a tramp, then look like a tramp. If you feel like a pop star, dress like a pop star. Just do everything in your life the way you feel. I don’t think I’m trying to impress anybody.

CM: You’ve just switched to Polydor/Universal. Has switching to a major label affected any of the control you’ve had over your music?

PW: Not at all. This question comes up a lot, especially when an independent act crosses over to a major label—everyone panics and thinks there are 10 bad men behind it in business suits going, “okay, you like this, we’re going to turn it now into this Disneyland, this huge product.” And for me, I had the ability from being independent and working to gain my own power within the industry, [so] that when it came to the option to go major, I actually didn’t need to. I already had developed my own touring rhythm, my own financial security, which meant full creative control. So basically going to Universal was…just them coming along and saying, well, we like what you do. And I said I need full creative control, and I kind of had this Prince-like contract where I’m the creative director over all aspects of the way things operate, down to the last little beep and the artwork. Luckily I had four or five years of working very independently, coming from, you know, pressing up 1000 copies of vinyl and taking it to record shops and then, for the second album, licensing my work. I own all the rights to my first work, and I’m very protective of all the stuff, and I’ve actually got some great people who taught me. I was 17 or 18 when I started; it could’ve been a disaster, but I had some great teaching. My roots are in the DIY/independent world, and punk aesthetics, and squat parties, and do-it-yourself. I’m comfortable in the fanzine world—I did my own fanzine when I was 14. It’s so essential for me to enter the major world and be in full control, otherwise I would get very bored and want to go and start up a knitwear shop or something.

CM: How is the fourth album coming along? What plans do you have for it?

PW: I’m trying not to talk about it too much. It’s an experiment, because, for all three albums, I’ve been like a little, very excited kid that can’t stop talking about things that haven’t even been finished yet. And it affects the rhythm; it goes from a very private thing to a public thing. It’s best not to parade a baby to death; it’s got to stay inside the mum and develop and…have its private time before it can be public. And I think it’s going to make the album a lot more powerful. On my first album, there’s a kind of a power to it. It was created totally away from anybody apart from myself, and there was no public life at the time—it was a private world, and then it became a public thing. So I’m gonna try that with the fourth one. Keep everything private, go away in January and grow a beard, and start wearing slacks, and disappear, and come back from the wilderness with a record. I’ve done lots of writing over the years, but I’ve got a lot more to do. I think fourth albums should be masterpieces, you know? I want it to be a little symphony.

CM: Are there any musicians that you’d like more people to know about? Or any artists, actually, painters and so on?

PW: Well, painters—I always get asked about musicians, I think [talking about] painters is great. Peter Doig...he’s a big influence, actually. I know of him ’cause my mum’s an artist, a painter. And really, a lot of my influences have been visual, like when you see a wonderful painting that opens up a whole landscape of words in your head and creates image. I’ve found [art] more influential than listening to the classics. Miles Davis, that sort of stuff. So Peter Doig and Tracey Emin.

CM: I’ve heard of her, yeah.

PW: Yeah, it’s funny, she’s like the biggest artist in England. And I use her as a reference point a lot, ’cause her work’s been such a big influence [on] me. And it’s strange to be in a place where people don’t know about her, but I guess it’s not unusual—she’s a very British artist. And Lenny Saville was a big influence. Yeah, well, that’s three painters to check out. Peter Doig is genius.

CM: And finally, I know The Magic Position is an album; I know it’s a song. But what, exactly, is the Magic Position?

PW: I think it’s like sitting on your own, in a boat, and you’re on a lake, or with somebody that you love, and it’s definitely in a rowboat. And it’s late, and maybe a very pastoral setting, very quiet, maybe [you] only have the sound of owls, or peacocks. There are maybe about six peacocks on a lawn. And everything is like it’s in slow motion. And you feel very much in love with the day and the weather, or maybe in love with somebody that you’re very close to at that time. And maybe you have a bottle of cheap champagne, and…yeah. I think it’s that feeling of pure ecstasy.

CM: Ah, that was really nice. That was actually a lot lovelier than I was expecting…

PW: (laughs) That’s you dirty Americans, all about hot sex! We’re very conservative in England, you know, we don’t think about things like that.

CM: Well, I don’t know, there’s Benny Hill and “Ooh, matron,” Carry On and all that…

PW: (laughs) I know, I have been called by one of my friends the new Benny Hill! So I definitely have that side as well. Maybe from traveling too much.