Is Patrick Wolf’s ‘Battle’ Finally Over?
“It’s just been one of those Patrick Wolf kind of days where I’ve got six things to do at once,” says the 25-year-old musician, as he breaks from moving into his new house in London’s South Bank, which happens to be just down the road from his old house. “But I enjoy every one of them very much.” Today’s trek couldn’t be more different from the journey that Wolf has embarked upon since releasing his third studio album, The Magic Position, in early 2007. For the past two years, while navigating the loneliness of heartbreak and the empty hedonism of recovery, Wolf has been at work on Battle, a two-disc album split by tenor: the first half, Bachelor, emanates from a place of anguish, loss and vice—it’s the Dorian Gray of the two. The Conqueror, which came into existence after Wolf fell in love with his current partner, introduces the world to a new, hopeful young man. He’s evolved into quite the entrepreneur, as well. With Bandstocks, fans can buy shares in the stock of the album, fueling its production through investment, and allowing Wolf to retain creative control over the final cut. Below, the animated lycanthrope discusses the music, the madness and the hunger that brought him back from bachelor purgatory.
It seems like such a no-brainer to have you collaborate with Tilda Swinton on your new album. You’re both such fashion-forward— I love this phrase, “fashion-forward.” The only other person who has used it on me is Lady Gaga. She came up to me and said that one of my old videos had been very “fashion forward.” And it’s a phrase that’s been stuck in my head since.
Fashion aside, you and Swinton seem like kindred spirits. The relationship is still in its infancy. My history with Tilda Swinton began when I was 16. I had an older lover who was really into Derek Jarman [the English film director with whom Swinton often collaborated], and he told me that I had to see Orlando, that I reminded him of the character. I was a teenager who had run away from home and I had red hair with no eyebrows—well, I had bleached them. I was really lost and didn’t have much to identify with. I watched Orlando religiously for about a year, whenever some horrible thing had happened and, immediately, I’d feel like I had someone to identify with. Tilda was always the shining light in those films. To me, she’s much more than an actress; she’s like a great violinist playing a piece by Shostakovich, channeling her life experience through the song.
And the partnership was sort of happenstance, no? I was about 80 percent finished with the album, and I had done these spoken-word bits. Basically, it sounded like a bad rap. The album is based on this bachelor who is miserable and has given up on love. And the spoken word is meant to be the best friend or the mother who says, “Get a grip.” When I was asked who I’d like to say those words, I responded, Well, if anyone were going to do it, it’d be Tilda Swinton. There was laughter in the room, but I said, I’ve made magic happen on these albums before. Watch me do it again. And then, with only two days left of recording, my boyfriend and me went to a Q&A for Julia. I went up to Tilda and said, Hello, my name is Patrick. Here are a few songs that I’ve been finishing and I thought you’d be perfect to do the monologues. I have no boundaries. If I want to do something, I’ll do something. I did, however, look like an 11 year old at an Elvis concert.
Is love, or lack thereof, the guiding inspiration for your work? I’m an extreme romantic. I was extremely promiscuous as a teenager, and in desperate search of love. In my 20s, I became an extreme bachelor, waiting, waiting, waiting for my true love. I remember staring out in front of 2,000 people and singing these songs about past love, singing songs about myself. But when the curtain went down, it was just me and a bottle of gin. It was like a terrible Judy Garland nightmare.
Is it easier to listen to The Conqueror half of Battle, rather than Bachelor? I always identified with Joni Mitchell records when she wasn’t in a relationship or Björk when she was doing Homogenic, or P.J. Harvey. And that’s the kind of music that is lacking from the charts. They’re are still full of songs like, “I love you, baby,” or, “Let’s have fun tonight.” But life is a lot more miserable than the charts would have us believe. So I’m glad I’ve done an album like that. But I’ve tried to inject each miserable song on this album with hope—in the string arrangements, with the gospel choir and with Tilda. I play the miserable bachelor desperately thinking about love but ending up with bad sex. And then I bring in the voice of hope, which is Tilda.
Sex has come up a few times since we started talking. Mainstream media never seems to know what to do with someone who’d rather not be labeled by his sexuality. It must be frustrating to deal with that on a regular basis. Here’s the thing: Joni Mitchell could have been a lesbian or transgendered, or black or white. But is that why we listen to Joni Mitchell? No, we listen to her because she expresses life experiences that everybody can relate to. When I was younger, people always wrote about the “flamboyant musician Patrick Wolf.” And even though I dressed conservative for club-land Londoners, mainstream music people were like, “Who the fuck is this clown?” One newspaper asked me, “What’s your sexuality?” and I said, I don’t really have one. I am the biggest advocate for gay rights, for transgender rights, for lesbian rights, for women, for black people, for ethnic minorities. I will talk until the cows come home about equality for all people. But in doing so, I know I’m taking focus away from the fact that I am a musician, that I went to school for composition and that I produce my own albums. Now, everything I read about my new album is that it’s by “gay musician Patrick Wolf.” Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy to call myself gay, I’m very proud of gay culture and I’m proud of everyone who fought to make it legal for two men to kiss in the street. But please don’t put that before my name. You wouldn’t write, “black musician Lauryn Hill,” would you?
Is there any specific nightlife scene that excites you at the moment? I don’t go out as much as I used to because I’m 25 now, and I went to my first nightclub at the age of 12. But it’s a funny time in London, because we’ve just come out of last year’s New Rave thing where there was a lot of music and fashion coming together. But whenever anything gets too fashion oriented, I’m out of the club, immediately. I care about music, I care about beats and I care about the sound system. What the tribe is expressing at the time is secondary to me.
But you have such a unique sense of style. I see it as part of my identity. I almost attach each of my looks to the anti-style of the time. For example, nowadays, everybody has to be very skinny. But when they get too skinny, everybody complains. I’ve spent the last year eating healthier than I have in my entire life. That doesn’t mean I’m overweight but I don’t show my bones anymore, which I’m happy about. I found out recently that some of my old music videos were being shown as Thinspiration videos for anorexic kids. I was so distraught when I found out, because that was never the point. I was just extremely thin. I had been working too much, not taking care of myself and it just wasn’t a happy time. For the first time in my career, I actually have some weight on me, and I’m proud of that.
It’s interesting to hear you say that your emphasis is on “anti-style,” because you modeled for Mario Testino in a Burberry campaign two years ago. That seems to me the pinnacle of style and high fashion. It was like going to a very expensive party. It reminded me of how, twice a year, I get an invitation from Vanity Fair or something. The invitation comes in a gold envelope that says, “Patrick Wolf, a carriage awaits you on Thursday evening. Please attend.” And I enjoy it, but it’s like going on a weird holiday for the evening, visiting a world with extreme amounts of money. I got paid really, really well and I was able to live in a nice flat for a couple of years because of it. And you can’t say no to Mario Testino, really.
Posing alongside Agyness Deyn isn’t so bad, either. Agyness became a good friend after that—there’s something special about that girl. We both ended up being invited to this Elton John AIDS Foundation ball. We were the youngest people there and caused absolute trouble nonstop. I was so drunk I fell asleep. They literally served cocktails from the moment I got there until five in the morning. Tom Jones was singing. And Fergie—like Fergie Ferg, not the Duchess—sat down next to me while I was asleep and was like, “This table is crazy. All you guys are amazing!” I missed that one due to heavy drinking. One thing’s for sure, though. I’m definitely not going to look back when I’m 50 years old and think, I turned down all these exciting opportunities.