This British musician is a true iconoclast, creating boldly innovative, genre-defying music in an age where performers of his ilk are becoming increasingly rare. With five albums under his belt, the avowed multi-instrumentalist is as accomplished at playing the violin as he is the ukulele, viola and piano.
Not surprisingly, given Patrick Wolf’s musical dexterity and experimentalism, he has earned a reputation as a formidable musician, easily traversing broad musical terrain that mines everything from traditional, pastoral folk to classical music, electronica and accomplished baroque pop.
When the 29-year-old London-born singer/songwriter and Same Same catch up, it’s 1am where he is, but he’s nonetheless wide awake and happy to chat, laughingly reassuring me: “You’re lucky! Late night interviews are the best because you get all the best bits of me, all the real juicy bits, the unfiltered Patrick Wolf!”
Wolf is currently in the studio, in South London’s Battersea, working on the final mix of his as-yet untitled but much-anticipated sixth album, which he hopes to have finished in time for a release before the end of the year.
In September, he returns to Australia for a series of intimate acoustic shows, during which he’ll draw from his vast back-catalogue and not only play the piano but also harp, dulcimer and an array of other instruments.
The tour marks Wolf’s first live performances here since a flying visit back in late 2009 and he says he “absolutely loved it. Which probably is what everybody abroad says about Australia but I actually mean it. I loved, loved, loved your country!”
Since then, Wolf has released perhaps the most acclaimed album of his career, 2011’s Lupercalia, a sprawling and headily ambitious album characterised largely by its intensely personal lyrics and sweeping orchestral arrangements.
Named for the festival that was, during ancient times, a pastoral festival that was the forerunner to Valentine’s Day, intended to avert evil spirits and inspire fertility, fans of Wolf’s back-catalogue will be aware that he’s no stranger to either intellectualism or lush, experimental melodies, instrumentation that draws on a variety of genres and inspirations.
This is, after all, the man who made his own theremin (an early electronic musical instrument, first made back in the late 1920s) aged only 11. It’s ambitious stuff, to be sure, given that most 11-year-olds are into video games or sports. Wolf, however, had eschewed piano lessons for violin lessons and was immersed in a world of music.
“I was having such a horrible time at school and I needed an escape. For me, music really was that escape.”
Living in what he aptly describes as “the pre-internet age,” Wolf says: “It was much harder than it would be today, I think, to do something like make a theremin, because we now live in a world where, because of the internet, everything is literally at your fingertips and much more easily accessible.”
Wolf willingly concedes that his childhood was “wonderful, really very idyllic, in terms of my home life and my parents and the people I was surrounded with in that private, personal sort of environment.”
“I was in a really geeky family, very productive and always very creative. My dad, the moment he retired from doing his advertising, was into all sorts of creative things. When he was young, he was really into punk music, but then he had kids and he had to make money, so he got into advertising. After he was made redundant, I remember him doing some really amazing things – he became a blacksmith and a jewellery maker. I guess I learned from him that you have to use whatever the tools of your medium are to create something new,” he reflects.
“In a way, the whole thing of making the theremin was a bit of a rebellious statement at school. I discovered the story of Leon Theremin, the Russian man who invented the instrument, and it was my fantasy, my escape. While I was meant to be learning about maths and being forced to spend time with people I really didn’t want to spend time with, I decided to create my own little universe. Luckily, I had a good mum and dad who allowed me to fulfill those dreams. I was very blessed.”
Wolf has spoken openly in the past about the difficulties he had at school, most notably the vicious bullying he received from boys who perceived him as “quite feminine, different and creative and strange.”
Though he changed schools at 15 and subsequently escaped the bullying, he says that he still bears the psychological scars of the experience and admits that both the passage of time and psychotherapy has helped him to heal.
“I actually don’t think that you really ever forget being on the receiving end of that, so I do sort of hesitate to use the word ‘heal,’ really, but I do feel I have, in lots of ways. I was having such a horrible time at school and I needed an escape. For me, music really was that escape. I wanted to escape so much and I escaped through music and that lead me into listening to a lot of esoteric and exotica. I was drawn into the stories of people who were considered weird, who were outsider musicians,” he remembers.
“I read a lot, I studied a lot of musical biographies, of people like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Buffy Sainte-Marie, investigating their stories and their experiences and really drawing an awful lot of comfort from that, I think. I knew very young that I wanted to be a musician, that I had this very strong impulse within me to create, to write music and to perform music, and so I suppose that became my dream and my world from quite early on.”