Self-Portrait in Analogue

Eclectic British singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf celebrates a decade of sound—and he hasn’t even turned 30.
September 28, 2012

(Patrick Wolf)

It’s three days before Patrick Wolf’s show at Joe’s Pub, one of the British singer-songwriter’s 10th anniversary acoustic shows, and he’s fretting about the size of the stage at the recently redesigned venue. “Apparently there’s no room to even fit a string quartet. And I’m like 6’4” or something so I hope I fit on the stage!” 

It’s the first time Wolf has played Joe’s Pub, but not his first acoustic date in New York. Over the last few years he’s appeared at Le Poisson Rouge on piano with just his touring violinist. In a way, those shows—along with a handful of acoustic performances in Australia—were a precursor to his latest album, Sundark and Riverlight, a two-disc collection of acoustic versions of songs from his five previous albums spanning the first decade of his career.

“Those shows in Le Poisson Rouge made me realize that it was something that people actually would wanna see around the world,” says Wolf. “It put the spotlight on something [that] I thought was quite obvious about the work that I do; you know, the songwriting element.”

Years ago, a decade of music would have resulted in a more conventional “Best of” or “Greatest Hits” collection, concepts that Wolf finds utterly irrelevant in the digital age, when fans can create whatever compilation of mp3s they choose on their iPods. Revisiting and reinterpreting older material, on the other hand, provides a compelling alternative, particularly for a cult artist who may not have ever had what might traditionally be considered a “hit” song. Sundark and Riverlight also affords Wolf the opportunity to rerecord songs he wrote when he was barely out of his teens with the maturity and perspective of a man now on the cusp of his 30s.

“I wanted to make sure that this album was a testament to how I feel about the songs now at 29 years old rather than 19,” he says. “I don’t really like how a lot of the songs sound. I don’t actually like the message of ‘Hard Times’ anymore, and I thought, now’s your chance. You’ve got three months to spare. Get in the studio and readdress that.”

He also found himself resisting the way contemporary music is being produced, with its near-universal Auto-tuning and pristine production. He eschewed all digital processing, recording the entire album instead on analogue equipment, and moving some of the more esoteric instruments he’s used in the past—the Russian gusli, the Appalachian dulcimer—to the forefront. “I tried some new combinations of acoustic instruments that I thought hadn’t really been done before,” Wolf says. “I still made sure it was an experimental record. I think acoustic doesn’t limit you to doing something traditional.”

Wolf says he approached the songs similarly to the way he does when he plays live, allowing them to shift and change based on his mood or his renewed perspective on them. “I just don’t feel that once you’ve put something on record that’s how it’s gonna stay forever,” he says. The result is that some of the songs on Sundark and Riverlight have changed quite dramatically from their original versions. “Oblivion,” stripped of its beats and production, took on a Country-Western quality that Wolf compares to Johnny Cash’s work. “Bermondsey Street” contains a new spoken-word element, a message of solidarity with Wolf’s Russian fans in response to St. Petersburg’s “gay gag” law. “Hard Times” was rewritten with the help of singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie—the first time Wolf has co-written a song with anyone—removing all aggression and anger in the spirit of resolution rather than revolution.

“I think in a way it’s a metaphorical biography,” Wolf says of the album. “It’s more a self-portrait at 29 using items from the past. It’s definitely not like a beginning-to-end narrative, which is like, ‘I was born and now here I am at 29.’”

At Joe’s Pub a few days later, Wolf does look a bit like a bull in a china shop, crammed on stage with the baby grand, his various instruments, and a three-piece string section. “It’s a bit like doing yoga,” he says, maneuvering around a mic stand to get to the piano bench. There’s a looseness to his performance that some might call unpolished—though, to be fair, he’d only just met the musicians on stage with him this week. But in this intimate venue, if feels much more like the songs are living things that have minds of their own. And there’s no guarantee that the versions on Sundark and Riverlight will become definitive. “Maybe in 10 years’ time,” he notes, “they’ll be totally different again.”

Sundark and Riverlight (Bloody Chamber Music) is out now.