He was the art-pop boy genius, and a showman looking to take risks, who inspired more than a few to take up his example. However, Patrick Wolf lost the sense of wonder that had driven him. Getting it back has brought him back to Australia. “Now I’m ready to finish that body of work,” he says ahead of a show at the Concourse Theatre.
WOLFSBANE OF HIS EXISTENCE
On his first tour of Australia in 2007 there was no exaggeration to describe Patrick Wolf as practically burning with energy and imagination and adventure. Mixing theatrical pop, both Buckleys (Tim and Jeff), early 20th century formal music, Rufus Wainwright and an edge of danger and darkness, it was exciting to watch from the audience and, it turns out, inspiring for a number of musicians who saw another path open up for them.
Wolf, who is currently in Australia thanks to a Commonwealth Games appearance and decided to stick around and dip into the well of good memories from his tours a decade ago, has local artist Jack Colwell accompanying him on double bass for a one-off show traversing his career.
The hugely talented Colwell is not just a sideman, he is a fan who owes Wolf a debt dating back to when Colwell was a self-described angsty teen with a classical background “discovering music I loved for myself. Artists like Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Arcade Fire were tearing up the charts with harps, oboes, bassoons and 60-piece Russian choirs”.
Even so, Wolf’s album, Lycanthropy was like nothing he’d heard before with its mix of folk and classical – how many types of Baroque recorders could one man use? – and modern beats, and Wolf himself was like nothing he’d seen before.
“It wasn’t just his fantastic musicianship the touch people like myself, another artist I knew, but his often-striking imagery: outfits put together and made up of high-end fashion, old world fantasy and New York club kid,” Colwell says. “Wolf made it cool to be outlandish in different, teaching new generation how to express themselves with no inhibitions.”
If this sounds self-affirming for an artist who still occupies space on the fringes of modern pop music after some glorious moments such as an expansive show at the London Palladium, Wolf realises now that he wasted several opportunities when responses like this arose.
Not necessarily musical or professional ones, but maybe directly personal: making the most of the love he was getting from fans and other musicians, other musicians who were fans, and the LGBTI community who saw boldness alongside the flair.
“For a long time I denied myself, [including] appreciating some of the little ways you’ve made for other people in the world,” he says now. “I’ve been through a long, long period of struggle with a disease and mental health and a lot of that stops you from seeing anything good that you put out in the world. Only in the last few months, after all the work I’ve done to recover and get myself back into a place where I’m enthusiastic and have a sense of wonder about life again, I’m starting to realise you can’t be grateful for the things that you’ve done if you are in a place where you only receive negativity from yourself.”
Having worked on reducing, if not yet eliminating that negativity, there is, he quite reasonably believes, a sense of bravery about this trip for someone who ruefully remembers having “people do everything for me, a real Michael Jackson thing”. He’s here on his own, booking a few gigs virtually on spec, pulling in Colwell, putting himself in a hostel in Bondi after the shows, heading up to the Blue Mountains where his old sound engineer now lives.
It’s starting to push back the years of bleakness which saw him withdraw from making music.
He was 16 when he left home in South London and did whatever he had to start his career, which while incredibly successful in some ways had its downsides. As he remembers, in 2007 he was such a tabloid target he had “people rummaging around my bins”. Perhaps not surprisingly the combination of his own issues and the external ones from an industry and public often perplexed by him meant he was never able to find “mental stability” in what he did leading to severe illness.
Up to 27 he says he had two choices: death or “become a vortex of energy with no self of self-care or self-worth” – an option which seemed like merely a precursor to the first choice. There was, thankfully, a third choice: a strategic withdrawal as a route to recovery
The “long sabbatical” the 34-year-old has undertaken – the last full album was in 2012 and that was a contractual obligation reworking of earlier songs which troubles him still – is ending with Wolf now carrying around a hard drive with 35 songs.
“During all this time of self-destruction and recovery I was writing and I’ve kept a studio down in South London, so I’ve always had somewhere to go to vomit out whatever was going on in my life,” says Wolf who filled some of the time touring behind Patti Smith, working with Marianne Faithfull and modelling for Burberry. “Now I’m ready to finish that body of work.”
If public performance proved “very painful” and to be avoided during those five or so years away – not being able to reconcile his off-stage, on-stage and writing personas “was where the toxicity lay” - Wolf is excited about reclaiming the stage in Australia.
“My guard is down and I’m a full human being right now,” he says. “My art is part of my private life and my private life is part of my art. It’s quite liberating.”
Patrick Wolf plays the Concourse Theatre, Chatswood, on Friday, April 13.