As we, like everyone else, look back on the musical highlights of the year with a view to compiling our Bests Of 2012 list (watch this space!), it is interesting to note that one such Best Of milestone is, in fact, a ‘best of’ record. Patrick Wolf’s ‘Sundark & Riverlight’, a collection of acoustic re-recordings of some of his finest moments from the past 10 years, came out a few weeks ago and, with the announcement of a special gig here in London next year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, we sat down with the singer-songwriter, as he prepared to perform a one-off live set at Rough Trade East, and heard about his relationship with London, the recent album and his plans for 2013.
When you were working on your first album, Lycanthropy, did you ever envisage a point ten years down the line when you’d be releasing a ‘greatest hits’ of sorts?
Well, no, actually I thought that within three years I’d be releasing a ‘greatest hits’ [he laughs]. Nothing that I wanted has happened in my life in the last ten years. I wanted to be the male Britney Spears when I was 19. I wanted to be as famous and successful as Britney. All the dance routines and everything. A little bit of Kate Bush on the side, perhaps. But I ended up touring and traveling and becoming a bit more like a gypsy and finding that my work was being listened to in places like Russia, Germany and America in a singer-songwriter context. I never realised how much traveling I would do in my life. I thought I’d just release one number 1 record and buy a mansion on the back of it. But that’s what you’re like when you’re a teenager, you know?
What was the first song you re-worked for Sundark and Riverlight?
It was Paris. I remember wanting that song to be really romantic sounding, you know, with a piano and a string quartet and that’s how it started. I always thought it interesting that people saw it as an industrial song so I wanted to re-do that, totally.
So did Paris sow the seed for the album?
Yes but also, during the ‘Magic Position’ campaign, when I finally got some money into my business, I did an acoustic show for the press and I put on a performance for a string quartet and vocal and the acoustic arrangements have basically existed from then. But then I went off touring and doing TV and being a popstar for a while…but I wanted to do an acoustic album since then.
You mentioned Kate Bush, earlier. She says she can’t bear to listen to her first couple of albums. Is there a particular song from your back catalogue that you really dislike?
No, I actually believe that those albums are perfect…of that time. It’s like picking at something you’ve done in the past and thinking, as a human being, why did I do that? Why did I date that person? Well, it was of its time. You had to go through that moment to get to the next moment so I really think that those things were the most perfect things that I could do at that time.
How has Bermondsey Street changed for you since first writing the song named after it?
I actually wrote it about a fictional idea of Bermondsey Street. When I was 15 years old I fell in love with an older man and he lived in Bermondsey. And so I wanted to write a song based on that area. Bermondsey was, for me, all about Derek Jarman and the Blitz era and the New Romantics and I was trying to bring some romance and imagination into London and I thought Bermondsey Street would be an amazing place to base that around. I spend most of my New Year’s Eves in Bermondsey at Andrew Logan‘s house. It has, like a lot of places in London, become a place of cultural significance so they try to commercialise it but I hope that street will always have the spirit of freedom of expression.
Has the way or manner in which you compose lyrics and music changed over the past ten years?
Technology has changed so much and it has changed the way that I write. At the beginning I was writing songs in my head, then it was the 4-track, an iPad…a lot of the time, the technology that you have changes the way you write. I am very much a product of whatever the creative circumstances around me are, as a writer.
You recently did a show at the Old Vic Theatre and you’ve also previously performed at the Palladium. What attracts you to performing in a theatrical setting?
It goes back to when I started playing with an orchestra. I was used to people listening to music whilst sitting down and then clapping maybe after the show and then I got really involved in rock’n’roll which is so much different to that but I did love that kind of premeditated set up of ‘I’m going to tell you something, you’ll listen and then you’ll respond afterwards’ that you get with theatre. So I like trying that out every now and again with my audience.
Throughout your career so far you’ve collaborated with other very high profile artists such as Patti Smith and Marianne Faithfull. Is there anyone else you’d particularly love to work with in the future?
I think Joni Mitchell is my ultimate — I don’t think I’ll ever get to work with her but my dream is to one day have lunch or dinner with her to talk about music. I think she is one of the wisest people on this planet, judging by her lyrics and I would want to know so much.
What’s your favourite Joni Mitchell song?
Down To You.
Do you prefer writing music and working in the artistic haven of the studio more than touring?
I’m not sure if I enjoy it more but I find it less stressful. It’s a beautiful time when you’re making an album because you really can cut all connections with the world and it is a very private time. And then with touring and singing and performing to other people, it is something that I definitely know I was born to do but it comes with a lot of stress and a lot of super-ego that you have to develop in order to stay healthy and sane.
What has been your favourite gig in the past ten years?
The show I did with Nan Goldin at the Tate Modern. Nan Goldin asked me to compose a piece of music for her The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and I know that no one had done that before and it really was a seminal piece of art and I was very young to be asked to do that. To me, that is a point in my life that I can’t quite match. To me, no gig seems to match the fact that Nan Goldin asked me to do that and I performed at the Tate Modern live to her projection. I am waiting for the next thing like that. Nothing seems to have happened yet [laughs].
Can you give us any hints as to the direction you envisage your next record going in?
I can’t, no, but I have two projects on the go at the moment. I have three, actually. And for me it’s all about what I feel about culture at the time. Do I want to be rebelling against it or do I want to find a way into it? So I always prepare a pop project and an anti-pop project and however I feel at the time of coming to make it, I’ll choose which one I want to go ahead with.
How or where do you envisage yourself another ten years down the line?
Hopefully alive and if I’m alive then I will probably be as frustrated with the world as I am right now and also as in love with the world as I am right now.
Sundark & Riverlight is out now on Bloody Chamber Music. Patrick Wolf plays Queen Elizabeth Hall on 6 April 2013.