Patrick Wolf has already been compared to David Bowie, Roxy Music's Bryan Ferry and, if I might add one more name to the pantheon, ABC's Martin Fry. Now, a compelling new song called "Damaris" will likely add art-rock icon Scott Walker to the list.
"Those are all wonderful comparisons," says Wolf, "and I'm a lot happier to be compared to them than any of my male contemporaries — or female contemporaries, really. It's a huge compliment: Scott Walker's a total genius."
Even with his offhand dismissal of a whole generation of musicians, the comment is fairly gracious coming from Wolf: "When I was 18, if anyone compared me to anything, I was like, how dare you, I'm an original! But as you grow old, you realize that it's just people's way of communicating to the rest of the world."
At the advanced age of 25 — "saving for my facelift, yeah" — Wolf has reasons to be cheerful. He's already amassed critical acclaim ("there's nothing remotely not awesome about him," wrote Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield), and his fourth album, The Bachelor, debuted last week at No. 49 on the U.K. charts, besting new entries from Elvis Costello and the Dave Matthews Band. The album tends to be more reflective than his previous works, while retaining an epic sound and vision beyond the aspirations — let alone reach — of most current rock musicians.
"It wasn't like a Metallica situation, where it took years and years of work," says the South London native, who trained at the Trinity College Music Conservatory before finding pop success. But it did take a year and a half, a 12-piece string section, a gospel choir and "a hundred grand or something like that."
Ironically, Wolf's most ambitious album comes after being dropped by Universal Records. To help finish the record, he enlisted fans to buy shares, in £10 increments, through bandstocks (a new venture run by execs from Kaiser Chiefs/Primal Scream label B-Unique).
"With free downloading, everyone's keeping costs down, and it's affecting the quality and production of music," explains Wolf. "Everyone's doing it from home, and if they want a string section, then they'll use synthesized strings. So I just went for pure authenticity — I wasn't cutting any corners."
Waltzing with Tilda
To complement his own proficiency on piano, viola and, yes, ukulele, Wolf recruited the likes of folk artist Eliza Carthy, electronic musician Matthew Herbert and even actress Tilda Swinton, who was doing a Q&A at the cinema next door to the studio where he was recording.
"I went up afterward and gave her a CD. I said, 'This song has a narrative part, and I can't think of anyone else in the world to speak it [other] than you.'"
Swinton's narratives appear throughout the album, bridging songs that range from the Celtic-tinged title track to cuts like "Vulture" and "Battle" that find Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire lending his industrial expertise.
"It was important that I worked with him," says Wolf, "in order to learn something new about music."
Although Wolf handled all the arrangements on previous albums, this time he called upon Fiona Brice to orchestrate tracks like "Theseus" and "Damaris." The latter song was inspired by a visit to a graveyard in Brede, a southern English town where most of Wolf's ancestors are buried: "There are about 80 graves there from my family, and in the corner, under the shade of a tree, there was this small wooden cross with 'Damaris' on it."
Inquiring at the church, Wolf was given a leaflet recounting its history, including the centuries-old story of Damaris' ill-fated love affair with a vicar's son. When the holy man forbade his son to marry a Gypsy girl, Damaris took her own life and assumed her quiet place in local history.
"It could have been really easy to write a song where I was telling that story in some kind of mad Bob Dylan narrative — well, not easy, but that would have been the most obvious choice," says Wolf. "But it struck such a chord in me, for anyone who has ended a relationship and lost contact with something they really cherished, so I wrote it from that point of view emotionally. And that whole battle of the church versus a true love that sees past religion and race and creed."
Damaris might well have been pleased: The song is unabashedly passionate, especially on the chorus in which her bereaved lover intones, "God damned Damaris."
"A lot of people who heard it in the States are like, 'Why is it God damn Damaris?', which I guess is quite a rude thing to say in America," notes a bemused Wolf. "But it's 'God damned Damaris. It's quite hard to sing, actually, God damned."
Persona non grata
As lofty as Wolf's music can be — and as polite as he is in conversation — the artist's on- and offstage persona remains a magnet for controversy. Earlier this spring, the Guardian referred to him as "Britain's most innovative, radical, creative and, yes, ridiculous, pop star, whose overt sexuality, visual flamboyance and unusual lyrics set him apart from all his contemporaries."
It was the kind of description that prompted Wolf to later post to his Twitter account that he's changing his name to "please use a thesaurus or a brain to find another word for flamboyant patrick wolf."
Of course, this wasn't the worst of the indignities that the baroque, bombastic, brilliant, camp, colorful, dazzling, flaming, flashy, florid, gaudy, glamorous, ostentatious, peacockish, showy, swashbuckling pop star has suffered in recent months. During a recent Madonna concert, Wolf says, he was roughed up, handcuffed and arrested.
"A journalist had seen the whole thing happen and now everyone seems to be asking about it," he laments. "We were in the VIP area and there were lots of straight couples kissing and holding hands around us."
Wolf did the same, leading to a complaint and security intervention.
"What was most shocking was that we were told that the stadium was a family-oriented venue and that we weren't allowed to do what we were doing, which was me having my arm around the waist of the man that I love. And this was at a fucking Madonna concert!"
While dismayed that British police are, in his estimation, "living in 1960," Wolf would prefer to put the incident behind him.
"I don't believe in promoting myself as a victim," he says, noting that his politics and persona are generally well-received. "There are a lot of places where it really goes down well, and you feel like there's a bit of a revolution going on."