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Photography Kim Jakobsen

Patrick Wolf: ‘I saw music as a traumatic space to be in’

After a decade-long silence and a traumatic growth period, the south London songwriter is ready to start afresh with his new EP, The Night Safari

Silence has been Patrick Wolf’s default for the best part of a decade. 

Having shared six studio albums by the age of 29 and collaborated with artists including Marianne Faithfull, Angelo Badalementi and Nan Goldin, the prolific singer-songwriter and producer stepped back from music in 2012, following the release of double-disc retrospective Sundark and Riverlight. “I’d put a lot of music into the world, but I don’t think I’d had a normal growth pattern,” Wolf reflects today, speaking from his home on the east Kent coast. “I almost had to catch up with my emotional and spiritual development.” 

The ensuing years brought little peace. Fighting alcohol and drug addiction, reeling from his mother’s cancer diagnosis and subsequent death, and betrayed and bankrupted by a management team who’d neglected to file a single tax return in eight years, Wolf simply had no stomach for the vocation he’d pursued doggedly since his mid-teens.

“With all the toxicity that I was wound up in, I saw music as a traumatic space to be in,” he sighs. “And once you stop, things that have always been held together so tightly by adrenaline and ambition start to fall apart spectacularly.”

Wolf tackles these wilderness years head-on on his much-anticipated comeback collection The Night Safari. Over ambient organ chords and staccato Celtic harp, the five-track EP begins with the words, “Pardon me for disturbing your dreaming / Did not want you to hear me crying / Or watch me reeling and receding / Into this old mania of mine.”

“Many of my album titles – like Wind in the Wires, The Magic Position – have been phrases I’ve used to describe a mental process or an affliction,” Wolf explains. “The Night Safari describes these nights lying by the side of my partner and detaching mentally as I looked at the last two years’ – and the next two years’ – failures and anxieties. And the realisation you’re going to have to navigate your way through that to reach the morning.”

The EP charts that spiritual journey, from the quiet terror of the title track and the emotional instability of Acheron – named after one of the five rivers of Hades in ancient Greek mythology – to a place of healing on Dodona and Enter The Day. On the latter, Wolf entreats the listener to “Enter the day / When out of the shadow of doubt,” over undulating piano. It’s a cautious plea for resilience, rather than an expression of blind optimism.

Though clean and sober for “multiple years”, Wolf still has complicated feelings about sharing the specifics of his story. “I'm still trying to work out what my public relationship is with [my recovery],” he says thoughtfully. “I see some people that enter the public eye with their recovery, and it’s almost like they’re trying to sell people something. And that’s not the way that I want to go forward… I don’t want to be too guarded or defensive, but there’s still something very precious about being private.”

Amidst the tumult of the last 10 years, there were attempts to create. In 2015, he took a pilgrimage to Acheron and the oracle at Dodona in northwest Greece – a detox trip disguised as a sort of writing retreat. “I had some kind of Byronic idea that the grand journey was going to change my perspective on life,” he says wryly. “I thought I would enter a real state of prolific and insightful work, but from then onwards I stopped writing.”

He rallied three years later, making arrangements to record an album at the New York studio of Tony Shanahan, whom he met while playing harp and viola in Patti Smith’s band. Shortly before he was due to fly, his mother was given a week to live, and the record was later scrapped.

‘Once you stop, things that have always been held together so tightly by adrenaline and ambition start to fall apart spectacularly’ – Patrick Wolf

In 2020, he played a sell-out residency at St Pancras Old Church but found himself beset by illness. “I really felt like I had not returned to work mentally prepared at all,” he confesses. “For me, those shows felt extremely dark and gothic. So it really wasn’t until I worked very hard at building a solid foundation of sobriety and balanced it with this quiet life here by the sea, that I was able to start again [with music].”

The seeds for Wolf’s recovery were sown while still living in Bloomsbury. Undertaking a bi-weekly course of psychotherapy to tackle his addiction and apathy towards music, he found further solace visiting exhibitions at the Bedlam psychiatric hospital in south London. He began collecting ceramics created by current inpatients, and discovered “new superheroes” in the shape of former inhabitants, the artists Richard Dadd and Louis Wain. “To see people in a place where they were healing and the things that they were making was really encouraging to me.”

After lockdown ended, Wolf swapped London for Kent and embraced a slower pace of life with his partner and his two cats, Percival and Hieronymus. “When I bought this house, I really saw that as the beginning of a chapter,” he says. “I was able to close a 10-year period.”

The idea of starting again “from scratch” is borne out by The Night Safari, which sees Wolf self-producing and playing every instrument – from the bowed psaltery to the suitcase organ – just as he did on his debut album Lycanthropy, almost exactly two decades ago. Every bit as integral to his creative rebirth was his decision to reclaim his primary instrument. 

“My first love was the viola. But from Lycanthropy onwards, the more that ‘popstar’ tag was thrown at me, the further away that instrument got. The quest for fame is really a quest for validation and acceptance, and I realised that could be sought holistically elsewhere. So to put a viola solo in the middle of Dodona was a spiritual statement; a reclamation.”

Wolf views The Night Safari very much as the opening chapter of the second stage of his career. And with his seventh album already close to completion, it does feel like his most fruitful years are still ahead of him. Certainly, as the once boy-wonder prepares to move into his fourth decade, he seems more at ease in his skin than ever. 

“I haven't quite worked out how my age will define me,” he smiles. “But I have always looked up to artists that start young and continue to grow. I’m excited about going into my forties because this is when it starts getting good in other people’s catalogues.”

The Night Safari is out now.

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