‘I got up, covered in blood’: Patrick Wolf on surviving addiction, bankruptcy and a hit and run

The cult 00s art-pop star has poured a tumultuous decade into The Night Safari, his first music since 2012. As he nears 40, he reflects on the ‘clownification’ of his identity – and the true cost of fame

‘This is something I’m ready to talk about,” says Patrick Wolf, staring out over the sparkling calm of the Channel on this bright day. “I don’t want sympathy – I’m grateful for the experience as it’s led me to this point.”

Scratching a triangle on to a concrete bench with a piece of white chalk that has fallen from the cliff behind, the 39-year-old musician is frank yet good-humoured as he opens up about his tumultuous decade, which involved addiction, grief and bankruptcy. It all forms the narrative of The Night Safari, his first new music since 2012. Its release also marks 20 years since his debut album, Lycanthropy, a collision of viola folk and electronic pop that was as stark a contrast to the scrappy indie of the time as his homemade clothes and ambiguous sexuality were from all those lads in skinny jeans. This was an artist used to not fitting in.

The young Patrick Apps had adopted the “Wolf” persona as a defence against schoolyard bullies, a reinvention that informed Lycanthropy’s songs, many written during those fraught teenage years, about self-resilience, surviving abuse and the dangerous allure of London. It was a precocious yet sincere record that won Wolf devoted fans but contains a hint of the fall that was to come. “On Lycanthropy the motto is: ‘I’ll do this on my own, be your own hero, be your own saviour.’ I found out what happens if you apply that logic later on – life ends.”

After 2005’s Wind in the Wires, a romantic tribute to escaping to the wild Cornish coast, Wolf’s third record, The Magic Position, his first for a major label, was the start of a journey that embraced mainstream pop but resulted in him losing all sense of his artistic identity. Management and A&R people became “authority figures” who interfered with his vision, especially on 2011 album Lupercalia: “You lose your primary colours,” he says. “If I think about Lupercalia now, it’s like hands around my neck.”

Homemade clothes and ambiguous sexuality …Wolf on stage at the Astoria in London in 2007.
‘My sexuality was just who I was’ … Wolf on stage in London in 2007. Photograph: Avalon/Getty Images

Standing out started to be a curse as Wolf became “spiritually exhausted” with the media’s focus on his sexuality and appearance. “I spent a lot of time saying ‘Look at this album that I’ve made’, and everyone else going: ‘Flamboyant!’” he recalls. “But that’s just how I looked; my sexuality was just who I was.” Trying to put an end to what he calls the media’s “clownification” of his identity, the 2012 Sundark and Riverlight compilation was a folk reworking of his discography that he believed might be a creative swansong. “I thought: Patrick Wolf is done, see you in the obituaries. Luckily, that didn’t happen.”

Over the next decade Wolf “fell out of love with my vocation”, thanks to the toxicity of his relationship with the music industry and a longstanding addiction to alcohol and hard drugs. He adopted “magical thinking” to set his life back on track, visiting Dungeness to smash a bottle of gin and throw it into the sea, even employing an exorcist to cleanse his studio. He insists that this wasn’t “rock’n’roll” behaviour, but delusion and desperation. “I blamed the spirit world for the fact that I was an alcoholic and an addict.” He laughs at his misguided ideas. “Just go to a meeting and talk about what’s going on!”

There was plenty to discuss. In 2015 his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and in the same month, on a trip to visit the Italian villa of the composer Puccini, Wolf was seriously injured in a hit-and-run. “Apparently,” Wolf says, “I got up, covered in blood, and said, ‘Let’s go to the beach!’” He was unable to walk for a while. “It was the universe saying, ‘Slow down, your mother is ill, you’re fucked.’ Everything was chasing me.” It was to get worse.

In 2017 he was declared bankrupt as part of a settlement with the tax authorities, which coincided with him entering recovery for the first time. The path to sobriety was difficult: he relapsed after his mum died in 2018, and finally quit drinking three years ago. He moved to a flat in a Lewisham tower block, setting up his studio with fastidious attention to detail, right down to sourcing the right colour for lyric books. Yet the idea of making music was impossible. “For a long time, all I wanted was silence,” he says. “If a friend mentioned Patrick Wolf I would shiver, I felt so detached from the whole project. I was just not there because I’d been drunk for so long.”

The breakthrough came when he travelled beyond the London borders that he could see from his eighth-floor window, towards the sea. Ever since his bankruptcy, the Kent coast had become a place of recuperation; now it became an inspiration. Once lockdown ended, Wolf left London for a terrace house near the sea, set up his studio in a garden shed and started a Patreon as a source of income and means of reconnecting with his earlier work and still-devoted fans. Each day, he ran along the shore to a derelict industrial site that, odd as it may seem, “was the first place that felt like home”.

Now being reclaimed by nature, it inspired some of the optimistic lyrics of Enter the Day, the rolling closing track to an EP that updates the sonic diversity of Lycanthropy, and has Wolf in the best vocal form of his life. This confidence in telling the story of his decade of disaster and recovery came from Wolf’s “thrill” at working alone with the same instruments he used on his first two albums. “I reconnected with my craft – it’s how I started when I was 14, just with my four-track,” he says.

Returning to his DIY roots, he now spends his days running his Patreon and record label Apport, designing clothes and trying to get to grips with TikTok by asking himself how Derek Jarman might use it. When not working, life is now all about exploring the Kent coast, pottering in the garden and other “peaceful things”. As his 40th birthday approaches in June, Wolf seems far more grounded than he ever was in his years spent aiming for pop success.

He acknowledges where he went wrong back then. “A lot of hunger for fame comes from unresolved trauma,” he says. “Now I’ve healed that, I can’t think of anything worse. I have no time for existential yearning – that’s part of being young, the disquiet at where you are and the longing to be somewhere else.” He squints against the sun bouncing off the waves: “Now I know exactly what I don’t want to be or do.”

• The Night Safari is released on 14 April via Apport


Luke Turner

The GuardianTramp

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