Patrick Wolf, the British indie recording artist adored internationally by a devoted legion of fans for his dark, melancholy lyrics and haunting melodies, has lightened up -- literally. "I'm turning into a California babe," Wolf says, breaking into an easy laugh.
Wolf is enjoying a sizzling-hot afternoon in West Hollywood, having just embarked on an acoustic tour of the United States ahead of the domestic release of his latest album, Lupercalia, a collection of mostly upbeat songs. Witness also the cheerful, Bruce Weber-inspired video for his defiant single "The City," in which the musician plays piano on a West Coast beach before frolicking in the waves with friends. This is a brand new Wolf.
The pale 28-year-old, clad in a baggy Charlie Brown T-shirt, and with shaggy hair that turns shimmering crimson when the sunlight catches it, looks conspicuously out of place among the other sun-worshippers on the rooftop of a boutique hotel. Wolf sips a Long Island iced tea and insists he feels comfortable in Southern California.
"It's become my second home," he says. His sense of peace and contentment is reflected in the songs on the new record, the curious title of which is taken from the name of an ancient Roman festival. "It's about a time in life when you celebrate love and focus on being fruitful," Wolf says, adamant that he didn't want the title to sound pretentious. "I travel so much from country to country, I thought Lupercalia could be a destination."
Wolf has always had an esoteric quality about him. Born into an artistic family (his mother is a painter and his father a musician), Wolf was raised in south London opposite the Houses of Parliament in the Thatcher era. Despite the ongoing unrest in that time, he recalls his early childhood as anything but bleak. "We lived in quite a bit of a bubble," he says. "I'd come home and my mother was naked with an easel and a paintbrush and my dad was playing the saxophone. It seemed normal to me, but we were slightly outcast as a family, so my mother was very protective about me not knowing much about the world for the first 10 years."
But then, while attending a military school, Wolf experienced an incredible growth spurt, shooting up to 6 feet 2 inches by age 11. "I stood out a lot," he recalls, smiling at his pun. "All I wanted to do was play the violin and sing in the choir. I was an outcast."
Then near-tragedy struck. While on a school trip, Wolf tumbled from a bus his class was traveling in. "I became famous as the boy who survived and screwed up everybody's coach trip," he remembers. "I came back from that and everyone knew me. They were like, There's that weird kid." Wolf began to dwell in his own internal world, during a time when England was still under the black cloud of Section 28, a law that barred schools from "promoting" homosexuality. Wolf began to be bullied for his effeminacy.
"If someone was verbally abusive to me, the teachers couldn't stand up for me because it would lead to, as they saw it, illegally promoting homosexuality," he recalls. By the time he was 15, it was so traumatic that Wolf was forced to leave the school, and his parents went to court and sued school administrators for emotional distress.
"We won through lots of legal wrangling," he says. "But basically the school said they couldn't do anything about the bullying and that I had to leave. School officials wrote in a letter, 'Due to Patrick's effeminate disposition, we can't support him at school unless he changes his mannerisms and the way he looks.' I didn't give a fuck about my sexuality. I was proud to be different and not conform."
The new album continues Wolf's path of happy nonconformity. "This album has a sense of peace and confidence that is lacking from the previous albums," he says. "This album is the calm after the storm. It's a relief to get to that point. Lupercalia is a festival of love. A time in life when you celebrate love and focus on fruitful time in life."
The mood of the new record is also a reflection on Wolf's private life. Besides a tour to support his fifth album, he has another big project planned for 2012. The musician breaks into a boyish smile when asked about his partner of four years, William Pollock, whom he plans to marry this summer. "I call it a marriage, but it's a commitment ceremony," he says, adding, "It's going to be a big wedding."
Wolf's even grown more comfortable with the fan fervor that once made him uncomfortable. "When I was a petulant 22-year-old, I was a dickhead," he recalls. "I didn't know how to cope with it. When people would drive by and yell 'Patrick Wolf,' I'd yell back, 'Fuck you!'"
A change of heart came when he realized that school-age bullies were no longer tormenting him. "There are no bad days anymore," he says. "It's important that if you put something out to the public and you're behind it, you realize that I have to be on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Now I enjoy it. I realize that I can make someone happy, and that's a nice feeling."