“I’ve been trying to make peace with death,” says Jacob Allen, the singer-songwriter, producer and poet better known as Puma Blue, bashfully aware of the abstract stateliness his avowal holds, in the press release for the new album, Holy Waters. The record highlights his ability as a songwriter and uses an impressive production and instrumentation to unveil some grievous, yet hopeful, moments.
There's an interesting juxtaposition on the album; some of the songs he sings are darker or more emotional, but somehow these tracks, each separately, progress into great instrumentation that makes them lighter, full of life; so then, as a whole, the album feels emotional but with a spark of hope and a look towards the future. There’s a whole universe in the realm of Jacob Allen, one he suggests we can listen to late at night with headphones as much as it can be blasted on the open road. Introspection works in mysterious ways, but the truth is that the test of the spirit of a piece of music is in the car. If you can drive as you listen to Holy Waters, you might find yourself in an emotive scenario where things are brighter than they may sound at the beginning.
A substantial leap in Jacob’s artistry; extraordinary multitudes of hurt and relief are journeyed in his writing, navigating the spaces between grief and elation, and the strange semblances between solitude and community. Across its eleven tracks, his voice is a gossamer fabric delighting in the brightest language as he retraces every path walked in the harshest years of his life with a startling sincerity, looking each face of grief in the bloodshot eye. For the most part, he accepts it.
Recorded with his live band over the course of two visits to Eastbourne’s Echo Zoo Studios, Holy Waters also marks a sharp departure from the solo bedroom productions of early EP releases, 2017’s Swum Baby and 2018’s Blood Loss, an isolated approach that was later enforced upon his debut album during lockdown.Writing his decade-long struggle with insomnia into an album of uncannily nocturnal music he vaguely invites others to drift through dream states at his expense – Puma Blue, the unwavering jukebox, wide awake.
Collaboration has been creeping into Jacob’s other work recently, too, fresh from production and writing credits on Loyle Carner’s latest album Hugo, alongside an impressive list of co-writes with Biig Piig, Mahalia, and Lava La Rue among others. joy permeates each sonic corner of the new album as a result of this; it has somehow broadened the range of emotions imprinted on his artistic personality. The studio techniques are more analogue and experimental than his previous work, but sounding fuller, richer, killing what ego was left in Puma Blue and paying their band-centric debts proudly. Inspired still by luminaries from Jeff Buckley to Björk, more important to Holy Waters was Portishead’s inexplicable marriage of a live band and production, and the improvisational work of Can and Hendrix.
Dream of You, Pretty, Epitaphs or the massive Hounds are just some of the brilliant moments in Holy Waters, a meet between crooning and rocking out in the context of his performance delivery. Jacob kindly found some time to talk to METAL about the new album.
Jacob by Liv Hamilton 1.jpg
Hi Jacob! Thanks for taking the time for this. How are you doing?
I’m superb, thank you.
How are you feeling now that Holy Waters is out?
I’m feeling a nervous excitement. I’ve sat with this record for a while now and I can’t believe it’s time to share it with the world. I usually feel like projects are on the cusp of frustratingly old when I finally get to release them, but for some reason with this one it still feels so fresh and poignant to me, and I love it the same as I have for the last year.
The new album was recorded with your live band over two visits to Echo Zoo Studios in Eastbourne, using more analogue and experimental studio techniques than in your previous work. Writing this album and recording it with a live band, after making your debut on a laptop and in different circumstances makes me think that, once lockdown was over, we were able to return to our lives, but there were issues (which you deal with on the album, such as loss) that needed to be addressed. Do you think this might have something to do with your life experience in dealing with the process of making the album?
I think the illusion over the pandemic was that life stopped, but it didn’t. There was this strange lump in the throat of the world, but we were still experiencing things such as you mentioned. When the dust settled and we were working on this album together I was thrilled to be making a music that involved the band more, as an epiphany I had in lockdown was that I wasn’t utilising our chemistry and relationship enough. Something that came up a lot when I was writing lyrics though was that we seemed to be surrounded by loss in several forms, and so that couldn’t help but find its way to the heart of the music and words. My priority when writing is sincerity, so whatever I’m feeling or going through usually bleeds into the music naturally. This time, the band was an extension of that.
"It's a love song about how hard it is to see the person you love suffer." You've said this about Dream of You, and I find it very reflective. Watching the video, during the first part it reminded me of Coldplay's Yellow, as you run in slow motion. But the last scene made me think about how powerful the visuals are. Was it difficult to put an image to the song?
It was at first. I had so many ideas for the video, but they felt like they made the song lesser, like someone explaining a joke after the punchline. I was really enamoured with the idea of a one-shot video but the concept beyond that was coming slower. Eventually I realised the best way I could bring out more in the music than just what the lyrics point to, was to illustrate what was on my heart throughout the whole album process - this idea of either running from death or accepting it. I run from her the entire video until she catches up to me, but I wanted the end to feel gentle and resolute somehow. So, after the chase, Death, who was played by my friend Mia, rested a hand on my shoulder until the film in the camera ran out. It all clicked into place organically in the end.
In Dream of you you sing: "Every time I dream of you / I wish the gods would take me to you / Feels somehow like I've already died". This is key to understanding much of the album, but here death is presented from another perspective; one in which we reach our final state as human beings, and somehow love is involved in that. Did making the album help you come to terms with death in its various aspects?
I think it helped me accept death as part of life and helped me simply express some of my feelings of grief and loss. But after the album was finished, I again experienced a loss, and what I found was that though there was perhaps a new and profound peace, the intensity of pain was very much the same.
Love and death are sometimes closer than we think. Have you also found inspiration about this in other artists recently?
Not recently, but some songs that come to mind are Can’t Get Close by Sampha, Spinning Song by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Death Of A Martian by Red Hot Chill Peppers, Carissa by Sun Kil Moon, Videotape by Radiohead, and May by Jordan Rakei.
Hounds is one of the best songs on the album, one of your best songs and, in my opinion, one of the best songs of the year. It shows a very different side of your music, and the emotion it contains is passionate and life changing. How did this song come about?
That’s an overwhelming compliment, thank you. I was living with my partner throughout 2020 in London, but she was forced to go back to her home country in the winter and I felt a loneliness I hadn’t felt in years, I think it was more than just her absence. I wrote the bassline first, on a detuned guitar actually, and these lyrics started coming up out of me that felt very heavy but brought me a strange comfort. It was as if the song was an imaginary friend I had conjured. In February a year and some change later, I showed the band, and we trimmed the fat together, refining the structure from what was originally a 7 minute piece of music, to something that felt more succinct. We recorded it together live in two or three takes and I think it was the first thing we finished for this album.
O, The Blood! is one of the most emotional and uplifting songs on the new album. I love the video; it portrays a funnier side than the previous ones. According to the press release, it's a tribute you and the band have made to The Eric Andre Show, I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and Elvis's '68 Comeback Special. It's very interesting to see this other side, especially when all the videos of this new era are in black and white. What are your main references when creating visuals?
I’m glad you find it uplifting, that’s beautiful. I’m always trying to make people laugh, but I think I probably come across very serious in my music, so it felt natural to try and do something fun with that video. Film is very special to me, so a lot of films. Especially Jean Cocteau with this album, who is someone my partner got me into. I also feel like the photography of Peter Lindbergh was quite important to the visuals on this album, as well as paintings by John Longstaff and Jan Brueghel the Younger.
Literature and poetry; is there any author or book that was meaningful to you while making Holy Waters?
I’ve been reading a lot of poetry, at the moment specifically Frank O’Hara, Charles Bukowski and Sylvia Plath, an old favourite.
What was the most difficult song to finish and why?
Too Much, Too Much in terms of production, and Falling Down in terms of writing. With Too Much the song came from a jam with the band, which is a new way of writing for me. The bones were recorded live in a full take start to finish and I had this really clear vision in my mind of what to do with it, and I remember everyone in the band was into it but had doubts as to whether it would make the record, because they couldn’t see what I was imagining and I had no way of properly explaining it, as in the textures and the vocals. It took a long time for me to realise the vision and make it feel as exciting as it did in my head. With Falling Down I had the chorus and the guitar riff in the verse but that was it, for ages. Honestly it felt like I was never going to write the verses, I was trying what felt like every possible approach. I was contemplating giving up when I got together with my friend Luke (Luke Bower/SALPA) and we tried this spoken word approach. 90% of that didn’t make it, but it sparked something and I went home and finally pushed the rock over the top of the hill.
"Any place with you is home" (Holy Waters), is, for me, the line that captures one of the main messages of the album, as it poetically encapsulates most of the tracks on the album. How cathartic has it been to write this new album? Do you feel that art makes you grow or move on to the next phase of your life calmly, peacefully?
It is definitely an outlet for me. It’s my practice, you know? It’s hard to remember how I felt before I was writing music, because it’s been so long now, but it’s a kind of therapy to write about what you’re going through and alchemise it into something you find beautiful. Sometimes I’ll write a song that feels bold and scary to share at first, like Pretty or Mirage, but the longer I sit with it the more I feel a peace about it.
Epitaph is a beautiful and original homage to your grandmother. Reading about what happened and how you experienced a very special moment after it happened made me wonder how important they are in our lives and are not usually a theme in the music we listen to. Then I listened to Gates (Wait For Me), and I think it's a unique way of honouring her and your grandfather. What was your relationship with them like?
They were from a place about 30 minutes outside of Manchester, so it was always an exhibition in my mind as a child when we would drive to visit them from London. I’d dread what felt at the time like a long journey, but once we’d pass into the North, I would always fall back in love with the landscape, the rolling hills, lakes and little stone walls. They were a fair bit older than my Grandparents on my Dad’s side, so my earliest impressions of them were quiet and not so fun I suppose? Tea, biscuits, newspapers, dog walks. But the older I became the more I connected with them, especially with Rowena my Grandma, and she would write to me when I was at university and I would call her to respond and always managed to make her laugh. They were gentle, soft, romantic and loved by their friends, I wish I could spend time with them now.
You have a North American tour coming up in early November. I can't help but think about your 2021 live show A Late Night Special , which can be seen on YouTube. Do you have any ideas for a live show for this new tour?
I am definitely planning on recording another live film if I can find the funding. I am also putting more thought and magic into the tour for this album than I ever have before. I think these new songs lend themselves to playing live more than anything I’ve put out in the past. I have so much excitement this time to see where they go once we’re playing them together.
“This is an album that can be devoured late at night with headphones as much as it can be blasted on the open road.” Do you think there is a specific mood to listen to your music? And is there one when making it?
I can’t really listen to my own music objectively, so I’m probably not the person to ask. I suppose I wrote a lot of this album whilst in a deeply reflective state, but some songs just came from feeling, not thinking, having fun with the band and bouncing ideas off each other. Trying to get back to the feeling of playing with LEGO as a child. Whenever I find myself caught up in the romance of music itself, I usually know I’m going to finish whatever song I’m working on.
Looking back to your previous record In Praise of Shadows, how satisfied are you with it with the passing of time?
I go back and forth. I try not to think about it like that and stay in the present. But inevitably I do criticise my own work, and out of all my work, at the moment In Praise Of Shadows is my least favourite. I think there are some moments where I really achieved what I wanted to, but for the most part I find it frustratingly shy.
I read some time ago in an interview that you mentioned that insomnia was the cause of your songwriting at night, and that it worked as it is a moment when we tend to be more in touch with our thoughts and feelings. Are you sleeping better these days?
I am. I’ve been with my partner for 5 years and for some reason when I’m around her I sleep really well. I still struggle when I’m apart from her, but it’s a beautiful thing not to identify as an insomniac anymore. I find other ways to write drunk and edit sober, early starts or switching up the process and automatic writing. I will still stay up til 4 in the morning working on music though when I’m at home and she’s away.
I read that you are living in Atlanta, in a more relaxed environment than London. Are you missing home?
I’m learning home isn’t a physical place, so no. I miss my friends and family from London, and sometimes the cultural differences will surprise me or make me feel lonely for half a second, and whenever I go back I am charmed by England because I’ve given it space, but I am content being where I am.