Puma Blue Balances the Light and the Dark on Latest Album 'in Praise of Shadows' [Q&A]
Photo By: Netti Hurley
Puma Blue, real name Jacob Allen, takes listeners to dreamland on his latest album, In Praise of Shadows. With its soulful vocals, hypnotic guitar lines, and muted electronic beats, the South London-based singer makes an impressive leap forward from the lo-fi, bedroom productions of early EP releases, 2017’s Swum Baby and 2018’s Blood Loss, to a sincere, fully realized, and mature album.
The album title, inspired by the book from Japanese author Jun'ichirÅ Tanizaki, dives into themes of duality and explores finding sparks of light in the all-enveloping darkness.
Ones to Watch was able to talk with Allen about the album, its inspirations, having a specific artistic vision, and much more.
Ones to Watch: How are you feeling with the release of the record now so close?
Puma Blue: I feel good! A little apprehensive because I’ve been sitting on this for so long now. I’m dreading the first couple of weeks where there’s negative criticism, and I have to accept it. I’m looking forward to that being over. But, yeah, overall, very happy to be able to share it. It feels like it’s been a long time coming so, I’m very excited!
Yeah, it certainly has been. This album feels like a new and complex chapter for you. How would you describe this album in a sentence to new listeners who may have just found out about you or might find out about you once the record is out?
I would say that the album is an attempt at a very pure balance of light and dark. It’s influenced by everything from Bjà¶rk to the pure soulful expression in hip-hop.
This album feels like a new chapter full of complexity and soulfulness. In an interview with American Songwriter, you mentioned that the album was named after In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirÅ Tanizaki and how its duality themes inspired the record. What were some of your other inspirations from this album? Who were you listening to, or what were you reading while making this record?
I delved back into Classical music. It hadn’t been something that I listened to since I was maybe seventeen or eighteen. It was amazing to go back to composers like Rachmaninoff or Scriben, Brahms, and Chopin and feel the way they balanced tone and color in juxtaposition to the soul and R&B music I was listening to over the last two or three years. It was interesting trying to blend those worlds and almost try and do R&B influenced vocal layering but with guitars trying to emulate classical instruments or combining a harp with a hip-hop style drum groove. So yeah, I’ve been delving into that contrast of warm and cold in sound. I think even in film, I found that as well.
Oh really? What kind of films inspired you?
My partner got me really into Jean Cocteau last year when we were in lockdown. Admittedly I don’t think I’d ever seen much of his work before, but just seeing this kind of grace that he brought to the screen in stuff like The Beauty and The Beast or Orphée or The Blood of The Poet was incredibly influential. Just seeing stuff that could be so tender and gentle and yet so moving and powerful, I think that’s what I strive for in my work. I want it to be impactful and moving but in a delicate tone. I’m not trying to bash anyone over the head with a message or a feeling.
So, it’s safe to say subtlety is key in your work?
Yeah, absolutely. I should also say sonically that Sade Adu has been especially important. Artists like Bill Withers and Donnie Hathaway over the last year too. Music that can feel both dark, but also uplifting has been special to me.
Your lyricism is not only personal but also very poetic. Lyrics like, “except for the ends of you, where’s the little girl I knew?” in “Velvet Leaves” really sticks in the minds of listeners. Is there any one lyric that still sticks with you from the record?
I think definitely on “Opiate.” There’s a line on the second chorus where it changes from “I thought I left you behind” to “Oh, you left so much behind.” Every time I sing that, I feel a bit of a twist in my stomach because it’s just so true. I wanted that song to feel general to anyone you think about or anyone who comes up in your conscious. It’s not a breakup song or a song about one person. It’s a general sort of mourning for anyone that has drifted away but also people that thought you left in your past, and they sometimes resurface in dreams, and you’re shocked when you wake up. You’re like, “Oh, I can’t believe I’m still dreaming about this bully from high school. I can’t believe they’re still in the background noise of my brain.” So that’s what the song is about. Then there’s that line that changes to “Oh, you left so much behind.” That feels a lot more specific to the end of a relationship. Like even when everything is said and done and amicable, and you’ve moved on, and you’re both in happy relationships, there’s always gonna be that hole of the memories you shared. It’s still gonna be a little painful to think about, even subconsciously. Yeah, so I guess that song just resonated with me when I wrote it, and I hope that other people find catharsis in it as well.
You’ve also shared that "Velvet Leaves" was the song you were most proud of from a songwriting perspective. Were there any songs on the record you found incredibly hard to finish, whether because of the subject matter or writer’s block?
I think the biggest struggle at first was trying not to write an album that was too influenced by my perception of what fans would want. For a while, I started with empty hands and just sort of started writing for the album, and I think I just started to write stuff that I thought people would want to hear, which is just an impossible task. I was just coming up with stuff that I didn’t even like, and I think I had to realize that the people who enjoy my music like it because it’s coming from a sincere place. Even if I write stuff that those fans don’t now like, it’s important to always move on with sincerity and just write honestly and write songs that bring me joy. Also, though, I think it was just hard to write songs of joy. I wanted to bring a balance of songs that explored dark things and songs that were from this healthy, joyful place that I’m in. I don’t know why, and I’m sure there’s some music scientist that could explain it, but it’s just harder to write happy songs.
How did you end up working through that?
In 2019, when I did the bulk of the writing, I realized I was in this really good place, maybe the best place I’ve ever been in my life, and I had no experience of writing music from this place, and I was just like, “How do I do it?” I just had to figure out on the go what me writing happy music would sound like. It was tricky, and I think writing something like “Sheets” was the first time it opened that up for me, and I realized that music doesn’t have to sound bouncy to be happy. It can just be reflective or even just sleepy. Then it sounds safe and cozy, and really to me, that’s what happiness is at the moment. So yeah, “Sheets” really opened that block for me, and I realized that I could write about love, and it doesn’t have to be unrequited love or about heartbreak. It can be about good love.
Which song are you most excited for people to hear that hasn’t been released as a single?
Hands down, it would be “Bath House.” I’m just really excited to see what people will think of it. I almost feel that it’ll be the kind of song that people will love or hate. They’ll either skip it or it’ll be their favorite. I didn’t picture myself writing one like that. One that would just make me so happy, but it makes me happy every time I play it or hear it. I feel incredibly enamored with it, and I’m excited for people to hear it. It’s hard to explain why but I think maybe it’s because it’s so reflective of who I am, so I’m just excited to show that to people.
All of the music videos have such a unique concept and solid identity yet are bound together not just by aesthetics but also the forebodingly intimate atmosphere they’ve created. What was the creative process for working on these visuals for each single?
I’m a quite visually specific artist. It’s something I care about, and as we said earlier, it might be because of my love for film. I feel like it’s important to me to care about the aesthetics side of it because that’s wrapped around the music at the end of the day and might even be people’s first impression before they even make their mind up about what they’re hearing. They’re just gonna judge it on what they’re seeing. So, it makes sense to make sure that they go hand in hand. To my shame, I’m constantly mood boarding instead of scrapbooking. I moved from Tumblr to Pinterest and then back to Tumblr and then back to Pinterest. I was just always trying to define what it is that I’m drawn to.
That sounds like quite the process, but surely all of the time spent figuring out what you were drawn to makes the rest of the process easier?
Yeah, and I think by the time the album rolled around, and it was time to think about visuals, I had developed this strong sense of tone and color and was hearing a lot of nude pink and a lot of silvery, translucent textures. It almost came from color first and architecture, photography, and film. Then when it came to the videos for the singles, it was almost like, “How do I take this foundation and adapt it to tell this particular story?” With “Velvet Leaves,” we were telling a story of a near loss, so it felt right to tell a story about loss via this myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. I didn’t want to just do this video where I was just acting with my sister, and it was a space totally in reality because I think that would’ve been too visceral to return to for her and me. Having this myth be this middleman veiled the message in a helpful way and allowed me to be personal yet keep the audience at arm’s length. And I used this same process for the others and asked myself, how can I use this world of inspiration that I’ve been developing, this color palette, and this visual language and adapt it to tell each story.
Puma Blue will celebrate the album’s release by streaming the special one-off concert film “A Late Night Special” on February 11th. Filmed at the Battersea Arts Centre and directed by CHILD Studio (Robyn, The xx), the show features Puma Blue leading an extended eight-piece live band through songs from the new album alongside select favorites from the Swum Baby and Blood Loss EPs.
“A Late Night Special” will be broadcast at 10 pm local time in three different zones (Australia and Asia, Europe, the Americas), and fans will have a window of 48 hours to view or rewatch the show. Tickets are available from DICE, and optional bundles include a vinyl, CD, and a limited edition gig poster.
Listen to Puma Blue’s In Praise of Shadows below!