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Beatie Wolfe interview: Musician explains why she's selling new album Montagu Square on a shirt, but not in record shops
John Walsh meets a pioneering songwriter
Montagu Square, the second album by the Anglo-American singer-songwriter Beatie Wolfe, is out this week, but you won’t find it on the shelves in HMV. You can download it from iTunes, Amazon and Google Play, you can buy a lyric book with a CD insert from her website, and you can get the tracks on a deck of “intelligent” cards provided you’ve got an Android phone on which to play them. Oh, and it’s also available as a shirt.
Ms Wolfe, 27, takes an unusual approach to the dissemination of music. Though her songs of love, yearning and regret are bouncily melodic in a nicely old-fashioned, verse-and-chorus way, and her inspirations are 20th-century – Beatles, Nina Simone, Otis Redding – her productions are crazily techno-futuristic. Her first album, 8ight, for example, was available as a 3D interactive album mobile app, available on iPhone.
“People ask why I’m so technically innovative, but I don’t think I am,” the elfin Wolfe told me when we met, “I just have a fondness for bringing together things that enhance each other.”
Her new album’s titular address is a rock’n’ roll shrine. Ringo Starr leased the ground floor of No 34 Montagu Square in 1965, when The Beatles were two years into their world-conquering career, and sub-let it to Paul McCartney, who wrote “Eleanor Rigby” there. When Paul left, Ringo sub-let it to Jimi Hendrix who wrote “The Wind Cries Mary” there – but he and his manager, Chas Chandler, were kicked out for painting the walls black, while tripping. In 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono moved in, after Lennon had split from his family home. Remember the couple’s naked bottoms on the cover of the Two Virgins album? They were photographed at No 34. As I say: a shrine.
Wolfe decided to record a live single at the flat after meeting its owner, David Mason, who runs Anthony Sinclair, the Mayfair tailors who supplied James Bond’s suits in the early 007 films: another Sixties connection. In a further elaboration, Wolfe linked up with a textile label called Beatwoven who use audio technology to transfer sound patterns to textiles.
Last month, veteran music hacks and young whippersnappers from Wired and BBC6 stood in Mason’s flat, surrounded by photos of Lennon, McCartney and Hendrix, and watched Ms Wolfe record her gorgeous new single, “Take Me Home”, and have it transferred sonically on to a fabric that will become a shirt, sold by Mason to gentlemen clients, and a silk gown worn by Wolfe herself. “Everything worked together that night,” she recalled. “The live recording, the history of the room, the collective memories of everyone there, the clapping – it’s all in the geometrical pattern that’s being woven in silk.”
She grew up in London surrounded by counterculture luminaries. Her father, Rick Watson, an antiquarian bookseller from Portland, Oregon, moved to California and, through his contacts with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the Beat poets, befriended the Rolling Stones. “I found out about the Stones connection only a few years ago,” says Wolfe. “I thought my father was just a dry old bookseller, but ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ came on the car radio one day and he said, ‘There’s a line about me in this song.’ It was, ‘And I laid traps for troubadours/ To get killed before they reached Bombay.’ When Dad and Chris Jagger tagged along with the Stones in India, the band played pranks on them because they were annoying whimsical poets.” Her mother, Virginia Boston, was a journalist, who co-wrote a study of punk with Danny Baker.
It wasn’t surprising that Wolfe embraced music precociously early. She wrote her first song, the sapphically titled “You Can’t Get Away from Me, Girl,” at eight. At 15, she sang in a grunge band called Aurum. “Very dark, very angsty stuff, with titles like ‘Troubled,’ ‘Misery,’ ‘Asylum’ and ‘Let it Boil’ – I remember thinking, ‘When I’m older, will I look back and think this was my best contribution to the world?’”
Studying English at Goldsmiths College, London, she wrote her third-year dissertation on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, in the teeth of teacherly dispproval. It was posted online, where it came to the attention of Cohen’s agent, Robert Cory. With his encouragement, Wolfe set the singer’s poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep” to music; she’s still waiting for Cohen’s reaction, but her dearest wish is to open for the Montreal Miserablist on his next tour.
A striking woman with a confident guitar style and a voice that can carry off husky intros and belting climaxes, she doesn’t appear much on the summer festival circuit. Why not? “I like festivals provided you can have control of the sound, that you can feel a sense of intimacy with the audience, and that the lyrics can be heard. They’re fundamental to me. I don’t want the words to be lost in the white noise.”
What does she most want to happen to her? A No 1 single? “I don’t care about that stuff,” she says pertly. “I’ve always wanted to make music for generations to come, to leave behind a great catalogue. And on the entrepreneurial side, to open people’s eyes to what music can do.”