By Preston Taylor
Jacob Allen, who releases music under the moniker Puma Blue, fuses intimate, falsetto vocals with jazz and r&b inspired instrumentals. WTBU Intern Preston Taylor spoke with Jacob before his show at The Red Room at Cafe 939 on November 6.
Preston Taylor: How is the tour going so far?
Jacob Allen: It’s been really great — the drives have been really easy. It’s been weird already just because of something in the band, personal things that happened out of the blue right before the tour. So it’s been a roller coaster even though we’ve only done one show. Everyone’s still okay, I just don’t really know what’s going to happen the rest of the tour. But it’s really nice, the show last night was so lovely and it’s just good to be out with the boys again. So yeah, it’s cool.
PT: Is there a difference between touring the U.S. and the U.K./Europe?
JA: Obviously travel is really different, you have to take two days sometimes to get to one place. Whereas, you know, you can drive from the south of England to northern Scotland in a day if you really wanted. The other thing I always notice is the atmosphere, I feel like people in U.S. crowds are a bit more expressive, they’re not afraid to work and show you how they feel, which is really encouraging and brings you out of your shell a bit. If you’re in the U.K., sometimes you get that, but sometimes you feel like you’re trying to earn their respect a little bit; which is fine as well, it makes you work for it. But it is nice that even before you’ve played a note for U.S. crowds they’re going crazy and it’s like ‘s**t, this is really sweet.’
PT: How did your recently-released live album on his own. (Live at Eddie’s Attic, Atlanta) come about?
JA: We had this co-headline tour in March and I was staying with my girlfriend who’s originally from Atlanta. We were there for the tour and I thought it would be a shame to be in Atlanta and not play an Atlanta show because there wasn’t an Atlanta show on the tour. So we last minute booked this gig which was really lovely, it had a super sweet vibe and the guy at the back handed me a USB stick at the end of the show. I was like ‘oh shit, awesome,’ and then forgot about it for the whole tour. I got home and remembered and was giving it a listen and expected to hate it; often you get a recording of a show and it’s just super dry. He’d done just one desk mix and a room mic which sounded exactly like it did at the show, and it kind of blew me away how intimate it felt even though it was just an MP3. I didn’t put much thought into it, I just thought I should release it. It just felt really special and I was thinking about Jeff Buckley’s Live at sin-é album and how much I loved that when I was a teenager, so I thought maybe there’ll be one or two fans who would really appreciate the stripped back thing.
PT: Your sound is often likened to that of Chet Baker and Jeff Buckley, do they happen to be your main influences?
JA: Definitely not Chet. I kind of only know 2 or 3 vocal tunes and like 5 or 6 trumpet tunes. I never really delved into him, he was always a bit too family-friendly for me. I do always really enjoy the comparison even though I’m not a fan, I think Chet’s voice is so smooth and so interesting. It kind of sounds like it’s always about to break, that it isn’t very strong. Yet he always just glides on these notes for ages, with no vibrato, which is really cool to me. I don’t mind the comparison at all, it’s cool. But Jeff is a huge influence, I think maybe too much. I think I wear all my influences on my sleeve, but he’s the only one where I’m like ‘maybe I should tuck that in the pocket a little more,’ because he’s untouchable first, and second of all you get insecure about drifting too much towards your idol when you’re trying to make something original. He had such a way with the spirit of music which really influenced me. Just being young and realizing it could be more interesting to sing falsetto than have to be a masculine type voice, and that was where I naturally felt comfortable singing anyways. I felt that, not that being cool matters, but I just didn’t think it was cool. But hearing him do it really changed my mind.
PT: Any other influences?
JA: D’Angelo in so many ways; his production and songwriting especially. Radiohead, just again an amazing discography. Donny Hathaway, Billie Holiday. I feel like everyone says Frank Ocean these days, but at this point it would feel rude to ignore the influence that he’s had. Jimi Hendrix is a big influence on my guitar playing; John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and also his solo stuff. Elliott Smith too, there’s also just a lot of hip hop and jazz to be honest. Big J Dilla fan, I love guys like Wayne Shorter and Don Byas. I’m probably leaving out some major ones. I think it’s a shame when people are afraid of rock music. I feel like when people say they listen to everything, a lot of people are really shy of country or rock music. I feel like all the guys in the band are just as much into R&B and rock music, which I think is probably why I love their playing so much. They really find that balance which excites me. So yeah, love a bit of heavy chugging sometimes.
PT: You mentioned Chet being too “family-friendly,” how do you see your music differing from that?
JA: I don’t necessarily know if that applies to me or not, I might actually be really family friendly, I don’t know. It’s more that a lot of jazz that I like has this sort of disregard for rules, or like an earthiness and a rawness. I feel like Chet really nails being smooth and staying in the lanes quite a lot, which is an amazing sound. But even Frank Sinatra I think kind of plays a lot on bringing stuff to the edges and experimenting with a lot of color and light and shade, which is what I’m drawn to in music. So I guess that’s what makes me different than Chet – experimenting with the darkness as well as the smoothness. But I don’t know if I execute that or not, but that’s definitely the intention. A little bit of dissonance is nice.
PT: How did attending the BRIT School affect you musically?
JA: It was cool because the teachers are really serious. Not serious in a jazz school kind of way where they’re trying to pass on tradition, but serious in the sense that if you weren’t there to really throw your enthusiasm at it, they would rather you left. They weren’t keen on people to come unless you really wanted to spend two years exploring music. It was such a diverse course, there were so many topics that I didn’t think would get covered in a school, like studio stuff and theory, but an hour a week of just music appreciation. They’d just show us some wacky stuff, and we’d talk about it. Which seems obvious now, you do that with your friends all the time, but at 16 that was fundamental. So that was cool, also just meeting lots of like minded people of all different origins and trajectories. No one was doing the same thing, everyone had a different niche of interest, which was really cool. One of the guys in the band is someone I met there, and two of my best friends are from BRIT. Even though we left at 18, it’s carried on through my life. I’m also really blessed to have two parents that were musicians. Although they haven’t played music in a performative way since I was born, they were teachers and really just turned me on to a lot of basic stuff. Being a kid and being able to get into Pink Floyd or Sting, you know, stuff that you’ll eventually come across, but getting to hear it at age 7 was so exciting. I got such a spark for music really early and it was very early on what I wanted to do. I feel lucky, they’re cool cats.
PT: What inspired you to start producing your own music?
JA: I was a drummer first, I’ve been playing drums from the age of 7 and loved it and put my whole life into it. But I couldn’t really find the band where I was able to express my ideas. I was able to express myself in a technical and performative way, but I was, unknowingly, drawn to composition. I only really had friends that wanted to do hard rock, which is a lot of fun but I couldn’t really experiment with that, and they didn’t want to take it very grungy, which I was interested in. So I just started playing guitar and teaching myself songs, a mixture of guitar tabs and just working out stuff from ear when I was about 13. It was just a way of coming into the rehearsal and being able to say ‘why don’t we go here in the bridge,’ then it just ended up taking over. I spent more and more time writing and I guess by the time I was 15 I was downloading software to produce and I kind of got lost in the sauce. I never really thought about it, it was never really my intention to be a frontman or anything, that’s just how it’s ended up. I really like it, but it’s weird, I always thought I was gonna be just in the background in a cool way, just as an arm of the body rather than a head of the body. It was kind of an accident, but a happy accident.
PT: Surprisingly, the first song you ever released, ‘Only Trying 2 Tell You,’ is fully formed and has many of the qualities of your current sound, despite being a demo. Did you build towards this sound, or has your music always had the intimate, jazzy aspect to it?
JA: Thousands of hours, honestly. There was this culture at BRIT of putting stuff on Soundcloud almost every other day, of only getting 15 listens and feeling really good about it. It didn’t even have to have a cohesiveness about it, sometimes I’d upload a song recorded on an acoustic guitar, and then I’d upload that briny, ambient inspired piece of shit from Logic. I think I’ve really worked hard to find my voice. I actually recorded an album that I released and then took down in 2014 that was the closest I got to what you hear now. There was another album I did on MySpace that might still be up there, I don’t know. I think I was in a period in my life where I was very much in limbo; I wanted to go to uni but I hadn’t gotten the place I wanted; I’d just broken up with my first girlfriend and had no music out. It was very much just a blank canvas and that was the song that I wrote, I hadn’t even written a song in a long time. I stopped doing gigs and I sort of started singing it in the shower. I was trying to work out what song it was and realized ‘oh shit, that’s original!’ So I stumbled out of the shower and just recorded it, like that demo that’s out is what I recorded in the moment. I just started with the guitar, and then wrote the lyrics in like 10 minutes. Sometimes it just comes from somewhere else, rather than you crafting it. But that was definitely the first time a song of mine had sounded like that, you know, there was a progression. The reason that one has stayed out is just by chance that I hit that song in the right way. It was kind of like the one in a million moment, I just couldn’t stop listening to it, and that’s how I knew it was very important, at least to me. I hadn’t had that maybe ever, ever. I’d written songs I’d liked but that was the first time I was genuinely looping the song back to myself, which is really weird. Building off of that is what led me to the Puma Blue project.
I still prefer the demo version to the one I released last year. I was happy enough with the one last year to be proud of it and release it, but I remember a couple months after that one came out I was feeling really hyped up that I had just conquered the favorite song I’ve ever written and done a new and better version, and then I went back and listened to the original and I was like ‘ah fuck.’ I was slightly heartbroken because there’s something about that original that I can’t recreate. Probably just the vulnerability of it and the lack of good vocal technique, just stuff you can’t get back. It sounds pubescent to me and you can’t get that back, in a nice way. I’m glad I recorded it.
PT: What inspired Swum Baby?
JA: Years of being ground down inspired that EP. My first year at university I was just trying to make music under my birth name. I was just getting sick of getting booked at gigs where no one was coming, and also I’d be put in the lineup with quite archetypal singer-songwriters just because of my name and the one track I had out. In order to distance myself from that, going into my second year at university, over the summer I spent just notepads and notepads coming up with the name. Writing down anything that came into my head, and if I didn’t get the feeling I’d just cross it out. Literally took hundreds of words until I remember I wrote Puma Blue and realized that’s what it was gonna be called. I was still in the problem with the gigs so I just started putting on my own shows and paying a friend of mine a small amount of money to do these amazing posters to draw in students. He was an amazing artist, and I think students saw the posters and thought the gig was going to be good, when really it was just me trying out material. As the gigs started getting more of a following, I was booking my favorite local bands and always putting myself in the billing and moving myself in the lineup. One time I’d headline and another I’d be the very first support out of like five bands and three DJs, very long nights. After about nine months the first group of boys came up to me to be like ‘are you Puma Blue?’ and I was thrown that anyone knew even what I looked like. It just built from there. In 2015 it just started live and it helped that a couple global things had happened with “Only Trying 2 Tell You” and Soundcloud. My last year of uni I was recording Swum Baby, just songs I had written over the last year. I was just super depressed and really hating life, hating university. At the time I would have said I was hating my relationship, but I think I was really hating myself at the time. Just really didn’t like who I was, so all those songs came out of that. Many things that had gone wrong or hadn’t gone the way I’d wanted. I tried to keep it very honest and I think that’s why people have responded to it. Every time I thought I should take that personal lyric out or mix that better I decided to just keep everything as it was. Going back to Elliott Smith and his first three albums, he just leaves the mistakes in and I’m really drawn to that intensity of a mistake on a recording. It’s really awkward to hear it.
The artwork came from surfing the internet and books and libraries and looking for something that resonated with the music and with me. I found this book called The Park by Kohei Yoshiyuhi. It turns out he’s this old guy from Japan who’d only ever done this one photo series under a fake name, exhibited it, and then moved on with his life. So he was a nightmare to track down, but we asked his permission expecting him to say no or charge like ten grand, which would have been impossible for me and my manager. We basically had nothing, using our personal money to release the EP. But he was like ‘yeah if you send me a copy of the vinyl, you can have it for 100 quid or something.’ So yeah, that was that. I didn’t really know what it was going to do but I really didn’t expect it to get all the way to America.
PT: What inspired your next release, Blood Loss? The album is more experimental than some of your other work before, what inspired this change?
JA: In terms of the thematic content, it was because I had been with this lovely girl for about two years and then just fucked it up at the end. Things were fine and we actually ended things in a really good place, but I basically made a whole mess of it and it was a horrible breakup. I think it was the most shame I had ever felt, I just really felt bad about myself and needed a lot of time to heal and look at my mistakes. What I realized is that I’m a really jealous person, so a lot of the music became a redemption record where I wanted it to be this circle. ‘As Is’ starts with a song about letting someone go with grace and letting them breakup with you, rather than phoning them five times and asking ‘come on, let’s make this work.’ It’s like, look, I think that’s what’s best for her and trying to be mature about that. And the rest of the EP looks at the relationship from all of these aspects and the last track comes back to the same message of letting them go. I liked the idea of getting to the end and being able to go back to the start, there’s even this sample at the first and last track like a bookend. The spoken word was Tom Waits inspired, I’d been listening to him a lot and loved how sometimes he wasn’t even singing, just mumbling this poem. I tried to do that in my own way, like more of a close mic, gentle thing rather than his growl. The same thing as if reading off a phone kind of vibe. All the spoken word on the EP was a one take thing. Once I’d gone that far with deciding there were gonna be poems and it was going to be circular, it just made sense to break it up with interludes. So all the tunes in lowercase are interludes of some sort, whether they’re opening or closing statements. ‘Limbo Lake’ is like an intro sort of thing. I just thought it would be nice if someone could listen to ‘Midnight Blue’ on its own, or if they wanted to listen to the EP they’d get this separate intro that still leads into ‘Midnight Blue.’ But if you were a song person, not an album person, you could just listen to it without ‘Limbo Lake.’ I really tried to cram them all together so that it flows. But I was just listening to a bunch of different shit for Blood Loss. Definitely less jazz and more r&b, even though I think it ended up being more jazzy in a way than Swum Baby – EP. I sort of toned down the jazz and was listening to more no wave stuff like James Chance and the Slits, as well as Arethra Franklin. Really just trying to throw it all together in this laptop sound world. I don’t know if people really liked it as much as Swum Baby – EP, but I remember feeling really happy at the time of finishing it. But yeah, the idea to do more of a journey than just a mixtape.
PT: On the track ‘Soft Porn’ there are lyrics that seem to have a deeper meaning – “you ain’t used to a boy who bleeds to the moon… only to find myself to limbo wish, this is whiskey, this is ocean bed.”
JA: I had already written ‘She’s Just A Phase’ and there’s this line about ‘bleeding out my reasons, until the red reaches the ceiling,’ which is about expressing yourself so much that you’ve almost filled the entire room with this blood that you’re spilling, which no one wants. In ‘Soft Porn,’ I was trying to use the same metaphor of bleeding out to signify over-spilling, oversharing, or just expressing too much. Because ‘Soft Porn’ is about being in a really bad place but not trying to drag down the person you’re with into that. At the time I wasn’t seeing my girlfriend as much and every time we’d have a phone call I’d be like ‘aw, babe, I’m not doing so well’ and I really started to notice that she didn’t want to call me as much anymore. So ‘Soft Porn’ came from this frustration at first of wondering why she wasn’t there for me, but even at the second stanza of the song wanting not to affect her with my really bad poison. That line is about not being prepared to be with someone who is exercising all of this despair so much that it’s almost like a wolf howling to the moon, letting it spill out. It’s kind of a dense lyric, now that I’m explaining it I don’t know why anyone would understand that. Clearly I got inside my own metaphor way too much, which is interesting because now I try to have a lot more clarity.
‘Only to find myself to limbo wish’ is finding yourself wishing to sort of be in purgatory. It’s not like you want to kill yourself, just wishing you weren’t there, somewhere in nowheresville. ‘This is whiskey, this is ocean bed’ is almost describing your surroundings. Whiskey felt representative at the time of hitting the bottle alone, which is really sad, lonely, and stupid, but I think I was just a bit of a mess at the time. And with ocean bed I was just imagining the deepest point of the world. Especially as they say that the sea is less explored than space, I was imagining that I was in the worst possible situation. All very sad stuff, but I’m better now.
PT: On your recent live album and at your shows, what inspired you to cover ‘If I Fell’ by the Beatles and “Dream Is A Wish” from Cinderella?
I literally don’t remember why, but I’ve been playing “If I Fell” for a little bit and I just threw it into the Atlanta set. Again, I think it’s just a Beatles song I really liked, but wished there was a version out there of just John and Paul signing it slower on guitar. So I think I started covering it as a way to fulfill that fantasy. Whereas with “A Dream Is A Wish” I had learned to play it a week before a gig, just messing around learning it for no reason. I probably heard it, played the chords, and then the night of the gig a friend from school passed away and I thought I should sing it at the gig as a tribute for them. She died with her fiancé and new baby in a car accident and it felt like the lyrics sent a beautiful message for that. I covered it as a one-off and it went down really nicely. It’s honestly rare that I play that one in shows. She’s someone I used to walk home with and it’s that kind of familiar relationship, just such a shocking thing to hear. I think it’s just a beautiful song, there’s something to that old-school Disney songwriting. It’s almost sickeningly sweet with those jazz arrangements but it sounds really good when you break it down on just one instrument.