Tucked away from the cold, and the outside world, photographer Alex Rorison met Jacob Allen, better known as Puma Blue, in a studio in East London. Illuminated by the dressing room mirror lights, they caught up about music, life and how Japanese aesthetics helped inspire his latest body of work.
LISTEN TO IN PRAISE OF SHADOWS
Alex Rorison: Let’s start at the beginning… Whereabouts are you from?
Puma Blue: I originally grew up in this strange little suburb of Surrey, just south of Croydon. And then ended up based in London from the age of, like, eighteen. It was Anerley, Penge area at first, and then crawled up the map; New Cross for a while and then Crofton Park and then ended up in Hackney for a couple years.
A.R: Did you have quite a musical upbringing?
P.B: My parents were both instrumentalists and teachers. So, my dad was a trombonist and my mum was a flautist, and they were just really good at putting music on; in the car, in the house. They got me really excited about music. They got me a drum lesson when I was seven; they never really pushed music but they were quite encouraging.
A.R: Do you still play the drums?
P.B: Sadly, I don’t have a drum kit anymore. I had to sell my drum kit when I went to Uni to afford the accommodation, and I haven’t been able to buy one since. It’s sort of a dream of mine to own a drum kit again, I used to just practice for hours. I did a lot of the drum production and the drum programming [on the new album], so I still incorporate that love in the music in the way. But all of the live kit was done by Elis.
A.R: So what did you play on the album? Singing, guitar and...
P.B: Played a bit of bass on some tracks, a bit of piano, a bit of synth, most of the production. I think that was it; I didn’t play anything crazy like any strings or anything.
A.R: Do you remember the first gig you went to?
P.B: The first gig I ever went to? Wow. My best friend Zoe, took me to see the Kaiser Chiefs which was really cool. I’d never been to a gig before, and that was quite a big one. It was in Wembley Arena. I didn’t even really know their stuff very well, other than what was on the radio. But, I was just so inspired. I just thought wow I just wish I was on stage playing. Then my mum took me and my friend Dave… she waited up all night, literally like until four in the morning to get cheap tickets to see John Mayer when I was like thirteen, and that was amazing.
Puma Blue wears jumper ACNE STUDIOS; trousers VINTAGE; shoes FILA; jewellery ARTIST'S OWN
A.R: I remember having a few of his CDs back in the day.
P.B: Me too, I used to love John Mayer.
A.R: I think I first heard of you when you were recording under your actual name, back in the Soundcloud days.
P.B: No way!
A.R: Yeah, me and a mate had a radio show back at Uni and we found your track…
P.B: Only Trying To Tell You!
A.R: That’s the one! I’ll be honest, we didn’t have a lot of listeners…
P.B: Neither did I. That’s sick!
A.R: How did you come up with the name Puma Blue, and how come you changed?
P.B: Well, I was finding that using my real name I was getting booked for a lot of folk shows and I wanted to control that a bit more. So I needed a name that was not going to be too singer songwriter but also didn’t sound like a band because then I was just going to end up doing rock nights, that’s just the same problem.
I was kinda inspired by the Delta Blues musicians like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, who had like superhero names but also sounded like it could be their real name. So I tried to find one of those. I came to the name ‘Blue’ first because of the melancholy in my early stuff then it was about finding a first name to go with that surname. That was trial and error, until I found something that was natural that resonated with me. But I didn’t really think about it too much.
A.R: So you didn’t do a Childish Gambino, and get it from a name generator?
P.B: I should’ve done, that would’ve been way easier.
A.R: You don’t like really labelling your music as jazz… How would you describe it? Because it’s hard to put your sound into one musical box.
P.B: Thank you! I try not to limit it too much, both because what I’m trying to do doesn’t come under the constraints of a label. But, also because I don’t want to pigeonhole myself in the future, I want to feel as I’m creating that I’m free to make anything and I don’t have to make anything confined to a sound. It’s almost more for me than anything. With the jazz thing it’s more like, I don’t think I’m a jazz musician, I feel like there are real jazz musicians out there and I’m just not one of those. In terms of what I would call, I don’t really know. Puma Blue is what I’ve called it in a way.
A.R: Do you get a lot of inspiration for different genres and places, even outside of music?
P.B: Yeah totally, I listen to everything I can. I love such a wide variety of amazing stuff that it’s constantly fuelling my love for music. I also feel like in the last, actually pretty much since I started, films have been fascinating to me as well. Only recently have I been able to articulate why, and I think it’s almost not just the cinematography and the colours but also the immersive atmospheres and storytelling, and the use of metaphor. I think that really drives me as a songwriter.
A.R: Your album ‘In Praise of Shadows’ is named after a Japanese book of the same name...
P.B: Yeah it’s an essay on aesthetics, comparing eastern and western aesthetics, talking a lot about why darkness and shadow are important. I used to love reading that book, but more recently I wondered whether that could be a metaphor as well, for the darkness in your life being quite important and praising those shadows as a means of which to get through them and experience a lighter place.
A.R: Very layered
A.R: What’s been your favourite show to play?
P.B: The one in EartH [Dalston] was really special, because it was a really immersive atmosphere. The lighting guy did an incredible job. It was the first time my girlfriend ever saw me play. We’d been together for like 2 years but she’d never seen me play a show.
I’d done one solo show in Atlanta that she came to but I had never played in front of her with the band.
A.R: I imagine it’s pretty different playing by yourself rather than with a full band?
P.B: And also the Eddie’s Attic show [in Atlanta] was a much smaller space. But, my favourite show of all time was the last one I played in San Fran. It was just right at the end of the tour, so we were all completely within each other’s energy.
A.R: Is that because you’d been playing so long together?
P.B: Yeah, and also for a concentrated amount of time, it was like two or three weeks of just playing with each other everyday. So the night before was great, but the San Fran one was almost just as good, just as great energy but with this added relaxation rather than it being quite high energy, it was almost low energy. I like walking on stage in a sleepy mood, whereas in LA I kind of like bounced out.
A.R: Your album has just come out, How are you feeling about it?
P.B: Really excited for people to hear it because I’ve been sitting on these songs for so long, it’s finally time for me to share them. Which is just really cool. It’s like planning a birthday for somebody and then it’s finally their birthday. But, I’m also apprehensive. Not as to what people will think, but it’s scary to be at the mercy of a good critic, especially if it’s someone you respect. Because if it’s someone you don’t respect you can kinda shrug it off, but it will be hard if anyone that I admire doesn’t like the record, but I’ll just have to live with it. I’m apprehensive but not dreading it.
A.R: Good! Have you got a favourite song from the album?
P.B: Favourite song is ‘Bath House’ I think. I was trying to practice writing love songs on this album, something I haven’t really done before. There’s a lot of unrequited love songs or songs about depression but this is the first album where I was really trying to challenge myself from a joyful place. But also, I spent a lot of time on it with my friend Harvey, we just really love where that song ended up. I love the lyrics as well, they’re about the build up right before you say I Love You for the first time to your partner, but you’re almost like saying it in all these other ways through your actions.
A.R: How long did it take you to write the album, because it’s all new songs, rather than taken from old EPs?
P.B: Nothing’s been released before. I think ‘Is It Because’ was on my Soundcloud under my real name for like one month. There are songs from that far ago, like 2015, but all of it is previously unreleased. There’s three or four songs that I’ve been playing live in the last couple years.
A.R: Tweaking them to get them right?
P.B: Yeah. There’s a song called ‘Oil Slick’ and I never wanted to release it until it was ready. A lot of it I wrote in the last two years. I started taking the album seriously about two years ago.
A.R: Do you think your sounds changed since you first started releasing tracks under the Puma Blue moniker?
P.B: Massively. I’ve gone through different phases with myself, in and out of moods and intentions. And I’ve ended up in this mood and intention and it’ll probably change again.
A.R: What’s your writing process? Lyrics first? Music first?
P.B: It changes every time to be honest, man. Sometimes I’ll write a poem and then I’ll be like, I really wanna turn this poem into a song. And then sometimes I’ll have this music for ages and I can’t think of what to sing on it for ages, it just takes time. On the rare occasion you’ll just get a song where it all comes out at once, in like 5 minutes, but it’s almost coming from somewhere else.
LEFT IMAGE Puma Blue wears jacket and trousers VINTAGE; jumper ACNE STUDIOS; shoes FILA; jewellery ARTIST'S OWN
A.R: Does improvisation play a big part? Especially when playing live?
P.B: Yeah, a lot! We keep the rough structure of the songs and the rough harmonic structures as well, but I really encourage the boys to play around with what they’re playing and we kind of just ride each other’s energy. Sometimes when I’m writing I’ll just make a drum loop and then play for half an hour, until I’m like ‘oh this sounds like something’, even then I might throw it away.
A.R: You’ve also got a live session coming out, how was it recording that?
P.B: It was different… Trying not to treat it like a gig, trying to treat it like a performance and I haven’t really done that before. So that was weird, because it was like a music video in the sense that behind the camera is something the audience will never see. But, it wasn’t like a music video because that allows you to be very fantastical and sort of rely on poetic licence a bit. You could be strumming a guitar and not even playing the right chord, and if it looks stylish and deliberate then people will think ‘oh that looks cool’. But when you’re doing that but it’s live, it’s very different. It’s really about getting it right; what you sound like. It was weird to play music with a camera in your face; but we really relaxed into it, it was really fun. I was just kinda stunned by the crew’s professionalism and how beautiful they made the set look, I can’t wait for people to see that side of it.
A.R: I saw a teaser of it and it looks like an amazing venue.
P.B: Yeah! They hung all these transparent drapes over, and yeah they nailed it.
A.R: What are you listening to at the moment?
P.B: I’m listening to a lot of classical music at the moment, like Maurice Ravel and Scriabin. Lots of music from Brazil. Also, there’s this band from Birmingham from Chartreuse. In fact they supported me at EartH, they’re like my favourite band.
A.R: How have you felt about the last year? Has it really affected your creativity?
P.B: You know, it’s been weird because I haven’t really been very creative in a compositional way. I’ve been creative in a production way; I finished the main writing of the album at like Christmas 2019, and I don’t think I wrote anything new until the summer when I wrote ‘Opiate’, but most of that time - beginning of 2020 - for me was just finishing the actual recording, engineering, production side and then since ‘Opiate’ I haven’t written any new songs. I’ve done lots of beats or remixes, and I’ve been doing music and I’ve been playing music but I haven’t been writing for an album; I’ve just been meditating on this one. So, it’s been fine, I haven’t felt an enormous pressure.
A.R: Many plans for after?
P.B: I would love to gig when things go back to normal, because I really want to play these new songs to people. And I just miss playing with the guys more often because they’re like my best friends. Other than that I would love to travel, I really miss being out in the world. There’s lots of the world I haven’t explored yet, like South America and most of Europe. I really wanna get out there and see the world to be honest.
A.R: And finally… What’s your favourite F Word?
Puma Blue wears shirt STEELE + EDITH; trousers VINTAGE; jewellery & watch ARTISTS OWN