There’s a curious trend around male indie stars that first emerged in the mid-noughties; one where they simply disappear.
After releasing his debut album ‘We Have Sound’ in 2005, Tom Vek went AWOL for six years. Two albums deep, Jamie T got lost in the wilderness for five years. But beating them both is Jack Peñate, who reappeared earlier this year after a whopping 10-year absence.
After the tour of his sleek second album ‘Everything Is New’ was complete, the musician planned to take some time off to recover from a whirlwind rise in his early twenties. “I was exhausted and really in need of creating a stable, quiet life like that I had growing up,” he says now, sitting in his manager’s office on a grey and wintry west London day. “I meet people that age now and think, ‘Blimey, that is still quite young to be in this transitory lifestyle.’”
Peñate had intended to be away for around four years, which is how long he thought it would take him to learn how to make a record entirely on his own. “It’s taken much longer than I expected,” he laughs. “In articles, they’re like, ‘They last released a record three years ago’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool.’ But 10? Get on with it, man. I hold my hands up – that was too much.”
Learning how to DIY an album was important to the now 35-year-old in order for him to “attain longevity”. He explains it like this: “To be self-sufficient means that, fundamentally, you can go anywhere with a small setup and make a record and have that ability to be really mobile. Every time I’d work with someone I’d see another part that was missing – I suppose it’s like some Marvel thing, collecting fucking stones or something.”
And mobile Peñate was while on the journey that led to third album ‘After You’, which was released last month and opens with a telling lyrical assessment of his last decade: “I got lost.” He decamped to New York, a small studio space in Oxford, and even the Peruvian jungle. Moving around was his way of trying to find himself again and the experiences he had in all of those places directly informed the album.
On soaring closer ‘Swept To The Sky’, he tried to recreate how he felt while in Peru. “The vast celestial viewpoint that you have as a human stood on the ground seemed to diminish,” he explains. “In a way, I needed that geographic change to be able to initiate that feeling of wonder that I had a lot as a child. I always wanted to be an astronaut and would do hilarious school projects on different types of aliens – I was that kid. As you get older, it’s harder to connect to that thing.”
A chance encounter in New York helped create the album’s centrepiece ‘Gemini’, which features Peñate’s uncle, artist Fabian Peake, reading a poem by his grandad, poet and Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake, over a twirling piano melody. The piano in question came into the musician’s possession after he walked into someone taking it out of an apartment building, while having three generations of his family on one song was extremely healing.
“There’s this thing called epigenetics, which is about experiences being passed down in your genes,” he says. “It’s really not talked about that much because you want to be the noble beast that is born with no outside reasoning of why you think a certain way. With the British army, my grandfather experienced some horrendous things that have always been in the back of my mind. ‘Gemini’ felt like coming to peace with a lot of stuff that is just residue of family DNA.”
‘After You’ is a record that thrums with feeling, invention and curiosity. On ‘Cipralex’, unsettling bass and weird, whirring guitars create something spacey and dazed, replicating the feeling of when your body is still not used to the serotonin rush of anti-depressants. “I felt like it was in this very peculiar love story with something that was making me feel joy that I didn’t know if I really felt,” Peñate says of his experiences with Cipralex. “That’s how I felt in that period – in love with nothing.”
The deep thump of ‘Murder’, meanwhile, was meant to sound like “a really ominous club” and reflect “the death of innocence”. “Growing up I remember going to lots of clubs with this really frightening feeling that something was going to happen,” he says, before excitedly moving on to explain another entirely different song on the record. “There’s another tune called ‘Let Me Believe’ that samples Thomas Tallis, the Gregorian writer for Henry VIII. I thought to place a song about someone desperately looking for hope into some twisted Gregorian space like an old demolished chapel was quite good.”
Despite not being that productive in public over the last 10 years, Peñate hasn’t been slacking off. He wrote over 1000 songs for ‘After You’ but isn’t planning on using that trove of tracks for much as he goes forward. “I would like to think I’m going to write progressively and not now spend years fishing for music,” he laughs. “I think if the songs didn’t make it onto this album then maybe they should just be where they are.”
Peñate says he learnt a lot during his extended sabbatical, but the biggest lesson was patience. He says this with a wry laugh, aware that it might sound obvious given how long it’s taken for him to get to this point. “I never really had that,” he reasons. “I was so desperate to get out and do it and dance and jump and run. There were times [in the last decade] where I thought, ‘I don’t know what I’m gonna do’ so patience was a great thing to learn.”
Hopefully, it won’t be another 10 years before Peñate is back with another record. He laughs at the suggestion. “I’ve already started planning the next album – hopefully we’ll be recording before the end of the year,” he assures. “I’ve still got so much to do to get to where I know and hope I can get as an artist.”