360°Sound spoke with singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Allen, aka Puma Blue. Allen’s first full-length album, In Praise of Shadows, arrives Feb. 5 on the London indie label Blue Flowers. Two singles, “Velvet Leaves” and “Opiate,” as well as B-side “Snowflower,” were released this fall.
The 25-year-old London native first attracted attention in 2014 when he posted the lo-fi bedroom demo “Only Trying 2 Tell U” to Soundcloud. His woozy, reverb-drenched debut EP Swum Baby dropped in 2017. The follow-up EP, 2018’s Blood Loss, featured a fuller, more ‘live’ sound. His music video for the 2018 standalone single “Moon Undah Water” now has over 5 million views on YouTube. In this exclusive interview, Allen talks at length about his new album, songwriting, influences and more.
360°: What can we expect from the first Puma Blue album?
Puma Blue: Hopefully people won’t go into it with any expectations, but I know that they will [laughs]. They can expect more of a multi-dimensional perspective rather than just sad songs – moody, sad jazz tracks. It’s a little bit more all-encompassing in terms of me as a person and experiences that I’ve gone through – hopefully, a stronger reflection of my influences. I feel like it’s definitely the most true-to-myself that I’ve sounded. I tried to be generous with it as well. I decided instead of keeping it brief to give people a lot of music because I’ve been quiet for a while. It’s 14 tracks, which is a lot for me, 55 minutes or so. It’s going to be a double LP for the vinyl release.
You’ve talked about your D’Angelo and Timbaland influences. Do you find your music to be going in more of an R&B direction?
The truthful answer is no. I think I’ve just been more open about being able to express different sides to myself rather than feel like I’ve got to have a sound. Early on, a lot of the advice I got when I started to put out music was people like to know who you are and what you’re about. I think I used to shoot myself in the foot a bit. Even though it’s still very honest, I definitely stylized it quite heavily, whereas now I think I’m just letting it all hang out.
There are songs on the album that are punky or ambient. There are a couple tunes, like “Opiate,” where I wanted something a bit like that great era of R&B like Missy Elliot with that crunchy drum sound and all the beautiful backing vocals. There’s probably more R&B on this record than there has been on my records before, but I definitely don’t see it as an R&B album.
What’s the feedback from fans been like?
It is really encouraging to get messages from fans when they say stuff along the lines of, ‘This really helped me confront this in my life,’ or ‘This helped me to cry about something.’ There seems to be people connecting to it on quite an emotional level, which is really cool. But I think definitely some fans are disappointed that I’m not just releasing a copy of “Moon Undah Water” and stuff like that.
I was expecting that a little bit, and that’s totally OK. I think I probably will lose a few fans on this record just because people get an idea about who you are and that’s totally OK. I think people who love music in general that are my fans are the people who are here for the ride. I think they’ll really love it. It’s been overwhelmingly lovely how many people have said that it’s a step in a bit more mature direction, which is what I was really hoping for.
As far as lyrically, who are some of your influences?
Jeff Buckley has always been really inspiring. He manages to be so poetic but at the same time really get his points across. I think in the past I’ve tried to write from poems and draw upon that and maybe the meaning has got a bit lost. Buckley is really inspiring to me because I feel like I always know what he’s singing about, even if lyrically it’s quite dense or metaphorical or visual.
I also love hip-hop culture for just introducing me to rhyming structures that I’d never considered before. Having multiple rhyming schemes within one verse is something that I’ve tried on this album. I used to just write like Sting. I think everyone does as a kid. It’s just rhyming couplets. And that’s really cool as well. It’s a lovely symmetry to every single rhyme. Hip-hop is hugely impactful on my songwriting just for how inventive people can get, from MF Doom to Kendrick [Lamar]. I’ll never obtain that level of skill, but it’s definitely something to aim towards.
You said “Opiate” is “about learning to love yourself, despite finding yourself dreaming of someone from your past and wondering why they resurfaced when you were so sure you’d left them behind.” Tell us a little about the inspiration for that song.
I’ve been in a pretty good place the last few years. I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs and demons, but for the most part, I’ve been really happy and healthy. Still, every now and again, I’ll have a dream where I’m like I can’t believe that person is still in my subconscious. Or I’ll be surprised by how much the dream has stirred me. I guess it was just about that feeling of waking up and feeling really grateful that times have moved on and maybe what was meant to happen happened.
You grow apart from people naturally, but I guess it’s just a little expression of the pain you can feel sometimes when you’re faced with these strange ghosts, and you’re not really sure if it’s appropriate to reach out to them. In some cases, you don’t want to. I sometimes dream about someone from school with whom I had a complicated relationship and sometimes I wake up and wonder if I should try to talk to them. But then I’m like, I don’t think it’s worth digging that up again. It’s just maybe worth dealing with in therapy. So, I guess this song was a little bit of catharsis really, just expressing that anxiety and the strangeness of being faced with these images.
What instruments did you play besides guitar? And how much overdubbing did you do on the album?
I played some piano, synths, bass and drums. I did a lot of overdubs because I love rich textures. A lot of time, I’ll have a guitar part and then I’ll record six or seven more layers, and then it comes to live [performance], like we get into a rehearsal room, and I’m like, ‘Fuck, how am I supposed to play this?’ [laughs]. I don’t think it through.
Radiohead and D’Angelo’s band are some of my favorites. What I forget is all those bands have like three or four guitarists [laughs], so sometimes I’m a bit stuck. I did a lot of programming. But I tried to do everything for real, like recording ambient sounds or getting like a harp player to do the harp part. And real strings rather than like MIDI strings. I tend to leave something on the bones in the recording every time. I tend to record a demo and like work off of it, rather than re-record it from scratch. There’s usually at least some of the original raw takes left in. I’m not shy about really stacking stuff up and getting into Beatles-land [laughs] and multi-tracking upon multi-tracking.
Any backwards guitar solos?
Actually, there is on the last song on the album. There’s two backwards guitar solos laid on top of each other.
Are there tracks that sound underwater?
There is. There’s a track called “Sleeping” that always makes me think of this Star Wars game where you have to go underwater. There’s a track called “Already Falling” that kind of has that same drunk feeling that was on my earlier stuff, kind of woozy.