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Drifting through Holy Waters: In conversation with Puma Blue

Epigram speaks to Puma Blue about his new record Holy Waters, being recognised by Thom Yorke, trusting your gut, and the yearnings for nostalgia.

By Jake Paterson, Music Editor

As I expected, Puma Blue’s lead singer Jacob Allen is something of an angel on earth. His early work that was constructed intricately and intimately using nothing but a drum machine and guitar created an image of him as a sensitive and yearning entity brandishing a nomadic emotional soul.

Inevitably expanding from this space, he’s become a multi-disciplinary artist branching out into the visual as well as sonic world on his sophomore album Holy Waters. He has a sense of untouched purity shown most clearly in his harrowingly beautiful voice but matched with unsaid demons that haunt his new music. The new record is an opus for confronting death with an open palm – I challenge you to listen to ‘Gates (Wait For Me)’ without finding some form of consolation within its floating soundscape.

After writing much of his debut record In Praise of Shadows in the pandemic, which gave it a unique introspective yet slightly incomplete quality for its over-intellectualisation, Allen sounds liberated on these new selection of tracks. Lyrically he seems more personal than ever, whilst he played heavily into collaborating with his live band for the music than previously giving the music this sense of something fleeting. Blink and you’ve missed it.

Speaking to me on a damp bench outside Thekla, the venue he was set to play a few hours later, he was a little shy in appearance, avoiding direct eye-contact and hunching over slightly, but took extreme care in his answers and thanking me honestly as I fan-boyed a little, having been in touch with his music since I was about sixteen.

Puma Blue | Olivia Hamilton / High Road Touring

‘Everything I was writing was f***ing s***,’ Allen said bluntly of the initial direction he attempted to take his music after In Praise of Shadows. ‘Instead, I wanted to make an album that was like gut feelings and intuition as opposed to like thinking it through or planning it out. And that’s kind of where the themes came from, I found myself writing a lot about death and loss and grief when I didn’t set out to.’

‘The aim was to write something featuring the band a bit more, maybe write something a bit sexier, and then it just got darker and darker. But you know, I realised that that’s my gut-like directives and I should let it be.’ Having suffered from insomnia for much of his life, I can’t help but feel that the unconscious things that seep through the mind, that keep one awake at night, permeates so much of the incredible creative work unfolding before him. Tracking dreams, studying your own subconscious. ‘Maybe I’ll try and write a sexy one next time,’ he quipped.

The first sign of life from the new record was the single ‘Hounds’ which Allen had debuted during his 2022 UK tour. It’s possibly his most accomplished work to date, shaping the song structure around an ever-evolving crescendo and concluding with a possessed and hypnotic sax solo. It does what ‘Oil Slick’ hoped to do on In Praise of Shadows in a much more convincing and tragic way.

‘That song at the time was so different than anything else we had out so it felt like a cool place to start letting things go,’ he noted. It was striking enough for king of gloom Thom Yorke to include it on his Sonos Radio Mix, and for such a primary inspiration for Jacob (alongside Jeff Buckley and Portishead) it was a moment of reflection.

‘I was in a car with my girlfriend, we were in Atlanta shopping for Christmas presents and I started getting a bunch of text messages and honestly it didn’t really sink in for ages,’ he remembered. ‘You kind of don’t even really expect recognition from those people so it’s just funny when your worlds cross, and I was just really flattered.’

Puma Blue | Netti Hamilton / High Road Touring

Accompanying the release of Holy Waters was a listening session in a cinema with accompanying visuals that Jacob had put together for every track of the album. The cycles of life, death and rebirth painted out on the screen for an audience completely unfamiliar with the entire album.

‘What was really strange was that before we sat down to do it, [the album] was my secret, and then by the end of the listening session it sort of became theirs and didn’t really belong to me anymore,’ he suggested. Usually, this process takes months or is seen on the faces of the crowd of people who bring their own memories to the songs that you perform in front of them. But that instantaneous feeling was magic.

I ask what influences his visual world and he cites his partner Liv one of his primary influences. ‘She’s an archivist’, he suggested, and from her Instagram it’s hard to disagree, pulling out fin-de-siecle images alongside her own photos of friends and models. ‘We both love film and photographers. We love Jean Cocteau.’ The Cocteau sense of the absurd dream-like state certainly would complement some of the songs on Holy Waters with an almost synaesthetic element to it.

It becomes clear over the course of the interview that something has shifted overall in Allen, the sense of doubt and gloom shed for a new light and joy in the music he’s creating. It sounds, and with reference to the film now looks unlike anybody else. He smiles when I bring up his bandmate Harvey Grant; ‘we’re both just sensitive Pisces boys,’ he jokes, ‘I think the thing we really connect the most over is just music – we could just show each other music for hours.’

Puma Blue | Olivia Hamilton / High Road Touring

As liberating as this joy must be I touch on the more difficult moments too, of when the doubt creeps back in, and what to do to overcome it. ‘I remember the feeling,’ Allen suggested, ‘Like I wanted to give up music at SXSW 2019 at the beginning of the festival, but by the end of it I was like, OK music rocks. 2020 I had multiple times where I was like, why am I doing this? What is this for? And honestly there’s been times on this tour where I’ve thought I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this forever’

‘What keeps me coming back is just the love for it. When the love of it outweighs all the fears and thoughts you almost can’t help but do it. It sparks so much more joy than it ever does misery.’ For a record so expressive of the darkness in life, there’s solace in the creation of a body of work that clearly strikes so much pride.

I close the interview by asking about the ‘journal’ section of the Puma Blue website which is full of film photos taken from 2022 all the way back to the early days of the band, circa 2015. The process, I pose, must have thrown up some nostalgic yearning.

‘It was emotional man, it took a long time and I’ve still got about 18 months to update. It was really beautiful seeing how much we’ve aged and remembering all these places, there were some really deep memories attached to some of those photos and it made me realise what a family we are. I guess that was the biggest part of it. I wasn’t thinking about my achievements or anything like that – it was just like God, we’ve really been through so much stuff together for a long time.’

As Puma Blue’s music continues to swirl in people’s life in different vignettes, at moments of sadness and also joy, we can only hope that the light continues to permeate and for the website to be filled with countless new images with us holding friends and loved ones pictured in the back of the crowd.

Featured Image: Netti Hurley / High Road Touring

Have you listened to Holy Waters?