The South London singer-songwriter spoke to AdHoc about his stripped-back new live album, on his own.
Kohei Yoshiyuki is a Japanese photographer most famous for his series The Park, which he shot in the 1970s and features grainy, black-and-white nocturnal scenes of peeping toms snooping on other people’s sexual activity in Tokyo’s Central Park. These photos made waves for their controversial depiction of voyeurism, but part of that voyeurism comes from their formal intimacy: how close Yoshiyuki gets to his subjects and how direct the camera’s gaze is.
The same could be said of Puma Blue’s 2017 debut EP, Swum Baby. There is something raw and vulnerable, even exposed, about its five tracks, which see South London singer-songwriter Jacob Allen tinkering with his primary instruments—voice and guitar—through melodic, lo-fi arrangements. It’s only fitting that a cropped photo from the series appears on the release’s cover.
That was in 2017. He tagged the EP, on Bandcamp, “voicemail ballads” and “dial-tone blues.” He tagged it “gothic r&b” and “jazz.” He tagged it “dream soul.” The voyeurism here isn’t sexual, as in the case of Yoshiyuki’s photographs; it is emotional, like reading somebody else’s diary, or even watching them write it. Listeners are transported to Allen’s bedroom, where he produced the EP “between the sleepless nights of autumn 2016 & spring 2017,” according to a description on Bandcamp.
More recently, Allen released another collection of soulful, jazz-inspired tunes, on his own. It captures the singer-songwriter’s stripped-back set at Eddie’s Attic, in Atlanta, in March. Allen didn’t intend to record the set–he was given a recording by the venue’s sound engineer, only to rediscover it a few months later.
“I listened to it when I got back from tour and was really struck by how much that intimacy came across on the recording,” Allen told AdHoc over the phone. “There’s a really nice ambience to the room.”
AdHoc chatted with Allen about his new live album, his favorite Jeff Buckley recording, and covering a song from Cinderella. Read the interview below and catch Puma Blue with support from Gabe Goodman at Market Hotel on November 8.
AdHoc: Tell me the story of your new live album. How did it come together?
Puma Blue: I had [a] tour booked—the first leg of this US tour in March this year–and I’d been spending a lot of time with my girlfriend in Atlanta. The plan was to head out on tour from there, but [when] the band came over [before] the first date, we [thought] it’d be nice to do a little show in Atlanta, because that wasn’t on the tour.
We hit up Eddie’s Attic, and they were really keen to make it happen. [The show had] a nice stripped-back vibe—it was a really beautiful night. I didn’t know it was going to be seated, so it was very intimate. And then the sound engineer came up to me at the end and was like, “I recorded the whole thing on a USB stick, if you want it.” So I just thought, “Sure, I’ll take a look. Thanks for that.” Then I just left it for, I don’t know, two months? I kind of forgot about it, to be honest. I listened to it when I got back from tour and was really struck by how much that intimacy came across on the recording. There’s a really nice ambience to the room. Something about it felt really special and it reminded me of one of the first Jeff Buckley recordings I got into when I was a kid.
What recording was that?
Do you know the Live at Sin-é EP? It’s this beautiful recording of him at this place [in New York], but I don’t think it exists anymore. It’s this little cafe that was kind of where he came up. As a kid that was my first exposure to him other than Grace. It’s amazing how well-versed he was in a stripped-back way. He knows how to cover a song as well, [from] weird little French songs [to] Nina Simone tunes.
I want to ask you about the covers you included in the set—“A Dream Is a Wish” from Cinderella, and The Beatles’ “If I Fell.” How long have you been covering those songs? What inspired you to cover them?
The tune from Cinderella is a weird one. I’ve been covering that sporadically for about five years. I remembered that song one week, just randomly, and I looked it up and was learning to play it on the guitar. I was just learning it for myself, and then I had this last-minute gig booked—a stripped-back thing, I think before I was even using the Puma Blue name. And a couple hours before I was going to head to the venue, I found out this friend of mine from school passed away in a car accident. It wasn’t someone I knew particularly well, but I used to walk home from school with her sometimes and [she] was the first person my own age to die that I knew. So I decided to play that song that night as a little tribute to her and her fiancé. It was really emotional and cathartic to play it, and it’s been one of those songs I come back to. Even if it’s kind of a cheesy song, it always feels quite spiritual to me.
What about that Beatles cover?
I have no idea why I started playing that. I can’t even remember the first time I heard it, but I’ve been playing that one for ages. Whenever I had to do an encore when I was younger, or if I’m playing with a band and it’s an intimate vibe or we run out of songs, I always play that song. I really like the changes and the lyrics, and it feels nice to take a ballad that’s [so] beautifully written and slow it down and expose how amazing the songwriting is. The recording of it is kind of twee, but the song itself is amazing. I always wanted to hear a version like that.
There’s a little interlude in the live recording where you say you’ve reached the point of the set where you don’t know what you’re going to play next. How often do you change up your live show?
Every time—unless we’re on tour and we strike a really amazing flow. But even then, if I’m not feeling a tune or I’m feeling a different tune that’s not on the setlist, I just turn around to the boys and say, last-minute, “Let’s not do that,” or “Let’s do this instead.” It just stays true to the improvisational energy in the band. I encourage the boys to mess around with songs as much as they feel. I like to keep it fresh; I don’t like to get complacent or [have things] feel too rehearsed.
When it comes to a stripped-back set, I have to also think on my feet a lot. If I’m playing a song that requires the rhythm section to make the song feel interesting, I have to think about filling that space with just a guitar and a voice.
You’re about to embark on a North American tour next month. Tell us about the acts you’ll be playing with.
The supports were hand-picked, because it’s so much nicer to play alongside artists you appreciate, especially when they don’t have as much as a following as you wish they did. I picked Gabe [Goodman] because [his music] was suggested to me by a friend of my girlfriend’s, and we fell in love with his EP, [then] he supported me when I played in NY for the first time. [Gabe’s] just got such an amazing way with songwriting and a tender little voice. He’s doing the East Coast [dates], and then for [our] California dates, we’ve got Chester Watson. I love rappers with a really mellow tone. When someone can deliver sleepy rap in a really engaging way, that always draws me in. Either that, or I like rappers to be screaming, like Zack de la Rocha. Or like MF Doom—kind of sultry.
Chester’s production is super nice as well. When I first heard him, I almost was jealous of some of the sounds, and it’s so nice to have someone on a bill that feels like a really good fit for the general atmosphere.