Watched by Mick Jagger, endorsed by Leonard Cohen: the star-studded world of Beatie Wolfe
PUBLISHED: 16:20 07 November 2013 | UPDATED: 16:20 07 November 2013
The songstress tells Alex Bellotti why she’s hoping to pave the way for a new generation of songwriters
‘The first time I performed I must have been around seven or eight years old. It was one of these school shows where everyone was singing Backstreet Boys or Spice Girls, but I wanted to try my own song.
“There were two backing singers with me but, as soon as we got on stage, they looked absolutely terrified and went mute. I realised afterwards it was because Mick Jagger was in the audience – his daughter went to our school.”
There comes a point with Beatie Wolfe where you have to accept the name-dropping. Whereas most of us will boast about a chance encounter with a celebrity for weeks, for her, these connections are simply an unavoidable part of a life that’s beginning to move faster than she could ever imagine.
The 25-year-old singer has just released her debut album, 8ight. Raw, brooding and so diverse it features everything from spongy bass to ukuleles, the record is an irresistible collection of melodious three-minute pop nuggets.
But that’s not even what all the fuss is about.
“It does crop up, people saying that this could be perceived as a gimmick,” says Wolfe of her album’s groundbreaking release as an interactive iPhone app. “But we’re a tech generation, there’s no way around that.
“We don’t buy CDs anymore – vinyls maybe a bit – but I’ve always loved looking at the lyrics, the liner notes, the album artwork. I wanted to make something that was the modern-day equivalent of a vinyl record.”
It’s hard to say she hasn’t succeeded. Sitting way up in the 5th View bar of Waterstones in Piccadilly, she shows me the app in motion. There are a whole host of features to explore: liner notes, photographs, artwork and astonishing 3D videos made possible via the use of a clip-on iPhone case.
Whether this could ever become more than a novelty in the long run remains to be seen, but there are clearly people in high places excited by the whole package. Wolfe has become Apple’s official face for this new type of app, touring their flagship stores from New York to London and soon-to-be Berlin, while artists like Lady Gaga and Björk are planning to release their future records on the format.
Of course, when it comes down to the crunch, the Parliament Hill resident knows she’s only going to be judged on one thing.
“The music’s at the heart of it, it’s the soul. And that’s another great feature. At the moment, everyone wants a song that they can put on a playlist, but that disconnects it from the album itself. Here, everything’s in one package as the artist imagined it.”
In this case, the vision is a very classic one. Ask most performers who their influences are and you’ll see their minds go blank as they frantically try to remember who it was that inspired them to pick up a guitar. With Wolfe, the answers couldn’t be more forthcoming.
“Well there’s The Beatles for their diversity and then, on his own, John Lennon for rawness and honesty...James Brown, Elvis, Nina Simone – she’s one powerful lady.” She counts the artists on her fingers as the names keep coming. “David Bowie for production, Tom Waits for grit. Oh and, of course, Leonard Cohen, for songwriting and lyrics.”
The latter’s influence has been significant for Wolfe – her signature cover is a rendition of Cohen’s poem A Thousand Kisses Deep, which he has personally endorsed. Having grown up in Roehampton, she discovered the artist after moving to Hampstead to live with her father while studying English literature at Goldsmiths.
She decided to centre her dissertation around Cohen - who is a writer as well as a musician - but the college wasn’t so forthcoming in its support.
“Goldsmiths are supposed to be this arty, leftfield establishment but, when I said I wanted to write about Cohen, they freaked out massively. They were like, ‘Who is this guy? He wrote Hallelujah but that’s it.’ I ended up having to battle them – I didn’t want to fail but did it anyway.”
Fortunately, Wolfe was able to enlist the help of her father, Rick Watson, an American writer who honed his craft hanging out with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and the rest of the Beat poets. Fittingly, when he finally moved to England it was to live with no less than The Rolling Stones in their famous Stargroves mansion. Not a bad tutor to call upon.
“I ended up getting the top mark in the year,” says Wolfe. “A copy of it went online and Cohen’s manager got in contact to ask for a hard copy. That started our dialogue. I guess A Thousand Kisses Deep is a homage to his support.”
As if one parent wasn’t enough, Wolfe’s mother also has a captivating backstory. A former-journalist prominent in the punk years, Virginia Boston wrote a definitive book on the subject with Danny Baker and interviewed some of the era’s leading artists, including Marc Bolan.
“That wasn’t long before he crashed his car, which took place pretty close to my school. He said that he liked my mum’s jacket, so they swapped and she got his one. I think she gave it to Danny Baker, though, because they were kind of involved at the time. She’ll hate me for saying that.”
With such cultured heritage, it’s to Wolfe’s credit that she’s been able to carve out her own path in the world. Despite their presence within its circles, neither her parents nor her two brothers have pursued careers in music – “which is good, I mean it must be hard being the son of John Lennon.”
Her passion was there from an early age. After being signed up for piano lessons at the age of five, Wolfe soon realised she found little enjoyment in them. Her solution was to start bringing in songs she had written, so that her teachers could work out the chords. “My parents would think I was learning my scales, but really that was just when I began to sing and write music.”
Ten years later and the songwriter found herself in her first band. “We saw ourselves as the female Guns and Roses or Led Zeppelin,” she laughs. “It was incredibly Nirvana-styled teen grunge. We got a lot of interest and offers, but I tried to imagine singing about suicide and angst for the next 15 years and couldn’t quite see it.”
It’s a decision that seems to have paid off. Now backed by drummer Adam Hayes and double bass player Yaron Stavi, as well as the huge support Apple are willing to offer, Wolfe has a momentum behind her powered by a whole army of believers.
She is the definition of a 21st century artist, but with Cohen, Jagger et al. just over her shoulder, she knows her history. With the music industry still trying to come to terms with its commercial future, it could do a lot worse than to follow her lead.