Next month, Puma Blue—the project of London lo-fi r&b phenom Jacob Allen—will release his debut album, In Praise of Shadows, via Blue Flowers. Right now, though, he’s sitting in an empty flat in Hackney, contemplating what the next chapter of his life might look like as he prepares to move 4,000 miles around the world, to Atlanta, with his girlfriend. “I like traveling but London’s always been my home, so it’s quite a big change for me,” the BRIT School alum recently told American Songwriter over the phone.
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For the better part of the last decade, Allen’s honed an intimate, jazz-inflected brand of bedroom r&b as Puma Blue. His music is soulful and grainy and intoxicating, marked by the London musician’s diaristic musings and DIY production. On bandcamp he’s labeled this approach “dream soul,” “gothicr&b,” and “dial tone blues.” Allen’s influences, meanwhile, range from Jeff Buckley and Sade to Radiohead and Bjork. Another key reference for In Praise of Shadows, though, is the 1977 essay by Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki after which it was named.
“I’ve always enjoyed it as a piece of writing,” says Allen, “but then, towards the halfway point of the album, I started feeling like there was a metaphor to be found there as well—not just the differences in how the West and East use light and shadow in their architectural and lifestyle choices. I started to think that’s really the thread that ties these songs together. There are these really happy beautiful reflections from this very safe place, but there are also these songs from much more painful places or memories. I felt like the album was almost a celebration of that. There’s no light without dark.”
Allen spoke to us about crafting In Praise of Shadows, writing his first love song that “didn’t feel like it was based in heartbreak,” and drawing inspiration from Laraaji. Check out the full interview and listen to his latest singles—“Velvet Leaves”, “Snowflower”, “Opiate” and “Silk Print”—below.
American Songwriter: When did the songs on ‘In Praise of Shadows’ start to come together?
Jacob Allen: Some of them I wrote here [in London] in the last year and a half, and some of them I wrote in transit—definitely one of them I wrote on an airplane. Sometimes just in my girlfriend’s flat, before we were living together. But some of the songs are super old as well—I think there are at least two tracks that I wrote in 2014, when I was still a student. Weirdly it ended up spanning a huge amount of time, even though I didn’t really mean for it to in a narrative way.
AS: Did you record new versions for the album, or were you using some of the materials you’d previously recorded?
JA: Everything is new. There are still some tracks [where] the bones of them have the same demos that [existed] two years ago, and I ended up finishing the demos, but I don’t think there’s any audio that’s as old as the songs. I ended up re-recording the old stuff. Although there’s a track called ‘Already Falling,’ which I had a demo of in 2015, and I ended up working with that demo for the album. But I don’t know that you’ll be able to tell that it’s that old.
AS: Were you recording at a home-studio or a studio-studio?
JA: It was very much a DIY project, to be honest. I would love to have some more studio time but there’s never really the budget for it. And that’s okay ‘cause I love to work in an intimate setting anyway. It was either recorded on my laptop wherever I was or I did a little bit of work recording at my friend Harvey [Grant’s] house—he has a little bit of a set up there. I think on two tracks we worked at a studio recording full band stuff. That was at a friend’s studio in London.
AS: When I last spoke to you, in 2019, you had just released on his own. and you said that you change up your live set pretty often, adding, ‘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.’ Does this improvisational energy extend to your home-studio, or do you plan things out a little bit more when you’re recording for a project like this?
JA: I kind of make it up as I go along. I don’t really ever plan the arrangements that much. If I’m doing something with a full band, we’ll definitely rehearse a lot before, just for structure, but we’re not really a big ‘parts’ band if that makes sense. Like, we don’t really have our set, arranged parts. So each take, instead of being like, ‘Which take did you get it most accurate?’, it feels like a completely different energy. So when we do full band recording, we have to really choose which take feels the most special and work with that one. When I’m recording by myself, I kind of just start from nothing and improvise it to a certain extent.
AS: Wow, do you ever improvise lyrics?
JA: A bit. There are definitely at least two tunes [on the album] where I was just spitballing and that’s how I got the lyrics. But most of the time with lyrics I really care about what I’m saying so I try to make sure I finish lyrics before I’m recording. I guess what I’m trying to say is, without the confinements of booking studio time and knowing that you’re working to the clock, I don’t really have to decide on things [quickly]. There are some songs where I finished the vocals last year, but there are some songs where I finished the vocals like a week before the album deadline, just because I had that room. So it was a really nice way to do an album.
AS: Who did you work with on the production side?
JA: I worked last year all by myself, really trying to write songs to the fullest extent I could, and then around Christmas I hit a roadblock and couldn’t listen to them anymore. That’s when I started doing sessions with Harvey, who’s the keys and sax player in the band. We were meeting up from January through the beginning of lockdown. We would just write up a list of everything we felt we needed to work on, and then we would go through it. Whatever we felt like we needed to do first, we would just go through it, pick something off the list, and work on it together. I feel like he’s a lot more technically proficient than I am, so it was really helpful to have somebody like that to work with. He doesn’t really work on records very much, but I think he should. He was so good to work with in the room, he was so encouraging, and I feel like he actually makes such a good producer.
There’s also a friend of mine, Andrew Sarlo, who ended up not really being a main producer on the album but we had a couple of sessions together where he would help me add these little moments and special noises. So he almost feels like an additional producer as well.
AS: Are there any tracks that you’re most proud of or that surprised you most from a songwriting perspective?
JA: I’m proud of the song “Velvet Leaves” because it was a really hard song to write. It’s a song about my sister and I think I’d almost been working up to it for three years. I don’t know what happened but I was just suddenly able to write about this subject that was really hard to write about. I’m really glad that I was able to because that song means a lot to me and it was a really beautiful moment of bonding between me and my family, so I feel really happy with that one.
There’s also a song called “Sheets” that I’m really happy with as well ‘cause it was the first proper love song I’d ever written that didn’t feel like it was based in heartbreak. It feels like a really happy song. I never thought I’d be able to do a song like that.
AS: What were some of your musical touchstones for the sound of the album? Or what would appear on an In Praise of Shadows mood board?
JA: Lots of Bjork, for sure. I was listening to her album ‘Vespertine’ a lot when I was writing this album, or maybe more when I was producing it. Also I feel like—this is just me repeating myself from past interviews—but I really am such a big fan of D’Angelo and Jeff Buckley and Radiohead. I feel like their work always inspires me. I’m just trying to find some realm of blending them or reflecting them as an influence. Sade as well, a lot of her.
I got really into the harp on this album, so I had this friend, Marysia [Osuchowska], who ended up playing harp on the album, so I’m really happy about that. I was definitely listening to a lot of harp players like Dorothy Ashby and some more contemporary harp players as well. It ended up being a really special reference point.
AS: Did you play instruments other than guitar?
JA: Yeah, I did. All the drum production, all the beats and programming, was me. I played the piano and synths, and I think there are a few tracks where I’m playing bass as well. That’s all I can think of. [Other contributors—in addition to Grant, Sarlo, and Osuchowska—include Cameron Dawson, Ellis Dupuy, Matthew Roberts, Tim Gardener, Bre Antonia, Lucy Lu, Alex Burey].
AS: How’d you land on the title In Praise of Shadows?
JA: That’s the title of a book, actually, by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. It’s more of an essay on Japanese aesthetics. I picked it up maybe three years ago, and it’s always been a comfort read. It’s a very really relaxing, soothing way that he writes. It’s about these differences in aesthetic choices between the East and the West. I’ve always enjoyed it as a piece of writing but then, towards the halfway point of the album, I started feeling like there was a metaphor to be found there as well—not just the differences in the way the West and East use light and shadow in their architectural and lifestyle choices. I started to think that’s really the thread that ties these songs together. There are these really happy beautiful reflections from this very safe place, but there are also these songs from much more painful places or memories. I felt like the album was almost a celebration of that. There’s no light without dark. That’s what “in praise of shadows” meant to me, and it’s actually really important that we go through those things in order to grow and evolve. It’s just part of life. So that’s where the title came from.
AS: Is there anything you’ve been doing over the last few months to stay grounded?
JA: I’ve been meditating. I got into Kundalini yoga with my partner, which has been a really good way to center ourselves and take a little bit of time each day to just focus on breathing and setting our intentions. I’ve also been listening to a lot of audiobooks and podcasts—it’s been really nice to feel like there are people in the house, even if there aren’t. But there’s been construction going on upstairs for the last six months, so I feel like my mental health has been slowly returning to what it was in March. But I’m about to move, so I’ll be leaving that in the dust. Thank God.
AS: Lastly, you’ve said before that you ‘like the idea of helping people to get in touch with their emotions, but music does that anyway. It’s helped me maintain emotional availability for years.’ What music is helping you stay in touch with your emotions right now?
JA: I’ve been listening to Bill Withers’ album ‘+’Justments.’ I don’t know what you’d call him, whether it’s ambient music or spiritual music, but there’s this artist called Laraaji.
AS: Yeah, he’s a really interesting dude.
JA: It’s nice to hear that other people know about him! I’ve really been getting into him this year. I think he’s really helped. He’s such a ray of sunshine. There’s a really good interview with him on Duncan Trussell Family Hour—that’s how I discovered him. He has such great insights.