A quick perusal of the press surrounding Puma Blue will uncover the following: he went to BRIT School, and he’s a fan of D’Angelo, Jeff Buckley and Billie Holiday – and precious little else. However, after an all too brief conversation with the man whose mum calls him Jacob Allen it emerges there’s a whole lot more to him than that.
His musical tastes and influences, for example, span everything from legendary producer and musician Steve Albini (Shellac being his favourite Albini project) right through to the Jamiroquai album his parents introduced him to in his childhood. More specifically, he says, “it was finding people like Radiohead and J Dilla or hearing Flying Lotus for the first time or Elliott Smith or Nirvana. All that kind of stuff.” And that’s more than evident in his songwriting and productions.
He almost seems amused that R&B is linked so consistently to his name. For Allen, his music is wildly experimental and downright caustic at times though he readily admits to being flattered by comparisons to the likes of D’Angelo. It’s all subjective, isn’t it? “I think those three [D’Angelo, Holiday & Buckley] come up a lot because they have such a profound influence on what I do” he concedes, “not only in a way that has a big impact on my music but also in a way that you can hear other [influences].” Certainly, the deeply soulful tones of D’Angelo and Holiday can be heard in his music, but so too can the challenging experimentalism of FlyLo and Albini, and it’s in that transitional intersection between sentiment and progression that Allen has made a creative home for himself.
From a visual standpoint, his influences sit at the more art-house end of things. Allen cuts a slender figure, typically decked out in subtly fashion-forward clothes, sporting a tightly-cropped fade and razor-sharp cheekbones. In fact, given a lot of his gloomy, greyscale press shots, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was heading up a post-punk band transposed into the 21st century. The balance of influence from decades past with the bleeding edge of 2018 culture is Allen through and through, projecting a transitional state that seeps into his both his life and art.
It’s a theme which would keep cropping up in our conversation. This year, for example, marks a pivotal period within Allen’s career, seeing him progress from bedroom producer to fully fledged live artist. Earlier this year, the official release of ‘Only Trying 2 Tell U’ increased both his press coverage and fanbase and saw Allen headline his first UK tour. Though just a (relatively) small seven-date tour, this was his first chance to take his music out of the confines of his London niche and into clubs and venues in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Bristol, Brighton and back to the capital.
This idea of transition doesn’t stop there as with Puma Blue and his productions are constantly evolving – even through to the music he had already put out. Take the aforementioned ‘Only Trying 2 Tell U’, for example. The track started life as a quick demo he uploaded to SoundCloud in 2014. Back then, Allen was still very much a bedroom producer, having just graduated from BRIT School, and was making and releasing music as much to practice his craft as to reach an audience. After some time, he returned to the track with one of the musicians he was developing his live set with, deciding to strip away the guitars and focus the song around the keys. “Me and my sax player just had the idea of like making it about keys instead,” he explains, “to bring it to completely new shade whilst still keeping the bones. He’s an amazing keys player. We sat down one night and tried to voice the chords in the right way because it didn’t really translate from guitar to keys properly. We recorded a really basic version to a basic beat on an empty C, and then I guess it became a new sort of version all of a sudden.” For the past few years, Allen has been working with a loose outfit of musicians, both live and in the studio, on new tracks as well as his existing ones.
Translating his music to a live setting meant restructuring and in other cases completely rewriting parts of his music but work- ing with these other musicians, he began to realise his music wasn’t fixed at all and was very much mutable, developing past the boundaries of the bedroom setting from which it was created. “What sometimes happens is we’ll play it live, and the whole song will develop and change and become its own thing,” he says. “I’ll never think about going back to the demo because this new version we cooked up with the boys
is just so much more than what I was trying to do originally without even realising.”
This new live environment, and a space to collaborate with like-minded artists, has also allowed him to realise his full potential as a musician. “Working with those guys just means I can explore my ideas to the fullest extent,” he adds. “Four other musicians with their own brains who not only understand what I’m trying to do but also have their thoughts and visions. So I think it’s definitely important to this project to acknowledge that and get them more involved. The next tune I’m putting out has them on it, so I guess that’ll be the first proper song that sounds a bit more live.” The fast-paced nature of the music industry in 2018 is much maligned, but that’s all the more reason to take your time as an artist.
While a lot of artists featured alongside Puma Blue on ‘Ones To Watch’ lists are under tremendous pressure to release an album or to be constantly visible, Allen is more than happy to take his time. “I think I’ll never stop developing & transitioning, hopefully into a more a mature artist,” he admits. ‘Ones To Watch’ lists, by the way, don’t evoke the feelings of positivity in Allen that you might expect. He jokes, “I might be the one to watch for someone and the one to avoid for someone else! It’s definitely flattering; people seem to think that I’m finally developing into a mature artist or something. It’s a really exciting list to be a part of, but then a lot of people that I know who are making incredible stuff get left off that list.”
A debut album is spoken of by Allen as a distant prospect and one he’s not particularly concerned with. Puma Blue remains comfortably on the peripheries, and there’s a genuine sense that he’d like to keep it that way, at least for now, while he continues this transformative process. “It’s definitely like a milestone at the moment,” he continues, “because I’m finally making music that I’m really proud of and really enjoy, rather than feeling artistically frustrated. I used to feel half of what I was doing I was really into, and half of it was not quite there yet, and I was always searching for something to finish my artistic statement. Now I just feel like I’m just doing my thing and I’m just really pleased with it.”
As for the future, Allen’s primary goal is to challenge himself as an artist and us as listeners. “[I want to keep] experimenting with more interesting structures or postmodern production techniques or ideas. Keeping things further towards the abstract end rather than the mainstream.” Then there’s all his many wide and varied influences and how to pull those together into something that’s both unique and cohesive. “It’ll be cool to do another EP and then kind of hibernate for a bit and just work on an album and make it really, really good and worth doing. The dream is to do a record and not rush it. So, for now, I think I’m just gonna keep playing shows and keep writing and see what happens. If I can just continue to get closer to that goal in some way,” he laughs, “then I’ll be a happy man.”
Puma Blue headlines the first Some Original Noise session of April 23rd, get your free tickets now.
Featured image: Top Umbro, Trousers Artist’s Own.
This article first appeared in Notion 79 – the Break Through issue.
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