INTERVIEW

“”The more you realise you’re going to die, the more you want to do while you’re here. That is my statement on life and everything,” muses 22-year-old Jack Penate, eagerly spewing his views on this mortal coil. True to his motto, in less than a year the singer-songwriter has toured with Lily Allen and Hot […]

“”The more you realise you’re going to die, the more you want to do while you’re here. That is my statement on life and everything,” muses 22-year-old Jack Penate, eagerly spewing his views on this mortal coil. True to his motto, in less than a year the singer-songwriter has toured with Lily Allen and Hot Chip, played three summer festivals, been Zane Lowe’s ‘Hottest Record In The World’, become a firm Vice magazine favourite, recorded his debut album and is about to undertake a mammoth sold-out NME Awards tour.

Snapped up by Dizzee Rascal’s home XL Recordings after just a few months of gigging, Penate admits he never expected himself to take off the way he has. “We only released 1000 of my last single ‘Second, Minute or Hour’ and hoped we’d get a few XFM plays, but it was mad! We had just below 30 plays on Radio 1, some of them in the day!”
Despite this instant success and contrary to the endearing enthusiasm apparent in his Myspace blogs, Penate claims that he pays little attention to what’s going on around him. “It’s exciting but I don’t really see it. If you’re what the buzz is about no one close to you says anything, so I think ‘the scene’ and ‘the buzz’ is all about you believing it.

“Some gigs have really surprised me, but however much you enjoy it, you can’t take it in too much. Some people start asking for their dressing room to be coloured lilac with 20 yellow roses with only 15 petals and I’m so aware that I don’t want any of that.”

At first sight, you might think Penate was in fact a rogue bricklayer who stumbled into the London indie scene by accident – his grimy t-shirts with sleeves rolled up, tanned, fleshy arms poking out, baseball cap (peak almost vertical) with messy mop floundering under it, and tight white jeans – but you’d be wrong. Penate (no, not a stage name, his granddad was Spanish) is an acute pop balladeer with a knack for swinging rhythms, a penchant for Jamie T patois and a bubbling philosophical and sociological intellect. He was weaned on music, growing up with friends like The Maccabees at public school and taking refuge from the rough streets of Blackheath in his room, pouring obsessively over CD covers – “I’ve read the notes of all my favourite records 1000 times, but kids don’t care anymore. Nas thanked Bob Dylan on one of his records and I remember the excitement of coming to school and telling my friends, so liking Bob Dylan was OK for us.”

Like Jamie T too, Penate is seen as being a ‘voice of the street’ but it’s a position he’s uncomfortable with: “We’ve watched and not done,” he admits. “Jamie T and I are from the same kind of backgrounds, we’ve been on the buses with the kids at the back MCing to grime, but we haven’t done it. We’re stuck in the middle, watching what’s going on around us and never being part of it.”

Not that Penate sings about class politics. “My songs are about ideas, but I don’t know if anyone’s really got that yet,” he says. “The first single is just a fun pop song, but a song like ‘Spit at Stars’ is about doubt and aspiration, how that affects someone and how you move on from that. But because it’s very poppy I don’t think the lyrics have registered in peoples’ minds.”

The new album in question is produced by Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Ghostface Killah) and Jim Abiss (Arctic Monkeys, DJ Shadow, Kasabian), clearly winners with Penate for their hip hop cred, who the singer hopes will help him surprise his legions of fans. “To end it we went to a church and set the mikes up. I had just a candle and my guitar and I played ‘When We Die’, which is about how my body will rest. In most of my songs I talk about death, but people just don’t pick up on it. I’m a big believer that if you believe in death you believe in life, which sounds really corny but it’s true!”

As for how people will receive it, Jack is indifferent. “I play indie music but come from a background of loving Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, not The Who or the Velvet Underground or Sonic Youth, so [my music’s] coming from a different angle. Let’s just see what happens, but I’m not worried.”

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