Jacob Allen has long been attuned to the rhythms of restless nights. A chronic insomniac since the age of 10, the Croydon-raised singer-songwriter only began writing music as Puma Blue as a means of staying occupied during those sleepless early hours. He has since built a cult following for his intimate strain of jazz-inflected soul.
A BRIT School graduate, and regular at legendary South London jazz night STEEZ, Allen first found a wider audience in 2017 with the release of ‘Want Me’, entrancing listeners with his woozy atmospherics and a lithe falsetto eerily reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. A string of acclaimed singles and EPs later, the 25-year-old has finally unveiled his long-awaited debut album.
Written and recorded over the course of 15 months, with mixing and mastering duties fulfilled by Bjork-collaborators Marta Salogni and Heba Kadr, ‘In Praise Of Shadows’ is every bit as intoxicating as anticipated. Whether ruminating on new love or long-term depression, Allen’s silvery vocal harmonies mingle with skilfully understated arrangements that somehow manage to mix muted brass, sparse hip hop beats, hushed piano and fluid, D’Angelo-inspired guitar.
Delightfully, Allen is every bit as calming a presence in person as he is on record. Speaking over FaceTime from his parents’ house in Croydon, his sweetly soporific tones seem tailor-made for meditation apps. Despite this, it’s a distinctly weird time for Allen, being temporarily separated from his girlfriend – whom he plans to join in Atlanta once travel restrictions are lifted – and being then on the verge of releasing In Praise Of Shadows, the project he’s been building up to his entire life.
Here he delves into the evolution of his sound over the years and the effects of insomnia on his mental health, and explains how he hopes his debut will help rekindle listeners’ love of the album as an art form.
Is it just us, or does it feel like we’ve been waiting a very long time for this record?
I mean, for me it’s been coming since I was born. But I feel like this has happened at exactly the right time. I wouldn’t have wanted to [make an album] any sooner because I wasn’t ready: I was a young and an immature artist, and in some ways an immature person. And I’m still those things but I guess what I’m trying to say is I didn’t have the focus really to pull together a full body of work, that I would still be proud of now.
On my EPs I hear shades of who I am now, but it mostly feels like smaller expressions of who I was at the time. Whereas I feel I will be proud of this album at any age. So yeah, I think I wanted to take it really slow and steady, and to be really careful and considered. I’ve always been terrified of being a “flavour of the month” artist.
In the beginning, your music was intimate out of necessity as much as it was intention. Now you have more resources to hand to expand your sound, how consciously are you trying to retain that sense of intimacy?
I do try and maintain it, though I would say it’s more of an unconscious thing. But intimate music has always been the music that speaks to me the most. I don’t know how I would make music that wouldn’t have that sensibility to it. There are times where I could probably make it feel more expansive but I just choose to sing really closely into the mic, or strip back some of the layers that I’ve foolishly added late at night. It’s about letting the music sit in its own space. And yeah, I love the idea that someone will have a greater connection to the music because of that intimacy.
How do you feel you’ve evolved musically since those early EPs?
I think I just wanted to have more of a balance. I listen to my old stuff and I can hear a very depressed, early 20s kid, whereas I wanted to get across the joy that I feel more. And even if I was writing about dark stuff I wanted to put it in a light of acceptance and understanding, rather than just grief. So that was important to me. I wanted an album that was going to be appropriately light and shade, and not just one colour of depressing melancholia.
What caused that shift in outlook?
So many things. But I really took a look at my mental health and tried to do the most I could for it. I think I was doing the bare minimum before. I’ve also been sleeping for the first time since I was 10 years old which has been life changing, honestly. I used to still be awake at 5 in the morning and then I would get to sleep for a couple of hours and then wake up at nine or something and feel like death. But my partner has such an incredible ability to sleep I think she almost radiates that energy. I think I’ve soaked in her sleep magic a little bit.
And I think a really important part of maybe why I’m feeling healthier and better these days is that I’m trying to learn the grace of letting things or people go. Sometimes it’s up to the world not you, and you can scream and cry and hold on for dear life, or you can let go. That mindset has really helped.
Do you hope ‘In Praise Of Shadows’ will help others?
Honestly, I just hope that whoever’s listening to it fucking loves it and enjoys all the little details I’ve hidden in there. I hope this album makes people want to listen to more albums, because it did for me. It reminded me of why I do this and how much I love music myself. It felt good to finally make something that I feel really satisfied with and fulfilled by.
In Praise of Shadows is out now.