Artist Spotlight: Penelope Isles

    Hailing from the Isle of Man, Penelope Isles is a Brighton-based band led by siblings Jack and Lily Wolter. When Jack – six years Lily’s elder – came back home from university, she had already started getting into music and playing in bands, and they started a group together called Your Gold Teeth, which lasted until Lily moved to Brighton to study songwriting. Jack eventually joined her there, and the pair formed Penelope Isles and shared their first EP, Comfortably Swell, in 2015, before releasing their dreamy, artfully crafted debut, Until the Tide Creeps In, via Bella Union in 2019. Then, halfway through their North American tour in support of the album, the pandemic hit, and the group decamped to a cottage in Cornwall to start work on their sophomore record.

    It ended up being a turbulent and emotionally charged time, with the band going through multiple line-up changes. Now joined by Henry Nicholson on bass and Joe Taylor on drums, they sent the mix to Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann, with English composer Fiona Brice also providing beautiful string arrangements on some of the tracks. Produced by Jack, Which Way to Happy finds the band expanding their mercurial sound, allowing it to reach soaring heights against a rich, widescreen palette. More captivating than anything is Jack and Lily’s dynamic: hearing the album’s gorgeous, ethereal melodies amplify and distort their raw confessions can feel a bit like watching them trying to desperately keep the ship from sinking, catching glimpses of each other through the swirling haze. But for all its twists and turns, Penelope Isles sound more controlled and clear-eyed than ever by the end: they have weathered the storm and come out stronger on the other side.

    We caught up with Penelope Isles’ Jack and Lily Wolter for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about how they started making music together, the process of making Which Way to Happy, and more.

    You started playing music as teenagers, but because of your age difference, it was something you explored quite separately. How much would you say you bonded over music at an early age?

    Lily Wolter: I was more into classical jazz music, dealing with grades and exams and stuff, compared to Jack’s experience. When we first bonded I would say was when Jack – I got an iPod shuffle for my like 15th birthday.

    Jack Wolter: I think you were a lot younger than that.

    LW: And Jack put loads of music on it. That’s how got into more rock and indie and stuff. He put like, the Kooks on there, the Thrills, Paramore. That’s when I first heard Radiohead, and that’s when we started talking about bands and getting into it together.

    JW: I think it was the first time Lily started falling in love with bands and certain songs that become a part of your life. And then I went away for about four or five years to study, and when I came back, Lily had started playing in bands and with her friends and we started our own band. I had a bunch of songs I wanted to play live with the band, and Lily was around so I taught her how to play the bass and we just started gigging.

    Lily, can you think of anything non-musical that you learned from Jack at that age?

    LW: Oh, that’s a really sweet question. I think more just social skills and confidence in interacting with people, I was heavily influenced by Jack at a young age. Not a lot of older brothers would do this, but I used to go visit him when I was about 14-15. I used to go from the Isle of Man to Cornwall to visit Jack when he was like 20, 21, 22, and that’s quite a young age to do that. But it definitely massively shaped who I am today, if it wasn’t for those little visits in the summertime.

    JW: That’s quite nice.

    LW: Yeah, the way you communicate and how you are with people, I think we’re quite similar in that way.

    In what way do you mean?

    LW: I feel like this is like therapy a bit? [laughter]

    If it’s too much, that’s totally fine. You don’t have to answer.

    JW: No, it’s nice. They’re different to the normal questions we get asked. But we’re both quite friendly and quite confident in some in some ways, quite easygoing. I’m not trying to be big-headed, you know, but that kind of thing. Until you really get to know us, and then we’re just dickheads [laughs].

    Jack, can I ask you the same question? Was there something that you learned from Lily?

    LW: No. [laughs]

    JW: I think more so nowadays, I learn a lot from Lily. She’s like my best mate and I look up to her a lot. I think when we were younger, I kind of took her under my wing a little bit, and definitely vibed off how enthusiastic she was back in the day. As far as little sisters go, she’d be well up for anything, you know, like you weren’t grossed out by being in the van with all of us. But I think more later in life, I look up to Lily and we’ve got each other’s backs.

    When you first started playing together as Your Gold Teeth, did it feel natural right away, or was it in any way challenging?

    JW: It was challenging in the sense that Lily had never played bass before, but it was never a barrier.

    LW: It was very much Jack’s project and he was sort of the ringleader. I’d never really been really in a band before, so I was very stoked to be playing bass and getting off the Isle of Man and seeing a little bit of the UK.

    JW: It was exciting more than anything. The songs and the instrumentation were all relatively simple. It wasn’t technical stuff. It felt like a really natural exciting thing, and we slowly built up a really small fan base, but it felt significant. And then Penelope Isles kind of happened after that – we had solo projects and then we formed those solo projects to make Penelope Isles.

    When that happened, did you go into it with the intention of there being more of an equal dynamic?

    LW: I think with this record more so than the last. I was still sort of finding out who I was in the first record, I was still quite young. I wasn’t writing as much, so I only have maybe two or three songs on the first record. Whereas this one is a lot more of an even split. It just happened naturally, I sort of immersed myself into it more, because it’s very much what I want to do with my life and my career. There wasn’t even a conversation about – it was just like, “Jack’s got a load of songs, I’ve got a load of songs, let’s just record them and see what happens at the end.”

    You began working on the album while staying at a small cottage in Cornwall, where you’ve said things kind of spiraled out of control. Having a certain distance from it now, is it easier for you to process what happened?

    LW: The whole world just fell out of control, so it’s hard to imagine what that time would have been like if it wasn’t a pandemic. But it’s also a weird comfort knowing that it wasn’t just us going through this really weird time. Everyone was going through it.

    JW: I think we just, like, worked a bit too hard. The reason why we went to Cornwall to do it is we love surfing, so we were going to get up in the morning, go for a surf, come back, spend like five or six hours on the music and then have a barbecue or go hang out with mom and dad, who live down the road. Because we didn’t do that, and we weren’t allowed to do it, we worked really hard on the record, and then obviously, we just drank a load as well. And I think in hindsight, it would have been amazing to do it differently, but I’m also weirdly glad that it happened that way. Because I think we pushed ourselves to a certain point that we almost broke our flow. And because of that, we had to reevaluate our situation, and then I think we actually got a better sounding record out of it in the end. So, kind of glad it happened even though it was a strange time.

    Could you share some highlights from the recording process?

    JW: There was this one song, ‘Rocking at the Bottom’. We started recording that song, and it was amazing. We had this drum beat down, this really fun bass line, and then we put some guitars on it. We spent like a day getting the song down, and I remember that night, we’d all have a bit to drink and we’re dancing around the cottage going, “This is so cool.” So that was a highlight, but soon after that, that song kind of deteriorated. I don’t know exactly what happened, it was definitely on the percussive side of it. On closer evaluation, something wasn’t right with it. And because we loved this bass line so much, we wanted to keep it, and we kind of had to rearrange that song around the bass line, and it soon became an absolute nightmare. To the point that I was thinking, “How are we going to make this song work?”

    LW: I kind of almost just lost interest. It went on for so long just trying to work out how to get that drum and bass line down, I was just like, “You guys just do this. I can’t deal with it anymore.” I couldn’t even hear the problem anymore. I just couldn’t. Yeah, it was hard. But Jack cracked it. I remember coming in the studio and Jack had been up all night working it out and he was like, “I’ve done it.”

    How did you go about collecting and using the field recordings for the record?

    JW: There’s a bit in ‘Have You Heard’, there’s like a little noise, you can hear kind of laughing and conversation and us fooling around. It’s quite distorted, you can’t really hear it. But there was a lake near the cottage where we were staying, and we’d go to the lake and there’s a little old rowing boat that we’d go out when we just had enough in the studio. And obviously, we were limited to where we could go, but we could go to this lake. We did a lot of recording out there just with our phones.

    LW: Jack fell into the lake, and I captured it on my voice notes.

    Is that on the record?

    JW: Yeah, it’s more us just laughing.

    LW: He goes, “I’m soaking wet mate!”

    JW: I remember we did have a conversation about it. We were going through our phones in the studio at that point looking for something that would fit, and that kind of made total sense. But then the last track, ‘In a Cage’, our friend Eugene, he’s the last thing you hear on the record. He passed away just before we started making the record, actually, and I found this recording – 10 years ago, when we were mates on the Isle of Man, I had this microphone recorder thing, and I used to take it around when I was studying art. I would do field recordings and then I’d use them in artwork. And I remember we were all hanging out on the beach once, all of our friends, and then I’d left it recording. And basically, the last thing you hear on the record is Eugene – we all left, and he found the little recorder, him and his girlfriend were like, “Oh, look, Jack’s left his little recording device.” And then you can hear him coming down and he picks it up and he goes, “Haha, I’ve got you Jack!” And that’s the last thing you hear. It meant a lot to us to have that finish the record, just a little nod to Eugene.

    Lily, did you know what that field recording was when it was first introduced to you?

    LW: I wasn’t there, I was a little bit too young to be hanging out with all those guys back then. But it was really emotional when Jack found it. I mean, you said you don’t feel sad when you listen to it, you’re really happy, which is really nice. But yeah, I think it means a lot to us, but it’ll mean a lot to a lot of our friends back home as well when they hear it.

    What was it like recording the vocals for ’11 11’?

    LW: I was just really sad. I was really sad. I was going through a breakup, my first breakup. Which really sort of benefited the take, to be honest, to a certain extent. I could only really sing it like couple times, but I think we only did two takes and that was enough.

    JW: Lily just poured her heart into it. And it was tough – obviously, having someone so upset, you just want to comfort them. But I knew that I needed to capture it, instead of going, “Oh sweetie, are you okay? Should we go outside, get some fresh air?” Which is probably what in any other situation anyone would have done, especially the big brother side of me. But I was like, “Alright, should we do another take then?” [laughter] We tried a third one, but it was actually a blabbering mess.

    LW: It started to get a bit ugly on the third one [laughs].

    Jack, you have some vulnerable vocals takes there as well, did you have a similar moment recording any of them?

    JW: I do remember recording the vocals for ‘Pink Lemonade’, and I couldn’t get the vocal down for a while. It’s kind of a vulnerable vocal take. And I remember I’d stayed up, it was like four in the morning and I was on my own in the studio, and I just looped the whole song. I just sung about like 20 takes on my own and like, and I remember just really enjoying it. I was like, “This is working.”

    LW: I think sometimes you just do it so much better when you’re on your own, especially when it’s a vulnerable song. Some of the demos I’ve made, I prefer my vocal takes so much more sometimes because it’s extra vulnerable, rather than being surrounded by people and trying to convey that.

    Can you tell me one thing that you learned from each other during this whole process of making the record?

    JW: It was a bit of a whirlwind, I must admit, the whole thing.

    LW: I feel like I’ve aged three years since making this record.

    How long has it actually been? A year?

    JW: A year and a half-ish. But yeah, me and Lily have gone through like breakups and relationships, financially it’s been difficult, not being able to tour, and I think the record has been a little bit of an anchor, having something to focus on.

    LW: I think the best part about it for me it was when we finished it, me and Jack went to Cornwall for four months to live at home and we just went surfing every day. Just switched off. I learned to surf, and Jack taught me to surf, and that was a whole new part of our relationship, just not to do with music. And it was so great. Sometimes I wish that I could just go back to that time and just have nothing to do but go surfing. We were so privileged where we live at home with our mom and dad, we would just go surfing and then come back and write some new songs and watch a bit of TV. It was just bloody lovely.

    What do you love about surfing?

    LW: Aww. That’s so funny, man, someone asked me that yesterday. I think for me, I only started at Christmas and really dived into it, pardon the pun. And I’d never thought I’d be able to do it. I was the worst in school at sports, and I just never thought I would be able to do it.  And I really, really tried. And now, when I catch a wave, I just feel really proud of myself. For me, it’s like no other feeling. What about you?

    JW: I think it’s just like – obviously being in the ocean and riding the wave is absolutely amazing. But it’s just the process as well, the knowledge of the sea and the trust, the whole process of reading the ocean and being a part of something. Riding a wave, it’s different every time.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Penelope Isles’ Which Way to Happy is out now via Bella Union.

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