Jacob Allen’s first imagining of the name “Puma Blue” was a cat,
propping up a bar, drowning his sorrows in liquor. The name harked back to the halcyon days of the blues, a time of hazy music in smoky clubs. The character is described as a burn-out, but Jacob is far more productive than his fictional backstory.
When I call him, he’s sitting in a cafe in one of the most fertile plains for hip hop in America; Atlanta, Georgia. He’s visiting his girlfriend in the city where Young Thug, Jeezy, Outkast, Gucci Mane and countless other figures in modern music either call home or cut their teeth in.
Atlanta is more than 4,000 miles away from where the vocalist, producer, poet and instrumentalist is from. A place where creativity takes many forms. A city where collaboration often falls onto his lap. It is there in London where many of his musician friends live and work, one such artist being Irish-born rapper and vocalist Biig Piig. Jacob produced her stand-out track ‘Perdida’ which appeared on her debut project ‘Big Fan of the Sesh, Vol 1’.
“Jess is one of those people who I don’t really know how we met. We must have bumped into each other at night or been mutual friends with other musicians… It’s so easy for worlds to collide with other artists in London, we just got working by complete chance and a mutual admiration and now we’re fierce friends, that’s an amazing part of the city.”
While the England’s cultural (and actual) capital boasts one of the largest populations of artists in Europe, for Jacob, this can often lead to trends and cliques drowning out viable music.
“I think sometimes it can feel like there are certain things that aren’t as cool here… There are certain limitations and it’s more about realising that those limitations exist in your head, or from journalists, or whatever. For example, in London at the moment the jazz/hip hop thing is going on. I have friends who are really into folk music and lo-fi folk stuff and I think they feel a bit unheard in London, but they’re not. We all have the same platform, with the internet, and as long as your work is good when people hear it on SoundCloud and YouTube your biggest fans can be in Melbourne or something.
“I think at the beginning of last year I was too concerned about how I’d fit in in London rather than being concerned about what I’d do musically. Now I see myself as just a random person, on the planet. I’m just a human being rather than a ‘South East London artist’. I think once people start picking up on your location you maybe start identifying as that place… It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy just going around in circles, and I think it’s important not to do that too much.”
After sporadically releasing a series of singles, in 2017 he released a debut EP entitled ‘Swum Baby’, followed up by another string of stand-alone tracks. His music brings you back to the aforementioned jazz and blues clubs. ‘Untitled 2’, for example, hits you with the smell of tobacco and whiskey that you’d imagine these dives to have, leaving you nostalgic for a scene you were never a part of.
While the artists gave so much of themselves in their music, performing was an escape for them, and decades later, in Jacob’s reimagined version of these sounds, it serves him in the same way.
“I very much have always been someone who wears their heart on their sleeve. I was raised by my parents, and especially my dad, to not be afraid of being sensitive and how that’s very much a part of being masculine. That’s kind of my core anyways, I’m not afraid… Sometimes when people reveal so much it’s very brave or you can tell it took a lot of courage. Sometimes when people say that to me it’s like I feel guilty because I don’t have to be very brave to reveal a lot about myself – it’s not like something I’ve had to overcome. I’m just a naturally open and sensitive person.”
We both laugh when I point out the irony of a prying journalist asking if revealing intensely personal details of his life is difficult. But he continues.
“There are general things that I don’t mind sharing, but then now and again there’s a song that’s maybe a bit more private or difficult to articulate in the way that’s most representative of the feeling. If you have a song about feeling jealous, it’s problematic; on one hand you want to be open and honest as a songwriter and write that you were jealous, but you don’t want to promote being jealous or having those feelings as something healthy. You don’t want to promote or normalise envious behaviour in a relationship.
“That’s something I have to wrestle with. I guess in the same way as if you play an absolute narcissistic or violent person in a film as an actor, maybe you’d feel you’d struggle with it because you want to do a good job of it as an actor and portray it honestly – but you’re also like, ‘This is a horrible character’. Sometimes I like to leave a bit more to interpretation and imagination and other times it’s about being vulnerable and honest and not being apologetic about it, because I’ve found in the past people can relate to you. If you’re honest sometimes you can feel alone in that thing you’re confessing. Then you have 50 to 100 people say they went through the same thing or it really helped them get through something and you think, ‘I’m glad I shared that actually’.”
2018 has been a fruitful time for Jacob’s career under the Puma Blue moniker. At the beginning of the year he played all manner of venues and cities in the UK, before setting out on a big festival run all over Europe. Scrolling through his previous tour dates on Facebook you quickly begin to lose count of the amount of times he’s stepped out on stage. I ask him how he’s able to harness that emotional vulnerability and repeat it in front of an audience without it becoming sterile.
“It’s difficult really when you’re going through something really heavy and you have to play live. I remember last year I was going through some really heavy shit and it was kind of draining to sing songs every night and feel them the way I felt at the time. I didn’t want to go up there and be numb and not enjoy it, so I really gave my all to it, but after every gig I was like, ‘I just need to go somewhere and have a little cry’, or ‘I really need a hug or something’. It’s painful.”
But that’s super indicative Jacob’s work. The reason the depth shines through both live and on his releases is because of the rawness of the Puma Blue project.
“I love jams and funky music that makes you bop for no reason, but the music I most love is the music that has a lot of depth and I guess that’s always the artist I strive to be: someone who has a lot to give over. Something that people can appreciate in a new way each time they listen, something personal.”
The Londoner’s lyricism and delivery has all of the tropes of a spoken word artist, and that’s no coincidence. The line “Rhetoric verses I could spill” on ‘Soft Porn’ might give away the fact that Jacob has intentions to release a book of his poems. I ask him which has more catharsis, poetry or songwriting.
“That’s a really hard question. When I have to go through things that are really hard it’ll be poems, because they’re just more personal. It’s like a level of therapy that transcends songwriting because I guess with my songs I’m still limited by the fact it’s music and that I want to enjoy the structure, even if it’s a really weird or loose structure… I like songs to feel like songs and poems to feel like poems. With poetry, there’s not a limitation that I’ve put there myself… It’s just words. So, I could just write something really to the point and short or I could write a two- page stream of consciousness. However, it comes out I just find something really healing about it and it’s evident of what I’ve gone through and it’s good to look back on.
“But I guess with songs you get this amazing feeling of being able to play them and it’s cathartic in a whole different way because you’re making something beautiful out of something often horrible. Then you can just play it live and get to experience how amazing music feels live and the meaning of songs change for you over time and that’s a whole level of catharsis. I don’t know man, it’s a really hard question…
“With my poems I can look back and they feel really representative of a specific moment or time or thing I’m wrestling with. Whereas songs start out like that, obviously, but maybe in a year, your whole life has changed and you’re still singing a song and meaning it but you’re singing it about someone else, or maybe it’s originally a song about unrequited love then it changes to feelings toward your family, or friends, or something else entirely. The song has stayed the same, but you project onto it differently.
“I think that’s what’s amazing about being an audience member: everyone interprets things differently and it’s the same person or the same song, but you interpret it differently on different days. It’s an amazing thing about songs.”
Puma Blue plays The Workman’s Club on October 20.