Jack Peñate is counting through albums he’s started and aborted since 2009’s acclaimed Everything Is New. “I think I’ve probably done four where I thought, ‘This is it. I’ve got this thing,’” the London singer-songwriter tells Apple Music. “I mean, at least one was lost to a fire.” Thankfully, a decade spiked with bad fortune, blocked creative ducts, and personal issues (“It’s important to be truthful when one has felt times of desperation,” he says) built towards this extraordinary third album. After You has a radical vulnerability, but it’s not a record that simply chronicles a hard-luck tale with pretty music. The cathartic outpouring of pop-dance-electronica creativity bounding free on songs such as “Round and Round,” “Murder,” and “Ancient Skin” means Peñate returns with one of 2019’s very best albums. “Before,” he says, “I would say, ‘Oh, I’ve written this song.’ It’s very easy to talk about a theory or surreal things. Here, I had to try and truly convey feelings that had been in me. So these songs—and I know this sounds ridiculous—feel like real achievements.” Allow Peñate to guide you through After You, track by track.
Prayer “I had a feeling that this song had always been there, but it hadn’t manifested yet. And it happened that way: 20 minutes and the whole thing was done. It’s spooky, but I think it’s a confirmation of being in the right place in your life. I know it’s silly, but you feel like you’re being held. Like whatever the thing is—maybe it’s the creative spirit—is with you. It takes time to get to those moments. I’d moved to the countryside to take myself out from a lot of things, and there were elements of fear and sadness about that. Sadness that I had to leave my home to be able to re-establish myself within it again, and with my family and friends. I was away, and it was beautiful, but it was also tough, painful, and lonely at times. So for this song to come when it did, it turned the whole experience around.”
Loaded Gun “This is a song I like because the frame of mind I wrote it in was one that I haven’t allowed myself to be in a lot. I needed that confirmation of ability at that stage, and going into the studio and recording and producing the whole thing myself was it. I wrote it wondering if I could write something about the human condition that is somewhat funny but also tragic. I thought the lyric ‘I want the world to know my name’ was such a funny line, but also incredibly sad and incredibly true to everyone. The song has never been about me, though. I wanted the melody to feel classic and ethereal, like it’s been here forever. And that’s quite an ask—quite a feat in itself—to go into a song with that statement of intent. All the British classics were in me at the time, so I felt like it was an interesting thing to do because the influences were so close to home and I hadn’t embraced that, ever. I was always ‘I want to sound like Shuggie Otis,’ or on the second record, ‘I want to sound like Fela Kuti.’ This is me saying: ‘Let’s do home.’ And then trying to decipher the sound that, for me, would symbolize the artist that I will inevitably—because of my background and where I grew up—become.”
Round and Round “This one’s mad. It started in an airport—I have no memory which airport—just with me recording various sounds. [British producer] Paul Epworth and I wrote the original version, but it was around 20 BPM slower and we were convinced it had a way to become something else. It seemed to me to be a track where I could reference a lot of music I listen to that I haven’t felt comfortable doing or replicating or subverting before. I was listening to a lot of ‘138 Trek’ by DJ Zinc—one of my favorite garage tunes—and a lot of these amazing Iranian artists that have since been sampled by guys like Kanye, plus generally being really into Eastern literature. It was a lot of fun, because I got to learn about scales. All those string lines in the song, I wrote. We almost wanted them to sound like a sample, but they’re not.
“I also found it funny that the song is about someone locked in a room in some Western city thinking they’re reaching some spiritual connection through altering themselves chemically. Basically, it was a state of mind that I was in for a long time—where I thought I was reaching somewhere through forces of degradation, but imagining that I was elevating myself. The other big influence for the track was the Sama—which is the dance of the whirling dervish. I remember seeing a video and thinking, ‘That’s hilarious—that’s basically me on a night out,’ and having a massive laugh about it. That’s literally what I would do, physically, across London in people’s flats, trying to reach those heights—but very awkwardly and ridiculously. There was a real sadness to it. It wasn’t done in the right way. In the daytime, I was reading the right things, I was doing Bikram yoga, but then I was also doing four-night benders. I think a lot of people understand that struggle where spiritual connection meets hedonism—and how do you strike a balance? That balance is something I felt I needed on the record.”
Cipralex “This was written at a really low time. I’m not one to indulge and I don’t make music to become a spokesman or anything like that, but, like many people, I’ve had issues with happiness and was put on pills to try and sort that out. I just found it curious that I didn’t know I was being forced into happiness through something synthetic, which was a real trip to me. It became a sort of love song to happiness—but not understanding whether it was real. I wrote a lot of songs in the vein of this one over the last decade, so it was important that one of them represent that period. The lines ‘Living a dream/Drowning alone/To the one I love, I’m sorry I must go/Colors, take me home/To the one I love, I’m sorry, I must go’ were laced in from another song that I got rid of. It fucking breaks my heart, actually, but I think it’s incredibly important to be aware and be open. I know that if I allow myself to let that become my entire story, it will live within me and it will live again, and I don’t want that. I don’t need it to be the fucking thing. But I also can’t pretend that it wasn’t there. This tune, for me, is that.”
Murder “Bonkers. Just utterly bonkers. Really, it came entirely from Inflo [British producer and songwriter Dean Josiah Cover]. He picked out this four-bar loop from him and my drummer fucking about. I was in the room, but wasn’t even involved. We spent about half an hour chanting, ‘Yeah!’ like you hear on the record, as a bit of a piss-take, but felt we had something. We wrote a couple of verses and then chorus before doubling the vocals, and it was all sounding very Arthur Russell, which I loved, but we didn’t finish it. I was then sent to go and see a guy at XL in New York to work on ‘Murder’ and finish up ‘Prayer.’ Completing ‘Murder’ was a full five-day, 200-files-on-the-computer, three-or-four-different-arrangements situation with me staying on a friend’s sofa. A lot of this record is thanks to people’s sofas, actually. But this song was a real result of stonemasonry and perseverance. Now, I’m incredibly proud. You forgive and forget. Seeing people on tour sing back at you—expelling the pain that the verses bring with the yeahs has been really beautiful to watch.”
Gemini “This song happened in such a beautiful, odd, and synchronistic way. I was on my own in a New York studio trying to get this thing going again after eight or nine years of trying, and I just became overcome by everything. So I went for a walk into SoHo, then onto Lafayette. I was walking aimlessly, until I walked right into two guys wheeling a piano out of an apartment block. I apologized, and they asked if I wanted this piano. I sat down in the middle of this street and played the melody to ‘Gemini,’ which I’ve had for years but no piano ever sounded right—it was always too clean. I played the melody, and about 100 people gathered around to watch me play. I said, ‘This is it. This is the piano.’ A friend from the studio very kindly came to find me and we hauled this three-wheeled piano four blocks across a sweltering New York in the summer. We eventually got it back to the studio, squeezed it into this tiny unused hallway, and set up some mics [and put it] through an old tape machine.
“I had been in a funny mood partly because I was listening to the poem [‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’ by Peñate’s grandfather, novelist and poet Mervyn Peake], and so it felt perfect to doctor it a little and put it on the end of the track. In the poem, everything has fallen apart and they’re in the rubble now. That placement of London felt good to me, as it is my home. I also think my granddad’s talking about my mother—that’s the baby being born. It’s my uncle reading the poem, so it’s very much a song for my family. I played it to them last Christmas and they cried. The song itself is the sound of a memory. It needed to be from some time that didn’t exist and doesn’t exist. It’s another truly cathartic moment.”
Let Me Believe “Two or three years ago, I was living in this tiny little flat in London. It was another period where it appeared everything seemed to have fallen apart. But I had elements of this song and suddenly felt that it had to be right then that I did something with it. Suddenly it felt like, ‘How emotionally raw and open can I be on this track?’ There was no hiding on this one. There’s a surreal, odd feeling to ‘Gemini,’ so I felt like it needed explaining on the record, here. But there’s hope, too. Everything might have fallen, but all I have is belief. It was written as an ode to the creative force, or whatever the thing is that keeps you from going into those dark and frightening spots. When I play the song, it’s a cleansing experience. It lets everything out.”
GMT “I called Paul Epworth one day and asked, ‘You got anything?’ He literally sent me this beat and I wrote the song in a night. It was that simple. We then took it to New York and did a couple of things and added some backing singers, but that was it. It was really nice to approach a song like a hip-hop artist might. I was reading a lot of Hermann Hesse and I liked the idea of the song being about how you contextualize your spiritual being within the city. And I was born in Greenwich [in South London]. I mean, it’s where time starts [Greenwich Mean Time], which used to blow my mind as a child. So it’s about returning to home. It was genuinely a joy to write. The music was so incredibly intricate and odd.”
Ancient Skin “I wrote this in Sicily. My friend works with young refugee lads out there, so I went out to help and, while I was there, set up a studio in an old disused house in the hills. I went over for August being told it’d be boiling and it was the rainiest they’ve ever seen. There was no running water, just me and a little puppy that I then brought home with me. This song was formed there. I was thinking a lot about—and again, I know it sounds ridiculous—but the etymology of love. Where does it go back to? I feel like the person in this album has seen everything end, then they’ve asked for belief before returning home in ‘GMT.’ Then here, they’re trying to get to the core of the thing that was always there. And asking, perhaps, what if Eve didn’t eat the apple? So goes the line—which came from originally just a poem I’d written in an old notebook: ‘Super slow the apple falls/If Eve don’t tell, will Adam know?’ It began life very folky, then became this very different thing when I took it to New York and worked with an incredible double bass player, and that got me excited because I love ‘Solid Air’ by John Martyn. Then the horns came—and there’s not that many on this album—before I just did that stilted Dilla thing with the beat, which was something I’d always wanted to do.”
Swept to the Sky “This was one of the earliest tracks we did—so we always knew we had the end. Because it could only ever close the record. I wrote it about going to the Peruvian jungle. If I’d written it as an idea, I would’ve been fucked. But it’s about something I actually experienced, so it works, I think. I mean, it was in a hallucinatory state with a tribe in Peru, but I did experience the sensation of leaving my body and questing off into the universe. I came home and felt, ‘Oh my god, that was life-changing and beautiful and kind of silly,’ which I think is reflected in the lyrics. It did change me, though. I think there was a beautiful realization that we have an element that survives. Even if it’s an atom, we have an element that lives after. And that was enough. I’ll take that.”