Bonding | An Interview With Lily Wolter Of Penelope Isles

Chalk up Lily Wolter for having a stellar day when we spoke via Zoom around the end of 2021. A friend and she shared a slab of pancakes with a friend in the morning. The evening festivities will include some prepped pumpkin tortellini ready to be cooked. Wolter mentions that she has been blessed to be surrounded by skillful cooks who instruct her along the way. Just in part has allowed Wolter to become passionate about the art.  

Shortly after we finish our chat, Wolter inform me that she would be meeting with someone else and cleaning up a finger tattoo that she had done earlier in the week. Wolter uses the technique known as stick and poke, a method using a singular to a group of needles applied by hand. Instead of using an electric machine, the artist uses a tool that holds the needle. “I mainly like doing sort of more detailed illustrations of animals and textual things the most,” says Wolter. “I have a lot of clients who have ideas rather than my own. I’m not really into like, geometric stuff or like traditional. Not really more or less my bag.”

Even as the delicate balance of piecing together a delightful pasta dinner or skillfully crafting a beautiful piece of art, Wolter is eagerly awaiting her band Penelope Isles‘s latest effort, Which Way To Happy, to drop. The ensemble, which includes Lily’s brother Jack, enlisted new members Henry Nicholson, Joe Taylor, and Hannah Feenstra to join them in a small cottage in Cornwall to record the band’s sophomore album.  

All changed rapidly as the first global lockdowns began, which forced everyone to stay. The emotional toll of being confined in claustrophobic-like conditions resulted in Penelope Isles crafting an album that matches the intensity of the time in the cottage. The lockdown also allowed the brother and sister duo to write honest and more open songs than the predecessor Until The Tide Creeps In. “Terrified” is a fuzzed-out indie-pop that presents a happy façade but lyrically delves into having to work out feelings of self-doubt. “Sailing Still” moves gingerly with an orchestra guiding the way and Lily’s sensitive tone. Jack and Lily’s father and his passion for sudoku puzzles are honored with sweeping guitars and soaring synth throughout.

Were you always pretty tight with your brother back when you were growing up?

No, not really. We’re six years apart, so no sixteen-year-old boys want to be best friends with their ten-year-old sister. I used to dread it when he was left to babysit me because he would just be horrible. But then we got tight when he went to uni. I think he realized when he came back, he had a sister who was interested in music. He realized that I was a cherub.

Is that how you got into music? Did you start going through what he was coming back with?

I didn’t. I didn’t; I started playing music when I was seven. I started playing classical and jazz. I did all my grades for saxophone and I used to play the concert harp and was in orchestras. And that was really my thing. And then when Jack came back from uni, and he met all these amazing musicians that were all students, it was this amazing scene. And about 2011 was about being in an amazing scene in Falmouth and Cornwall. And he like met all these amazing people are like, brought all this like music home to me. My eyes were open to alternative music and he introduced me to Radiohead, Grizzly Bear, and Deerhunter…stuff like that.

Is that how you two ended up playing music together?

Yeah…he basically finished uni and moved back to the Isle of Man. He wanted to start a band, and he wanted me to be in it. I remember he did bass training with me. He taught me how to play “Gouge Away” by the Pixies because it was just literally like three chords. I had this big pink, Daisy rock bass…with massive strings on it.

The backstory of the recording of the album is rather interesting. Were you and the band upset that the events transpired as they did?

I was just wrapping up another interview and I’ve asked the same question… it’s not often that a band records an album during a pandemic. Yeah, it was definitely weird—a different experience to what we envisioned for sure. We thought, oh, let’s like hire this cottage in Cornwall for like three weeks; it’d be great. We can go surfing every morning. We can see our parents down the road for dinner. Our friends live nearby the parks so we could take walks.  

It doesn’t matter what was happening or recording sign me up—surfing and pubs around you. I mean, come on.

Right?! We decided to work in the day, and then we’ll go do all this fun stuff. But we got there on day one of the first lockdown and we couldn’t do any of that. We were in this very small cottage with one bedroom for me and three boys. One bedroom had one bed; we were rotating who got the bed every night. Someone slept on the sofa cushions on the floor. Someone was on that and someone was on an air bed. We ended up staying that two months. It was just stressful.

Did the group at any point get to where recording wasn’t going to be an option? Obviously, with everything locked down, everyone was already stressed.

It was thought about because not only was it hard, but musically, it kind of felt like it wasn’t really working. There was some stuff that wasn’t clicking, particularly with the drums; that sort of caused quite a lot of tension. So to deal with that, we were drinking to just sort of switch off from the album. 

There was this little lake at the bottom of the cottage. This little stagnant lake was part of that part of the lamb that we were on also. And there was this little like old, moldy, rowing boat as well. Whenever things got tough, we were all just stop what we were doing, take an acoustic guitar and a bottle of whiskey, walk down to the lake, and row ourselves into the middle of this stagnant lake. All four of us were in this tiny boat and we just listened to shitty music off our phone. We were losing our minds and that was the only thing that we could do to have fun.

It’s interesting to hear how you guys turned it off. When you guys were on the boat, did you talk at all about the album? Or did everyone agree not to speak about it once you left the cabin? You built that kind of trust where you know to say, let’s just get out of here for a minute instead of allowing everything to fester.

We did talk about it. We’d be on the boat and talk about what we need to do to fix this. It was clear that it was a fresher space to have that conversation rather than in a small stone-built cottage with a fire. 

We brought all this equipment; we bought a Hammond organ and twenty guitars. The studio was intimate and really sick, but when stuff wasn’t working we found it somewhat hard. We definitely had fun times as well. We are all best mates and we were really because we were in the middle of the most beautiful places. I’m glad it happened the way it did. We didn’t finish it there; we basically couldn’t afford to rent the space anymore. We finished it in our studio in Brighton and redid quite a lot of stuff. That’s when it started to really take shape, I think.

Having the debut receive critical success, was there any built-in stress to make the second one just as good?

I think we knew that it was going to be a better record just because time has gone on and Jack has got a lot more experience under his belt with production and better equipment. We moved into a studio and had producers who would help us out; they lent us really good gear and really great mics. The amount of time put into this new album compared to the last one…we knew we had to up it. The recording definitely became less of a DIY, lo-fi thing. I think now there’s a lot more to it. The fact that Dave Fridmann mixed the album…he added those final touches.

Will you and the band miss that DIY, lo-fi sound, or do you still feel like it’s still ingrained?

That’s a really interesting question. We wanted to try to keep our sound, but we want to make it sound great. Alex G is really good at doing that. He’s got that proper, DIY, garage, bedroom sound, but his records sound really great. I think Mac DeMarco is really good at doing that as well. And I think Jack’s done a fairly good job of that as well. I think there are moments where we listened to the album and we’re like, Oh, should have that, definitely could have done that differently, or should we have left that out, or that’s too much, or whatever. But yeah, I think he’s done a great job of capturing where we are right now in our music.

I think it happens to a lot of musicians, especially after you make an album so long ago. You start hearing it, and you feel like they can always do more and kind of add more.

You always can do less (laughs), but I think It’s quite a busy record. I don’t know; I think maybe the next one might not be as full-on. This record-there was a lot of emotion, a lot of instruments. A lot of just feelings and stuff. I guess that’s just how we were feeling at the time. We felt like there was so much going on with us at the time.

Do you have to be in the moment when you’re writing? Do you constantly find yourself just jotting stuff down? Or are you very elaborate about it?

I have to dedicate time to write some music, but my voice notes are great; I’ve got so many. That’s where I begin everything. I’ll just go through that if I want to write some tonight. I’ll tell myself, Okay, Which one can I pick? Which one can I make come to life? So that’s kind of how I work. I can’t just hang around waiting for the moment to come to me.

Do you feel like you don’t want to put too much of yourself into your lyrics?

Yeah, that’s a hard one. When I listen to people like Lambchop, Jeff Tweedy, or so many artists, even hip hop/alternative stuff like Frank Ocean or like Solange, that’s the stuff that stands out. It might not be so relatable because you haven’t the experience they are talking about with this person in this place, but it’s like poetry. The imagery that comes with that-I love that feeling as well as abstract metaphorical lyrics that can be applied. I think it’s good to get a good blend of, isn’t it?

So have you guys started working on the new album yet or slowly putting things together?

I think there’s talk of like an EP happening next year. So we’ve started gathering little bits and bobs for that. We’ve definitely been talking about what kind of vibe we want to go for for the next one. I think we’re all well quite keen to maybe go a little bit heavier. I don’t know; we have so much fun in band practice when we’re going heavy. I seem to just be writing a bloody sad love song, so that’s also happening. Maybe it’ll be a blend.

You sound sad about that.

No, no (laughs). The record we just made like-it’s mainly about finding love hard and really feeling it. So I don’t know the next one will be like that.

Penelope Isles’s sophomore album Which Way To Happy is out now via Bella Union.

Photo Courtesy: Parri Thomas