Brighton-based indie rock outfit Penelope Isles — founded and led by sibling duo and co-songwriters and co-vocalists Lily and Jack Wolter — had a breakthrough year back in 2019: Their self-produced, full-length debut Until The Tide Creeps In was released to critical acclaimed globally. The band supported the album with some relentless touring that included sharing stages with The Flaming Lips and The Magic Numbers, as well as three Stateside tours, including a stop at the inaugural New Colossus Festival.
The duo’s Jack Wolters-produced sophomore album Which Way To Happy was released last month through Bella Union. The album’s material was forged during a period of emotional and professional upheaval for The Wolters and for Penelope Isles. The band spent much of 2019 touring across Europe and America with their bandmates. When the pandemic struck early last year, the band — understandably — felt as though everything was falling apart: much like countless other folks across the world, the members of Penelope Isles found their plans and hopes in an indefinite stall. Along with that, Jack and Lily were dealing with their own respective heartaches and the departure of two bandmates. The departing bandmates were replaced with Henry Nicholson, Joe Taylor and Hannah Feenstra for the recording of the album. “A godsend after a low time,” Lily Wolters says.
The Wolters along with Nicholson, Taylor and Feenstra holed up into a small cottage in Cornwall to start work on the new album when lockdowns were instituted everywhere. Claustrophobia kicked in, existential anxiety over the pandemic permeated everything and emotions — naturally — ran very high. “We were there for about two or three months, ultimately,” Penelope Isles’ Jack Wolter recalls. “It was a tiny cottage and we all went a bit bonkers, and we drank far too much, and it spiralled a bit out of control. There were a lot of emotional evenings and realisations, which I think reflects in the songs. Writing and recording new music was a huge part of the recovery process for all of us.”
Finished away from the confines of the Cornwall-based cottage and further flushed out with arrangements by acclaimed composer Fiona Brice, the band’s sophomore album finds the band further emphasizing the core traits that have won them acclaim globally: the bond between Jack and Lily, a desire to celebrate life in all of its facets and a sensitivity towards complex feelings. But interestingly, Which Way To Happy may arguably be their most ambitious effort to date: Sometimes, the album’s material swoons, sometimes it soars. Other times it bravely says “it’s OK to not be OK.” And this is while seeing the band balance on a sonic and stylistic tight rope between expansive cosmic pop, and intimate, earnest songwriting.
In the lead up to the album’s release, I’ve written about four of Which Way To Happy‘s singles:
- The cinematic “Sailing Still.” Centered around a shimmering and brooding string arrangement, gently strummed guitar, thunderous drumming, a soaring hook and Lily Wolter’s achingly tender vocals, the heartbreakingly gorgeous track evokes a deep yet familiar yearning for peace in a mad, mad, mad world — while sonically bearing a resemblance to Lily Wolter’s collaboration with Lost Horizons.
- “Iced Gems” is a gently undulating track featuring twinkling keys, fluttering and atmospheric electronics, thumping beats and Lily Wolters’ achingly plaintive vocals. And while being a decided sonic departure, the song is centered around somme deeply intimate lyricism and the duo’s unerring knack for crafting infectious, razor sharp hooks.
- “Sudoku” is a slow-burning and lushly textured bit of dream pop/shoegaze centered around shimmering guitars, plaintive and expressive vocals, a soaring hook and a fuzzy power chord driven solo.
- “Terrified,” a sun-dappled, hook-driven bit of jangle pop but underneath the breezy and upbeat vibes, the song is a reflection on maneuvering a mad, mad, mad world with anxiety — and somehow pretending that you’re not crumbling on the inside.
The album’s fifth and latest single, the breakneck “Have You Heard?” was written by Lily Wolters and sonically is one-part Brit Pop, one-part jangle pop, one-part psych pop centered around rousingly anthemic hooks and Lily Wolters’ achingly tender and ethereal vocals. According to the band, the song was inspired by labelmates The Flaming Lips and much like that equally acclaimed act’s work, “Have You Heard?” manages to be upbeat — but that manages to be a bit deceptive, as the song has a bittersweet and uneasy undertone.
The recently released video was directed by renowned director Jamie Thraves, who has worked on gorgeous and mind-bending visuals for the likes of Radiohead and Coldplay. Shot in a cinematic black and white, the video is split between a surrealist narrative in which the band’s Lily Wolters has the power to hurt people just through words told forward and backwards paired with some great live-performance footage, which captures their live energy.