There is nothing predictable about WIFE. Born James Kelly, he’s the former frontman of black metal band Altar of Plagues, and has a degree in environmental science. He’s the Tri Angle Records-signed artist who’s bypassed the blurry beats trend to make a singer-songwriter album. And he’s the tall, blokey guy with a twinkle in his eye who explores male vulnerability on his startlingly intimate debut album, What’s Between. Its air is thick with a sexual tension that broods and questions, a mood born of rolling swathes of synth tones peppered with creeping industrial textures over which Kelly’s voice flies in earnest as if on some spiritual quest. Kelly worked with labelmates Haxan Cloak and Lie on the production (as well as an earlier spell with ex-Vex’d producer Roly Porter), and their hyper-specific sonic aesthetic serves his almost folk music-like lyrics well. What’s Between feels epic and awed, and gentle and powerful, all at once.
Kelly grew up in a working class family in the secluded Irish village of Ballinhassig, about 15 miles outside of Cork. “My parents didn’t grow up in houses where you made art,” he explains over a pint in a Brooklyn bar on a rainy day in May. “It wasn’t a privilege they had. But I was very lucky that they always—even though they are not artistic themselves—nurtured that in me, told me to go wild with it, you know?” He moved to London three years ago, ostensibly to continue his studies (“I did my masters [degree] in conservation, which is a fancy word for save the whale,” he says), but instead, it became the breeding ground for a new musical identity. After making three albums with Altar of Plagues that challenged the conventions of black metal, Kelly’s growing creative frustration finally prompted him to go solo. His first release as WIFE was an EP called Stoic; the video to “Bodies” featured a half-naked Kelly tearing apart a peach with his hands and daubing ink up his arms in what seemed to be a deeply sensual, ritualistic act. For What’s Between, he set out to make something closer to pop and the Irish music he’d grown up on. Kelly took singing lessons in the lead-up to the album’s recording sessions, and while he says he wanted to sound “as good as I possibly could,” what it ultimately gave him was the confidence to own the voice he has: “It’s okay if I’m not the smooth R&B voice that everyone wants to hear—I’m just going to sing these songs that I have in me.” Here, he talks about moving away from metal, exploring male vulnerability and being Irish.
How has your experience of Irish art and music shaped the album? The thing that’s really appealing to me about Irish art, poetry and music is that it’s quite raw—especially more traditional Irish music. One of my favorite Irish songs is Luke Kelly’s “Raglan Road.” It’s him singing a poem, and it’s this really raw, singer-songwriting type of thing. It’s really emotive and powerful and poignant. Being Irish, I can often relate to the sentiment they’re putting across in their music and the intent. That’s where that comes from for me. I’m a very proud Irishman and I love Irish art. I love to explore it and be as inspired by it as I can.
Are there certain themes that run throughout Irish music? I’d say there’s a duality to the Irish. We’re either morose or we’re partying. That’s essentially what traditional Irish music is: it’s either about the party or about the funeral. [Ireland] is not a hard place to live anymore—it is still hard because of the recession and things, but it’s not like way back when it was an extremely poor country in the 1800s, or right through the 1900s, when there was all the political war going on. So we’re kind of like the underdog, and that’s kind of been ingrained in us and that comes across in our acts sometimes. But we’re also proud, and I think pride is something that always comes across. With Irish music, when it’s sad, it’s sad in a really assured way. [On "Raglan Road," Kelly's] not sad like he’s been beaten by his sadness; he’s in control of it.
Was it a conscious decision that Irish music was something you were going to draw on? I think it was a case of looking at my cards and saying, “What do I have?” On one hand, I don’t like to be overly conscious when I make music; I just want to make what’s in me and get it out. But on the other hand, when you’re doing something in the realm of pop music, you’ve got to be a bit more conscious that you’re not sounding like someone else. Because Irish tradition is so close to my heart, it’s natural for me to draw on it. This record, to me, is just a brutally honest expression of how I feel about certain things. Irish art does that so well.
You’ve moved from metal to experimental electronic music to something approaching pop. What’s guiding that evolution? I think it’s just one of those things. I’ve always been a songwriter, and it just so happened that for a couple years my songwriting was honed in on writing for a metal band, which was in many ways unplanned. When I lived at home in my parent’s house, I was in my room making music all of the time, and it happened that the metal one was the one that stuck. [There was a] record deal and tours, and it’s been year after year working on that. It came time to draw a line in the sand and take stock of what I’ve done so far; I really, really need to get this other stuff out of me. I couldn’t see any way in which it would make sense for me to inject all the stuff that was inspiring me into a metal band. It just came to that point where I was just like, “I don’t want to be in a metal band anymore; I need to pursue something else.”
Do you see threads between your two incarnations, as Altar of Plagues and now as WIFE? Tonally I think they’re both definitely residing in the moody side of things, for want of a better word. That’s kind of what links them. I think what Altar of Plagues does that WIFE won’t really touch on is really extreme aggression and anger and that sort of thing. What WIFE does that Altar of Plagues never did is that it can be happy. So, I’ve got the capacity for happiness.
The lyric about the world being darker in the light on album track “Dan Ce” is pretty epic. I think one of the premises of the whole record is the idea of lying and misrepresentation. It’s not about a specific experience that I had; it’s not about any one thing. But I sometimes think that we’d rather accept things that aren’t true than know about what’s really true, whether that’s to do with a relationship with a person or related to something bigger, if you want to get into something political. We almost hide away from what’s real and true, and stick with a façade. That’s what that lyric relates to for me.
One thing that is key to your music is your presentation of male sexuality: it’s intimate, sensual, and non-objectified. What prompted that? Rarely anymore are men presented as sensual. Like, as delicate and sensual. I don’t think men are presented as being vulnerable—but men are extremely vulnerable and I think a lot of them are afraid to show that. The few that do are critiqued or mocked for it. In my mind the whole thing is a level playing field—if Miley Cyrus chooses to present herself a certain way, then she can, and I’m just gonna say that’s how she wants to present herself. It’s not her wanting to be sexualized. When I presented myself that way [in the “Bodies” video], it’s me showing a visual representation of myself that is vulnerable.
It’s also powerful—that power through vulnerability thing. Yeah, you know, I’m a big guy, but like I said, I’m not afraid to tell someone I’m vulnerable as fuck like anybody else. I don’t need to be photographed being the meanest looking fella and then my interviews are me telling you how tough I am or whatever. I don’t care about this stuff. I think sometimes men shy away from showing that side. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. It’s a good, healthy thing to do.
What is sensuality to you? Just closeness, with anybody. It’s the idea of taking away that veil we all hide behind and being really upfront in an emotional sense. Sensuality to me is more emotional than it is physical.