When you’re trying to make it through tough times, you need a little light to find your way. That light blazes brightly on the alchemical second album from Penelope Isles, an album forged amid emotional upheaval and band changes. Setting the uncertainties of twentysomething life to alt-rock and psychedelic songs brimming with life, colour and feeling, ‘Which Way to Happy’ emerges as a luminous victory for Jack and Lily Wolter, the siblings whose bond holds the band tight at its core.
Produced by Jack and mixed by US alt-rock legend Dave Fridmann, the result is an intoxicating leap forward for the Brighton-based band, following the calling-card DIY smarts of their 2019 debut, ‘Until the Tide Creeps In’. Sometimes it swoons, sometimes it soars. Sometimes it says it’s OK to not be OK. And sometimes it says it’s OK to look for the way to happy, too. Pitched between fertile coastal metaphors and winged melodies, intimate confessionals and expansive cosmic pop, deep sorrows and serene soul-pop pick-you-ups, it transforms ‘difficult second album’ clichés into a thing of glorious contrasts: a second-album surge of up-close, heartfelt intimacies and expansive, experimental vision.
Field recordings were made during a stay at a small cottage in Cornwall, where Penelope Isles began work on the album. With romantic heartache already in the air, things swiftly got worse: lockdown began, claustrophobia kicked in and emotions ran high. As Jack puts it, “We were there for about two or three months. It was a tiny cottage with four of us in 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.”
At different points along the way, Jack Sowton and Becky Redford left the Isles. An old friend, multi-instrumentalist Henry Nicholson, stepped in swiftly - “A godsend after a low time,” says Lily. Another friend, Hannah Feenstra, contributed drum parts; now, Joe Taylor is the band’s drummer. After Cornwall, the band redid many of the rhythm tracks, recorded a little in Brighton, then recorded more in Cornwall at their parents’ house. “It was,” says Jack, “a proper rollercoaster ride.”