Purity Ring Come Together
Published Mar 18, 2015"Begin again, begin again, begin again."
Megan James's words float overtop brooding washes of synths crafted by her musical partner Corin Roddick. The phrase, from the song of the same name, reappears, mantra-like, throughout the track, offering humble reassurance to its heartbroken protagonist that this too shall pass.
Where the songs on Purity Ring's debut, Shrines, channelled the body-horror imagery of early David Cronenberg, the theme of renewal runs through "Begin Again," and their anticipated sophomore album, Another Eternity, as a whole. "[It's about] flipping a life or a phase around," confirms James. After touring duties for Shrines were completed, the singer left Halifax — where she'd lived since before she and Roddick started swapping files of the band's early tracks via email — and returned to Edmonton, their hometown.
James calls "Begin Again" the most positive song on the record and fittingly, it provides the album with its title. "Another eternity captures that sense of the songs and the record as a whole. Being transported to another place. It's a way to express otherworldliness, or what isn't in front of you."
That theme of rebirth was mirrored by the duo's creative process. After writing Shrines in geographic isolation from one another, James and Roddick decided to actually sit down in a room and write its followup together. "We hadn't even tried to write together," says Roddick. "We didn't have a plan, and a plan never came. We thought it would."
"It was like we started over," says James, "like we were a new band."
In the run up to Another Eternity's release, Purity Ring have been spending the winter in Los Angeles. "We've been living here the past couple of months, finishing the record and getting ready for tour," explains James, via Skype. "It's like a bucket list type of thing."
Their days are filled with interviews; sometimes, they're the ones asking the questions, as they assemble a crew for their upcoming tour. Otherwise they're in the spotlight, spilling the details from the last few years of their lives. Despite the barrage of requests, they make a concerted effort to do any major press obligation together. That way both members can feel comfortable that the true face of the band is being reflected. "Being a boy-girl electronic duo is so typical right now," says James. "But there are ways that we can feel and appear like we aren't just a producer and singer. Those are our roles, but it also shifts and we are a team."
That's truer than ever for Purity Ring, although they took a circuitous route to making Another Eternity. They had made no attempt to write new music while on the road supporting Shrines. "We had thought that we would have to have a spark before we started," says Roddick. But inspiration never hit and by the fall of 2013, they realized it was time to get down to business.
On the advice of their lighting designer, the Edmonton natives decamped to Harper, Texas, two hours west of Austin, in between appearances at that year's Austin City Limits festival. Landau's friend was the full-time sound engineer for the Wheeler Brothers, an Austin-based, roots-rock family band who owned a studio on a 3,000 acre ranch in the area, not exactly the environment one pictures when listening to Purity Ring's dark future pop. "That was us being like, 'We need to get our shit together and go somewhere we can focus and get started,'" says Roddick.
"It was a totally self-sufficient paradise," James adds. "They had solar-powered everything, spring-fed water and the best mattress I'd ever slept on."
Paradise had its distractions. "There was a whole two days where we didn't really do anything," admits Roddick. "We set up a lot of mics. We set up a vocal mic and the piano mics and that was it for two days," says James. "We made a lot of guacamole, rode around on ATVs and took a really long time making breakfast."
Once the two finally did get down to work, they quickly had the beginnings of what became "Sea Castle," the closest sonic link between Shrines and Another Eternity, laying to rest any doubts about their creative faculties. "That was a great beginning point," says Roddick. "We were able to build off that."
Recording continued in Brooklyn and Montreal, where Roddick lived between tours. But the bulk of Another Eternity came together at the Audio Department in Edmonton. Roddick flew back and forth between the two cities, coming out for a week of work once a month.
Like the studio in Texas, the duo chose Audio Department in the hopes it would provide a relatively distraction-free environment. The place was also filled with top-of-the-line studio gear, none of which the band used. "That amount of gear doesn't have anything to do with what I'm trying to make," says Roddick. "It's still just a laptop set on top of a fancy mixing board."
The Audio Department also happens to be the studio where Edmonton polka band the Emeralds recorded their famous version of "The Chicken Dance."
"There's a plaque on the wall," says James.
"We're really hoping to be the next plaque," adds Roddick.
"We need to write a song comparable to 'The Chicken Dance,'" says James. "The ultimate wedding song."
Following the release of "Push Pull," in December, the first new Purity Ring music fans had heard in two-and-a-half years, word started circulating that Another Eternity would be the duo's pop album. Both members acknowledge that the record pairs tighter arrangements with clearer and more spacious production that pushes James's voice to the forefront. But labelling it "pop" when compared to Shrines ignores the band's raison d'être.
"We've always made pop music," says James.
"With the first album, we were trying to make the most immediate, banging pop songs that we could," adds Roddick. "The way that it turned out was what our idea of what that was at the time."
There was little communication shared between the two while making Shrines, an album famously created without either member ever being in the same place at the same time. "We just felt it out and did it," says James. This time, the immediate back-and-forth between the two enabled Roddick and James to hone their compositions into fully formed songs that more closely adhere to a traditional verse-chorus-verse pop structure. "Big picture, conceptual stuff" was never discussed, and the duo are always quick to dismiss the role of external influences on their music. But "we were able to talk about what things were working and what things weren't. It was a much more streamlined way to make music," says Roddick, laughing. "It makes sense why bands do that."
Still, the pair never found a consistent process. Some tracks were written in a manner similar to Shrines, with James singing over top of Roddick's finished compositions. Others started with her vocals, or a few chords on the piano. "I think having a different approach every time helps us feel like we're doing something we want and it's spontaneous and exciting," says James.
Many of the new songs went through multiple iterations before both parties were happy. "Sometimes they just work right away," says Roddick. "Sometimes by the time they're finished they hardly resemble what they were in the beginning."
One of his favourite tricks was playing with a track's tempo. "I kind of have a comfortable tempo range that I fall into. Everything ends up having a slow sluggish feeling. I don't know why that is. It's just easier for me to produce that way." To break out of that box, Roddick speeds up or slows down finished tracks, usually by only five or ten BPM, although "Repetition" was drastically different in its original form. "I think it's a cool thing to do when producing, changing the main parameters," he says. "It reveals things that you might not have noticed [before] and that might become a new focus and centre of the track."
With each member bringing drastically different skill sets to the table — Roddick, his production knowledge; James, her words and her voice — the first time out, each half of Purity Ring was forced to "submit" to the creative whims of the other. Now they each have input on what their other half is up to and, surprisingly, neither side reports any conflict. "We both wanted the same thing in the end," says Roddick. "We wanted a great song. It didn't feel like we were trying to pull things in opposite directions."
Lyrics, however, are the one area that James maintained sovereignty. "I'm pretty much hands off with the lyrics," says Roddick. "That's Megan's domain."
Almost all of her words begin life in a dream journal in which she draws and writes poetry, something she's done for most of her life. "It's very personal, emotional things that are true." The lyrics that appear in Purity Ring's songs are often lifted verbatim from the book, with the exception of pronouns, with which she frequently plays around. "Like I'll say 'you' when I really mean 'I.' I do that because it writes and reads better and it's easier to express something when it's in the third person. It's like telling a story to someone rather than talking about yourself."
Hiding behind pronouns might also be James's way of shielding herself from the personal thoughts she's laying bare for the world to hear. Inside the physical version of Shrines, the lyrics were printed in the smallest font possible while still being legible. They were also posted on the band's website, but you had to click on an unidentified circle to get to them. "They were as hidden as they could be while still being there."
Many of Another Eternity's lyrics are a reaction to the disillusion of a long-term relationship. When asked about it, James immediately snaps in shock: "Oh my God, where did you read about that?" before quickly realizing she'd mentioned it in an interview with another publication. Asked why she demurs from discussing the catalyst for a record that many people are certain to hear, she responds plainly, "He's going to read it. That will be weird." Writing those words was James's way of processing emotional turmoil and "that's not the same as talking about them in interviews.
"Some of [the lyrics] are 'fuck that part of my life,' but not all of them," she explains. James doesn't explicitly state that the split was the impetus for her return to Edmonton, but she does admit that "there were huge life changes in the past three years." Paired with the album's overarching themes, a picture starts to form.
Last fall, James listened to Shrines for the first times since it was made. "It was weird," she says. "I feel like we were doing something that was very much us, but it was definitely a throwback. I don't feel out of place when I listen to Shrines, but we've definitely come a long way from it."
Roddick, who only listened to a single song, agrees. "It feels really nostalgic. It feels like a certain time in my life that I don't remember that well. Music is weird like that. As time goes by, it's this weird preserved piece of your life that becomes any other piece of music. It just feels like something else you're listening to. It's nice to have that perspective."
Another Eternity, on the other hand, is still fresh in the duo's minds. "We just made it, it's right there," he says. "But I'm excited to listen to it in three years and feel differently about it."