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Thursday, 04 April 2013 08:00

'Going for a handmade aesthetic' An interview with Megan James of Purity Ring

'Going for a handmade aesthetic' An interview with Megan James of Purity Ring / Kate Garner
Written by Will Kyle
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Sample-stringer and beat-master Corin Roddick began working on arrangements for the Purity Ring while on tour with Gobble Gobble in 2010. Soon, singer Megan James was tapped to add her warm vocals and introspective lyrics (culled from her once private diary) to form an ethereal and haunting brand of indie-pop underscored with an indelible hip-hop methodology.

The pair released its first record, "Shrines," in 2012 to widespread Internet acclaim. Complete with handmade clothes and lighting elements, the duo's handmade aesthetic lies at the heart of their live shows and aims to draw audiences into Purity Ring's dark, nightmare world of pop delight.

I recently interviewed James by phone about the Purity Ring's aesthetic, recording style, new tour -- bringing the band to St. Louis and Plush on Saturday, April 6 -- and James' own career as a fashion designer. While we talked, I discovered James' distaste for labels and her desire to bring her music as close to audiences as possible.

Will Kyle: What is your personal take on the Purity Ring's aesthetic?

Megan James: A lot of people refer to us with manufactured terms, referring to the sound verbally, and while these are excellent descriptions, I always feel a little unrelated to them. I don't really look at Purity Ring in terms of an aesthetic. When it comes to describing the sound, it's just too close to me.

Well, to attempt to describe it nonetheless, I hear romantic, veiled words fused with a type of hip-hop-laden dream pop. Is this something that you do on purpose or does it sort of happen?

It is on purpose, but it is also just the sound that we make. So, I'd say both.

I understand that you and Corin Roddick don't live in the same place. So as you record, you constantly send tracks and samples back and forth, tightening as you go. Is that how the next outing is going to work?

Yeah, I don't have any plans to move to Montreal and Corin has none to move to Halifax.

At what point was fan reception becoming so big that Purity Ring became a project you knew you wanted to pursue?

From the very beginning we knew. Corin was on tour with another band and started writing tracks and mashing samples. As soon as I got involved and we recorded the first song, we spread really fast on the small-big world of the Internet. It literally took like a week.

Do you think it would have been a different landscape had the Internet not existed?

Definitely. It is probably ancient of me, but I've been thinking so much lately of all the projects I'm involved in that the Internet has affected. It's hard to think about what such things would be without the Internet. I mean, it makes you think; we have fans and a draw in a mysterious place, like Singapore, a place we have never even been. It's cool, but also scary, because there are so many kids out there everywhere doing the same thing that we are here.

It seems as if one can be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Yeah, things are so unified on the Internet. It's as if it is obvious people have heard it.

I understand your show utilizes a complex lighting system replete with "cocoons," as you call them. Are we going to see some new lighting elements?

Yeah, do you pronounce it "Saint Louis"?


My mom would say "Saint Louie."

I like that.

Well, we have a few new songs we are playing this tour. We still use the cocoons. The last show we played in your town was our first show in St. Louis. We had the cocoons then, but we have a bunch of new elements now.

Corin uses a program that allows the lighting to change dynamically with the songs. How did all that come together?

We spent a lot of time on it. Corin custom built the lights he plays and a company called Tangible Interactions helped us with the cocoon rig and the program that controls it. The lights are programmed to interact directly in real time with what we are doing on stage.

I noticed that looking at the last few years of indie pop the trend seems to be toward genre mashing. How does Purity Ring interact with this trend?

I try not to. I think it's a wonderful thing that a lot of great musicians are doing. I know what you mean, and I agree that there is a lot of this genre mashing going on, but I think it's more because people from this online blog world have become attracted to R&B and pop, which creates the dynamic of sounds mixing together. People are taking what they have been listening to and are striving to make it new.

It seems the Internet has facilitated this fracturing of genre, at times allowing it to re-amalgamate at an accelerated pace. All these sub-niches and sub-genres are being created around you whether you aim to do that or not.

Yeah, and people label us like that all the time. When people make words out of what we sound like, it feels infuriating and inferior to me. Like getting locked in a box. I do like the label "nightmare-pop," though.

What's the scoop on the upcoming tour for Purity Ring?

We are basically heading out to Coachella in Palm Springs. It's a pretty long trip; we haven't done one this long in a while. We are touring with Blue Hawaii; they are opening for us at all the shows. They are lovely people and we love their music.

How did you meet them?

They are from Montreal. Originally, Raph, the singer, is from Calgary, Alberta, which is two hours south of Edmonton, where Corin and I are from. She is in another band called Braids. They are all from Calgary, so we've known those kids for years.

I noticed on your blog you have a few remixes, "Grammy" being one of them. Are we going to see any of those live?

Yeah, we play that. You'll definitely hear it.

There is some amazing artwork on your Tumblr. Who produces this excellent work also featured on your posters and CD covers?

She goes by the name Tallulah Fontaine. She is a wonderful artist and was around the whole time we were writing the album. I think that's a part of the reason the art seems so well representative of the aesthetic. She knows both of us very well and understands what we are trying to do.

Can you tell me about the inspiration for Purity Ring remixes? How do they happen?

We always knew that eventually we'd have to write more songs to tour with on this record, because our set wasn't long enough, clocking in around 35 minutes. We are fine with that; I think the 35-minute show is perfect. I usually don't want to see much more than that from a band, even if I really like them. Nonetheless, people expect a longer set from a headlining band, so we knew we had to add some things. We decided to do a cover of "Grammy." I consider "Grammy" more of a cover; it's rewritten, but not really remixed.

Either way, I like your version much better. I think it is fascinating to take a song tailored for a certain niche of listeners and then make it accessible for a whole new niche of listeners. Your voice does things that Soulja Boy's doesn't.

Thank you. I feel a little bit nervous about it because I don't have a classic soulful voice.

There is soul there; it's just a different type of soul. At what point in your life did you know you wanted to pursue singing?

I've always enjoyed it, but I never thought of it as something I wanted to pursue. Purity Ring just kind of came about, and it's wonderful. I'm very happy doing this right now, and of course I want to continue making more records. Past that, though, I've always thought of myself as more of a pianist and a composer, even though I'm not composing any of these songs.

How long have you been composing and playing piano?

Since second grade, so like, 13 years now.

Do you think your composing skills are something that will find their way into Purity Ring's sound?

I'm sure I'll become involved in that way sometime. Corin doesn't play actual instruments; he uses samples for the songs and controls them with his sonic light tree. It's all MIDI. I think we have an interest in putting real instruments on the album. I don't think it'd sound like a piano riff, but it'd be derived from that and use the same structure.

I understand you are in fashion and design the clothes you and Corin wear on stage. Where does your fashion career stand as of 2013?

I'm waiting for the tour to be over before I move along with fashion things, but I make Corin and I casual clothes all the time.

I like how your shows are a fusion of fashion showcase and music.

Yeah, we're going for a handmade aesthetic as much as one can while still looking professional on stage. To me, it's more intimate if one presents things that are handmade. It's about making the audience and us as comfortable as possible. Past that, our performances are also about getting as close to the audience as we can. There is such a huge separation when one is on a stage, and being so far away from the crowd is a part of performing that's necessary, but it makes me a little uncomfortable, so we try to subvert that anyway we can. Separation can be hindering when trying to connect or get something across to an audience.

As you have grown into a headlining band have you found it more difficult to connect with the audience and thus find ways to maintain that connection?

Yeah, it's about connecting with the audience, but it's about us too. We are sort of maintaining these fundamental ideas we have always had about a show. From the start, we wanted our shows to be intimate and close, so we put certain things in place so it felt that way. We are still doing those things regardless of the show's size.

What kind of stuff is on your musical radar?

I just found a record this week I'm in love with. It's called "Take a Picture" by Margo Guryan, recorded in 1968.

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