Purity Ring's Megan James on macabre lyrics, fairy tales, and not having a favorite band
Photo by Sebastian Mlynarski
By Reyan Ali
While Megan James and Corin Roddick have collaborated as the increasingly popular Purity Ring for only a couple of years, they've already firmly established one trait about the band: Mystery is where it's at. Shrines -- the 4AD-released debut full-length from the Edmonton, Alberta, Canada-bred duo -- is a master class in making alluring music that keeps any crucial emotional info close to the chest. Everything is interpretation with them.
At varying times, their synth-focused indie pop is cold- and warm-blooded. One song (say, "Cartographist") is emotionally removed, chopped-and-screwed, club-ish music that alienates in how machinelike it sounds. But then you have the unspeakably warm "Fineshrine," which puts James' gorgeous, satisfying voice up on the pedestal it deserves.
Before the duo bring their paper-lantern-filled show to the Mainroom of First Avenue tonight with Evian Christ and Headaches (this concert was upgraded from 7th Street Entry), we caught up with James en route to a New Mexico performance.
To accompany all this, you have the human-anatomy-heavy lyrics James lifted from her personal journal entries, giving the music another layer of enigmatic creepiness. In "Fineshrine," she says, "Get a little closer/Let it fold/Cut open my sternum and pull/My little ribs around you/Through arms that may be crowns over you" and in "Belispeak," "Grandma, I've been unruly/In my dreams and with my speech/Drill little holes into my eyelids/That I might see you/That I might see you in my sleep."
Gimme Noise: Aside from your song titles being combinations of words in songs (e.g., "Belispeak" comes from "my little belly speaks"; "Crawlersout" from "keep those crawlers out"), where do they come from? Where did the idea for using those combinations originate?
Megan James: It's kind of just like wordplay. That's something I feel like a lot of people do. It's like puns and stuff, but they're sort of twisted. I thought of it for "Lofticries," and Corin and I both decided we should try and do it for all of the songs, and then both of us would try and come up with something that would work.
In the past, you've talked about the importance of your journal entries to your lyrics but never said many details about them. Can you say if there are any associated with any specific situations, how far back they go and how much of your content is taken from the past versus something you've modified recently or rewritten?
Most of it is actually recent. I'm an avid journaler and I'm constantly writing, so everything I've used is within the previous year or two of it being written. That's just my go-to for lyrics. I don't write lyrics any other way; I just write in journals. The easiest way for me to write is how I write naturally.
When Corin would send you the music in the early days of Purity Ring and you'd be adding vocals, how did you land on using specific lyrics? Would you listen to a song, try to identify a mood to go with it and then read through your journals to connect it from there?
I feel like maybe what you just explained happens, but I don't do it with purpose. I'm listening to [the song] and I'll search through and find something that I think is suitable for any number of reasons. I think it's really interesting because often I'll write a song without music -- little lullabies or something -- not even necessarily when I'm writing. I'll be walking around and I'll start singing and come up with something and I'll write it down, and it'll be like a song in and of itself. I'll find that a lot of the songs on the record are things like that. I've just taken the melody and the lyrics and put them over his track as [the lyrics] existed when I made them without having heard anything of his. That's been really interesting.
How about connecting the songs to the journal entries in terms of memory? Do you have any songs that have strong memory associations since you're using something out of your journal as the basis for the lyrics? Is there anything that's not just a collection of words on the page but rather something that has strong enough meaning that when you play the song, you think about the memory?
Yeah. It's like you play it so much that you can't stay too attached to it every time we play it because a lot of them are sad and really personal. But yeah, it definitely incurs memories often. When you perform or you're making something, you get carried away, and you stop thinking about what you were doing, and it's just like your mind goes into a space -- kind of like dreaming. That's the best way I can explain it. If that happens, you're just thinking about what the words make as images and memories.
Can you talk about any specific songs connected to any specific journal entries?
Umm... I don't know if I should. I get sort of uncomfortable. It's a little too close to home to explain what they specifically would be. I really like leaving that up to a listener as far as interpretation goes. A lot of the lyrics are fairly vague and symbolic and therefore can take on many different meanings. I really appreciate that once you put a song out, people will feel and relate to it in whatever way they want to or will. That's one of the best parts of it.
So if I ask you about a couple of lyrics, could you discuss them or do you not want to go there?
You could try. Some of them I'm totally fine with. Go ahead, I'll just say no if I need to. [Laughs]
"Belispeak" is a fascinating little story about what your grandmother tells you to do. What's that connected to?
That song is from personal experience in some ways but more indirectly. That song's about a parent and child, not necessarily a grandmother. I don't want to use schoolbook English definition words, but it's just about the frustrations of parents accepting a loss of innocence in their kid or something like that. It's a lot more cruel than maybe that sometimes is, but yeah.
How about "Fineshrine," where you talk about cutting open the sternum and pulling your little ribs around you. Where does that image come from?
That's just a love song. [Laughs] It really is.
Really? That's a love song?
Totally. I'd say about how I wanna go swimming in quarries with my boyfriend. [Laughs]
When I first heard it, I thought it was about one person being a subordinate to the other and being forced to do something, which also reminded me of "Belispeak."
Yeah, "Belispeak" is more about a forceful relationship, but I think "Fineshrine" is more like a desirable relationship with someone you love.
You're really interested in body parts and bodies. What do you want to say on the record about the idea of bodies?
It's not necessarily what I wanted to say on the record or what I wanted people to hear. I didn't intend for most of the words that I wrote to ever be heard anyway--it's actually just private journal entries--but it comes from mostly my own fascination with the relations between human bodies and nature and things like that that I'm pretty inspired and moved by, so there's a lot of it.
The music is so pretty, but the imagery, such as what involves the sternum, seems like something that would exist in an old-school fairy tale before they were all sanitized. Do fairy tales play any part in what you write?
Not traditional fairy tales, no. I'm more just making my own thing. I can't say what I'm taking from. I don't feel strongly enough about anything that it is the source of what I'm writing other than personal experience. But I think writing in general for me is more a matter of creation and developing environments that you are put in or feel when you hear the words. It's definitely about making it myself, not taking from other fairy tales. I realize [this connection] after interviews when a few people have said [the lyric style is] like they're Brothers Grimm fairy tales. I'm like, 'Oh yeah, it totally does.' [Laughs] It could be.
After Corin sent you this music, you started taking inspiration from your diaries. But let's say it was a totally different kind of music than from what ended up as Purity Ring. Let's say you had a buddy in a hardcore or metal band. Do you think your lyrics would necessarily match another type of music? Would you feel comfortable putting them in another context?
Oh yeah, if it were any kind of music, I probably would have done the same thing. [Laughs] I think I could easily. I've learned with this that I'm not particular to my comfort zone in the types of music I listen to when it comes to applying myself to what Corin has presented. I never imagined that I'd be doing that. I play the piano. I thought the only songs I ever wrote would be piano songs with me singing.
When you were sending things back and forth to one another, were there any points of disagreement between you two?
No, that hasn't ever really happened. We do make suggestions when the time comes or when we think something needs to be different. For both of us, we take them with consideration. We work really independently and we are both doing things that we're really comfortable with that the other wouldn't be comfortable with. We have to just let each other do what we do best and make it work. It works really well like that.
In one interview, you talked about how you guys come from totally different styles of music and have very different tastes. Can you specify what he likes and you don't like and vice versa?
He listens to a lot of top 40s and hip-hop and R&B and rappers often whereas I don't really have any interest in any of that. I listen to like... I can barely even say what I listen to. I don't listen to that much or any new music. I'm more... I don't know. I never really say what I do listen to.
Can you at least say your favorite band?
No. [Laughs] No, I can't really.
Is it because you don't have one or you don't want to tell me?
I don't really have one. I don't like that all much.
Do you have a favorite record label?
Purity Ring perform at First Avenue tonight. Click here.
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