The Colour of Memory: marking time with the innocence mission
Hearsay #21 / 2000 / Email interview with Ewen and Neil

"it's when we're quiet and listening that we learn the most and joyful mysteries are revealed to us"

The thin light of winter was hanging over London when Neil and Ewen got the go-ahead for their long-dreamed-of innocence mission interview. Karen and Don Peris, the husband and wife team of singer and guitarist at the centre of the band, had recently completed their fourth studio album, Birds of My Neighbourhood, and had cautiously let it loose into a quietly receptive world. Drenched with photographic images, evoked through fragile acoustic sounds, the album is a transfixing departure from the twirling glory of 1995’s Glow (itself one of the best albums it has been our pleasure to review, incidentally). It suggested many questions, raised many thoughts, created dreams of longing and sweet sadness. There is warmth and friendship in the music of this band. You can see it seeping through the cracks into this interview – that’s how the light gets in. Think only of yellow.

HEARSAY: The natural world plays an important role in your songs. Is it a backdrop to the settings and atmospheres you describe, or a character in its own right? Is modern society losing touch with the rhythms and meanings of the seasons and nature?

KAREN PERIS: The natural world is often where I can see more of God and less of me. And that's one reason it is ever present in the songs, because I have an inclination to write about escaping from introspection, to picture myself running into the centre of a windy or snowy day and being made clean and new. We live in a mid-atlantic state where we have the most dramatic seasonal changes. It's really the thing I love best about Pennsylvania. My memories seem to be divided sharply by season; the fall memories are the most vivid but also the most mysterious. I don't know that we are losing touch with the rhythm of the seasons. So many people I know feel this same tremendous anticipation at the start of each season, a feeling that everything is beginning, but also of being reconnected to the past because of memory being triggered.

Your songs are always visual with colours and settings playing as important a part as events and characters. Are you influenced by art as much as music?

Karen: I think that it is very visual writers, and songwriters like Paul Simon, who have moved me the most and deepened my desire to write. I guess it's important to me to be able to see, as well as feel, a lyric. But your question reminds me I wanted to ask you about a fantastic BBC show that aired here. An English contemplative nun named Sister Wendy Beckett talked from different museums around the world about her love of various paintings and explained why each of them moved her. Have you seen it? I loved that show.

Tell us about the recording of your new album. Was the pared-down sound and self-production born out of necessity, or was it a deliberate response to the more arranged/produced sounds on previous records?

DON PERIS: We recorded this album throughout our house in the dining room, attic, and basement—as well as at our 'studio' in downtown Lancaster. For years we have leased space in the retired Keppel Candy factory. We have been told that the space we occupy was once the lunchroom for the workers. I like to wander through the building reading pencilled inscriptions on the whitewashed wooden walls.Things like 'Sam Musser-foreman/father, 1923' or 'God is within and without—Dolores, 1944'.

The pared-down sound you ask about was neither deliberate nor a compromise born out of necessity. Rather, I see it as natural progression—the continuous striving to marry the instrumentation and arrangement to the lyric and song. The fact that we were able to record the songs while they were still new and most felt enabled us to gather performances and arrangements that seemed nearly complete. They seemed to call for little else to illuminate them.

And lyrically you can see a similar development—a move in the lyrics from quite specific stories and characters in the early days towards more focused snapshots of a given moment or psychological state. Are you aware of any ways in which you think your lyrics have developed? And do you think the quietest moments in life often speak loudest to us?

Karen: Yes, I think it's when we're quiet and listening that we learn the most and joyful mysteries are revealed to us. And the greatest happiness can be felt during seemingly very small, everyday moments. For me it's often best to write about small moments, whether I'm feeling joy or sorrow or, more often, both. Maybe I'm drawn to this because of the way memories come to light, with single moments in clear focus. About your other question, I know that since the days of our first record I've felt more and more excited about words and the feeling of community that can arise out of the written word. While we were recording our first album we had some free time and we were in a big city and so we started to explore in bookstores. I'd never read poetry before, or writers like Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. And out of reading I began to feel a greater joy and freedom in writing lyrics. Also I've felt a greater need to write as the years have gone on and I've been more grateful for the solace of music. There have been more life experiences in living the last ten years and in some of those, specifically the sorrow of not being able to have a child for many years, I've felt grateful for the outlet of songs.

Going back to production a moment, how does the experience of being produced (especially by such legends as Mr Klein and Mr Herring) compare with producing oneself? Could you ever imagine working with an external producer again?

Don: We learned a great deal from Larry Klein and Dennis Herring – about music, yes, but also about books, art, life. We were fortunate enough to work with them as producers at times when we needed and sought direction – and fortunate to form friendships with them both. I thought about both of them as we progressed through the making of this record and at times felt guided by the experiences we shared. I could say that producing oneself is simpler, and certainly more convenient, but I don't know that one is better then the other – to be produced or to produce. I think there is a time for both approaches.

Did the atmosphere of New Orleans rub off on to Glow? It must be very different from Lancaster.

Don:Yes, New Orleans was in many ways quite different from Lancaster, PA. I don't know that the atmosphere of New Orleans rubbed off on the Glow record. However, being all together in the same house – away from home, no car, little money – made our time there special and ultimately good. The studio's proximity to the St Ursila's convent and chapel was a wonderful thing. Also, many of the people one encountered were good, joyful.

Can you tell us a little about the experience of working with Natalie Merchant? Do her methods differ from your own?

Karen: It was lovely to travel to upstate New York to record those songs. We had toured with Natalie in the US for three months and that had been a wonderful experience. To hear her singing every night was a great treat. The Golden Bells hymn was especially fun to record, it was so spontaneous. We all worked out an arrangement in ten minutes or so and recorded it together, all in one room. As to similar methods, she also likes to record in her home environment, and so the atmosphere was very relaxed. Between bits of recording she taught me how to knit and we both sat with our ball of yarn and our needles while we listened in the control room. I was pretty rotten at it though and now I've forgotten completely how to do it. Probably for the best, and I'm sure you'd agree if you'd seen the scarf I knitted for Don.

You've cited some traditional influences like Judy Collins and Simon and Garfunkel but also mentioned some more alternative names in the past like Red House Painters and Throwing Muses as people who've impressed you. Are those from the latter camp still an influence and what do you enjoy about their work? (Snow, on the new album, seems to have a lot of the same striking aural clarity as the piano version of Mistress from RHPs' self-titled 'rollercoaster' album, if you know that one.)

Karen: I love that roller coaster record album. It was the first RHPs record I heard, around 1993, and it had a big impact on me. Another album, more recent, that felt like that kind of wonderful discovery was Lost Blues And Other Songs by a band called Palace Music. About the piano of Snow, if I had another piece of music in my ears I think it was Pink Moon by Nick Drake, a song (and an album) both Don and I love.

Don: The Talk Talk 'Laughing Stock' record, especially the song New Grass, is a continuous source of inspiration and comfort.

How does the internal monologue of the narrator of Someday Coming contrast with your own experience of becoming parents?

Karen: Well, we are getting to do all the things we dreamed of doing as parents, but we never could have imagined him, our son, his beautiful personality, and his sense of humour, his affectionateness.

What is your favourite memory? Do you find more memories unlock as time goes by or do they become more elusive?

Karen: I heard William Maxwell, who is in his eighties, say in an interview that his childhood has come into incredibly sharp focus as he's aged. And that makes me feel hopeful. My older brothers and sisters were endlessly interesting to me. My sisters, six and ten years older, had the third floor room right above mine. and I loved to hear their conversation and their records coming down the stairs. I remember Court and Spark, Joni Mitchell's album, especially. It was a great occasion to be invited up to their room. One small flash of memory that comes to mind right away is of the brothers and sisters gathered around our record player. My oldest sister had her long hair rolled up around one big orange juice can which was pinned to the top of her head. Maybe she was setting it for a date or a party or something. Anyway, one of them had just brought home the new Beatles album and they were trying to decipher the lyrics and write them down. I was about seven and I was helping, or thought I was helping, with the words. I remember Get Back so it must have been Let It Be. We had a huge portrait of Paul McCartney from that era painted on the wall of our basement stairwell, done beautifully in black paint by my oldest sister's best friend. It was the crowning touch to the black light/fluorescent paint rec. room the older kids devised when my parents turned the basement over to them. When the rest of the basement was painted over a few years later, Paul stayed. And as far as I know—the house was later bought as a hospital residence for interns—he is there still.

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