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Purity Ring’s Megan James shares the characters and archetypes that inspired third album WOMB

03 April 2020, 11:12
Words by Maria Bocci

Megan James and Corin Roddick, the two halves of Purity Ring, both know that good things take time.

Their celestial sophomore album Another Eternity was released in 2015. Now, after years of preparation, they’re releasing a third album, WOMB, a homespun record written, produced, and mixed entirely by the band. After all, how can you accurately bring your vision to life if you don’t do it yourself?

Their debut album Shrines has a distinctly underground feeling. The melodies are dark and mysterious, the production echoes and reverberates like you’re in a cave, and James’ lyrics are just as heavy. By contrast, Another Eternity had the feeling of flying, with bright, glittering production and a melodic pop-charged vocal. With WOMB, Purity Ring have returned to Earth and to the comfort of their own home. It’s is a reflection of the ground we walk on, and the spaces we occupy, the spaces we come from, and the spaces we can fill.

Now living in LA, the Canadian duo are able to work together more seamlessly. Their earlier work was completed independently, as the two lived in different cities. If they weren’t geographically together, they were always on the same page: Roddick’s pop and hip hop fantasia is the only backdrop suitable for James’ gossamer vocals. Some of the songs on WOMB took only a day to write, while some songs spent years on the backburner while they waited to take shape.

If you completed the interactive puzzle on their website, you may have already listened to “pink lightning”, a resurgence of Purity Ring’s ethereal brand of electronic pop. “peacefall,” another single off of the album is reminiscent of a lullaby but coated in a delicate layer of pop. Purity Ring also previewed “stardew” in February, glistening and vaguely cosmic.

The common thread? Each song on WOMB tells a parable of comfort, family, belonging, or sense of self. It examines one’s place in the world, society, and relationships. James’ archetypal storytelling makes each message digestible, like a fable or fairytale. Roddick’s production brings those fairytales to life. When the record ends, it’s like waking up from a dream.

From her home in LA, James reflects on the musical journey of Purity Ring, the making of WOMB, and the characters and archetypes that live her lyrics. In this strange moment in history, there is arguably no better time to release music about the home.

BEST FIT: What are you up to right now?

MEGAN JAMES: We went to Costco like before all the rules. And it was crazy we just turned around and went home because there were like 150 people in line before it even opened. I’ll do without the avocados.

WOMB is your first record in five years. What have you been up to in the last five years?

We really took our time with this record. In terms of music we didn't have other projects of our own that we worked on. I think we kind of needed… we toured Another Eternity for three years and I didn’t realize it until after we had already taken the time but we both sort of needed a year to come down off of touring for so long to settle in and feel like ourselves again. So that was a lot of it. We didn’t have a deadline until the very end and I think it took a lot of time for us to figure out what we knew wanted the record to be and then once we got to that point in the last year the ball got rolling.

Since this is your third album, how has your creative process changed over time?

It has adjusted to our circumstances slightly. We still write and record entirely from home. There were a few times on the second record where we went… we lived in different cities so we would meet up and go to a studio and work that way for like a week at a time or something. We’ve always done a lot from home. This one we tried going on some writing trips at the beginning back in 2016 but we ended up writing more from home and just wanting to stay home and be able to have it all in one place. I feel like this record really reflects that. It’s very much about home and people close to me and I hope it exudes feelings of that and being inside in general. Naturally, it just so happens right now that’s where we are. But yeah, I definitely spent most of the record, the writing process anyway, at home.

So you and Corin were mostly separate while you were making WOMB? It was more like the process for Shrines than the process for Another Eternity?

Well, we’ll write respectively from our homes and then we live like five minutes down the road from each other so I’ll go over to the studio at Corin’s. We built a vocal booth and there’s a room Corin uses at his house so I just go to his house and we’ll record things.

Do you do the writing separately at home and then record everything together?

For the most part. There’s a few songs that we did from beginning to end together. But yeah it will usually be like I’ll sing over a beat and then it’ll just be a simple beat and then I’ll go record parts and then we’ll take both parts and form an arrangement around what we have. It’s kind of like the song gets written but then all the work gets done after that to make it into how it sounds in the end.

Which songs were written that way?

"peacefall" we wrote in one day. That was really fast. Corin sent the beat and I went over there and it was pretty immediate. The parts all came really quick and adjusted quickly and it felt like a song in a day. There are some songs actually on the record that took, I'm not exaggerating, one was two years and another was three. I’d write one part and then couldn't figure out the chorus or the verse and another part to go with it. I’d keep trying and trying and there’s a point usually where you’re like, ‘okay this song isn’t working, it’s not going to happen,’ and you let it go. It’s like deciding when to hold on and then learning that sometimes it’s worth it because the song comes together. ‘stardew’ was like that for example. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen but we had that chorus and I was like, ‘uh I’ve got to keep trying.’ And then three years later it was like ‘oh I’m so glad I waited for that.’ It’s ridiculous but that’s what we let ourselves do because we took so much time for the record. We really didn’t force anything and kind of let everything happen on its own time and sometimes that's a day and sometimes that’s three years.

You generally do the lyrics and vocals and Corin does the production. Is that still the case or has there been some crossover?

We worked closer because we live in the same city now. We did work together a lot more than we ever had before. I think we’re at a stage where we’re… I think there is a lot more overlap. We are closer as a band and we know there’s a mutual understanding and respect that has grown over the years. We’re very comfortable in the studio together and I think there’s a lot more ways that we suggest to each other. Corin is on the computer doing a lot of that work and the initial work with making beats but sometimes I write the chord progression and then give it to him and then other times he’ll suggest things on a melody. Rarely lyrics. Lyrics is like… there’s still these sort of lines that neither of us go over just because it's out of our own personal comfort zone or something that we rely on each other for good reason.

I feel like we have learned enough about each other’s workflow that there is a lot more room for the creativity that happens the way it does now, just working together more. Those lines have been crossed a lot more than they ever have before. We feel like there is… we’ve always had this sort of spark in our working relationship where we make things together that we can’t make alone and we know that and we can’t make with anyone else. There’s something, some magic going on. It goes both ways, but yeah, we both have had a lot to say about everything on this record. That’s another thing that takes time.

WOMB is a deeply personal album. Are there any songs that stand out as particularly personal to you?

I’m going to pull it back a bit to answer this. With Shrines in interviews we would always explain Shrines as a record, like overall it had this feeling of being in a cave, or like under the ground. It was a very buried-feeling record to us. Alternatively, with another eternity we always explained it as being, in relation to that it was in the clouds. It had a lot more headroom, I guess. With this record I've been explaining it as being sort of in between but like one circle outside of me. I’m not just writing about myself and things I'm trying to figure out personally. It’s more like I’m trying to come to terms with the situations that are in my personal life and the people in them and how I perceive those and see them in a way. Writing these songs helps me to see them in a way that makes them easier for me.

Basically the record is just about family, whether it’s one you’re born into or one that you gather and also feeling like... in whatever that is, for me it was somebody else listening, there is a way to find comfort in it and contentment. I hope that it’s comforting in the way that it is for me. There isn’t necessarily an autobiographical song it’s like I extracted everything into these sort of archetypes and mythological things that were easier to create metaphors out of and write about that way so that I could feel like it’s a type of storytelling that is easier to understand and easier to feel something from in a broader sense.

Is that sense of comfort what led you to the name WOMB?

It ended up being fitting in almost every way we could think of. The first time I listened to all the songs we had it was probably a year ago or so, maybe a little more. I think we had seven songs at the time and I listened to them together for the first time and was surprised at how comforted I felt. I was like ‘oh this is why I make music.’ It’s so I can feel better. This is why I write and why I make art because it helps me feel like I can see better. I didn't realize that I’d been doing that but when I listened to the songs I was like ‘Oh I feel that.’ That was immediately something that I hoped other people would feel when they listened to the songs, too. There's obviously no way to ensure that but in creating this sort of environment around the record and the name, we’re trying to imbue that sense of home and warmth and knowing that we’re not alone in the… in the shitstorm.

Did the overarching theme of home come first, or did the songs end up point in that direction later?

Definitely the latter. Usually that’s what happens when I write anyway. I step back and I’m like ‘oh this is where I’ve been the past three to five years,’ however long it takes us to make a song. It’s kind of like these records are phases of my life quite literally. But yeah I don’t realize it until… I knew that there would be themes found in these songs when I could step back and look at them and when it was done but I can’t set out to make a story. I don’t know, it’s quite earnest I guess in that way.

The album begins with “rubyinsides” which is a more vulnerable track, and ends with “stardew” which is more of an arrival to a state of bliss and acceptance. Was that journey intentional?

In sequencing the record you’re trying to do so many things at once, including both of the things you just said. You want it to feel like there’s an arc throughout it so that it is unified as one piece, so it has a story. It definitely does. It starts on the inside and ends on the outside sort of literally. Also another part of that is one of the first songs we knew would be placed on the record was “Stardew.” We wanted that to be last, partly because it’s kind of an outsider. It’s the first song we wrote for the record, and the first song we knew would go on it. It ended up being kind of alone so the end was the best place for it. But yeah, that sort of reaches out as you go along. ‘rubyinsides’ is the… it was a time in my life when I… It’s kind of like the Bernie song. It was before the campaign started when I wrote that, I think it was sometime last year. I was frustrated for all these things. It’s kind of just about how everyone should have health care and be taken care of and take care of each other and be more transparent.

So “rubyinsides” has a political significance as well. Are there any other songs that have a hidden significance or meaning?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot the past few years. I think not necessarily straightforwardly but I feel like in the way that every decision we make it political, yes. I don’t necessarily feel like my opinions about how human beings should be taken care of is - like I don’t always think about that politically. It’s a lot more demanding and emotional. I have a lot of feelings about how I see the world and exist in the world and what I take and what it means and all these things like how do I exist and what does that mean. Naturally that is political but also that’s how I’ve been existing for... I can’t say how long, that’s how I try to exist. It absolutely finds its way into the way that I write because it’s the things I think about and feel. I wasn’t like, ‘this song is for Bernie. I’m going to write this song that’s political.’ It was more like I see this problem and I have these feelings about it. ‘If I could I would let you see through me,’ I’m trying to demand some kind of transparency because I see that the opaqueness is disruptive.

You’re a Canadian citizen but you’re still invested in U.S. politics...

We’ve been here for a few years staying in LA so living here you can’t not get involved I feel like. There’s a lot of intensity right now. But yeah also being a Canadian and not being able to vote here it’s like what else can I do? But yeah, it’s become less entertaining lately and just straight-up scary. It’s insane.

It’s like a horror movie but it’s real-

It is like a horror movie! Actually, we watched Contagion the other night and I was like ‘wow this is so on-point. Like fascinatingly on-point.

You made this record entirely with Corin and no outside help. Was that a first for you?

No, we’ve always done everything. We write all the songs ourselves. We record everything ourselves. We have used the same illustrator for all the records so far. It’s a very much in-house kind of operation and it always has been. This time though, Corin mixed the record. Corin used to be a recording engineer so we definitely use that skill set. We can keep it in house and it’s a thing that we appreciate and take advantage of. But yeah, we did it even more ourselves this time than before. Like last time, with Another Eternity we had someone else do the final mixes and this time we did it ourselves.

What was that like?

There’s not that much of a difference to be honest but I think a lot of musicians will be like ‘oh I have to hire a producer’ to work on the record in studio with them or whatever. Or like hire someone to help write harmonies or melodies in one form or another. I guess a producer would also arrange the songs. There’s so many different things, especially being in this songwriter territory of the world. There’s so many ways that if you have a problem you can solve it and bring someone on to help you. Corin and both know that we want to do as much of it ourselves as we can. Even down to the stage production it’s like everytime we hire someone to help us it doesn't feel like it is an expression of us that way that we want to portray ourselves and we sort of learn from experience, very little experience in hiring others, but our art is more satisfying to us if we do it ourselves and sometimes that’s harder and sometimes that means a song takes three years to write.

But in the end it’s so gratifying, it’s like ‘oh well that’s what it takes and that’s okay. We can do it ourselves.’ I feel like what we get from that is time and time again worth it for us. The reasons we make it remain because it is for us and it is our project and we don't want to change that. We want it to feel gratifying in the ways that it always has and keeping it in house is how we have to do that. I should say actually, we had Jonas Bjerre from Mew sing backing vocals in “peacefall.” Obviously that was a decision we made and we both love Mew and that was really easy to make but that’s also bringing in an artist we respect a lot and want to incorporate into what we’re doing. I guess a guest vocal is sort of different than the whole construction of making a record.

Who was on your playlist while you were making the album? Did anyone inspire it?

Musically, both of us kind of were very particular and reserved about listening to music when we’re writing. We listened to a lot of classical piano. I think we’re both sort of afraid to be influenced without realizing it or something so we’re pretty reserved. I listen to a lot of old music, like Billboard Top 100 lists from decades ago and I guess the early 2000s was as far as I went. And then like Erik Satie and stuff. Not much, lots of quiet. Things with room to expand.

The classical piano is interesting. Do you have any favorite composers?

Like I said it was a lot of Erik Satie and then I’ve been playing a lot of Philip Glass on the piano. I tried to play piano a lot and do musical things. All the years I was in school growing up I did piano lessons so I have all those books. I love Mendelssohn.

You’re classically trained?

Yeah! Piano came back this season.

The artwork for all three of your albums has been distinctly feminine, including WOMB. Would you say that connects thematically to the songs on the album?

"We worked with the same artist, Tallulah Fontaine, she’s great. I explained to her all the themes that were on the record and the archetypes and these characters I had been writing about and she thought of this sort of religious-looking tableau way to put them together. The center of it is essentially the matriarch of this story. It’s a matriarch because the record is deeply feminine and also about the ways that being a woman or a nonbinary person in the world is difficult. I guess in a lot of ways I’m trying to explain how… It’s centered around a lot of these forms that are feminized just because they’re coming through me, too. That’s how I see the world and try to write about in a careful way.

The artwork is mainly just the… It’s not me but it’s like a portrayal of how I perceive how I fit into my family or place in the world. In the artwork, each of the songs is sort of represented by a character. The matriarch is “femia.” That’s about the person in my family who I’m talking about. The little creature digging underground is about “silkspun.” The character knitting on the right side is about “i like the devil.” The character on the back of the album cover is about “peacefall.” The artwork, she made it into this thing that physically fit together rather than in my mind how all these songs go together so it was really interesting and liberating to work with her for that reason. Like ‘oh this fits and it makes sense and its like its own world.

Are there any other characters or archetypes featured in the album?

Those were the songs that stood out that were easily translated into this image. I do think they all fit in one way or another but that’s like a lot to get into I guess. It’s not necessarily all represented through a character. Some of them are a texture. Like the water is “almanac.” There’s also so many themes just of nature, I guess viewing relationships through nature and distance. I feel like there’s a lot of that. I feel like overall “sinew” is represented really well in the artwork... It’s not all characters. It’s land and color and space.

You mentioned a biblical feel to the album art. Was that intentional?

Yes it’s intentional but it’s more something that comes naturally. I’ve always written in this way that I refer to as my own scripture. It’s kind of sacrilegious, but that’s the way I understand the world. Sometimes that is about the spiritual. I don’t like that word, I don’t say spiritual very often, it doesn’t feel good. It’s my own sort of rebellion against the way I was raised.

What religion were you raised in?

Mormon, actually. Very religious. Very many scriptures. There was a point where I was like ‘I can write this myself,’ and it would benefit me more. I left pretty deliberately and most of my family is still in it so I’m kind of an outsider. Actually, when I think about it a lot of people have left, but there’s so many people who still go and it’s such a major part of every family event so it’s kind of a thing that we step over.

So you’re no longer religious but scriptural storytelling still appeals to you?

I like parables and metaphors and poetry mostly. Did you see Honeyland? It’s a form of storytelling that’s effective but it’s not an attempt to be necessarily religious about something or demand anything of it. It’s just a way that I am comfortable presenting my thoughts and feelings. It’s kind of through training I guess but also just a way that I understand.

How old were you when you left the church?

I think I was 22. Pretty old for that. Most people I know left when they were a lot younger.

OK so, finally, you mentioned your live show. I know things are a bit up in the air right now, but assuming that it does get rescheduled in the future, what can your audience expect?

We have started working on it. For a while, I mean before all this happened, it’s like the scary few weeks where you’re like ‘we’re selling tickets to this show that doesn’t exist yet.’ It will be completely different from what we were doing before. We kind of went back to the drawing board and we have a few ideas but we’re focused more on figuring out when we’re actually going to be able to tour, like everyone else. I keep thinking ‘oh my god we’re going to have to stay home for a year.’ It’s the most insane timing to put out a record but also it’s the most insane timing for everyone in every way I feel like. But yeah, there is going to be a live show, we don’t know when it is yet. It will feel, I hope, like the record sounds. I want it to feel like people are inside a womb with us and like it’s very warm and comforting. I want it to feel like a resting place.

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