Nine Songs: Richard Reed Parry
As a multi-instrumentalist and writer for Arcade Fire, a band that he himself describes as a ‘big, loud, monstrous beast’, Richard Reed Parry’s musical career so far is not one that immediately brings quietude to mind.
Yet speaking to him about the songs he holds the most closely, as he’s sitting in a cottage by a lake in Vermont, it becomes apparent that quietude is something of great importance to Parry. He explores the idea of capturing a specific space and time, a notion that’s imbued in a way with a feeling of stillness. It seems to have taken a while for this to fully realise itself in Parry’s solo work on Quiet River of Dust, Volume 1, which is due to be followed by Volume 2 next year. “The feeling of the songs has been quietly brewing for quite a long time,” he says, “and took quite a long time to come out of me.”
The idea of music being released in this sense is one that appears frequently in our conversation. Parry speaks about music as though it’s a living thing or spirit that finds an outlet through people. This links closely with his upbringing in a folk community, where music was learned and sung intuitively. Several of his pivotal songs are highlighted as not having a clear structure, instead there is an instinctiveness about them. He mentions ‘through-composition’, a device which lets the music simply unfold without any concern for conventional form. This sense of organicism is also evident in Arcade Fire, where changes of tempo and mood in the middle of songs are part of their process.
The music Parry enjoys the most is that which is self-sufficient; it often follows that it is immersive, a world one can enter into. Talking about his upcoming solo work he explains “The Quiet River music often feels like a ‘floating world’, which is a term borrowed from Japanese art. It’s trying to create a contained space and a floating little world that you can escape into or explore and just be inside of, that feels contained and like it envelops you in some way. It can veer left, it can veer right, but it still hopefully feels like the place that you get to kind of... live.”
The music is inspired in part by experiences Parry had in Japan, where he first spent time in 2008 following an Arcade Fire tour. It was here that he experienced the sense of spaciousness and revering of nature that has now come to manifest itself in his solo work.
As well as respecting music that is self-contained, Parry expresses his enormous admiration for the artists who achieve this feeling in their work. The pivotal songs in his life have given way, over the course of his life, to a thoughtful debut. They are both personal, and profoundly philosophical.
“Jane’s Addiction is really spiritually transcendent rock music. I was obsessed with it as a teenager, and also actively trying to absorb its influence. It was so magical to me in such a confluence of chaos and inspiration and emotions - there are so many emotions in that music. As a teenager you feel emotionally turbulent, like you’re going in a lot of directions at once and you can also attach so much significance to music. It kind of defines you.
“This song still just utterly takes me there into its universe immediately. It’s not totally obvious, especially as a teenager - even still as an adult - what the song is about in any kind of literal term, but you feel like it’s very personal. As an adult, I respond to it in the same way as when I was a teenager - wanting to scream at the screaming parts and kind of run at the parts it moves fast. It’s trying to paint a picture of a contained universe that someone was living in, that’s obviously turbulent and kind of mellow, with extremely ecstatic high highs.
“It’s downtempo at the beginning, and really beautiful, and kind of reverent, and very regretful and wistful in how he’s describing a time. It’s this whole experience and you feel so pulled into it. The way the song is composed means it doesn’t stay on one track at all. It really goes off the rails and every new direction that it goes in feels like it’s exactly what it wants to happen. It opens up and opens up and opens up. It’s through-composed - rather than having verse chorus, verse chorus, this is just section after section after section.
"It’s such an achievement in terms of the number of musical places the song can go while still feeling like it’s a real song."
“It doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be clever, it feels like it’s following a journey. There’s something very emotionally true about the journey but we don’t even know what that is, it just feels so bright and exciting. The tempo twists and turns so many times during the song and on a technical level it’s a complex song, but it doesn’t seem nerdy. It feels spiritual and poetic and truthful, it’s not interested in being distracting, it’s just following its own trajectory.
“A song that’s as mysterious as ‘Three Days’ can withstand an epic amount of different emotions or scenarios that all pile on top of each other. It’s such an achievement in terms of the number of musical places the song can go while still feeling like it’s a real song. It’s not just a composition that’s doing these huge broad strokes for the sake of open form music, you feel like you’ve gone from one place to another, and there’s a specific story that’s been told and a specific series of emotions.”
“Blade Runner is my favourite movie of all time, hands down. I watch it many, many times per year. What’s beautiful about that movie, and what’s such an incredible artistic achievement, is that you don’t think about where one starts and the other begins, it’s all one thing. The music, the sound, the visual story, the visual world and the lighting - all of it is just so perfectly interwoven together.
“I’m not a total cinephile, but the way that all the elements of it add up to be one familiar, but foreign world that just makes absolute sense, I think is unparalleled. The music is completely interwoven with the sound and the movie is the music, but then it also isn’t. There are just sounds, but all the sound comes across as music and all of the music comes across as part of the sound- world of the place. When you listen to it just as an album, as a soundtrack, all the elements of the music are cinematic and have a storytelling quality to them. You feel like every single element that you hear is communicating something that’s happening visually.
“It’s like the definition of cinematic music in a way, because every little sound, every single musical gesture, every little melody or texture puts something that feels like a very, very clear image in your head and it paints a cinematic scenario in your mind just listening to it.”
“I grew up singing this song, in a proper folk community. I probably wouldn’t be playing music without this song, because this way of singing and making music together was so inherent for my parents and played such a big role in their lives and that played such a big role in my life.
“Both my parents were folk singers. Their way of being with music became my entire musical upbringing. They used to live in Hull, where the Watersons were from, so they learned this from going to listen to the Watersons down at the pub. At that time there was this kind of renaissance happening that the Watersons were such a pivotal part of, bringing back all these traditional British Isles songs and this culture of singing together in the pub, not just going to see a concert. This is totally a song where the whole room sings the chorus - I grew up very much in the room, singing the chorus.
“Anyone that was in my community, more or less, would have been able to sing this song - and did. We had this loose way of performing where everyone knew the song and everyone knew how to harmonise, so you just kind of sang it together. People would be singing on top of each other and stacking their voices and singing higher and louder than each other. It’s just a sensibility, and when you grow up with it, it seems unnatural that it doesn’t exist everywhere.
“I’m always slightly shocked and dismayed that people don’t sing at parties more, because when I grew up that’s what a party was - everyone just hung around drinking beers and waiting for the singing to start. Once the singing started, it went into the wee hours of the night. Everyone would lead songs - everybody knew a lot of the same songs and if you didn’t know it, you’d learn it.
“I always want more people to sing than are ever present, like, where are all the voices?! When I sing, I want a whole room full of people to sing with me and everyone should be harmonising so you make this big glorious sound together. I’m always mildly disappointed that it’s not like that more of the time. The group-singing thing obviously became a motif that we’ve used in Arcade Fire quite a lot, so it’s sort of made its way out into the world.”
“Having grown up in folk culture, I wasn’t really actively interested in it - it was something that loved being around, but when you’re a kid you’re not trying to just do all the things your parents have done. I discovered Nick Drake when I was probably seventeen and this song just devastated me emotionally. I couldn’t even really tell why, because again it’s lyrically a bit mysterious, but it just has this gorgeously sensitive feeling.
"It’s about just being a very sensitive soul in a bit of an insensitive and quickly paced world - I identified really strongly with that, and still do."
“This is kind of the other end of that British folk spectrum. It’s very melancholy and it’s a sort of an alone, sitting on a tree stump kind of a song. It seems simple, but it’s actually quite complex guitar playing. I’ve always tried to play this song properly and I still can’t, there are such specific nuances in the way he plays that are so hard to replicate. Nick Drake hardly ever performed, hardly anyone ever got to see that guy play, even though everybody loves him so much.
“‘From The Morning’ is quite enamoured with the world around it, almost to the point of sadness - it’s brimming over with love for the world and nature. “It was dawn and it was beautiful”, “the night she fell”, “the air was beautiful” - it’s just gorgeous poetry and reverent and sensitive. It seems like Nick Drake was the type of person who was so sensitive it was quite hard for him to keep up with the world around him, and to me you can hear that painfully in this song. I really identify in a similar way, which is maybe not apparent to everyone that knows me from Arcade Fire, because it’s such a big. loud monstrous beast of a band.
“When I discovered Nick Drake it was the first folk music - it was non-traditional, he was writing all his own songs - that I gravitated towards and felt completely taken by as an individual. I felt so beyond the kind of enamoured feeling that I had of the guitar playing and the song writing - I felt like I deeply, deeply identified with him. It’s about just being a very sensitive soul in a bit of an insensitive and quickly paced world - I identified really strongly with that, and still do.
“When I was on tour once with Arcade Fire, on a morning off I took a bus over to Tanworth-in-Arden where he was from, his grave is there. On the back of his gravestone is one of the lyrics from this song: “now we rise, and we are everywhere”. I just saw it and completely burst into tears. I remember it really clearly, it was a really beautiful cold fall day and I was wearing a big hooded sweater, and I just sat there and had a bit of a cry.”
“All of Live 93 is one of my top ten albums of all time, still. Nobody has done anything that’s quite like that - it’s such a bonkers achievement of live electronic music; it feels alive and like it’s full of sounds and it’s transforming all the time. It feels like an ecosystem turned into music, but it has these amazing tunes.
“They’ve got really great pieces of music that are composed, but it’s just chaotic. There are so many beautiful and strange things happening all the time; you’ve got animals wandering in and out of songs, airplanes flying through, strange motorcycles, phasers going off, alarm bells, roosters crowing and newscasters coming in and talking about things. They’re also sampling all these amazingly disparate elements that all totally go together, I can just listen to it forever. When those Steve Reich samples start to come in, it’s like the sound of the night sky opening up. It’s just the most psychedelic thing and it somehow achieves a supreme psychedelic feeling, but without trying to be psychedelic. It throws all these very strange elements into the same scenario and creates something that’s so elegant and beautiful. ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’ is just this exquisite composition that turns into this bumping dance track.
"It feels like an ecosystem turned into music, but it has these amazing tunes."
“What’s crazy about this track in particular is that I went through this phase, maybe even in the same year, the same six months, when I discovered individually and accidentally each of the records with each of the samples that this used. I went and bought Electric Counterpoint by Steve Reich, which is the main melodic sample and then I bought Once Upon A Time In The West, which is that weird harmonica sample and then I discovered Ricky Lee Jones, and it’s her voice that’s talking about the clouds, in this old interview.
“I went through this really cool period of discovering this mosaic of really cool music and cinema and audio that these guys had created this music from, which was a really exciting moment for me. I thought, ‘Oh, you can bring in any influence you want, and not just as an influence - you can sample anything you want.’ I realised you can make music out of anything you want, and not only can you do that, but you can make something that’s gorgeous and unique and doesn’t sound like anything else. It was really mind-opening for me.
“I have very fond attachments to it for many reasons. When I was seventeen my father died, I’d been having the most miserable year of my life and I was working at a summer camp the summer after he died. On my weekend off I’d heard that at the last minute The Orb were playing this unannounced show in Montreal, so me and my mates got in the car, drove from summer camp to Montreal and went to this Orb show.
“We were hanging out and it was cool, and then when I heard the samples from this song start to come into what they were playing, it was the happiest moment I’d felt the entire year after my father died. I had an actual moment of being able to completely transcend this depression and insecurity and neurosis that I’d gotten wound up in. I had such a hard time, to have that happen when I was seventeen, and it knocked me off the rails a bit. This one moment when that track kicked in as they were playing it in Montreal was just like absolute spiritual transcendence for me. So it has a very significant place in my heart for that reason, amongst others.”
“This is a song that devastated me when I heard it for the first time. It was actually a record that my parents owned but I’d never heard until later on. They weren’t really interested in this record - they were much more into the traditional stuff, but I found ‘The Scarecrow’ the most lyrically devastating thing I’ve ever come across in a lot of ways. It feels like it stops you in your tracks, the imagery, the way that it’s phrased, the way that it’s sung, and all the melodic material and the way the guitar’s played. It’s meandering and super sad, never quite finding its footing. It never really solidifies.
“Lyrically, to me, it’s up there with anything Sylvia Plath ever did, its such bleak, beautiful, dark, sharp lines of heavy, heavy words that cut right through everything. The lyrics are very solid, there’s not a single throwaway word, that’s part of what’s so powerful about the song. To me the lyrics of the song are etched in stone, she knows exactly what she wants from each word and actually it’s the contrast of the thing that feels powerful.
“The chords are very specific, but part of what’s specific about them is that they’re very open and exploring, hitting all these notes in a searching kind of way and never really settling on a precise way of playing it. I think that feeling is inherent in the idea under the lyrics, but the lyrics are really, really finely etched. The two things are illustrating each other by being each other’s opposite.
"Lyrically, to me, it’s up there with anything Sylvia Plath ever did, its such bleak, beautiful, dark, sharp lines of heavy, heavy words that cut right through everything."
“I always thought it was using an image to really get deep into a specific bleak feeling, or a set of feelings, but I actually got to perform this song a couple of times with Waterson-Carthy, so I got to talk with Marry Waterson about what that song was about and her mum Lal. Her mum’s whole life was grappling with whether or not she believed in God. It was like a recurring eternal topic for her - as Marry put it, writing about a god that wasn’t there, and when I heard that, the song made a thousand times more sense and it became all the more powerful. It was using this non-liturgical image to cut away any godliness from a liturgical image, if you will.
“This idea of this scarecrow, this dead, lifeless man hanging on a pole with his arms strapped, scaring away crows and kids throwing rocks at him, but it all doubles as the story of Christ, so it makes it all the more powerful. You can’t really tell what her perspective is on the whole thing, maybe she doesn’t know that either. Apparently Lal was really quite sick a lot of the time and spent loads of time in bed during the time that she was writing these songs. That really makes sense to me, the heaviness of it and just how bleak and searching it is.”
“This is one of the most immersive things I’ve ever heard, I feel spiritual rapture when I listen to it. It’s such an incredible accident of recording technology, that kind of warbly-ness of the tape and the echoes - they’ve got different things running through the same echo at the same time.
“It’s kind of the opposite of ‘The Scarecrow’, in that the way they play this is like they’ve never played it before. I don’t even think it’s written as a song really, I think they’re just exploring this traditional lyric in a different way. You can kind of hear that the bass player doesn’t really know which way the chords are moving and they haven’t established a precise form for the song. It’s just him singing this one lyric over and over again, ‘May the circle remain unbroken, may the circle remain unbroken’. All of the musical details seem so tentative and accidental and, not hesitant, exactly, but not totally confident.
“There’s that perfect musical moment, being the moment of discovering the thing and it’s never quite as perfect as it is at that moment. There’s something - call it a vibe, call it a spirit - that to me passes through the music. If you’re lucky it passes through more than once, but often it only passes through once. I’ve always been interested in music that’s made in that way, that really opens up the doors to a certain kind of musical or artistic chaos, that’s really just trying to let something pass through.
“Sometimes the only way of doing that is by not having a plan and not knowing exactly what you’re doing. It’s a hard thing to capture, but if someone’s recording while you’re capturing that moment then those are the things you kind of live for as a musician, when some kind of accidental chaotic beauty emerges from a loose plan or no plan at all.
“It’s just allowing the song to emerge, when it’s maybe not a song yet. You’re always opening up the door to let the Holy Ghost pass through when you do that. You let down your guard and you say ‘We’re just gonna record right now and see what happens.’ You don’t always get a magical result, just because you decide to record with no plan and you haven’t rehearsed - to say the least - but sometimes you do.
“The sonics of this song are so magic to me and so influential, it’s the gold standard for accidental experiments. The way people are playing with each other, it’s like they’re kind of listening to each other and they’re kind of doing their own thing; where its meeting in the middle is an intersection of elegant, gorgeous chaos. It’s a similar feeling to the live Orb stuff - there’s a certain amount that’s orchestrated and that they know and there’s a certain amount they don’t. Everyone’s following their own strange different intuition and somewhere in the middle something so elegant and transcendent is happening, almost by accident.”
“This song is next level to me. I can’t imagine it not existing, it’s always existed in this perfect accidental form and this is how I wish it could always be to record music.
“The story of the recording is that near the studio he was working at in the country there was this big beautiful lake, they put the speakers at one end and he played the guitar back over the lake. So there was this huge, beautiful, reverberant space and the reverberant space on the record is actually the guitar echoing off the lake through the amplifier. You hear some bird sounds sometimes, you hear some geese quietly honking in the distance and it’s got this hissy, night-time ambient sound - and that’s because it was recorded outside. Everything about it is just so beautiful. It’s such a gorgeously slow tempo and it’s so spacious, there’s nothing going on.
“The song sounds like a tape machine fell out of the sky into this exquisite outdoor recording scenario that’s happening. It’s like it started recording, the song had already been going on for a while and it keeps going for a while after the recording stops. That’s what it sounds like and it turns out that’s what it is.
“I’ve heard an alternate version of this song and the form is completely different. It’s like they played this idea, or few ideas of what the song was, and then they took a chunk of the tape where it makes sense as a form. It has this beautiful arc to it and that was what they chose as the song, but in the other version of it everything’s in a bit of a different place. It just feels like a loose and very beautiful idea for a song, to just let it run its own course and let the song explore itself.
“To me, it just feels like it came out of the earth, there’s so much emotion - lyrically it’s full of emotion and effort - but the song feels so effortless, like they just let the music play itself, which is an incredible feeling to achieve in a recording. It’s such a haunting refrain and strange guitar sound, it just sounds so perfect and I can’t imagine the world without it.
“I’ve listened to this song on loop for endless amounts of time - sometimes if I’m too jacked up after an Arcade Fire show and I can’t sleep at three in the morning, I’ll turn on that song and just listen to it on loop forever. It doesn’t really have a beginning or an end, it just goes and that feeling really opens something up in my brain - something energetically happens that’s deeply calming. It’s definitely a gold standard of something to aspire to for me as a recording artist. Once again, it’s an accidental high. It’s not background music at all, but it never wants to dominate the world around it. It just wants to sit quietly in the world. That’s such an amazing feeling to be able to capture.”
“Now we’re making sense! These last three songs are all points on the same axis and Talk Talk is the realisation of everything I was just talking about. They work with insane focus, but I don’t understand how they had the patience to do what they did. They took this incredible space and time to make these spacious recordings, that managed to harness all these accidental moments in time, or they’re recreating a moment in time which is the perfect sound and the perfect tone with the perfect space around it.
“They do such an eternally mind-blowing job of capturing the sound of instruments or the sound of a voice. It’s such a perfectly realised music that was taking its sweet time to let itself write itself. It seems like that’s a ‘non-true’ way of looking at it, because I know they worked insanely hard, with crazy focus, that they had technical difficulties they had to transcend, and it was actually very demanding and very effortful, but the end result just seems so gentle, it’s just such an achievement. I love how he treats his voice in this song, it’s just on the surface of the music, it’s not on top of the music at all. It’s just this voice floating in the ocean and singing from the ocean, rather than being on top of the ocean.
" If you just turn your attention to it and focus on it, there’s all the beauty, there’s all the magic.”
“Those last couple of Talk Talk records, for my money, are some of the pinnacles of recorded music ever. The Talk Talk records - as opposed to the Sgt. Peppers and the Pet Sounds, these kind of pop masterpieces that are equally laboured, insanely arranged and incredibly well realised - have an aesthetic that’s a little more... puritanical? There’s an aesthetic of rejecting wealth or opulence that I hear in them. It’s so stark, so stripped down and it captures silence. There are all these huge empty spaces that are just beautiful and you can sit there immersed in those spaces. It’s like seeing the beauty of dust in a sunbeam coming into a completely empty dark room, rather than the giant gilded palace of the Sgt. Peppers, or something like that.
“Part of the artistic act is to create a space, an amount of time and a framework within which to see beauty, rather than putting all your efforts into building the most beautiful complex piece of art and putting a really fancy framework around it. Instead, it’s creating a frame through which to look at something beautiful, that’s so elegant and simple and already exists. It’s about turning your attention to it in a certain way and staying there for a moment, being silent and absorbing this magical feeling of the thing that you might pass by otherwise. It’s looking at an object that already exists from a different perspective.
“That notion is really present in those Talk Talk recordings. I can listen to this one guitar chord played over and over again and it’s just sublimely beautiful and you don’t want it to end. They’re not doing it to pummel you with it, they’re doing it to create a gently stark and gently specific frame around something very simple. If you just turn your attention to it and focus on it, there’s all the beauty, there’s all the magic.”