Purity Ring: Future Pop Fables
Purity Ring's Ungirthed became a viral sensation when it burst onto the collective consciousness in January last year via the band's Tumblr page, with the brief announcement: 'We are birthed.' Immediately snapped up by the ravening blogger hordes, the track did the rounds from Pitchfork to the Guardian, eliciting fevered responses from critics hailing the band's sound as 'future pop.'
Formed in Edmonton, Alberta, the band combine the highly polished, hip-hop and R&B-influenced production of Corin Roddick with the exquisite voice and deliciously dark lyrics of Megan James. On first listen, the band are all sheen – stop-start beats constructed from shimmering, sidechained synth lines and pitch-bent vocal samples, with James delivering her lines in a bright, childlike voice. Listen closer, and James' songs reveal a sinister, phantasmagoric world; a fairytale landscape where mutilation, dismemberment and a recurring, archetypal grandmother figure tell strange, subversive stories.
“I'm writing my own fairytales,” Megan confirms. “I get a lot of satisfaction out of that; the feeling that there is a world within [the lyrics]. All the characters and symbols which I speak of are representative of something.” Was this a conscious choice, to allude to the archetypes and psychological darkness inherent in the old tales? “I don't intentionally make it that way – it's not like I say to myself 'I'm writing a fairytale.' But it's the same sort of format, I think.”
Megan is an incredibly good storyteller – tracks like Belispeak contain powerful narratives and complex characters – but she is modest about her abilities. “You may think that I'm a good storyteller, but if I were to tell a story publicly, straight from my head, it wouldn't go very well.” She laughs nervously. “I've thought recently about perhaps publishing some poetry, or doing zines... I have issues with that being egotistical.”
Her lyrics are confessional in an oblique, abstract way, with an emotional intensity that is rarely found in commercial pop. “I usually don't write them with the intention of having them be given away in the way that they are right now,” she explains. “They are all from my journals. I mean, I'm happy to share what I'm saying, and I feel like all of it is cryptic enough that it feels comfortable for me to put it to music. It's an interesting process, mentally, for me, to understand what is going on in my lyrics. They are very personal.”
The band are inspired by modern pop music, unlike many others in the vibrant neo-synth movement who fetishise the early synth pioneers. “There have actually been some cool things happening in pop music in the past couple of years,” says Corin. “The music we make is a very natural channelling of all of the things that we like.” They didn't set out to subvert pop: “We didn't expect it to turn into what it has,” insists Megan.
The band formed while Corin was drumming for Edmonton electronic band Gobble Gobble (now known as Born Gold). While touring, he began to tinker with his own productions, and was surprised to rediscover his early love of hip-hop and R&B: “I wasn't even listening to that much of it at the time. But as I was finishing a few tracks, I noticed that the hip-hop vibe in the drums was really starting to develop. I used to listen to a lot of that kind of music when I was maybe twelve or thirteen, but I didn't really realise that this style of drumming had really stuck with me. Once I realised that, I started going back and listening to more hip-hop and R&B, and being re-inspired.”
“I've never really been a piano player – I've always been a drummer,” Corin continues. The prospect of playing live on keyboards didn't appeal, so he decided to get creative: “For our live show, we built this instrument... It's like a series of lanterns, which are arranged spread out around me. It kind of works a little like a xylophone. You hit each lantern with a mallet, it connects to a synthesiser and triggers certain notes or melodies for those songs. The lanterns also respond and light up. It's a more visual rendition of the music being made, and it's an interesting addition to our show. It feels a lot more natural for me to be able to hit things on stage, instead of playing keys.”
This inventive setup has helped Megan get accustomed to live performance as well: “I can't say that I was ever really uncomfortable, but looking back over the past year, I think both of us have definitely progressed a lot,” she says. “We did that through the live setup – we set it up a lot like the way we record. The lights create this warm atmosphere. So the lights are not just for show; it's so that we feel that there's a constant thread of sustaining our own level of comfort.”
Having spent a year and more working on their debut album, and retaining an almost phantom-like air of mystery about the project, the band are now keen to push things as far as possible, but creative control is paramount: “We're interested in expanding, and people hearing what we're doing, of course, but it's far more important for us to pursue our own interests,” says Megan. “As far as our sound and appearance goes, we're not planning on ever catering to anyone but ourselves, in order to be more successful.”
Given that both acts are electronic, female-fronted and Canadian, many journalists have compared Purity Ring to Grimes. “We know her,” confirms Corin. “We are part of the same scene, in that we have a ton of mutual friends, and there are a lot of the same ideas going on,” agrees Megan. “But we don't bounce off of each other's music. It's not like we're inspiring each other, as far as what we make goes. But we are in the same world, and we see each other a lot.”
“Grimes is really amazing, and I see where some of the comparisons are coming from,” says Corin. “As far as the production goes, I personally don't hear many similarities. I feel like what she is making is much more like dance music. I feel like our music is more moody – all her music has that kind of very four-to-the-floor feel. You could hear it in a club. I don't feel like our music is really that danceable.”
Shrines is coming out on veteran indie label 4AD, also home to Grimes – the final step in a dance which has seen Purity Ring go from blog sensations to a signed band, ready to tour the world. How has the transition affected them? “When things are on the internet, and are only sold or distributed online, it doesn't feel real,” says Corin. “It's sort of... wizardry. I think there comes a point where an internet artist has to translate that into something that's a bit more like real life. Something you can see in front of you. I think it's easy to become trapped on the internet. We have been releasing our music very slowly, not feeling the pressure to have a new song up every week. We've been more focused on keeping the quality really high, and then developing it to the point where we are really proud of it. We're hoping that the music will transcend the internet.”
And what of the 'future pop' tag? The band take the transgressive, avant-garde aesthetics of Lady Gaga costumes, the dominatrix dynamics of Rihanna videos, and place all that subversive style front and centre in the music itself. It's a thrilling, revolutionary template for pop, avoiding crass exploitation in favour of psychological depth and potent, archetypal imagery. Are Purity Ring trying to bring about the next stage in pop's evolution? “That is exactly what we're trying to do,” says Corrin. “If people acknowledge it, that's a huge compliment. One belief we have is that we don't write music in a nostalgic way at all. We don't feel like we're looking back, trying to reproduce or recreate a certain sound. We're constantly trying to push things forward and look to what's next. We want to keep pop music exciting. We just want to make music that we haven't heard yet, and that excites us. I do feel like Purity Ring could be described as the future of pop music. We're happy with that comparison!”