Purity Ring's Megan James on their new album WOMB

Purity Ring were once heralded as the future of pop. But a decade since they burst onto the scene, pop music has completely changed. With their third record, WOMB, they are coming to terms with their place in that landscape

Feature by Tony Inglis | 31 Mar 2020
  • Purity Ring

Purity Ring are an endangered species. The indie-electro duo of Megan James and Corin Roddick made music once termed 'future pop'. They can certainly no longer claim to be the sound of pop music on the horizon. The future they once heralded the beginning of hasn’t come to fruition. Pop music is now borderless and colour-blind, not beholden to definitions or traditional structure. It’s K-pop and urbano; it’s TikTok and Soundcloud rap.

The landscape is totally unrecognisable to the one James and Roddick sprouted in after the release of their debut Shrines, a record of sickly sweet melodies, oblique lyrics and titanic beats, which inspired as much as it was influenced. There was a time when music’s behemoth stars wanted a piece of that sound – not quite mainstream, not quite indie. Five years ago, they released their buffed-up sophomore album Another Eternity, perhaps a stab at actually being the norm rather than simply shaping it, but since then pop music has all but left them behind.

With their new record WOMB, James – who writes and sings the words that ground these frequently soaring songs, still immaculately produced by Roddick – is somewhat aware of this. Originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, she rings in from LA, a week before the entirety of California is told to “shelter-in-place”. (Coronavirus seems to be infecting more than just people – everything seems to have some connection. For most it’s a stretch, but with James’ infamous preoccupation for limbs, distensions, and bodily movements and functions in her lyrics, listening back can seem particularly gory when all that’s in the news is illness and death.)

Purity Ring are not quite the unicorn they once were. Stylistically similar bands sprung up around them, borrowed their sound, or ripped them off outright. “I like to think we have carved out a small space in the world,” says James now. “OK, so we're not the only one doing that thing we were doing anymore.”

The band haven’t waivered much from their sound. Now three albums and a decade into their existence, they're up against a preconceived notion of what a Purity Ring song should be. “That's a constant battle in the back of my mind,” James acknowledges. “It would be easy to be superstitious about it. Corin and I don't talk about that element or feeling; it could be a cloud over the songwriting. But it's not always there. We want to make the best Purity Ring record according to us. It doesn't matter how people define us because it's coming from us. And by nature, it should. It should fit. And if it doesn't, then too bad, we like it, and that's fine.”

WOMB doesn’t exactly muddy the waters, but sonically it skews more contemplative, more melancholy. Opener rubyinsides is harsher, less polished. Closer stardew is a banger, but its piano chords twinkle rather than slap as it plays out. It’s dream-pop, with emphasis on the dream.

But James has found a renewed sense of thematic purpose. It isn’t blatant – her lines still favour abstract imagery. But the album has a throughline, running all the way from its all caps title. "Womb" is a word that still seems shockingly radical when placed front and centre. It’s a place that's still bitterly fought over, subjugated and legislated for mainly by people with no right to its realm. Its mere presence as the album title plunges the listener into James’s headspace. The mid-album highlight femia is her treatise on the vital role of women in families and society. Its etymology is entangled with the word female, and was also the name of one of James’s aunts.

“My mum’s sister passed away a couple years ago and she was the first of their siblings to die, so it was really impactful,” she says. “That song [femia] represents generationally women in my family, and I’m trying to give them perspective. A lot of [the album] is my take on how women and non-binary people struggle for power within the patriarchy in an intimate way, even within their own family, whether it’s one they’re born into or one they’ve gathered.”

James’s explanation of it is a little muddled – she admits that the lyrics came “slowly and laboriously from trying to identify how I felt about a lot of difficult things, good and bad, that I had never taken the time to face, or had a chance to touch on”. But that reflects the work of a band who have rarely demoted the simple aesthetic pleasures of their music in favour of a concrete message. Even if it isn’t fully successful, it’s an attempt at moving forward what Purity Ring can be.

Since they broke out, Purity Ring’s sound has been the subject of a kind of mutual cannibalisation. After Shrines, it was vociferously desired by the industry, and that desire was fulfilled. And by Another Eternity, they took what was reflected back at them and processed it into their own music. They collaborated with Danny Brown and were sampled by Pi’erre Bourne for a Playboi Carti track. They made writing contributions to Katy Perry’s last album Witness. According to James, WOMB became their opportunity to push back.

“It's cool to be influential, even in a minor way, but it doesn't always turn into money,” she says matter-of-factly. “My relationship with pop music has definitely changed a lot, especially since moving to LA. After Shrines, Corin started getting into session music. I never really wanted to, but that was the thing people wanted. It’s like, if you want a song to sound a certain way, you call in that producer or whatever. We gave them that. But we've decided that's not something that we want anymore.

"We’d rather spend our time writing our own songs because that's why we're doing this and it's the most satisfying way to keep making music. I feel like we shouldn't take that for granted. The more people you get into a room on a song, the less it’s yours. It sounds simple but I felt that immediately. It’s a lot harder to argue for your part. And you’re usually arguing with men.”

At this point our conversation seems to be winding down. Prior to the interview, we'd been encouraged by the band’s publicist not to focus on the experience of writing songs for other artists. After all, there's an exciting new record out. And many industry horror stories come from flourishing independent artists being brought in to give these untouchable stars some personality. It can’t help that the album they contributed to ended up being a bomb – Katy Perry’s career has barely recovered, though that has as much to do with how pop has mutated than the quality of those songs.

Just as we’re about to finish up, James says, “It's hard because I feel like I have to be nice about pop music, but there's a lot of things about LA that I've found I really don't like.”

As she begins to go off virtually unprompted (“Sorry, I'm just realising like, 'Oh, I can go a little harder on this'”), it’s clear that her experiences as a hired hand affected the band’s desire to remain firmly independent and keep their best writing for themselves. “Not everyone in pop music has a tonne of power,” she says.

“I'm sceptical of that, especially when it's unevenly distributed, and pop music is absolutely an example of that. Five years ago, there were a lot of indie bands who were like, ‘I’m going to make pop music.’ And it's just such a different beast than any of us thought. You can't just write a pop song and it gets on the radio. It just doesn't work that way, because there are so many gatekeepers and so much unfairness. It’s designed that way, so certain people benefit more, and it's so frustrating."

She continues: "It’s really disheartening when it comes to your art. You get in the writing room and everyone's like, got to make a hit because they make 100 or more songs for every record. And then they get sometimes thousands of people involved and it's just like, ‘Where's that hit?’ And it’s so gross. And they get them in the end, because everyone wants to be involved. And no-one's getting paid, unless they get that hit."

She lets out a cathartic “uggghhh”. If the sound of pop has moved on, then perhaps the business of how it includes outsider independents in its process has to change too. For a band like Purity Ring, that can only be a good thing.

WOMB is released on 3 Apr via 4AD
Purity Ring play SWG3, Glasgow, 13 Sep