Q&A: Purity Ring On Indie Vs. Pop, “Hey There Delilah,” And Another Eternity
Back in the early days of 2011, Megan James and Corin Roddick formed the duo Purity Ring and put a song called “Ungirthed” online without much of an idea of what should happen next. As it turns out, what followed was a steadily increasing bit of internet buzz, a positive reaction to their sound — a melting pot of shiny pop elements, ghostly pitch-shifted vocals, eerie electronics, and hip-hop production. In hindsight, Purity Ring might be one of the artists right in the thick of that ongoing process of the ’00s/’10s genre free-for-all, an era in which an electronic duo can sign to 4AD and collaborate with Danny Brown for one of the standout songs on his amazing 2013 release, Old. After taking a breather following the warm reception to their 2012 debut, Shrines, and all the subsequent touring, Purity Ring return today with the much-anticipated follow-up, Another Eternity. While it isn’t without its own unsettling moments, it’s still strikingly different from Shrines in many places — no longer looking toward inner, darker places, Purity Ring’s sound has gotten cleaner, beginning to reach outward and upward into the cosmos. I sat down with James and Roddick to talk about their new aesthetic, their dynamic as writing partners, and their self-appointed classification of “future pop.”
STEREOGUM: Your debut was a big breakthrough. When it came time to do the sophomore release, did you have anxiety trying to follow that up?
RODDICK: We took a lot of time between the records because we didn’t really know what to do at first. I think once we completed Shrines, we knew we didn’t want to just create the same record again. I don’t think we felt any pressure from the success of the record, it was more us just feeling like we had to progress, to make another album that we were happy and excited about. I think a year and a half went by before we started writing the second album.
JAMES: It was more of an idea of the discussion of what we would make, rather than just making something. You can’t really go into it like, “We want to progress this and this and this way, and we want to sound like these artists.” We also just don’t work like that. So until we actually made a song and got through something, it was then that we realized, “Oh, we don’t have to talk about this, we just have to make music.”
STEREOGUM: With the first record, did you just start writing and run with it?
RODDICK: Yeah, [when] we made our first song, it was the very, very first time we tried working together and we didn’t really know what the project was going to be. It was mostly just an experiment to see what we could make together and then we put that out on the internet a week later and that started to get picked up. From there, it was like, “OK, well, I guess we could be a band and we should make a full album.”
STEREOGUM: Corin, you’re 24 now and Megan, you’re 27. This all started four years ago. Was it overwhelming to get that kind of reaction at that age?
RODDICK: I think age is pretty irrelevant these days unless you’re 12 or something. People seem to be making more exciting things at a younger age. I think being even 19 is not that surprising. We were definitely surprised at the reaction, though, because we weren’t really expecting anything. We just made the songs for ourselves.
JAMES: We wanted to show our friends.
RODDICK: It all came out of nowhere, but it was exciting because it was like, “Wow, this could be our life now.” It all changed very quickly. That was in January of 2011. Suddenly it was like, “Oh, this year’s going to be different.”
STEREOGUM: You wrote the first record remotely. But you wrote the new one together in-person, right?
JAMES: The first one … we didn’t know what it would be in the end. Per our circumstances, we wrote, and we just didn’t live in the same city and it wasn’t worth traveling to write songs. And we could do it long distance. But this time it was really obvious that we’d write it together. We didn’t even suggest not.
STEREOGUM: And it was in a few different locations?
JAMES: We met wherever it was convenient. We did the first one in Texas. It was a week every month, we would get together. The first one was Texas, we did one in Brooklyn, and I was living in Edmonton for a lot of the time so Corin would come.
RODDICK: We did most of it in Edmonton.
STEREOGUM: Did the change in locations affect the writing process?
JAMES: I feel like Edmonton overtakes [the music]. It’s definitely a winter type of record. It’s all blue sky and cold. [laughs] Crisp and industrial.
STEREOGUM: I don’t know how much of this is the cover art, because I find that often influences my take on a record…
JAMES: Judging it by the cover —
RODDICK: [laughs] I know what you mean, though, it’s a visual representation.
STEREOGUM: Right, like I look at the Shrines cover and that feels a little bit more claustrophobic to me. This one feels brighter, more open. But do you find it to be colder or darker than the first record?
JAMES: It’s still dark, but in maybe a colder, more distant way, than it is whispering in your ear. “Stillness In Woe” is still pretty whispery.
STEREOGUM: That’s definitely a darker song to me. A lot of the rest sounds brighter than Shrines.
RODDICK: It’s a lot more open of a sound.
JAMES: There’s space carved out for every sound. Especially the vocals. There’s just room for everything and it’s constructed as such.
RODDICK: With Shrines, we were working with a lot of murky textures to put things together, to glue things together and make it seem like an atmospheric piece.
JAMES: That was how it was consistent, I think, a lot of the sounds.
RODDICK: There was a lot more murk on that record … just haziness that was shrouding things. That really helped to create the aesthetic for that album and it worked well in that context. But one of the things that we started doing for the new record that we didn’t think about much — it just felt natural when we started — was we just wanted all the elements to be a bit cleaner and a bit more, I guess, visible.
JAMES: It was also a matter of confidence. We accepted the fact that this is our career and this is what we want to do. We still did a lot of exploring, and it’s still pretty experimental. We are more self-aware.
STEREOGUM: It peels open in a way that Shrines doesn’t.
JAMES: With the music and lyrics, I think. All the lyrics [on Shrines] are about being underneath something, or at the bottom of the bed, or rain and low skies and stuff. And then there’s a lot more land traversed on the second one.
RODDICK: In a production sense, too, we sort of set more limits for ourselves on the first album. From just the first couple of songs we wrote, we developed a very specific sound palette, and I kind of made a decision early on to stick with these specific drum sounds and these specific synth tones and effects, just to see how many different ways I could experiment with that through the course of one album. I think that’s what made that album really consistent — it’s just different attempts at songwriting with certain pieces. Looking back at it, we kind of did the most we could do with that sound set, so for the new album, we didn’t really worry about that at all. We just let each song be what it could, let it open up and not worry about using certain sounds, working with whatever sounds seemed proper for the music. I think that gave the album a bit more range. I think that’s where a lot of the openness comes from. It’s just more expansive.
STEREOGUM: I know you two don’t really like talking about song and album titles…
JAMES: We get asked that a lot, or what songs are about. That’s up to you, you know? There’s a few things and reasons why I felt like Another Eternity was a good fit, and why I can see now that it is a good fit. It comes from the song “Begin Again,” so in a sense that’s the title track. A lot of themes on the record have to do with time and space and this sort of mystical galactic kind of feeling. I think we also consist of a lot of anomalies and juxtapositions in terms of how we work together and what happens, and how those juxtapositions make something really interesting, or intriguing. There are things that wouldn’t necessarily make sense. The whole project, I feel, is a means to explore the world inside my head where I feel like I want to exist. The words and idea of Another Eternity sort of put brackets on that, but at the same time, the idea that an eternity ends or something is really confusing. [laughs] So, yeah, I think it’s just representative of juxtapositions, anomalies, and space.
STEREOGUM: What drew you to those themes this time around? I know you said in general it’s the world inside your head that you want to explore. The reason I ask is: You’re saying there’s more land traveled, it’s more expansive, all these kinds of things. Was there something about being on the road with that first record and doing this in such a big way that drew you to these abstract concepts?
JAMES: I don’t think anything to do with the first record caused us to make what we did this time around. It came from the same sources that are all really personal and not really about our career. For me, it’s the phase of my life in a personal sense, not with touring. I haven’t really written about touring.
STEREOGUM: Well, I was thinking more about the idea of travel and seeing all these places than the literal act of touring.
RODDICK: Songs about touring are usually the worst songs. I can’t stand when artists write about that.
JAMES: Like “Hey There Delilah.” [mock-sings “Hey There Delilah.”]
STEREOGUM: Is that a touring song?
JAMES: It sounds like it. It’s about being apart from someone.
STEREOGUM: God, I haven’t thought about that song in years.
RODDICK: I think it’s always funny when an artist has all these interesting things to talk about and then they get really successful and their songs just become about being on the road and playing shows. Those things aren’t relatable, you can’t get into that. [laughs]
STEREOGUM: Do you guys still use the term “future pop” to describe yourselves?
RODDICK: Yeah, it still applies, and it probably always will.
STEREOGUM: So if that’s the term you applied to the first record, how did you envision Another Eternity pushing it further or fleshing it out?
RODDICK: Well, I think the term itself really has no limits. It just means forward-thinking pop music. That is ever-changing from year to year. At the time [of Shrines] we thought we were trying to make forward-thinking pop music, and we’re trying to push that limit. That’s still exactly what we’re trying to accomplish now with Another Eternity, just in different ways. Hopefully, the term “future pop” will apply to our whole career in that way. That’s what we aim for, anyway. It’s not a limiting term at all, because it doesn’t actually mean anything specific. [laughs]
JAMES: And until the record was finished and we were writing our bio, we were like, “Should we still use the term future pop?” And we were like, “Yeah, it doesn’t mean anything.”
STEREOGUM: On the note of genres and their probable irrelevance, I’ve been talking to a lot of artists recently about the weird intersections and pseudo-binary but not real binary between the indie and pop worlds. Especially with Purity Ring — with Corin talking about wanting to do R&B and rap production, or your collaboration with Danny Brown — I was curious what you thought about that. Do you two think of yourselves as alternative artists or pop artists? Or do you think that’s all meaningless?
RODDICK: I think the only division that can be made between that stuff is what’s on the radio and what’s not on the radio. The fact that we’re not on mainstream radio at this point, we’re obviously not in that mainstream pop category. I think the vessel in which that stuff is received doesn’t really define it as a genre.
JAMES: Yeah, people usually define a genre by where they hear something.
RODDICK: We’re on an independent label, but I don’t feel like that makes us [indie]; it doesn’t make sense for us to be categorized as indie music.
JAMES: Because we’re not. Although the lines are always changing, so it’s really hard to say.
STEREOGUM: That’s just a catch-all term now anyway.
RODDICK: I don’t get mad if people call us an indie band. At this point, we’re not mainstream. That was the whole point behind the “future pop” thing, to put up that roadblock. [laughs] Which has worked surprisingly well. In terms of mainstream pop and independent pop or whatever, I don’t think there is much separation these days. So much stuff that is mainstream and on the radio is being influenced by stuff that isn’t on the radio, or it’s the same people behind it. You see producers now who are working on all types of records, from No. 1 Billboard records to weirder underground stuff. People seem to be all over the map. Certain things make sense on the radio and other things don’t.
JAMES: I feel like in the past few years there’s a lot of talk about the division between indie and mainstream music disappearing or being redefined, which it constantly is, but also I think there’s just more information about the industry available. A lot of those things are really interesting and I think that just the availability of that information is something that … it reflects people’s idea of that line. One producer’s working on all these different kinds of music, but I think that’s always happened. That’s not really new. But that’s also something that changes the game.
STEREOGUM: Let’s talk about the lyrics a bit.
JAMES: There’s a lot more straightforwardness, I think, and there’s a lot more “me” and “you” and “I” and “she,” rather than no pronouns. [laughs] There’s a lot more pronouns.
RODDICK: It’s instantly more relatable because of that. [laughs]
JAMES: It’s true, it’s a weird trick, it is. People just hear it differently, or can insert themselves if it is obviously using people. I don’t even know if I did that on purpose, I just felt it’s a phase of my life or whatever.
STEREOGUM: Megan, you’re still using a lot of body imagery in your writing. Is there a conscious notion behind all this very physical, human imagery and the synthetic elements of electronic music and pitch-shifted vocals and all that stuff?
JAMES: Oh, that’s why we work well together, I think. That exact juxtaposition is what makes our sound. That’s really important, and it’s all over the place. Our work is littered with those little things.
RODDICK: I never really think of our music as being synthetic. I know it’s all made on a laptop, but, I don’t know, it’s not like it’s super clean techno or something.
JAMES: It still has its own life.
Another Eternity is out now via 4AD.