The dreamy pop duo discuss career longevity, working with Katy Perry, and releasing a new album in the midst of a global pandemic
It’s been five years since Purity Ring’s last album, Another Eternity, on which they refined the mesmerising witchy electronica of their 2012 debut, Shrines, but they didn’t take an extended break from music. The Canadian dream-pop duo – singer Megan James and multi-instrumentalist Corin Roddick – were recruited by Katy Perry to work on her 2017 LP Witness. Though they’re credited as co-writers on three tracks including “Miss You More”, a standout ballad where Perry’s pure pop melodies are enhanced by Purity Ring’s subtly inventive, swirling production, they’re adamant that stepping briefly into the world of mainstream pop hasn’t changed their creative process. “We took quite a bit of time (out) after, and we took that time because we didn’t want to have it affect us,” James says plainly. “We knew the whole time that our record needed to be our record.”
This commitment to the group’s core values is hardly surprising because a decade after they started working together, James and Roddick remain an alt-pop proposition like no other. They make music that’s vaguely unsettling and laced with violent imagery even when its synth surfaces seem bright and shiny. On “Fineshine”, a highlight from Shrines, James asks a partner to “cut open my sternum and pull my little ribs around you” as a way of getting closer to them. Driven by Roddick’s supple, sometimes trap-inspired beats and James’ disarmingly girlish vocals, their creepy-catchy pop music almost seems to belong in a dark alternate dimension.
The duo’s new album Womb is probably their most beguiling to date; it’s a twisted comfort blanket of a record weaved with a wider variety of sonic textures than in the past. The skittering, alt-R&B-influenced “Peacefall” hints at domestic tensions as James sings about “crying over the sink”, while the shimmering synth-pop of “Stardew” is a wistful, anthemic banger. Ahead of the album’s release, James and Roddick chat candidly from their respective homes “five minutes away” from each other, where they’re getting used to self-isolating. “The highlight of my day right now is going to the grocery store,” Roddick says wryly before he and James talk about returning to a music industry that’s changed a lot since their last LP.
It’s been more than five years since your last album. Was the gap deliberate?
Megan James: We toured really extensively with the last album. I feel like we didn’t necessarily talk about or plan a break, but we both needed a year or so to come down. Like, it took a while to really feel inside ourselves again. For me, anyway, it was like I just needed to level out in my own space and then I could be creative again. And then in general we just really took our time over this album.
Corin Roddick: Kind of from the get-go, we talked about intentionally taking as much time as we possibly needed to make this album. I think we didn’t quite do that before. On the previous records, we didn’t rush anything but we worked with more of a deadline in mind.
When you started working on new music, did you have any ideas in mind for how you wanted it to sound?
Corin Roddick: I really wanted to give each song more of its own identity – more of its own sonic space. On previous albums I leaned into using the same drum and synth sounds on different songs to make the album more cohesive. But this time, it was kind of exactly the opposite: I’d be like, “These sounds are only for this song.” The same with rhythm and melody: I really tried to make it so there wasn’t much of an overlap between songs. If one song reminded me too much of another song, we’d try and choose the better one. That’s another reason why the album took so long!
Since your last album, you’ve worked on a big pop project – Katy Perry’s Witness. Did you bring anything from that experience into the creative process on this album?
Megan James: As far as I can remember, we didn’t write our own material when we were working with other people. We were sort of being hired to do a job. It was really interesting but we didn’t do our own work in that time, so I can’t really say if it directly influenced us. But personally, I don’t think it did. We took quite a bit of time after. And we took that time because we didn’t want to have it affect us. It was like we knew the whole time that our record needed to be our record.
At least two songs on the album, “Silkspun” and “Rubyinsides”, have titles that could only be Purity Ring. Do you think of song titles before you start writing, or do they come later?
Megan James: Ha! We didn’t name any of the songs until the first week of January and it was so hard. Because, like, it was the last thing on our minds. It felt like there were more pressing things to do, but I guess the title of the songs is actually pretty important. But yeah, “Silkspun” is deliberately kind of a throwback title. It fits the song, but it also fits us. But there’s another song on the album called “Almanac”... is that song still called “Almanac”? I can’t remember if we left it as “Almanac” because it was such a last minute decision.
“You hear stories about bands who as the years go on, they talk to each other less and less... We’ve had the inverse: we’ve become better friends as the years have gone on” – Corin Roddick, Purity Ring
It’s called “Almanac” on the version I have.
Megan James: Oh good!
Corin Roddick: Song titles are always the very last thing for us – they come after mastering, after album artwork even. If the album is delayed, it’ll be because we can’t decide on the song titles!
Why did you decide to call the album Womb?
Megan James: When I listened to these songs together for the first time, I was like, “I feel so comforted.” It’s like I’d forgotten that I actually write as a coping mechanism. This album feels like a kind of home and the way I self-medicate and come to terms with what’s going on around me. A lot of the album is about family and community and warmth and sort of putting life – however one has it – into a comforting place. I wanted other people to have that feeling when they heard the album, and naming it Womb felt like a way to impress that on people. That felt important, especially with what’s happening politically. It felt like it was so hard to make art after 2016, but actually art is more necessary than ever.
Because we’ve been living in such politically polarising times, do you think you were craving that feeling of warmth and safety?
Megan James: Totally. Being on the internet is hard because there’s a lot of polarisation, but I don’t really feel that as much because I don’t know those people. I really feel it in my family situation – you know, talking to my parents and realising we have different views. How do you still have a relationship with your parents when you don’t necessarily have friends with those views? That can get really complicated. And I guess a lot of this record is about coming to terms with what those (family) relationships are for and worth and what you do with them. Ultimately the answer to that is always love. That’s what the songs made me feel when I stepped back to look at them and that’s what I hope other people feel when they hear them.
What’s the hardest part of being an artist in 2020?
Megan James: Having to use social media. Oh my God, it’s sometimes really easy and sometimes just the bane of my existence. One thing I do love is seeing how sweet our fans are – it feels like a community with a lot of love there. So when I see that, it feels like we’re doing okay.
Corin Roddick: But also, touring is getting really competitive in a way that it wasn’t five years ago. You try to book shows and all the venues are already booked.
Megan James: We started talking about an album deadline, basically, when we had to book a tour. It was kind of a lesson for us in how busy touring has become now. And I think it’s a direct effect of how people consume music. Basically the venues are way busier and you have to book the venues way further in advance. So back in October, we had to decide when we would tour and that created the album deadline being January to give the label a certain number of months to work on the release.
Your tour is due to begin in May. How concerned are you?
Corin Roddick: We can’t really answer that question at the moment.
Megan James: We’re in the process of figuring out what to do but obviously we’ll do the right thing. So, we’ll see.
I think another part of the problem is cities losing venues due to gentrification and licensing issues. Your first ever UK gig was at Madame JoJo’s in London in 2012 – and that venue has now closed down.
Megan James: That’s always the first problem. Every city needs more venues, right? And after this it’s going to be way hard – I don’t think all venues are going to last this crisis. Ever since I was 17, I’ve always had this frustration – whatever town I’m in, the community hall is kind of the last resort for gigs, but then you hear they don’t host shows any more because they get too many complaints from the neighbours. It’s always the venues that lose out.
Corin Roddick: If you’re a person running a small venue or community space right now, it’s one of the most noble things you can do.
You guys didn’t know each other that well when you started making music together. Why do you think you’ve lasted?
Corin Roddick: We’ve definitely been fortunate. You know, you hear stories about bands who as the years go on, they talk to each other less and less – to the point where they can’t stand each other. We’ve had the inverse: we’ve become better friends as the years have gone on.
Megan James: Like any relationship, I feel like we’ve learned over time how to communicate with each other and it’s got progressively easier. I feel better being in this band then I ever have. To be fair, we don’t really talk about this stuff much! But you know, I really feel like we’ve shared the journey of our twenties together. I think we both feel that there’s something we can’t quite define when we work together. And we both know that this wouldn’t happen in the same way with somebody else, so we need to work hard to protect it.
Purity Ring’s new album Womb is out April 3