As society comes to a screeching halt, we are left to contemplate what it could look like going forward. While we try to envision this place, many of us are attempting to build our own worlds, for ourselves, for survival, as this one is no longer suitable. (Perhaps it never was.) These new places are as private or public as we want or need them to be, and we are finding new ways to bring people into them, without compromising our communal safety.
Some of us have had a head start in the fields of world-building and symbolic visitation. For nearly a decade now, Megan James and Corin Roddick, the Canadian duo known as Purity Ring, have created soundscapes that are at once candy-colored and grim, alluring and frightening, and inviting all who dare to enter. Their critically acclaimed debut, Shrines, and its follow-up, 2015’s another eternity, have earned them a loyal and dedicated community of cyberstans, entranced by their avant-garde blend of hip-hop and EDM-tinged production, ethereal vocals, and unearthly lyrics.
When I get James and Roddick on the phone, they sound grounded. “Some days, quarantine gets to me,” James, the band’s vocalist and songwriter, admits. “But other days, I’m like, ‘I can do this, this is OK.’ I’m very comfortable figuring out what to do with my space and time.”
They’re calling from her Los Angeles living room, which is decked out with a lot of big sofas and low-light plants, and a fireplace filled with candles. James just reorganized her books (“I’ll probably do it again in a couple of days,” she says and laughs), and there’s a sourdough starter in the kitchen. As of right now, the upcoming tour for their third album WOMB has been postponed. Things are changing rapidly, and the only way to cope is to take things as they come.
“So many things that are part of what used to be a normal record campaign are just not in the equation anymore,” James continues, voice wavering just slightly. “It’s hard to know if that’s good or bad.”
Producer Roddick, who normally spends a good deal of time outdoors, agrees. “It’s a bit of an adjustment, but I've been trying to just get back into coming up with new musical ideas, which at this point I normally would not be doing.” His disposition is resolute. “I think this is probably a time in which a lot of people are learning more about themselves.”
WOMB is certainly conducive to a period of self-reflection and discovery, honoring the Purity Ring ethos without simply regurgitating their previous successes. Across the album’s 10 tracks, James welcomes us into her orbit, pondering her connection to this universe and those around her, and challenging us to do the same. Her picturesque and sometimes chilling lyrics never fixate on the hyper-personal, but instead tangibly convey the general havoc of being alive and having emotions (“Peer down into the craters / Under the lost lakes / Where clarity is buried”), while occasionally drawing larger conclusions (“There is no value in youth / Unless it is wise and kind”).
“Some of the songs on this record are straight from my journal, the same way it always has been,” the 32-year-old divulges. “Others started more from an idea, and then I made it work, which was very intensive for me; that's not a way of writing I'm used to. Pretty much all of the songs are about other people, and how I'm trying to define their existence in my life, in the same way that I have previously defined my own existence to myself.”
I ask if James, who recently encouraged her Instagram followers to vote for Bernie Sanders, feels a need to comment on the current state of affairs in her lyrics. “I can talk about politics for a long time, but I don't feel art needs to contain those exact notions or sentiments,” she asserts. “Every decision we make is political. I'm always trying to avoid contradicting my existence with what I believe about how the world should work. That plays into our music and my art, but no more or less than anything else does.”
Most tracks on the album are just over three or four minutes long, unfolding like a series of intricate escape rooms. “rubyinsides” stretches its arms wide, an atmospheric and uplifting expanse of an opener; “i like the devil” unsurprisingly haunts, its central drum chasing after the listener; the introductory tide of “vehemence” crashes and becomes perhaps the most throwback-Purity Ring track on the album, subbing out some of James’ breathier fare for a little more clarity. The project is a return to form that continues to build on the group’s singular (though oft-imitated) sound.
Instrumentally, Roddick continues to test the limits of his source material. The beat-maker has always been influenced by hip-hop (and vice versa: artists like Jaden Smith and Playboi Carti have sampled early Purity Ring tracks), but here, the relationship is more subtle. The genre’s defining elements —thumping kicks, ominous keys, thrashing snares — have been customized and fine-tuned, rather than simply plugged in.
“On the first two albums, I was getting into a lot of different hip-hop production. At the time, that was the most exciting form of electronic music production I'd heard. Hip-hop producers are always pushing the envelope,” he gushes. “But lately I've gone a lot further back, listening to music I really liked when I was a kid. Digging back into the feeling music gives you, when something can mean a lot and define strange feelings you're having, because you're coming of age and all that.” The 29-year-old fondly names Sigur Rós, Radiohead, Björk, and Linkin Park among the artists who first sparked these feelings for him.
The concept of home has been on both musicians’ minds since long before the COVID-19 outbreak. After releasing another eternity, they toured for a little over two years, with the odd week here or there spent at home. After touring, it took almost another year for them to begin working on WOMB. They attempted to get creative in places like Seoul and northern California, but something wasn’t right.
“It felt a lot more fitting to stay home, and I feel like that ended up coming across in the record.” As James reflects, there’s a noticeably peaceful shift in her tone.
“Going on the road and playing a lot of shows took more energy out of us than we thought it would. Being comfortable and consistent is definitely our vibe,” Roddick adds.
The jump from debut to sophomore album was unsurprisingly a big one, and came with a lot of external pressure. This time around, things felt less make-or-break; the fear that they might be forgotten was no longer there. Instead, the pressure was about the quality of the work.
“All of our focus had to go to the songs and what this would be, otherwise it wouldn't feel good for us or anybody else. And the only way we could solve that was just by giving ourselves as much time as we felt it needed,” James said.
There is no rush for James and Roddick, ever, and especially not now. The rollout for WOMB demanded patience from their anxious fans, who were desperate for years to hear a dispatch from the land of Purity Ring, aside from a standalone single, “Asido,” the band shared in 2017. For the release of the album’s second single, “pink lightning,” gamers Roddick and James (Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a favorite) enlisted the help of graphic designer Jennifer Heale. Together, they created a desktop-only computer game reminiscent of aughts-era internet which, when completed successfully, leads players to the song. Of course, the most dedicated fans rose to the occasion, helping each other at different steps of the game via the Purity Ring subreddit and Discord channel. “It was really beautiful to watch,” James remembers.
“The real game was the friends they made along the way,” Roddick jokes.
Several times throughout our conversation, we circle back to the current situation: social distancing, mandatory quarantine, and self-imposed isolation, and how it’s affecting us. We are redefining what it means to socialize, to work, and to take care of each other. We’ve been tasked with saving the world, ironically by removing ourselves from it.
On top of all of this, Purity Ring is sharing new art with a world that looks drastically different than what they’re used to, and that may not ever look the same again. The appropriateness of sharing this album, with a closer that counsels, “I know it seems far / But just be where you are,” in this time, is not lost on them. In fact, it only further drives home the hope that they are trying to embrace — for both the present moment and beyond.
“It feels oddly fitting,” James concludes. “This record is about spending a lot of time alone and contemplating where I was at. It’s a record that has given me a lot of comfort in ways that I didn't realize I needed, and I really hope it does the same thing for our audience, especially now. The answer to all of these things is just love and caring for each other.”
Carolyn Bernucca is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor, with work in Complex, Pigeons & Planes, The Fader, and The Creative Independent. In 2019, she published her first chapbook, FINA, with Ghost City Press. Talk to her nice.