Purity Ring's Megan James wants to change the way you think about your body
A few weekends ago, Purity Ring singer and songwriter Megan James sang for an audience of thousands while perched on top of a speaker, a wind machine blowing the curly mass of her hair back and outward like a hair halo. Backlit by long strings of lights, which were programmed to mimic star fields or ripple in iridescent waves, James was literally outshone but still managed to keep the pivot of the crowd’s attention on her: Her body, moving in the practiced perpetual motion of veteran performers. Her voice, floating above and through the celestial roar of the band’s electronic catalogue of music.
Purity Ring’s first album Shrines won accolades for its expansive, oftentimes disorienting sounds and visuals. The band’s sophomore release, another eternity, took many of those same motifs — space, the body, creation, implosion, and the natural world — and both expanded and refined them. Filled with moments of breathtaking delicacy (“bodyache,” “push pull”) and bone-shattering beats (“flood on the floor,” “stranger than earth”), another eternity is one of the most fascinating and exciting albums to come out of 2015.
HelloGiggles spoke to James about keeping their music and their vision weird, tour rituals, and searching for the strange things in the world.
HelloGiggles: I saw your show at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium, and saw your set at FYF Fest — both times, the bass in your songs shattered the earth! It was amazing.
Megan James: I love hearing that, because I don’t always feel it. I have inner ear mics in and stuff, it’s good to know!
HG: When you’re planning out these shows, with the choreography, the lights, do you ever watch tape of it afterward like people do in sports? Do you have your setup in the beginning and then you’re married to it?
MJ: This show, we didn’t watch any recordings of it until well into it. We would draw pictures of what we wanted it to look like, and try to make everything fit together, but we felt like we had a good idea without actually seeing it. Also, you can’t watch it to make sure it’s what you want before you commit; you have to get all the stuff and build it, and by then you’ve already committed.
I haven’t seen the whole show myself, just bits and pieces, and I’m happy with it!
HG: There are so many visual components to your project, even outside of the expected music videos. Like, you have the iconography of your album, which has been turned into badges.
You work with an artist, Tallulah Fontaine. Can you describe your partnership with her?
MJ: She’s worked with us since the beginning! She doesn’t write music at all; she’s always been involved heavily with the visuals. She actually did the artwork for “Ungirthed,” our first 7” record, way back when, and done all of our artwork since then except for a couple of t-shirts. Corin [Roddick, the other member of Purity Ring] and I, we both feel like she’s on the same level as us, artistically, and she’s a part of the illustration world, so she has a lot of ideas that take us in that direction and have appeal other than just the music. I’ve always felt like, when I write lyrics, I’m trying to find an image or a feeling or draw a mental picture, and she’s really good at getting that on paper, just in a different form. The patches were her idea actually.
HG: They remind me of . . . Do they have Girl Scouts in Canada?
MJ: Girl Guides!
HG: Yeah, they look like merit badges! You could mix your Purity Ring ones in with the ones from days of yore.
MJ: I hope so, that’d be awesome!
HG: There is something very unapologetically feminine about the way you sing, the way some of the stuff in your visuals translate over. Like, on your Instagram, there are a lot of labia-related images. You don’t see that on most electronic musicians’ Instagrams or social media! You’re not the only member of the band, but is that a conscience choice, to be in your face about this more traditionally “feminine” iconography?
MJ: I do most of the posts for Instagram, and it’s not really calculated. I’m mostly posting things that I think are funny or I really love. Vaginas is one of those; funny that it’s found in so many places, and something that I think is important to appreciate, because even in iconography, the world is more phallic-centric in terms of, everything looks like this! But yeah, I’m on a “vaginas are everywhere” kick lately. Instagram turns into that. It sounds really silly, but I had never paid attention until more recently, and I’m a little bit mind-blown. And excited by how many I find in a day. I generally have really body-focused art and metaphors around that, and it relating to nature and physical things outside the body. It’s a thing I identify myself with, or by.
HG: A lot of Internet literature about women focuses a lot on supernatural things. Like, witches are back in a huge way; reading peoples’ star signs and stuff.
That sci-fi bent that you guys have with your music and visuals is interesting — did you consume a lot of sci-fi media growing up? Or, is it more of a fascination born out of other influences?
MJ: It’s a few things: Corin watches every sci-fi movie, no matter how good or bad it’s supposed to be, so in that way, it’s a lot his thing. For me, I’m really obsessed with the visuals and the colors and the models of creating other worlds or existences. Not necessarily aliens; just touching on the idea that the world is bigger than . . . Well, I like this because I feel that peoples’ ideas about space and the universe are so relative to the body as well. Like, what’s inside of a person, or what are the capabilities inside of someone.
HG: That’s so deep into body theory!
MJ: I really think that there’s as much inside of a body or a mind as there is inside a universe. It’s something I really enjoy thinking about; I haven’t read a lot, it’s just what I fancy, the way I make people equal and the way I think of beauty.
HG: When you say that, it becomes clear how that translates into your music, especially your lyrics. With the second album, it feels like you tightened up the focus of the sound, which is a natural part of the musical process — you start diving deeper into ideas. What did you pull from album one into album two, if anything?
MJ: We put the first album aside because we didn’t want to make the same thing again; we didn’t listen to the first album in order to make the second. It goes in its box on the shelf, and then we worked on something to represent right now. That was the only guideline we set for ourselves.
It’s also produced a bit differently; there’s a wider range of sounds used and slightly different effects, and the vocals are louder. A lot of people do take that as, “This is the pop album,” but we think that the first album is a pop album as well. In terms of us, it’s a natural progression of what we’re doing together. The third album will be equally different, and in another direction. I don’t know what yet!
HG: They weren’t just rocking out to you guys. There were a lot of people cheering for your openers, HANA and BATHS, too — and for me, this was my first time hearing most of HANA’s music live. She was fantastic too!
It’s great to see a band like you supporting someone in the beginning of their career. Is that something that you see yourself doing actively, or was it a chance meeting of like-minded souls?
MJ: I love touring with musicians who are, when it comes down to it, just really good. No matter how big or small, or how big their appeal is, or who writes about them. But at the same time, it’s less about that and more about taking friends on tour, or people we want to get to know better, which was the case with HANA. It’s really, Who do you wanna hang out with when they come on the bus? Also, it’s always great to help someone play shows and bring them to different crowds. I’d feel bad if we didn’t!
HG: I imagine if a lot of your friends are musicians, that could get weird? But speaking of that, you also toured with Empress Of this year — her album Me is fantastic, and I saw her at her own tour’s LA stop. That must’ve been fun!
MJ: I didn’t actually know her that well when we first left together, so that was a “Let’s get to know her better on tour” thing. We got along so well with all three members of the band, and her show is so good! She’s got her moves down, and it’s very consistent.
HG: You have moves too! I don’t know if you do set choreography, but to get up on the speakers, with a wind machine, in front of a screaming crowd: How did you get into that? Do you psych yourself out for your shows?
MJ: Performing has been a very interesting process for me. I used to just be really nervous and stand still and sing, or try and hide. I don’t know if I actually did that or I just felt like I did that, but it’s always different because as soon as the show starts, I go into another headspace, where I’m not “really” there. It’s important not to depend on the crowd for energy, because if there is no crowd, what would I do? Probably die.
I’m mostly dancing for myself, which is the best way to deal with the question of what do you do on stage. The dancers [who appeared later in the set] were choreographed, and we’d never had dancers on stage before, so we were like, What’s it gonna look like if they’re doing one thing and I’m doing my own thing in the middle? It didn’t end up mattering, but that’s also just what I do on stage. It’s a full “Megan dance,” an invincibleness that turns on when the show starts. And I don’t have it in any other time in my life. Performing is really strange.
HG: I used to play the flute growing up, and when it was time for the solo performance, my hands would get sweaty, and you can’t play the flute when your hands are sweaty. Recitals are terrifying!
MJ: Everyone else’s parents, too.
HG: Right, they’re always comparing their kids to you. “Oh you did great, but so-and-so really knocked it out of the park!” And as a kid, you’d be like, “You don’t have to do this right now. I’m a child.”
MJ: Like, “Don’t make me suffer!” Yeah, I definitely did that too. But it actually did get easier, after three years. Performing is an anomaly for me.
HG: So when you’re not performing, what do you do?
MJ: I keep to myself a lot on tour. Well, everyone always does, because you need space and you don’t have it. I think I’m shy . . . The stage is, Here, I dance, and I don’t give a f-ck, and then me without that is the unsolvable mystery of what I am, or whatever.
Dancing is very telling of peoples’ personalities anyway.
HG: “A unified theory of dance as self-expression.”
MJ: Right, maybe not self-identifying, but self-expression.
HG: I always wonder what musicians do on tour. Some people write, some people worry about writing their next thing, and some people, because they’re doing five shows in a week, they just focus on getting through it. I imagine that once you get into your second tour, third tour, you start to get your routines down. What’s the first thing you do when you get to a new stop?
MJ: Usually, the first thing we do is find good food and coffee. I depend on that, unless we bring coffee, then we depend on a morning ritual on the bus instead of walking around.
The most important thing I’ve learned on tour is to have a ritual, even when you’re not at home and you’re surrounded by people you’d generally never live with, even as roommates. You’re together basically six months out of the year, but you should spend a lot of time reading and watching movies and finding your own rad things in cities to do and see.
It’s kind of like traveling alone in some ways. Not always — that makes it sound really lonely, like, “I’m going to a museum today, does anyone wanna come?” And oftentimes people do. But other than that, you have to exist alone even though you’re not alone. Otherwise you get lost or dependent on people. Tour has become more a set-in-stone, normal thing, versus like, “Oh, I’m not home.”
HG: What was the last piece of media you consumed?
MJ: Last night, I watched Practical Magic with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It’s so good, I forgot how good it was! It’s also really inspiring — there are a lot of amazing colors in it, and their house is really beautiful.
HG: That’s such a specific first response: “The colors are really great!”
MJ: I’m thinking about music videos right now, so that’s what I’m focused on; also, shots taken out of context, rather than, a witch movie.
I’m also reading this book by a woman from New Zealand named Janet Frame, called Faces in the Water. It’s really interesting — it’s an autobiography, but she gives herself a different name. She writes really beautifully, but it’s about how when she was in her 20s, she went to a mental institution, in the 50s, and went in and out for years. There’s a Jane Campion movie about her, called An Angel at My Table.
HG: I thought you were gonna say Top of the Lake at first, since that’s Jane Campion’s most immediately visible project.
MJ: Oh, Top of the Lake is amazing. No, Angel is one of her first movies and it’s three hours long. So, Frame is a writer, and the hospital was about to give her a lobotomy. Then, she won a writing award in New Zealand and a scholarship in London, so the day she was supposed to get the lobotomy, they canceled it because she won this award.
HG: Faces in the Water, Top of the Lake, your songs like “flood on the floor,” “sea castle,” some of the visuals of your live show . . . This is gonna sound a little New Age-y, but out of the four elemental signs, like fire, water, wood/earth, wind, which do you identify most with?
MJ: I don’t think it’s New Age-y, because I don’t identify with that at all! But, I do identify elements with people close in my life, and it’s how I poeticize and write about them. I feel like I’m probably more water, but I want to be earth, or maybe I’m more earth and I’m uncovering that slowly. Those two; definitely not wind . . . maybe I’m a little fire too.
HG: You need someone to read your signs, but for this instead of a star chart or something.
MJ: I wish I knew more about astrology but I can’t quite get into it, so I don’t know if I ever will.
HG: Astrology and crystals are fun to read about, but I don’t know if I’m ready to take the plunge and “believe” believe.
MJ: Have you ever heard of the Center for Land Use Interpretation?
MJ: Okay, so there’s a national park somewhere that’s full of petrified wood, but the wood looks like stones . . . Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona! So, all the pieces of wood look like stones, but rainbow-colored, really beautiful. People try and take them, but then the visitor center, where you enter the park, is full of — and they made a book about it — rocks of petrified wood that have been returned, and most of them have a letter with them. There’s this superstition as well: People write these letters with messages like, “Since I’ve taken this rock, all of these bad things have happened to me.” So they list them out and send it with the rock back! It’s one of these really fascinating cultural things that many humans do, and think that they’re the only person who actually does it.
The book, you can get at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The national park is apart from that — I really wanna go though!
HG: That sounds completely up your alley, in terms of lowkey spiritual, body, faith, earth interaction. You can see the tendrils of that thinking in your work — and some of this weirdness is part of that.
MJ: It’s just what we are, not necessarily what we want our band to be. It can’t be anything else, because it is what it is.
HG: With some artists, you can ask them about certain things, but either they’re doing what someone else told them to do, or they’re so completely trained that they don’t have spontaneity anymore. So it’s cool to be able to ask these weirdo questions.
MJ: It’s really easy to be distracted by what you’re supposed to do. When a band gets to a certain point . . . We got a lot of attention really quickly, and it was totally unexpected. There was a time where I was like, “What am I supposed to do with this? How do I turn this into a business, and what’s the right way to do that?” And you become dependent on other people in the industry for that, who sort of navigate the industry in their calculated way, and it turns into something that isn’t expressive or isn’t about music and art anymore.
It’s a huge challenge to stay in touch with things that you love and are inspired by, to the point that you realize what you want to make versus what you think will work or what you think somebody else will like, or what you think a blog will like. It’s actually really hard to come away from that, if you ever get to that point, and it’s really hard to stay away from that unless you give no f-cks and keep moving in your own direction. But that’s hard, with anything. Still definitely the best way.
Get Purity Ring’s another eternity here; stream it below:
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Images courtesy of the author, from here.