Purity Ring Survived Isolation and Lightning Storms on the Journey to Third Album 'WOMB'
Published Apr 02, 2020Megan James and Corin Roddick are describing the place where they conceived "Stardew," the first song they wrote for their third album as Purity Ring. The rented property apparently has a long history. Situated by the ocean in Northern California and surrounded by black cliffs, the premises once served as a meeting place for pirates, James says.
The synth-pop duo's stay at the house was less inspiring. Infested with spiders and potato bugs, the residence left James and Roddick with an acute feeling of isolation. They sublimated that discomfort into the sparkling "Stardew," which James says, "is about being somewhere and wanting to leave, but not being able to. And, obviously, being okay with where you are."
If the "where" and the "how" of the process remain vivid for Purity Ring, the "when" is slightly more elusive.
"That was, I think, in 2016. Right?" James asks.
"2017," Roddick responds.
"No, it was '16. Maybe it was '17," James says with a laugh. "The past five years are like one year. It all happened in one period of time."
That five-year span encapsulates the release of Purity Ring's second album, Another Eternity, and the creation of its followup, WOMB. In that time, the pair have embarked on sporadic tours, written songs for international pop stars and made a significant change of scene: while they still consider themselves to be "Canada-based," they spend much of their time in Los Angeles.
Through it all, Purity Ring remained an active concern. Despite WOMB's long gestation period, they say they felt little pressure to rush through the production of their third album.
"It's always a challenge, the sophomore album," Roddick tells Exclaim! "Whereas this time it just felt more natural. We felt like we could take our time."
"We were more comfortable," James adds.
James and Roddick had originally intended to start writing WOMB while touring in 2015 and 2016, but the demands of playing live prevented them from making much progress.
"I think we tour relatively small for the show we're putting on, so we're always really busy," says James. "It's hard to have time to write and do work."
Touring hasn't always been a creative impediment for the band — Roddick says they wrote more than half of their debut, 2012's skeletal, witch house-indebted Shrines, on voyages between shows. But since then, the band's sound has filled out. Writing now requires different gear, which Roddick says isn't always accessible on the road.
Eventually, the duo decided to scale back their touring commitments to focus on writing. They mostly played DJ sets in 2017, after which they refrained from performing altogether.
"For 2018 and 2019, I'm pretty sure we didn't play a single show," Roddick says.
"At a certain point, we had to be like, 'Okay, we need to stop touring and make this record,'" says James.
Both members also took time to write for other artists during this period, which James describes as an interesting experience.
"Other people singing my ideas feels really odd to me," she says. "Sometimes it works really well, but it's always a weird juxtaposition of elements. It's unexpected because the things I write are just my nature."
In 2017, the pair commemorated the five-year anniversary of Shrines with a loosie single, "Asido." By then, they were holding occasional writing sessions, setting a measured pace that they'd maintain through 2019.
"We were writing sporadically throughout those three years," James says. "Then at the end, it was like, 'We've got to finish this. Let's get through it.' I think the last year was a lot more focused."
Most of the album's recording took place at Roddick's home studio in Los Angeles. While Shrines and Another Eternity were mostly produced on his laptop, Roddick enriched his palette on WOMB. Analogue synths dot the album, and a guitar even makes a subtle appearance. He describes this expansion as both a fun exercise and a way to avoid stagnation.
"You can kind of fall into repetitive patterns, I think, when you're just using the same tools all the time," Roddick says. "I just wanted to make it a little bit uncomfortable."
That need for better habits played into WOMB's long gestation, which James attributes in part to the band's need to reacclimatize themselves to everyday life.
"We were coming down from tour. I didn't realize it, but I needed a lot of time to normalize again," she says. "Also, we spent a lot of time with family, which ended up being a lot of what contributed to the new record."
The duo drew upon these personal narratives and relationships to make what James calls "a record of stories about family, whether it's the one you're born into or the one you gather." Reconfiguring these experiences into archetypes and mythological tales helped clarify questions her own feelings.
"It's a stage that I've come to where it's like, what are these relationships in my life worth and are they worth keeping?" James says. "Sometimes you don't have a choice, and what does that mean? What's the value of relationships when they're really hard?"
James's lyrics couple these questions with a continued fixation on both nature and the body. WOMB is soaked in sanguine imagery, which drips into both the relational and geographical.
"It's representative of family in a literal way," James explains. "There are bodies of water and water of the body."
Family also played an indirect role in the genesis of one track in particular. The pair wrote "pink lightning" after James visited relatives at their cabin in Montana last summer. A pizza-making session on a placid afternoon quickly turned petrifying when a massive storm suddenly kicked up, taking down trees, knocking out the power and inciting panic.
"Everyone was running around and screaming and yelling, 'Get inside!'" James recalls. "It was kind of terrifying."
Once everyone had gathered in the cabin, pink lightning began to dart across the sky. James remembers it as a moment of beauty amid sudden turmoil.
"I saw it as a literal example of how I felt about my family last summer," she says. "Through it all, I kept making pizza for everyone. It was the most tumultuous thing, and then I just kept going. It was like, 'This is what I do in situations like this.'"
It's a fitting anecdote given that strife and violence often go hand-in-hand with peace and light in Purity Ring songs. Even after five years away, that delicate balance remains intact for the band.
"It's just impossible to ignore the darkness," James says. "You can't pretend it's not there, you know? But that's usually the part that's most beautiful to write about."
WOMB is out April 3 on Crystal Math/4AD.