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The apocalyptic storm and year-long break that inspired Purity Ring’s WOMB

The Alberta duo’s third album took four years to come to life. Now they’re off the road and stuck at home, LP4 might not take so long.

April 30, 2020
The apocalyptic storm and year-long break that inspired Purity Ring’s <i>WOMB</i> Carson Davis Brown / 4AD  

“I know it seems far, but just be where you are,” Megan James implores on “stardew,” the lead single from Purity Ring’s latest record WOMB. It’s a self-proclaimed “sex jam,” sure, but delineated entirely on James and Corin Roddick’s terms: less occupied with the obvious notions of the act but more with the idea that each of us carry infinite realms within us. Even if "stay where you are" seems oddly prophetic now, there’s something reassuring in it.

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That very sense of comfort, of negotiating safety between the cataclysmic and seraphic, is the thread that ties WOMB together. It’s Purity Ring’s first full-length in over five years, their most labored-over work to date, and one that was worth every minute of toil. Each of its 10 apocalyptic lullabies are dense and elemental. James and her bandmate Corin Roddick have always been masters of myth-spinning, but this time around their other-earthly imaginings feel essential, almost like survival mechanisms. “These songs have their own tactile feelings,” James says. “It’s a synesthetic experience, for me. I can see these indescribable textures that guide me through it. I want to be there. It’s a place that feels like home.”

When we spoke just before WOMB was released, there was a strange peacefulness to things. They’re still keeping busy — James said she’d been sewing, rearranging all her books, baking sourdough, and growing sweet potatoes, ginger, and sprouts in her budding garden — but it’s not how they imagined promoting their first work in years. Even so, there’s substance in the stillness — a virtue that Purity Ring know to be true.

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How are you guys doing? Obviously this is a chaotic time to be releasing an album, but it’s also one that feels almost fitting for this record, particularly.

Megan James: It’s a puzzle piece that surprisingly fits, but it’s very dark and sad. Some days I feel passionately that it’s oddly suitable for this record. We made it mostly from home, and it’s kind of about some definition of home. But obviously what’s going on is not a good thing, and so other days I feel not as good about putting out an album right now. There are so many questions nobody can answer. We don’t know how this will affect how the record is understood. But I do feel like this environment lends itself perfectly, even though I would never obviously choose it. A lot of people are postponing their releases, but I feel very strongly that people need this.

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Corin Roddick: Usually when you put out music there’s a whole lot going on — rehearsals, press stuff, the whole long list of things that you’re required to do when you release an album — but we’ve just been sitting at home. It doesn’t feel like we have an album coming out. It’s been pretty neat to see all the creative things people have been doing so quickly already. With the livestreaming, everything is starting to feel almost more personal. We’ve never been that kind of band, so it might be somewhat challenging for us to negotiate how we’ll exist in this space.

James: One thing that does make me feel very warm is how immediately everyone came to respond in a way that was very community-oriented. We’re all stuck at home, so what can we do for each other? It’s comforting to know that people care for each other. It’s a beautiful thing to see.

I was on my government-allotted walk the other day listening to “pink lightning” and it brought my great solace. I think this music is what people need to hear right now.

James: The first time I listened to all of these songs together, the first thing I felt was total comfort. I needed this. I write songs for a reason, and this is why Purity Ring works. It’s satisfying in a way that I don’t get satisfaction from other forms of art I make. I felt deeply comforted by this familial, mythological world, and I immediately hoped that others would as well.

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Before we get into the new album, I wanted to talk about everything that led up to it, since it’s been five whole years since another eternity came out.

Roddick: We toured that album on and off for almost three years. At first it looks like not too much touring when you plan it out, and then the one-off shows and festivals start stacking up, and you end up being on the road much longer than you had planned.

James: After that we needed at least a year to decompress before we could start making new music. We kept to ourselves. Neither of us realized it, but I ended up needing a lot of time. I had lost my definition of home and needed to rebuild it.

Roddick: Getting right back into trying to be creative and knowing what you want to do doesn’t happen quickly. Maybe it does for other people, but not for me. Even though I was trying to make music every day, it took a long time for things to click.

Had you gone into the creation of WOMB wanting to change any of the parameters of what Purity Ring is or has been?

James: Corin and I think about what we want to make, and we throw it together when we’re working, but it’s not something we really talk about until it’s almost done. We kind of wait and see what happens. It takes a long time for us to get going, but once it’s moving, we can’t talk about it or it’ll go away.

Roddick: The only one parameter we set when starting the record was that we’d spend as much time on it as we needed. In the past, we gave ourselves time frames. We usually never have B-sides, and this is the only time we actually did. On Shrines, we already had some of the songs out and we felt pressure to finish the debut and get it out. On another eternity, we were more nervous — we got some attention that we hadn’t expected on the first record, and there was this feeling like we had to make another one, quickly. This album was the first time we’ve felt relaxed about it.

It definitely sounds labored over, especially on a song like “rubyinsides” that’s so dense.

Roddick: Some of the songs on this album took years, but that one actually only took days, and we never really touched it again.

James: It’s about how everyone should have healthcare, and how trillionaires are disruptive. I was feeling it when we wrote that.

So when did the overarching concept for WOMB start to make itself visible?

James: Probably around “pink lightning,” which was one of the last songs we wrote for the album. Last summer, we were at a family reunion in Montana. The weather was beautiful, so sunny, gorgeous. We were making pizzas in this pizza oven we built last year. All of a sudden, these huge raindrops started falling, and within three minutes it was the most insane storm I’ve ever seen. Trees were falling. There were massive waves in the usually still lake. The power went out and glass bulbs were falling. It was chaos.

Afterward, the lightning had made the sky pink. All the water ran down the hills into the lake, and it was so warm. I wanted to go swimming, and everyone said “don’t go in there, it’s all the sewage and runoff.” It was something beautiful but also so terrible. Later, I realized the storm was a precursor to how I feel about my family: treacherous, but also peaceful. After we wrote that song, it kind of came to fruition. A lot of these songs on this album are about family, whether it’s one you were born into or one that you’ve gathered.

Talk me through one of those songs that took a few years to crack the code.

Roddick: It’s weird why some take so long, I’m not sure. “stardew,” the sound at the beginning of the song sounds like a music box. That was a riff that was around even before we started working on the album. It took forever to get anything based around that. For that song, we had the chorus figured out right away, but it was impossible to find verses that matched that feeling for like two years.

James: Maybe even three? We wrote that chorus and it was one of the first things we knew had to be on the record. But those verses took forever. When that came together, it was a huge relief. If you push too hard, sometimes you can’t look at it anymore. It happened again with “sinew.”

Roddick: A lot of the things that take a long time aren’t necessarily about writing a new melody or another part, but slightly shifting the order of things. I look at it like Lego blocks. It’s not about adding, but rearranging. It’s the endless abyss of how those elements can be arranged.

Once this album was finally complete, how did it feel? Did you guys have any reservations about coming back and revealing yourselves again, in this way?

James: In January when we finished this album I was really excited for people to hear it, and now that it’s our job to post something about it on Instagram every day I’m like, ugh, I don’t know about this anymore. Being quiet and at home was really nice.

Roddick: I still can’t believe that the album is done. There’s always a point, around the halfway mark, where I can’t imagine a record being finished. There was a good chunk of time — maybe even a year — where I had convinced myself it was even possible. People make albums all the time, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it doesn’t feel like something I thought we could do, for some reason.

James: Especially now that we’re staying home and reconfiguring our plans to prepare for what would’ve come next, with touring and stuff. It really feels like this time last year, just being at home all the time. I was thinking about a garden back then, and didn’t do it until now. I’m still thinking about writing songs.

Roddick: Album four might come even sooner.

The apocalyptic storm and year-long break that inspired Purity Ring’s WOMB