An interview with songmaker Karen Peris
We have loved the music of The Innocence Mission for many years, through seasons of life and friendship, so it is a special pleasure to share the words and artistry of Karen Peris here with Cordella.
Along with her husband, Don Peris, and Mike Bitts, Peris creates lyrical music that evokes the intimate, ordinary moments of life with great beauty and gentleness.
Through highs and lows in their life and musical career, Peris has persisted in crafting a discography of deeply-felt stories and images full of empathy and encouragement. Resonant, pensive, inspired by folk sensibilities and Catholic faith, her music continues to be a gift for those who listen. It was an honor to interview Karen Peris for this issue.
CORDELLA MAGAZINE: You and your husband, Don Peris, met and formed The Innocence Mission in high school! Your music is something like a journal of your decades of life together, the moments of joy and loss, and all the changes that happen in a lifetime. Do you think of your albums as a body of work in that sense, as footprints on your path? Can you trace the way your music has developed as your life, and you yourself, have changed?
KAREN PERIS: Yes, that's true that in some ways an album is a sort of snapshot of the time of life when it was made. For our albums, Birds of my Neighborhood was made during years when we longed to have a child. Befriended was made soon after losing my mom. The most recent album, Hello I Feel the Same, was made during our son's last year of high school and many of the songs are about change. About the second question, our first album was written when we were teenagers and it was difficult to know how to sound like ourselves- for me, at least, that took two or three albums, and the earliest ones are unrecognizably different from the rest. I wish now that I could have done a better job with those, but we did enjoy making them and working with (producer) Larry Klein and others. When we parted from A and M records, we started recording at home and working independently and recording started to be more natural. We made Birds of my Neighborhood and that felt like a new beginning for us.
CM: You have seen much in the world of contemporary music over the past thirty years of creating your own songs. How have you maintained your sense of artistic identity? What has inspired you creatively throughout the length of your musical career?
KP: There's so much that inspires me musically all the time, and all I have to do is hear one Tom Rosenthal song, for example, and I want to sit down at the piano and try to write something. I'm out of touch with what is going on in the musical mainstream, but there is so much great music to find, always. About identity, the hard part is not being disappointed that I can only sound like me in the end. This is probably a contradiction to my first answer, but that is about right- there is always that contradiction of wanting to be oneself but also still wanting to be the other.
CM: One of the most remarkable and gripping aspects of your music is that it speaks to a sense of the sacred found in small, ordinary moments - all that isn't spoken between beloved friends, the holy image of walking in a circle of flashlights. The poetry and music and even the visual images you share work together to express the vibrant spiritual significance of the commonplace. Do you experience music as a kind of spiritual discipline for connecting with this spiritual life, or more of an expression of what is already felt? Could you tell us a bit about your creative process?
KP: I think it is probably the latter, an expression of what is already felt. And since what is felt is so big, so inexpressible, then I guess it is just the feeling of trying to find a combination of words and images that get at something you wish you could express, even though you know it isn't really possible. As a reader of poems, I have most often been touched by poems that are visual, that get at something true, but leave a lot of space for the reader to imagine and connect. So that is always my goal for what I write, in spite of how unattainable it may seem.
CM: You produce the artwork for many of your albums. Have you always been creative visually, or is this something that you came to later? How do you find that your visual art relates to your music?
KP: I do enjoy making visual things, and the cover art for an album can be like an extension of the songs, or an additional way to express something. I'm an avid viewer of picture books- there is so much great illustration in children's books that really touches me and resonates with me. Laura Carlin and Beatrice Alemagna are two illustrators I love. One daydream I have is to make a children's book, so I work on that sometimes.
CM: One way to understand art is as an act against alienation - creating and sharing something with love and hoping that someone else may hear and be blessed. This seems like a theme in your music, sometimes overtly like in "Brotherhood of Man" and in "Hello I Feel the Same," songs which connect and bridge the gap between people. Could you talk about the impulse behind these songs, and your vision for bringing them into the world?
KP: Yes, so true! This is the most important thing to me about making and recording songs. Finding, or realizing, connections to other people, or writing with the hope that someone else will feel a connection, has become more and more of the impetus for us to make records.
CM: It seems that many of your songs are either about or for your family members or friends. Is it ever a hard decision whether to share these personal songs and moments on an album, or to just keep them private?
KP: Most times, if a name is used in a song of mine, it's meant to stand in for any number of people. If I sing the word brother, it is usually meant in the larger sense. Sometimes one name has a quality to make itself felt in a song. I like singing the name Tom, for example, and have had to fight myself to not keep on singing "Tom" on every song, which is kind of funny. I do also write things with specific people in mind - I've written a lot of things for my mom and dad, for Don, for our children - but whatever is expressed in any song I always hope will be more universal and less personal. If an experience feels too specific to my life I probably won't record it.
CM: When I moved to southeastern Pennsylvania, after listening to your music in California, many of your songs began to resonate with me in new ways. The longing you express for spring to arrive, the absence and return of birds and flowering trees... suddenly I could feel these longings within my own being. The stunning simplicity of your melodies and arrangements feels like a kindred of this landscape. How has your life in the particular landscape of Lancaster influenced your songwriting? Is there a relationship, either specific or intuitive, between your home and the music you make?
KP: Yes, the change of season is so affecting to us, too, and is a natural part of many songs since it feels important for a song to have a sense of place and to be visual, so that it could be seen and then felt by someone else. But of course, also, seasonal change is a catalyst and companion to other external changes, and to internal change. The thought of the renewal of spring, starting over, especially coinciding with the renewal of Easter - it's the key, really, isn't it, to hope? There is a sort of contradiction, though, about growing up in a small town, a more rural area, but imagining a city as the landscape of the songs- a city with the same seasonal changes, but definitely a city- this is often the case for me. Probably because it is about connection to the other, imagined person/people I haven't met, places I have never been. And because if there is some distance to the imagined setting, this for me creates more of a feeling of the mystery of being alive. That is one of those things I'm not good at explaining, but maybe it will make sense.
CM: What was the impulse behind your solo album, Violet? What led you to create a solo album after nearly three decades of creating music with The Innocence Mission, and how was this experience for you?
KP: I didn't want to take up so much space on a band album with solo piano things, and I had a bunch of piano-only songs. Sometimes this happens. We just put Violet out quietly and independently, in case anyone would like to hear it. It is wishful thinking, really, to be able to make a mostly instrumental album, because I have such a great fondness for the film music of Yann Tiersen and Max Richter. And sometimes I have a real longing to at least try to make an album that someone could put on if they wanted to work on writing or drawing, for example, something that words might distract from. Of course, I had a lot of help from Don in getting it recorded and getting the artwork ready for printing, etc., and help from our kids, who both played on a couple of songs.
CM: Your children played violin & viola on Violet. What is it like to make music with them?
KP: It makes me incredibly happy, and makes the songs better, for sure. They are both very natural players so recording them goes very quickly, almost too quickly.
CM: Could you give us a glimpse into what the future holds for you & The Innoncence Mission?
KP: We 're finishing recording a new album this month. It should be available by fall. I've also been working on a children's album, and some other piano music, so our thought right now is to release a couple of things in the coming year, and to try to do our best with those.
We've put together a playlist of songs by Karen Peris & The Innocence Mission, which have lived with us, and brought warmth into many difficult days. We hope this music will bless you, dear reader, as it has us. Click on the playlist below to listen.
Find Karen at www.theinnocencemission.com.