Purity Ring on producing distinctive pop music

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To someone who knows nothing about Canadian geography, the fact that Purity Ring began work for the basis of their critically acclaimed debut Shrines while split between Halifax and Montreal might not seem all that striking. But the duo’s partnership was a tale of two cities almost one thousand miles apart and, much like the “future pop” label that has been slapped onto them by countless music blogs, came as the result of two contrasting but ultimately symbiotic styles. After all, Purity Ring are a paragon of duality, as evidenced by the simultaneously grotesque and intimate musings of singer Megan James lining every song on the band’s only LP, released in July. But perhaps the best example of the dichotomy the two embrace comes from the music itself, a unique blend of hip-hop beats and pop melodies curated by former Gobble Gobble drummer Corin Roddick.

Roddick, like James, is an Edmonton native who met the vocalist in the city’s local music scene, where a tight-knit community developed around art in all its forms.

“It’s pretty isolated geographically, so a lot of my friends got into making art and trying to play music,” Roddick recalls. “Everyone who’s into that sort of knows each other or gets to meet each other.”

Despite the fact that there wasn’t much to do in the Alberta metropolis, the scene instilled in the two a creative energy that they would carry with them even after moving out. In fact, it was only after separating that the two began cooperating musically almost two years ago. While most would consider distance a disadvantage, Roddick says the music is geared toward their dynamic. Roddick exclusively makes the instrumentals and sends them to James, who puts her own vocal melodies and lyrics over the tracks, then sends them back so that Roddick can integrate them into a cohesive song. As Roddick points out, “That’s generally how pop music is produced.”

If anyone in the indie scene has respect for pop music, it’s Roddick. In fact, Roddick is interested in being a producer. The glamour aspect of music doesn’t appeal to him — he idolizes the “guys who are behind the scenes making music.” While there’s some interest from potential collaborators, he’s too busy touring with James to put very much energy into production for now.

But not too long ago, Roddick was putting all of his energy into production. Inspired by hip-hop drum programming, he hoped to take the rhythmic style out of its native element. Using everything from software synths to his bandmate’s vocal samples, he began his production process experimenting until he heard a second or two of something he felt he might be able to expand into a song, often editing sounds over and over until they rung just right. A careful listen to album standout “Belispeak” reveals Roddick’s attention to detail, as James’s warped vocal clips gasp at different pitches over a stuttering beat.

“I was always interested in the timbre of the human voice and taking it out of the context of the lead vocal,” Roddick explains. “I think you can take a voice and change it so that it doesn’t sound like a voice anymore, but it still has a slight human quality to it. Even if it’s just in the background of a purely electronic track it’s something that’s a little more relatable… (either) in a warm or a creepy way.”

All the while, James would write the vocal parts for tracks, inserting lyrics straight from her journal into each song’s melody. Roddick claims that James’s lyrics are what differentiate Purity Ring from more “watered-down” mainstream pop, in that they weren’t initially intended to be songs. But sonically, he thinks the music is very much pop. Catchy tracks like “Fineshrine” and “Lofticries” showcase the duo’s penchant for simple melodies that are pleasing from the first listen, yet carry the depth of ultra-precise production chops and a fierce attention to detail.

“I write it to be enjoyed,” he admits. “It’s the kind of thing that I would want to hear on the radio.”

And enjoyed their music certainly is. Their fast-growing blog presence had them quickly snapped up by legendary indie label 4AD (under which they released their debut), and the two-piece have shows booked internationally through the end of the year, riding off a strong wave of critical support from Shrines. Roddick isn’t sure what will come next, though. Always keen on the band’s visual style, Roddick thinks the pair could be taking a new direction out of the “bubble” within which they currently maintain their image. “It’s cool when bands have different visual identities for every album,” Roddick points out. “It’s kind of like a different era every album. Next time around we might craft a new aesthetic.”

Until then, though, Roddick will be working on producing whenever he has time, as James continues to exercise her artistic muscles in other ways (she has designed the past two album covers for fellow Edmonton outfit Born Gold.) Seeing as how they usually don’t get together until a few weeks before touring, it’s likely the two will remain separated after their travels across the world end. But in their separation lies some of the magic behind the band’s fusion of disparate sounds, and with Roddick seeking new opportunities in the production world, only time will tell where Purity Ring will go next.

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Damian Ortellado is the assistant Arts and Entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].