On the cover of The Innocence Mission’s new album, Befriended, you see a man inclining his head while a woman, eyes gently shut, seems to be offering some intimate secret that belongs to him alone. Perhaps it’s a declaration of love, or simply an inside joke that no one else would understand. Regardless, whoever designed the album’s artwork had a keen sense of the music contained within, and realized this particular image speaks volumes more than any blurb-filled sticker ever could. To listen to Karen Peris’ hauntingly exquisite voice is to feel like you’re being entrusted with something precious, a captivating secret to unwrap slowly and savor. One crystalline syllable at a time.
Over the phone, Karen’s whispery voice is barely audible in my receiver, so I listen as intently as I can, assuming that she’s afraid speaking too loudly might wake her two young children. Her husband, Don, who happens to make up another third of The Innocence Mission’s line-up (leaving only bassist Mike Bitts unaccounted for), gets on a separate line so that he can join in the conversation as well.
“We really haven’t done any extensive touring since our son was born five years ago,” Karen says. “We’ll do some concerts this fall, and we’re looking forward to that. But it won’t be in one long stretch.”
Neither parent seems to mind that their days of extensive touring have been cut short due to the children. Karen even mentions that a couple of the songs on the record were written expressly for them, namely “Martha Ave Love Song” and Befriended’s opener, “Tomorrow on the Runway,” in which Karen says she expresses her wish “to follow the light of my children and not continue to get bogged down in regretful thoughts of the past, to not be self-conscious, to follow their light and leave myself behind.”
Karen, Don and Mike weren’t far removed from childhood when they first performed together as the stage band for their Lancaster, Pa. Catholic high school production of Godspell. Several years later they had a record deal with A&M and a band name which seemed to offer a semantic impression of where their music was headed.
Don claims the band never dreamed of achieving rock stardom before adding, “Well, maybe before the first record we expected more than what was possible, but that was a long time ago.” After more than a decade of creating music and touring the country, expectations for the band have been refined accordingly. “Now for many, many years, we’ve just hoped that the record will find people who embrace it, that it means something to. And that’s something we hope happens every time.”
Listening to a record by The Innocence Mission is to have your heart broken and lovingly bandaged, over and over and over. In “Tomorrow on the Runway,” Karen sings, “Oh be the music in my head, the air around my bed / Oh be my rest / Replace the small disgraces of the times and places that I never really left.” Digesting lyrics like these means exhaling an assortment of sighs, each one distinctive—sorrow, contentment, lovesickness, nostalgia, joy. Occasionally in the same breath.
Befriended contains a dedication from Karen to her recently deceased mother, Mary McCullough, in the form of a song called “I Never Knew You From the Son.” Karen’s plaintive, ringing voice floats over strains of somber piano, proclaiming, “Oh I had a friend. I had a friend I loved / Now I walk for miles into dark forests of piano songs / I’m lost.” But even in that time of loss (and feeling lost), new life had found its way into the Peris’ life.
“A few months before my mom died,” Karen recounts, “my daughter was born, so there was that great joy as well. … That’s why a lot of the songs on our records contain sorrow and joy, because that’s the way most people experience life.”