Catching Up With… The Innocence Mission

Music Features The Innocence Mission

Back in the early ‘80s, four friends from a Catholic high school in Lancaster, Penn., formed a band. The singer Karen McCullough and the guitarist Don Peris got married. They put out a moderately successful self-titled record on A&M Records in 1989. In 1997, the drummer Steve Brown left to become a chef. Don put out a couple of solo albums and the Perises had a couple of kids. They slowed down their touring and then stopped altogether. But they never stopped making records. This summer saw the release of their 10th studio album, My Room in the Trees on Badman Recordings. Like the previous nine, it’s a lovely meditation on the minutia of life, the details missing from the brief bio above.

Paste: It’s been three years since We Walked in Song. How have you guys been spending your time since the last record?
Karen Peris: Well just working gradually on new songs, and recording them over time. Do you have anything you’d like to add Don?
Don Peris: Over a three year period we had recorded a group of songs earlier on, and thought that maybe that would be our next CD. We gathered those into a collection that we released as an EP, called Street Map. Once that was out, it seemed that more songs came for Karen. Seems like a lot of songs we were able to get recorded after that. So that we were able to it leave as a separate work. And gather a new group of songs for My Room In The Trees.

Paste: Looking at lyrics like, “dress that I made out of curtains,” how much are you pulling from your own family life. Is that something that actually happened? Did you make a dress out of curtains?
Karen Peris: I did make a blouse out of my curtains, my kitchen curtains from Ikea. I’m trying to think if I made a dress…I tend to make a lot of dresses for my daughter. I try to make most of the things she wears. It’s just fun for me and she’s very kind about actually wearing the things I make. So yeah, sewing is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I try to use whatever’s at hand.
Don Peris: Yeah, I’ve lost a lot of articles of clothing. An old shirt—no, just kidding.

Paste: Does that happen a lot in the day-to-day of family life, that you pull out things that strike you and put them into songs?
Karen Peris: Yeah it does. I guess it’s a natural part of writing to incorporated detail. I’ve always appreciated in other peoples writing, being included in on domestic details, details of another person’s life. I think it just helps to make us aware of how much we share in our experiences. Writing helps me to think about all the universal aspects of what I’m experiencing. I try to be as visual as possible. If there are a lot of details in a song, it helps me to visualize it and helps someone else to visualize a song.

Paste: Once a song like that is written and you hear it or play it again, does it bring back those memories of what inspired the song?
Karen Peris: Yeah, I think so. I’m sorry I don’t know if I can elaborate on how to add to that.

Paste: I just enjoy, as you say, getting privy to someone else’s private details, the little joys that show up in your music.
Karen Peris: I like that too. Do you ever like to read published letters? One of my favorite kinds of books to read are published letters of writers. Not necessarily writers, artists or anyone really…

Paste: Is there a collection you’ve particularly enjoyed or would recommend?
Karen Peris: I really like William Maxwell’s letters. He’s an American writer that I enjoy reading, but I particularly like his letters. He has a couple of published collections. Each to different other writers. There’s one with Sylvia Townsend Warner [The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978] and another to Frank O’Connor [The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell, 1945-1966] and it’s just the letters between writers. His are really remarkable.
Don Peris: I like to read emails…that’s the difference…(laughs)

Paste: You guys have been doing this for more than two decades. How has the creative process changed over the years?
Don Peris: Gee, I know we’re recording a lot later in the day. Records come together and recordings come together most at night—which is a good time to work. I think when we’re able to, for whatever reason, we’re able to do more in a shorter period of time. I don’t know if we were wasting time before and now we’re not or if we just…lowered our standards. (laughs) No, I think the positive of trying to get more done in a shorter period of time is that there’s an urgency to getting the recoding correct. Getting the performance correct right away. So then there’s a nice energy about that. Then hopefully the things we capture are more spontaneous and more first and second take kinds of things. Rather than the tenth or eleventh take of something. Does that make sense?

Paste: Why do you think that is? Why is there more of an urgency?
Don Peris: I think that because we have less time then we used to. When we could spend many hours of the day working on one particular song. A few tracks of a song now, songs seem to come together in a shorter period of time and then one thing we’ve changed over the years is that we tend to complete songs all at one time. So rather than accumulate a collection of songs that are unfinished and slowly work on finishing them all as a group. I think maybe we’ve been finishing them individually. So then that song becomes a nice representation of that week of recording or that period of recording. You think that’s true Karen? Or did I just make that up? I might have made that up.
Karen Peris: I think that’s straight on. I think that too, we’ve gotten to know the particular instruments that we like to work with and know the sounds that we are hearing for each songs. Maybe those are coming about with not less experimentation. But less trial and error kind of they just seem to sort of…I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I think it’s a thing we don’t necessarily think about as much as just do. It’s a great question, and one that we haven’t really analyzed as much as maybe we should have before this interview. Maybe we should have, so we’d know how to answer you. We used to travel to record and that was nice too. For the last four albums, we’ve been staying at home to record. It’s just us here in our studio so I think we can really just be our selves and not at all be nervous. Take the time to really hear and try to do our best at every song. I think that recording in a studio that’s hired out there’s a period of time that you have to get everything done in that time. Where as it’s nice to now we’ve been free to be able to record over many months. In doing it that way, the albums can be a more personal reflection than the other experience in the early days. Just because we’re at home and we’re here to work on things on our own.

Paste: You guys haven’t played a lot of shows lately. Are there any in the works right now?

Karen Peris: There aren’t right now. I do miss that privilege of getting to be with people. To have that experience of community that comes from playing concerts. That was a privilege we got to experience for a lot of years. We met so many kind people. I guess what happened there was I was not wanting to be away from my kids and not wanting to have my attention to be divide from them in order to do performances. We stopped doing it for a while. I think my voice, just somehow, seemed to unadapt itself from being able to sing for long periods of time. I find that my voice works fine for singing for writing and singing for recording, but it just doesn’t seem, for the moment, as possible to sing for a whole concert. That’s a big reason for not touring. It’s not that we don’t want to venture out or that we don’t care about meeting face to face with other people. Cause we like that part of it a lot. Maybe some day if we have the time to devote to conditioning my voice to singing for longer periods of time again, we could work back up to doing that.

Paste: Twenty years ago, when you started doing this, did you imagine you’d be able to continue doing this after two decades?
Don Peris: Um, no. It’s really, I know it sounds sappy, but it really is something that we are really grateful for. That there are still people listening and that there’s a reason to put these songs onto CD. I mean obviously I think we’d keep making music for ourselves, but it’s an extra privilege to know that there are some people listening too.

Paste: Do you imagine doing this another 20 years from now?
Don Peris: Probably, I think that music would still be a part of our lives I’m sure, but probably in a different way. We’d be really old. (laughs) Really old, actually.

Paste: I know you’ve got kids you’re raising, but when you’re not writing songs and recording them in your home studio, how are you spending your time?
Don Peris: Ouside of music? Well I have those emails, they keep me busy reading those emails…just kidding about that. Well you know we’re home-schooler parents this year, and that’s taking up a fair amount of time.

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