Though their music is terrifically well-arranged and they are all expert musicians, the quartet Elvis Perkins in Dearland has a way of making any of their songs sound like it's the first one they've played together. There is both freshness and a charming casualness in the music. It's like they're buskers who chose their corner before dawn, and just now realize that there are others playing here—the same tune, no less. Oh, well.
Songwriter, singer, and guitarist Elvis Perkins released a notoriously long-in-the-making solo album called Ash Wednesday in 2006. To tour in support of the record he assembled an instrumentally diverse band: bassist Brigham Brough, who also plays sax; Wyndham Boylan-Garnett on pump organ, guitar, harmonium, and trombone; and drummer/percussionist Nick Kinsey, who also plays banjo and clarinet. Now comes the eponymous Elvis Perkins in Dearland, which is Perkins' second record and the band's first. (It's Perkins' way of dodging the sophomore album curse, he has said.)
Perkins says that the shift from solo to ensemble has not effected his composing process.
"I'm not one of these people who writes songs for specific instruments," he says from somewhere between Montreal and Toronto. "I just have to be sure that a song is down, with or without additional instruments, whether or not it fits on such and such an album. If it doesn't make sense with just my hands and a guitar, chances are it's not going to make sense down the line.
"I guess I'm the default director if there is one. But it's a pretty intuitive process, the fleshing out of songs. I definitely hear the songs first, so I get a head start. But everybody's got good ideas and we kind of pass them around."
Perkins' parents were both celebrities. His father was the actor Anthony Perkins and his mother was actress and fashion photographer Berry Berenson. Berenson died on 9/11, aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it was crashed in New York. It was that event and tragedy that put the kibosh on Perkins' progress toward finishing his first record.
There has been much media mining for creative grieving in Perkins' music. You can do that and probably not be disappointed. But for the most part he's simply got a healthy young man's cynical wit, and he can turn a phrase about like W.C. Fields could turn a half-dollar between his fingers. So any line that might refer to the loss of a loved one could just as easily refer to the loss of youth and innocence, or any of the many other things you lose during your 20s. (Perkins is 33 now.) There is also something in Perkins' inherited smile to suggest that he enjoys throwing would-be explicators the occasional red herring.
Perkins says the set list these days has songs that cover a broad span of time.
"The oldest song ["While You're Sleeping"] is probably 10 years old or more," he says. "And the youngest ["I Heard Your Voice in Dresden"] is less than a year old. I can tell that the music has changed. I may not be the best person to say how it's changed. And I'm not sure that I want to know that."
From "I Heard Your Voice In Dresden": "Now let us together sing the sun/To the home in the heavens/From the sea from the sea/O yes and to our loving mother/We'll say, yes, we will see you another day." How the words might apply to Perkins' public biography is nearly beside the point. The accomplishment is that the listener finds it incredibly easy to cast the songs with characters from his or her own story.
Perkins' recordings stand on their own. His parents' and his high-profile loss of them are elements of the attention he attracts. Regardless, now he's away from that life of affection and supposed comfort and he's touring the continent in a van, spending his time on the road and in small, sometimes dingy rock clubs.
"I often don't recognize my life anymore," he says. "It's the David Byrne moment, ‘How did I get here? Is this my beautiful van? Is this my beautiful band?' I think it's as good a thing to do as anything with one's time. I myself haven't had much luck writing on the road, or feeling that there's anything to write about. It is difficult to be inspired on the road, and to be properly rested and properly hydrated and properly nourished, in order to be a creative thing. Often we feel more like drivers than we do musicians."
EPID are also making the obligatory festival bills. They'll be returning to the Newport Folk Festival this summer and getting muddy and/or dusty at Bonnaroo. For a person who writes and performs such personal music, one imagines that singing to the sea of faces might be disorienting.
"It depends on the day and how it goes," says Perkins. "You can have an equally wonderful and/or miserable experience in the small room or the big field. It's a different mind set. In this world you've got to be prepared for it all. It is certainly a challenge to confront the cosmos when you're playing outdoors. Bringing your human sound to the elements. When you're in a small club, you're sort of the element."