Sandro Perri interview: "The songs are all meant as meditative musical spaces."
I met Sandro Perri briefly after his spellbinding set at this ear's End Of The Road festival. The Canadian artist doesn't tour too much - especially outside North America - so it was a real treat to get to see him, especially in an environment so patient and open-minded as the beloved Dorset festival. It was also undoubtedly the most number of people reading novels while listening that I've ever seen at a music show, which speaks to the patience and pleasantness of the sounds he and his band were creating.
When I spoke to him after I found out that this was the first gig that he and this configuration of musicians had played together, which was surprising given the way there seemed to be a natural push and pull between them on stage. This was particularly true for the extended closer 'In Another Life', which would have been daunting for anyone, but with someone as calm as Perri in the lead it was obvious why it had been a success.
In conversation, too, Sandro seemed to ooze musicality; the meter of his speech had a mellifluent unhurried rhythm, and he took his time to ensure he was expressing his thoughts accurately, making the concepts he discussed more digestible. Read on, as he talks through his various projects, making long songs, and gives us a peek at the thoughts under the surface of new album Soft Landing.
You're here at End Of The Road supporting the new record Soft Landing, your new record under your own name. You've also released music as Off World and Polmo Polpo; before we get into the new album can I just ask how you would describe the differentiation between those projects?
Off World is more of an ongoing, continual place to put collaborative recordings with different people. So far it’s all in the non-vocal realm and tends to be a lot of electronic stuff, but some acoustic bits too. The project that I used to have a long time ago, Polmo Polpo, that was all instrumental as well. I haven't put anything out in that project in like 15 years or something.
And just the stuff that comes out under my own name is everything else, and it usually tends to be vocal, but on the new record there's two instrumental pieces, and there's certainly room for that kind of thing in that project. So that's the difference; it feels necessary to differentiate because the Off World thing is very collaborative in terms of the construction of the music, and it's all based on improvisations.
So, Sandro Perri is everything else, as you say, but there was a long break of releases under that name; Impossible Spaces was released in 2011 and then there was a seven year break until we got these two albums, In Another Life and Soft Landing in quick succession - what brought about the change in productivity?
Really just scheduling, having other things that were taking up my time. Also not wanting to rush anything. I'd been sitting on a lot of music for a while, but I was still developing it, trying different ways of recording it, and in that time I ended up working a lot as a producer or engineer for other people... and then seven years just flew by really fast.
When it comes to making an album I think more thematically as opposed to "it's been two years, I better..." because I don't do the tour cycle, generally. It's not as necessary for me to stay with a healthy, consistent release schedule. On top of that Constellation [Records] doesn't get on my back about it and force me to have things out by a certain time.
So it just turned out that thematically it felt like I had the material together for the In Another Life record, and I was like "OK this easy, put this out first." And then I had the six from Soft Landing all together and done, and they are meant to be together, so it just took the time to get that all sorted.
So you see them as two quite distinct albums, there's no real connection between them?
No I don't think there's anything... I mean the music was kind of all written around the same period, but thematically I don't know. There's a connecting bridge between the last record and the first song on the new record, that's kind of the connective tissue, and then it goes on to five other shorter songs.
Right, the obvious reflection is that they both start with an extended song: In Another Life starts with a 24 minute song ‘In Another Life’, and Soft Landing starts with the 16 minute 'Time (You Got Me)'; it must take a long time to develop songs of that length?
It can, yeah! The song itself was very very simple, and then it's just a matter of figuring out what ingredients can work in that simple song and what can help to develop it; what sounds can develop the concept of the song. I didn't know when I wrote the song that I necessarily needed to have that long coda, but I knew when I was recording it that it made sense. It is a response to the lyric and it's a way of extending and opening up a different window into the lyric.
It seems to me that you tackle big themes on the long songs - time and other lives - does one beget the other?
Maybe. They're related I think. You're kind of chewing on something that needs a long time to digest, then a way to help that process could be to create a period of time after the lyric where you have time to reflect consciously or unconsciously on what the lyric was. Hopefully the music helps that digestion.
Nice. So on 'Time (You Got Me)' is that your perspective? You're kind of joking with Time.
A little bit, yeah. It's meant to be light hearted.
Are you at peace with time?
Oh yeah, for sure. It's more just one of those things that like a kernel of an idea that made me chuckle a little, but made me feel like there's something to play with there. Then it's just a matter of "how do I create a little sandbox to play with these elements"? Anything in there might have been something that I've felt or thought at a moment in time, but it's not a declaration of how I feel about this thing. It's more just these are some ways that I've felt about these things and it's how to explore those themes.
You're also not afraid to play these long songs in full live; just now you played the full 'In Another Life' - I thought you might play an edited version but 20 minutes later...
It wasn't quite full; I think it was about 18 minutes... We would've gone longer but we didn't time the set out, so I thought maybe we'd have time to do the whole thing, but I was seeing the stage manager signal five minutes and then I knew we didn’t. I like the idea of being able to stretch out live and try some things.
Let's carry on through the new album. 'Floriana' comes next and is one of the two instrumentals, but you've said these six tracks fit together thematically, so how does this one fit in?
They're all meant as meditative musical spaces, and that's one of those songs that I don't even feel like I wrote it. It appeared and I tried to just capture it, get it down, and it's maybe one of my favourite pieces of music because I don't feel like I laboured over it. For me that was a good contrast to 'Time' because in that song there's a lot of struggle, a lot of trying to move against forces that you have no control over.
There was something about the lightness of 'Floriana' coming after that first song that made sense to me in terms of the kinds of things that you might experience in a meditative state. ‘Time’ is a lot of friction and difficulty; it's like when you're meditating and you're trying to control things but then you remember that you're not supposed to trying to control anything, you're supposed to just give yourself over to whatever processes are happening internally.
'Floriana' is the musical equivalent to giving myself over to a different force, for lack of a better word, because the song came to me and I didn't have to go looking for it, I didn't have to work for it.
That must be a nice feeling!
It happens once in a while - not often! But it's just like anything, if you have a regular practice then once in a while something will just come to you and you really don't feel like you did it. I'm sure the more that you write pieces, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, they just come to you and you won't feel the effort.
That's cool. And how did you end up naming it 'Floriana'?
Weirdly, the name also just popped into my head and I had no connection whatsoever to the word. I later found out that it was a city in Malta, and I remember when I was a little kid I had a fascination with Malta; I don't know why it was just a random thing, I liked the word because it sounded like malt, like malted milk or something - it sounds like a tasty kinda word.
Now this word comes to me... how? That's a weird connection that I have no insight into at all, but when something like that comes up it's good for me to just accept it. The song was a gift and then the title also.
Let's go on to 'God Blessed The Fool'. Is this kind of a sardonic song? Like, it's nice to be foolish and ignorant and not know all the shit that's going on in the world...
It can be read in many ways, and I certainly think that's a fair take. For me it's more about finding a way to potentially appreciate foolishness; not the kind of foolishness that you see in people who want to take advantage of other people, but more the kind where somebody has no guard whatsoever, has no agenda and may even put themselves in unfortunate situations, but they've done so because of the wish to be open. I think the word "fool" can be read in different ways, the definition can be quite broad, and for me that song is more about exploring that idea; the positive attributes of foolishness.
Then there's another thing going on in the song that I only discovered after I started recording it, and it's almost the flip side of that: it tries to address the foolishness of white musicians trying to play music that has come out of the black experience. There’s a foolishness to that, but it's present across the whole spectrum of western music and it generally comes from a place of admiration, but there's something about it that I find problematic. I thought that it would be worth exploring that a little bit in a song, but not in an overt way, not in a pedantic way, not in any way meant to judge or preach, but just to create a space where that thing maybe could be thought about. I'm not sure that the lyric necessarily presents that opportunity, but I hope that the music will.
Is that something you've been thinking about a lot?
I struggle with it; I have conflicting feelings about. Almost everybody that I know who plays music is involved in that relationship in some way and I don't know that it's something that needs to be addressed necessarily, but personally I am attracted to the idea of trying to address it within myself, to examine it a little bit.
Wow. Let's go on to something lighter, is 'Back On Love' actually a love song?
Kinda. It's also an examination of whatever forces may cause a person to resist all of the things that come with allowing yourself to be loved and loving another person. In that song the lyric is a way of talking to a younger version of the self. It's meant to be simplistic but dealing with an adult theme, which is that everybody at some point comes to those kinds of internal obstacles that have to do with allowing themselves to be loved and to love other people. That's something that's on my mind a lot too, so that song is also a way of throwing those balls up in the air and seeing what can be made of them. Examining them without coming to any conclusions necessarily, but just trying to consider these ideas in song. The music is also meant to feel as if it's open enough that it doesn't corner the lyric in any way, hopefully the music feels free enough that it's more of a contemplative space.
Do you write the instrumental and the lyric at the same time?
Unfortunately not, usually the melody is first, and then the lyric, and then I try to get sense of "what is this lyric saying to me? what options do I have in terms of presenting this lyric?" Then I try out a bunch of different ways of dressing it up, and often what happens is I end up trying to get as many of those elements in there as possible, but for brief moments. So it ends up being a bit of a collage-y approach to arranging.
In that song in particular on the record there are elements of previous recordings of that song thrown into that recording, just dropped in and placed so that they seem like they were recorded in that song, but they weren't. It's like thinking about a thing I did three years ago; it didn't work then but I'll drop it in here as a way of remembering that I had this relationship to this song. There's a term for that which Frank Zappa came up with, which is Xenochrony. I think a lot of people do it now because digitally it's so easy to do.
'Wrong About The Rain' is the last song with a vocal, again this is one that's ostensibly about something simple, like sitting and watching the rain, but it seems like there's always more depth to your songs than that.
My partner said the phrase to me when we were somewhere, and the phrase stuck and it triggered some thoughts. I thought about things around those things, and then the melody. So that's one where the lyric idea came first, which is pretty unusual for me. That's probably the most lyrically open, it's perfectly okay to interpret it however you want, it's valid to interpret it any way that you like. That's an extremely clichéd thing to say, I realise, because every songwriter wants that potential in their songs, but that's how I want that song to be seen.
The guitar part in that song gets stuck in my head all the time.
It was the last part, actually. The lyric was first, then the chord structure, then filling in the lyrics, then the riff was basically the last thing that was written in that song.
The album ends with the instrumental title track 'Soft Landing', what's the story there?
It's more just riffing on the title, even before the title came. I have a lot of instrumentals kicking around, and it felt like the right instrumental for the title and for the record, it felt like it was connected to those songs because it was written at the same time and in the same headspace. Most of those songs were written on summer vacation, in that mindset: sitting looking at water for 10 hours of the day.
That's what it sounds like as well! It's pretty amazing.
Literally the cover is like water.
Is there any book/TV/movie/record you'd recommend to anyone right now? Not along any particular theme.
There is a book which I liked and I think I might have been reading around the time of working on some of this music, although I hesitate to say that it's related, but it's a good book and it's a good title, it's a collection of essays called What Are People For? and it's by a written named Wendell Berry. I would recommend that book to anybody because it's a good humanistic perspective.
Sandro Perri's new album Soft Landing is out now on Constellation Records.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 30th September 2019.