Published Aug 12, 2012On January 14, 2011, a band named Purity Ring posted a song called "Ungirthed" to their Tumblr with a caption that read "we are birthed." All that was known about the song was that it was created by 21-year-old Corin Roddick, touring drummer for frenetic electro-rock outfit Gobble Gobble (now Born Gold), and sung by Megan James, both Edmonton natives. Like any of the thousands of tracks posted to thousands of Tumblrs annually, the song might have gone unnoticed.
"Ungirthed" did not. The syncopated, glassy synth blips, 808 drum claps, throbbing low-end synth and chopped-up, slowed down samples of James' voice, all set in relief against a backdrop of echoed reverb, made the song much more than the sum of its parts: Roddick's crisp, snapping beats contrasted sharply with the ethereal timbre of the song, while his dark, thrumming synths were juxtaposed with James' sweet, airy voice. It sounded at once unmistakably contemporary and, despite its simplicity, unlike any of their musical peers.
Of course, neither of the two expected the song to take off like it did. The song was Roddick's first foray into songwriting. He'd come up with the beat himself ― "one of the very first tracks he ever completed" exclaims James, over a conference call with her bandmate ― and asked his friend to sing over it. "I was just trying to make music that I liked," Roddick explains. "I didn't really know where it was going in those very early stages. I was just happy to finally be writing music by myself. That was kind of the first time I'd written music for myself. I've only ever been a drummer in bands before that."
It was also his first time making electronic music. "It's a wider sound palette you can work with," Roddick claims, "and I feel like I can be much more creative with it." However, "it was all pretty new. I hadn't been doing it that long. I'd been messing around with electronic stuff for about five months up until the completion of 'Ungirthed.' I just kind of had odds and ends before that."
The song caught on quickly via blogs and online music publications. A month later, it was announced as a seven-inch for UK record label Transparent, backed with Purity Ring's future A-side "Lofticries." It sold out a week after its late April release. With the addition of the glacial, sweeping "Lofticries" to their two-song oeuvre, Purity Ring had cemented both their signature, haunted post-club aesthetic and an audience desperate for more of it.
Purity Ring didn't build their following on production wizardry alone; the duo spent the latter half of 2011 on the road, conducting a small headlining tour that included stops at Bumbershoot festival and Pop Montreal, as well as opening for Neon Indian's North American fall trek. They established themselves quickly with an elaborate stage setup comprising a gigantic, three-colour flag stitched by James herself, a rig of drum machines and samplers triggered by Roddick hitting a number of light-up orbs with drumsticks, and a giant bass drum James occasionally slams to add more grandeur to the proceedings.
Of course, it would be nothing without their talent: Roddick's natural rhythm as a drummer is key to lining up the samples just right, and he's busy manipulating James' voice live, as she sings; her voice, meanwhile, is as effortless live as it sounds recorded, if not a little more muscular.
In March, following the release of single "Belispeak" as a split single with fellow Canadian band Braids in October and "Obedear" as a twelve-inch in early 2012, the duo played SXSW, the Austin media-heavy music festival where buzz bands are made and broken. To no one's surprise, Purity Ring's performance was a hit, and less than a month later, they were signed to Last Gang in Canada, and 4AD in the U.S. On April 24, the band announced July 24 as the date for the release of their debut full-length, Shrines.
Roddick and James live in different parts of Canada now, so the writing process was something of a long-distance affair: "I'd write the track," says Roddick, "and send it to Megan and then she'd record a demo vocal on her phone and send it back. Then later we'd actually get together and record the vocals together in the same room. We had to find time when we were both available, but it worked out."
The album was written slowly, carefully. "I would call Corin a perfectionist," states James. The band, admits Roddick, have "just one" finished song that didn't make the Shrines cut.
"We're not very prolific," he continues. "Almost everything on the album is what we've done over the last year. We don't bother finishing songs we aren't happy with. I have a bunch of odds and ends that will never be Purity Ring songs; they're not good enough. There are times, too, where I'll finish a track and it won't give us that feeling, so we'll immediately cut it."
"Often," adds James, "Corin will start something and not even send it to me."
James, for her part, is more spontaneous in her melody-writing for the vocal parts, but that might be because, as she asserts, "I've been writing songs for a long time. For me, [writing] is a really easy part of the process. Corin's writing the tracks. It's more exciting to talk about how it's Corin's first stab at songwriting, because of what's come out of it."
Now that Shrines is out, the duo are back on the road, but that suits Roddick and James just fine. "It's gotten easier to tour since the start; we have a support system around us now," states James.
Plus, adds Roddick, the road is conducive to songwriting. It isolates him, allowing him time to work on what may become the next batch of Purity Ring songs: "I write all the time on the road. On the road, I can just sit there in the car by myself, working for as long as I want. It works really well for me."