Karen Peris of The Innocence Mission

by Amanda Flinner

When Sufjan Stevens was asked by NPR to describe the perfect song, the indie folk singer singled out The Innocence Mission's "Lakes of Canada," a cut from the group's 1999 album, Birds Of My Neighborhood. Stevens, who also covered the song, praised frontwoman Karen Peris' ability to create extraordinary music out of life's ordinary moments, adding, "What is so remarkable about Karen Peris' lyrics is the economy of words, concrete nouns which come to life with melodies that dance around the scale like sea creatures."

The Innocence Mission formed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during a Catholic high school production of Godspell. Despite having just one line in the play, it was an important role for Peris (née McCullough), because it connected her with bandmates Don Peris (guitarist and future husband), Mike Bitts (bass guitarist), and Steve Brown (drummer). By 1989, the foursome released their self-titled debut, produced by Joni Mitchell's then-husband Larry Klein, and drew comparisons to alt rock contemporaries like Natalie Merchant and the Cocteau Twins. In the ensuing decades, the group – a trio after the departure of Brown - took charge of their own production and paired Peris' ethereal vocals with delicate orchestral arrangements in a series of dreamy folk pop releases.

Just before the June 29, 2018 release of The Innocence Mission's tenth album, Sun on the Square, Peris spoke with Songfacts about her songwriting process and a handful of the group's songs, including the track "Green Bus."
Amanda Flinner (Songfacts): You've described how each of your albums is a sort of snapshot of a significant moment in your life. What moment does Sun on the Square capture?

Karen Peris: It is the time of our son and daughter being older teenagers, which can mean possibility and hope for them but also the sadness of separation and my changing role as a mom, and the intensified awareness of the preciousness of life. So there is a lot about change on the album, and also about communication and the universal feelings of loneliness but also of connectedness to other people through all of these shared feelings and experiences.

Songfacts: What is your songwriting process and how has it changed over the years?

Peris: It mostly involves playing and singing in a quiet place in our house, usually the kitchen, and if there is something in the combination of melody and chords that has an impact on me in some way then I feel a kind of elation in that moment, and keep working on it. A lot of times that feeling goes quickly away, but if it stays and I keep feeling something from the song then I'll try to write or finish words for it. It's probably the same way for most people. Words can take a long time, much longer than music, but that's okay.

About the second question, I don't really remember writing the first few albums. I know that the music and words have changed a great deal in different ways from those, but that makes sense, since I was a teenager when writing the first album. The fourth album, Birds of My Neighborhood, was a new beginning. It can be hard to define that, but the albums from that point on have a personality that feels more true to us.

Songfacts: What or who inspired you to start writing songs?

Peris: I remember having a first favorite song at five years old, and it was "Both Sides Now," the Joni Mitchell song, though what I heard, on the car radio, was the Judy Collins version. It felt so mysterious to me, but also was so melodic and circular and I felt like it was "my song." And then my older brothers and sisters often played Beatles albums, and Simon & Garfunkel, and a live album of CSNY, and my brother Ric would sing and play a lot of those songs on guitar, so I was drawn to doing the same thing. I learned a few chords from him and would borrow his 12-string guitar to play, which was enormous for me at nine years old. My mom and dad gave me my own guitar for my tenth birthday.

I don't know what drew me to writing music then, but it must have been the same as now, the feeling of discovery and happiness in the way a line of melody over a line of chords can feel, especially at first. And then trying to work with words – as a tongue-tied person, it was a relief to take a long time arranging words and trying to make something that made sense to me.

In addition to being the band's main songwriter, Peris is also the talented illustrator behind the group's album covers. The music video for "Green Bus" was her first major attempt at full-length animation.
Songfacts: At Songfacts, we like to get the stories behind the songs. What inspired "Green Bus"? Was there a real green bus? (JR Richards told us he purposefully avoided the color green in Dishwalla's hit "Counting Blue Cars.")

Peris: No, not really, though I liked drawing a lot of buses for the video. I always like color words. They seem to have an ability all on their own to make a visual world, especially the word green. The feeling of the song is a longing to give something of worth, and searching for that thing. And the bus may have come about because of the guitar rhythm I was playing, which maybe has a circular motion, but also just from the idea of a quiet place to view the city from and to think one's thoughts and decide where to go next.

Songfacts: What is the story behind "Shadow of the Pines"?

Peris: It is the absence of a loved one, through change of some kind. Missing that person. Communicating over distance and holding that person in thought. So, this is a kind of lyric I seem to write repeatedly, in different ways, because of things that have happened and that loom in the future.

Songfacts: Sufjan Stevens said the perfect song is "the small song that makes careful observations about everyday life," and cited "The Lakes of Canada" as an example. What did you think of his version, and what is your definition of the perfect song?

Peris: I love Sufjan's version, and the little film of him playing it on a rooftop. As a listener of his music, I was really touched by this. I don't know what the perfect song is. The mystery of why a song feels the way it does is a thing I'm grateful for as a listener but I don't know how to define it.

Songfacts: Sun on the Square features a new version of "From The Trains," retitled "Light of Winter." What led you to redo the song?

Peris: When we recorded it for the EP The Snow on Pi Day, it was mostly a guitar song, but I started playing it on piano after that and we both heard some things that could be different. It was nice to be able to go back to that song and add the piano, pump organ and other things to make the interludes bigger, but to keep the verse as having all the space around Don's electric guitar part. We were always calling it "Light of Winter," which felt like the natural title because of the refrain, so we just renamed it, especially because it felt different enough from the first recording to be its own thing.

Songfacts: Several of your songs have been used in movies and TV shows. What was your favorite?

Peris: There was a very touching and sad but sometimes funny short film called Weathered, with Tony Hale and Nicole Parker, that used full versions of two songs, and we liked that film very much and the way the songs were used. We recorded a new version of one song, "Our Harry," for this. The other song was "Brotherhood of Man."

Songfacts: If you could choose one Innocence Mission song or album for a new fan to start with, what would it be and why?

Peris: Though I hope someone could like the new album, too, I guess I would say the album We Walked in Song, since it is a group of songs I still feel especially close to.

June 29, 2018
Find more about The Innocence Mission at http://www.theinnocencemission.com

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