In This Life: A Conversation with Sandro Perri
Late September of last year, I’m crossing Forbes Avenue via the skybridge. I had just pressed play on “In Another Life” without bothering to check its 25-minute runtime. I’m in line at Sorrento’s at 1:00 AM on a Saturday in October, humming that same melody. I’m taken back to my first encounter with the music of Sandro Perri, 10 minutes into the track, completely lost in the melody. In November, I’m driving to Akron, reflectively leaning against the backseat window, as pre-sunset fog wisps by, as if it was born from the music. A year later, I’m driving to Philadelphia, completely unaware that I’ve only known this song for a little over a year, my perception time completely out of calibration. That’s the beauty of Perri’s music. Retroactively dubbed an exercise in “infinite songwriting,” it’s only fitting that the puttering synth melody has lived inside my head ever since I first heard it.
The Toronto based Perri has been making music for over two decades, both by himself and under many collaborative projects, with his musical aesthetic becoming increasingly sparse as his career continues to progress. Soft Landing, released in September, continues the minimal, highly contemplative style explored on In Another Life. As I listened to it for the first time, it instilled in me a similar feeling that IAL continues to do, transporting me to places in my mind beyond the music. This transcendental quality is why I keep coming back to it, and why I wish IAL truly did go on forever. Although he just released an album mere months ago, he is already hard at work on the follow up, an album that currently feels “more angular” than his last two efforts. Whatever shape it takes, I’m confident that he’ll make a piece of music that is honest, forward thinking, and moves the human spirit, as he’s done time and time again.
When did you know music was something you wanted to do as a career? When did you take that leap?
I think the decision, like most major decisions, happened when I was around 13 or 14, before I was even thinking about it in terms of a career. I loved playing music, and I assumed at the time that I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. The career part happened more organically. As I began making music, I met people to help release it and they started reaching out to help with opportunities to play shows and work in the studio on their records. So, there was never really a point where I had to make that leap.
I know you studied jazz music in college, has jazz ever been a reference point when you begin a project?
No, I’d say jazz was more of a doorway into understanding how harmony works, and just trying to get a bit deeper into the theoretical side of music making. Jazz as a genre/aesthetic outlet was never something I pursued with any seriousness, it was more of a point of interest in order to learn things. Not to say I’m not a big fan of jazz music, but choosing to play the “capital J” style was never something that seemed like the right path for me.
So, if not jazz, is there any musical reference point for you, at least for these last two records?
The stylistic details came a bit later in the process of the recording of the music. The first stage for me is always the writing, in a very basic way, starting with either guitar or piano. I try to find a melody that either I’m hearing in my head or that my fingers somehow tease out of the instrument. I slowly piece together these fragments of melody and chord structure and just follow those threads until they become a blueprint for a piece of music. All of the instrumentation, rhythm, and even the key/arrangement comes when I start to play the piece with other people, or when I’m experimenting with different versions of the song in the studio. The stylistic details, I think, emerge in the process of playing, almost to the point where I don’t necessarily feel responsible for deciding what they are; I am merely responsible for receiving them, and then choosing which ones I want to keep. For basically every song on my last two records, I had probably three or four different versions with different styles and tempos. I would just keep working because I didn’t feel like I captured like the essence of the song yet. That is pretty much my process, and it’s definitely pretty laborious [laughter].
I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from your instincts no matter how hard you try, I trust nothing more than my inner ear, the music in my head”
Did having those different version tie into the infinite songwriting concept you explored on In Another Life?
Surprisingly, those two aspects aren’t actually related, although I did do two or three versions of that song. The infinite idea emerged after the music was finished and I sat back and looked at it and thought, these songs present a kind of idea of songwriting that is a little bit different than what I would normally do. I thought there was something in those two pieces of music that could theoretically expand into something that goes on “forever,” in two different ways: “Everybody’s Paris” could hypothetically extend to any lyricist plugging any lyrics into the song, and then the stanzas of “In Another Life” could be filled with alternate lyrics that still fulfill the purpose of the song, that dream-like state of imaging things that may or may not be possible. The chord structure is such that it feels like it could go on for, you know…maybe not forever, but a very very long time. I feel like I created a very comfortable place to sit in, and that had to do with the tempo, the simplicity of the chord structure, and where the rhythms push and pull. It was the kind of thing that occurred to me afterwards, which is usually the case with me. I’ll start working on an instinctual level to develop an idea, and then once it’s done, I’ll look at it more analytically, and try to understand it from a different perspective.
Does “Everybody’s Paris” still tie into the dream state of the first track?
Oh yeah, I think it can, and I would say the same for parts of Soft Landing. I like the idea that Paris presents, it conjures up this western world paradise, and a certain lifestyle that a lot of people yearn for in life. The word itself weighs a lot on people’s general consciousness, and I thought that alone gave me enough ideas to mine. There are definitely certain qualities to it that are similar to what happens when you try to slow down your mind, and the interior experiences you might have. It can go off in so many directions that I felt it was important to keep it open like that. Its only goal really is providing a reflective space on the idea of aspiration the type of paradise Paris presents. I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for it, depending on the songwriter. I really like the idea of asking other songwriters to do their own version, if they like, and I may still do that.
So, the point of it was never to be “done with it,” that the version on the record is just a sampling of what can be, but not necessarily its final state? That’s such a novel concept.
Yeah that resonates for me. I believe there are potentially more versions of those songs that could be done. Whether or not I’ll take the time to do them, I’m not sure, but I think the potential is implicit in their forms. Nice that you felt that way.
For the “Everybody’s Paris” side of record, where did the idea to collaborate come from? Did it stem from your long history of collaboration?
I think that came up when I wrote the template for “Everybody’s Paris.” Andre [Eithier] and I were working on a film score together, and in the process of making and talking about music, we would very casually share little snippets of things we had been working on. When I showed him that song, I remember us jokingly making up lines for it out of context, sort of volleying back and forth. It always had this playful feeling attached to it. I put the song away for a while, and then a few years later, I started thinking of it as a contender for something to record and release. I noticed when I finished the song that there were potentially different versions of it that could exist, if only it was a different mind working on it, anybody but me basically; I had filled up my container of the song, but I felt it could still be an empty container for anybody else! So, I thought about Andre, he kind of knew about it. Then Dan [Bejar] because I had opened for Destroyer, and we got to know each other and got along. I just admire both of them very much as lyricists.
Did you show them your version?
No, I just sent them instrumentals of their versions and said, “here is this song, it’s called ‘Everybody’s Paris,’ and it kind of has this loose structure.” So, the info was very sparse, but they really didn’t ask questions. I thought Dan and Andre were two lyricists who I could just give the idea and this very minimal info to, and they would just take those morsels and be able to write their own version of it. And on top of that, each of them would be enough of a contrast from what I would do that I figured it would be an interesting three-piece suite.
Did either Andre or Dan’s songwriting inform anything you did after IAL?
I’m not sure, I suppose on a subconscious level it may have, similarly to how I could be inspired by anything I hear, but consciously I don’t think that’s the case, I think that if I was conscious of it, I would be self-conscious of it [laughter]. I think that working with talented people has a positive effect on anybody’s work. As a result, I try to work with people who I admire and try to learn from them, without thinking about it too hard; I just naturally let whatever I absorb to be the extent of it. The one thing that was sort of a pleasant surprise was seeing how economical Dan was with his words. It’s easy to think of Dan as a very wordy lyricist, but in that case, he stretched out his phrases over much longer durations. His version has a lot fewer words than mine or Andre’s. I guess that showed that he Isn’t wordy by default, that he’s a very versatile writer.
The first track on Soft Landing, “Time (You Got Me)” feels like an extension of the infinity of “In Another Life” to me, maybe it’s because of the length, but was that something you were thinking about when writing that song? What was the history of it?
“Time,” like “Paris,” was also written around 2010-2011, just after I put out Impossible Spaces. I was also sitting on it for a long time, with no real intent to release it. I played it live a handful of times since then, but it never really seemed to gel until I tracked a demo of it in 2015. That demo made me start to see the potential it had as this thing with a long instrumental passage that acts as a fleshing out of the ideas suggested by the lyrics. So again, it’s sort of an example that came out, not exactly easily, but I wrote it and sat on it for several years until it called me back. That’s typically how I work, things just sort of sit around, some ferment, some get rotten, some I try to pluck just before I’m totally sick of them. A record I make is generally made up of things that work together thematically as opposed to chronologically. Some songs on Landing are more than 10 years old, others are more recent, but all of the songs have a high level of thematic resonance. I guess it does kind of look over its shoulder a little bit to the infinite songs, like maybe that end section could go on for…longer? [laughter]. I think it’s good if the responses to that song are either it’s way too long, or it’s too short, or you don’t know how long it is, that’s definitely one of the goals of it.
How did the structure of Soft Landing come to be?
Pretty much all of the song choices fell into place naturally, around two years ago when I thought about how to finish the record. I initially thought “God Bless the Fool” would be on the album I’m working on now since I think it works better thematically with those songs. But sometimes I like to make a decision that feels a little bit outside of my control, a bit against the grain, so I don’t feel like I was one hundred percent in control of every step in the process. Although that song felt like it was a bit of a risk to put on the record, it had a lot of personal resonance that made it alright in my mind. I think it’s neat in the context of the record to have some things that come up as flags, like a red herring that pops up; it might disrupt the flow of the record a bit, but it possibly helps to expand your concept of what the record is.
You mentioned earlier that you worked with Andre on a film score. That makes a lot of sense because to me because two of the songs (“Floriana” and the title track) give me a similar feeling to listening to film scores, like I can see the characters and envision the scene.
That’s really interesting, well “Floriana” was written around the time I was working on the film score with Andre, so I was definitely in that mindset, and it does feel similar to me as well. I remember writing the song “Soft Landing” after seeing a movie at the drive in, I think it was The Man From U.N.C.L.E. or something like that, it came out 5 years ago maybe. And not that any of the music from the film stuck with me, I don’t think I was riffing on that, but maybe I was just in a certain mood after the film and that melody came to me. To further what you’re saying, I think of the title track as the theme song of the album, like the closing credits. I like that a lot. I like any connection that can be forged between the experience of watching a movie and listening to music without it being a music video. That to me is super exciting. It’s so elusive, as they’re such different mediums, but I fantasize about it all the time. I like the idea of trying to figure out how the feeling of watching a film or thinking about a movie relates to music.
I think you captured that connection really well with those two songs. Do you find yourself drawing from films you watch as sources of inspiration, and then you know, abstracting them to the medium of music?
I think that I think I’m doing that. I’m not sure that I execute any sort of successful reinterpretation or connection, but I fantasize about that a lot. I went through a period of about five or six years where I was obsessed with the films of Robert Altman. I was watching them all the time, and I read seven or eight books about him and his films. I remember being kind of obsessed with this idea that I had to somehow translate what I was experiencing in his films into the process of making music. Of course, I had no idea of how to actually do that, no plan at all, but just having that fantasy, I think, was enough material to sort of inject some enthusiasm into working on music. I can’t say I ever made any actual connection, like I can’t say that so-and-so album was influenced by the film Short Cuts, but I constantly fantasized about being able to do that. So, in a way, that was enough for me. But at the end of the day I think they’re two different mediums and I’m not sure how they can relate other than the use of distortion of narrative. That atmosphere is what they share, but it’s very different to take info in through your ears rather than your eyes.
If I can locate some kind of center to the music where I feel like there was a person in that core, and I can locate their spirit in the music, then I can become attached to it”
A lot of your music also has a very natural, organic feel to it. Is that also something you think about when making music?
I think so, I mean it’s hard to say. Usually the way it manifests is people try to use acoustic instruments, trying to remove the element of electricity, in their music. I guess I think about it more along the lines of trying to discover how any instrument/sound seems to express itself naturally, then trying to allow that quality to come out in the presentation of that instrument. It could be a synthesizer, electric guitar, trombone, even the way someone sings or plays, and then let those things dictate the form of a piece of music as much as the arrangement dictates how those instruments should be played. Nature has its own kind of logic where things unfold at their own pace, but of course we, as humans, try to harness and master that, and we usually screw it up when we try. So, that idea of something coming forth in a natural way is very appealing to me.
I know you did a collaboration for the National Parks Project, did that experience influence that view on the relationship between music and nature?
Funny enough, the national parks thing was an interesting experience to me because I felt like an intruder in that situation. We went to the park and there was a sound crew and a TV crew, and we showed up with instruments. We were in these natural spaces with the pretense of making music that was somehow inspired by being in them, but it ended up feeling like the opposite to me: like we were trying to graft what feels like an essentially urban experience into a rural setting. What I noticed as soon as I started was that I didn’t want to be making music when I was out there, I just wanted to be swimming in the lake, and walking around and seeing these beautiful things; the environment was fulfilling me as much as I needed to be fulfilled, and picking up an instrument felt unnecessary. I didn’t anticipate becoming that uncomfortable about it, but I made some really good friends, so it was a great experience in a lot of ways. Artistically, it made me feel a bit conflicted, and it made me rethink my relationship to the outdoors and to making music, and I realized that one of the impulses of making music is to offset the disconnect we have from nature; music is a way of creating an almost natural space to be in, one that might almost synthesize the same feelings you get when you’re in nature. But yeah, it was a very conflicting experience for me. I learned a lot.
You mentioned about how you like to evoke the natural sound of the instrument you’re using. So, when you’re using these electronic, synthetic sounds, do you find it harder to do that? That is, to maintain the very human aspect of it while using these very artificial, manufactured sounds?
Definitely. It takes a lot of work to get sequencers and synthesizers to respond as if humans were expressing themselves on an instrument or with a voice, so there’s a lot of work to deemphasize the regularity/automation aspect of it. That involves adjusting several different parameters of sound at once over a long period of time until you don’t get the sense that it’s a sequence or sample, but that it’s unspooling in real time. So, it’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun too. It’s fun to discover how you can make a synth sound more organic, like it starts finding its heart and becoming alive. All of a sudden, you see it doing things that make it seem like it’s got a spirit or something. It takes time, but I’m into it.
There’s an artist by the name of Holly Herndon who released an album this year that used artificial intelligence to act as a backing chorus. What do you think of that idea of music embracing its artificialness?
Well I’m interested to hear Holly’s music now, but I guess for me, putting a medium or idea first usually makes me feel enslaved by that thing. Whereas I like to try to keep an open path between good old fashioned inspiration and the inner ear. I always like to start with the music I’m hearing in my head and try to get that out, as opposed to starting with a concept and then seeing what music you can attach to the concept. The thing that I trust the most is anybody’s inner ear, like what they’re hearing in their head. For me, the idea of saying, “I’m going to take this concept and do this thing” is just not my style of working and not what my relationship to creativity is, even though I may end up liking the finished product.
I know you said that the infinite songwriting concept was born after the music was made, but have you ever tried working from a concept?
I did try that once, when I was much younger. I was commissioned by the CBC radio to make a 10 to 12-minute piece, whatever I wanted to do, and I was thinking that I should have a concept in mind. So, the concept I came up with was to only use the kinds of sounds and play the kinds of things that I would normally reject. I basically tried to invert my aesthetic sensibility in an effort to make a purely upside-down version of something I would normally do. First of all, it was fun to try, and second of all, it was a complete failure [laughter]. I found that it’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from your instincts no matter how hard you try, and I found that it lacked any heart or soul because it was just this concept, this intellectual exercise on my part. While it was really interesting to do, I would never go back and listen to it because it didn’t really offer anything. Anyway, I’m not casting aspersions on anybody who does work conceptually, that was just my experience with it.
I think Google was also using AI to compose music, and I feel very conflicted on it, like it’s taking away the whole point of music. Like you said, it’s removing the “inner ear”.
That sort of thing scares me, and I don’t think it’s my age, it’s just a bit creepy to me, and like who does it really benefit?
So, given the context of your penchant for organic sounding music, what do you think about styles of music that feel less organic but not as manufactured as AI stuff, like hip-hop or house?
I think I have the potential to love any style of music. It always just comes down to the artists involved. I’ve loved some house music, and I think it depends on the context as well. I’ve definitely fallen in love with a lot of hip-hop, and I have fallen in love with some country music, both things that some people would say you either love it or you hate it. I think my main thing is that if I can locate some kind of center to the music where I feel like there was a person in that core, and I can locate their spirit in the music, then I can become attached to it. I would say that I’m maybe less likely to dig deeper into certain forms of music, just because the rate of return doesn’t seem as great for me as it does in other styles, but like anybody, I go through phases. I’ve gone through phases where I was checking out more hip-hop and house at a time where I was kind of involved in making what I thought was dance music. And then lately I’ve spent more time digging into music that better suits my temperament these days, like Jon Hassell, or Mort Feldman. Even just five or six years ago, I kind of went through an obsessive period with Kanye West. I’m usually not as interested in super popular music, but I could locate his spirit in the music, as conflicted or as complicated as it might be. You recognize something coming across that is pretty unfiltered, and I am drawn to that. One of the things with the way music is made now is that it’s easy to remove the individuality of the music. You’d do something where you think you’re making it better, but in essence, you’re removing the soul of it and you’re making it worse. But that’s the seduction of modern music making.
On the topic of style, there’s a pretty noticeable stylistic jump from the highly decorated folk of Impossible Spaces to your last two records. How can you characterize this?
I think a main factor in it is the fact that there’s 7 years between those albums. As you get older, you grow, move in different directions, and your ears change. Also, your appetite for density changes too, like I’m a lot less inclined to want a lot of density in music now. I don’t know if my ears don’t need it anymore but they just don’t crave it. Probably about 10 years ago I wanted to stuff more things into music. Then, there’s also the feeling of having done something already and (sub)consciously not wanting to repeat yourself, else you’ll feel like you’re not growing. You always want to hold onto this idea that you’re constantly growing and learning new things in this creative process. Ironically, you do this so that you can always feel like you did when you first started, that ignorance and naivety, the innocence of not fully knowing what you’re doing. You try new things that are foreign to remain kind of like a child as much as you can. So then yeah, what you’re saying is that the logical next step is that I should try to make a hip-hop record [laughter].
Would that ever be something you would seriously venture into, working in styles way outside of your wheelhouse?
First of all, that’s not going to happen because I’m not a rapper, but I definitely like the idea of it. I’ve made some beats with friends, just kind of messing around, and again I’ve had that fantasy of making beats for someone, working with someone who is really good at rapping. But there’s really only so many hours in a day I guess, but if I was really obsessed with it and felt really passionate about it then I shouldn’t stop myself from pursuing that, but other things feel a little more natural to me. And hip hop is a genre that I think is very obviously deeply connected to cultural experience, and I feel a bit sensitive about that so I try to be careful about where I tread. But I grew up loving hip hop as much as rock and jazz and prog, all that stuff.
What do you think of current hip hop?
I’ve kind of fallen off with keeping up with hip hop, I think the last record I loved was Daytona, the Pusha T record, but I haven’t really heard anything in a while.
What else are you currently listening to?
I’ve gotten into this guitar player named Tisziji Muñoz, who is, for lack of a better term, a jazz guitar player, but more in the realm of free, spiritual jazz. He’s not super well known, but he has made dozens and dozens of records. Mostly just sells them on his website, so I bought 5 or 6 from him in the past 6 months. I discovered him from an old Pharaoh Sanders record from the 70s that he was on. I’m kind of still going through a Morton Feldman phase, I’ve been listening to his music quite a bit in the last 2-3 years. I’ve also been listening to Naoki Zushi, he’s associated with Org Records, which is run by this Japanese group Nagisa ni te. I’ve been sick the last few days, so I’ve been listening to calming music to try to help me fall asleep. I listened to the new Lindstrom record, which I thought was cool that he did something that free and loose. The thing is that I don’t have that much time to listen to music now that I’m working in a studio for 12 hours a day. The last thing that I want to do is listen to music when I go home. But I still check out the websites pretty much every day and make some notes about things I want to listen to later, but it’s overwhelming, there’s not nearly enough time to keep up with all of it.
Does what you’re currently listening to ever seem to go hand in hand with the sound of the record you’re working on at all?
I don’t think so actually, I think I have a hard time finding stuff that directly informs where I want to go with a record, other than the stuff that has been in my head for decades, stuff I’ve been hearing since I was a kid. I think that is definitely more of an influential factor than something that I find while making an album. The new record is a little more angular than the last two though, it’s not as soft and squishy as those albums. The new one has some harder edges to it at this point, but it’s a little too early to tell, it may end up being another soft and squishy one, we’ll see.
Sandro Perri released Soft Landing in September. You can stream it below.
Edited by Davis Kuhn