More and more it is proven that the antiquated tendency to categorize artists into specific genres is in fact a waste of time. The minute we label an artist as “indie” or “folk” or “pop” (or some cutesy combination of all three), we are actually setting limits that prevent appreciating the true growth of an artist. We are firmly now in the age of sound as opposed to genre, perfectly exemplified by Brooklyn trio Pearl and the Beard. When asked to describe their sound through their first two albums (2009’s God Bless Your Weary Soul, Amanda Richardson and 2011’s Killing the Darlings), they say that it is simply a “mixtape”. By this they mean that they adopt styles of various genres, combining it all together within one sonic world. This allows them absolute freedom to glide seamlessly from old-timey gems like “Hot Volcano” to the dark folk-romps on “Reverend”.
With the imminent release of their third studio album, Beast, Pearl and the Beard yet again delve into a sonic universe of their own. We talked with Jocelyn Mackenzie (percussion, vocals, auxiliary instrs.) and Emily Hope Price (cello, vocals) about their new creative approach, how songs are like children, and recording with Ani DiFranco.
StageBuddy: I thought I really knew the sound of Pearl and the Beard, but your recent single (“You”) took me completely by surprise in the best way possible. What led to this full on “rock’n’roll” sound?
Jocelyn Mackenzie: (laughs) That’s so funny that that’s the way you’re hearing it. For this album cycle we wanted to approach songwriting from a completely different standpoint. We basically started from scratch, having nothing planned when we went into this writing session. We just said, “Alright, whatever comes out, comes out.” We wanted to be true to the music and very conscious that we all were 100% behind everything. Jeremy would strum a chord, I would add a line, Emily would come up with a melody, etc. Everybody contributed so much, and one piece at a time as we built the songs, that it’s hard to go back and say who wrote what specifically. In the past, we kind of left it up to our producers and mixing engineers to use their insights as to how the final product should sound. In this case, we actually went with a completely different style of mixing with Steve Wall at his studio (Garden Tone) in Jersey City. I think his touch on these tracks is what made them what they are, because with different mixing they could have lived comfortably in the world of our older albums. We wanted it to sound like something we had never heard before. It was really remarkable the things that he did and difference that it made when we listened to the songs before they were mixed and then afterwards. The songs are all very different from each other, so we wanted to make sure they were all living in the same sonic world.
In the past you’ve been very conscious of this sonic world as each of your albums has a specific sound. You have even called them “mixtapes”, but is that going to be the same having this different approach on Beast?
Emily Hope Price: I think it feels different, at least to us. We’ve also heard from long time fans that it feels much more of an amalgamation of our previous work. Rather than being able to pick out Jeremy’s songs or Jocelyn’s songs or mine, we tried a different approach. In the writing process, if one of us wasn’t happy with something, we pushed it until everyone agreed. In that way, it’s much more collaborative and feels in the same color palette. It was a conscious decision to put those little gems in, like in “Oculus” and “River”, which might mix into that “mixtape” genre. One of us might stick out more on these, but I feel like that is very much a symbol of what we try to stand for in terms of respecting each other’s sensibilities artistically. We not only have to work together, but also make sure each one of us is represented in that way.
For your last record, you went in with the goal of expanding dynamics, so making the louds louder and the softs softer. Was there a similar type of overarching theme to Beast?
Jocelyn: I think the only overarching thing for me, as Emily said, was that we really wanted all three of us to be 100% behind our music, which is really challenging because we all have such different tastes and styles of writing. The fact that we were able to come up with a full album’s material where that is true was a real accomplishment. I think it created songs that now are ones we all want to play live, which is great because live songs are very different from the recording process. If all three people feel like they’ve put their backs into twelve songs, then you don’t show up to a show and say, “No, I want to play my songs,” because they are all our songs.
Jeremy [Styles, guitar and vocals] once said that just because you write a song on guitar doesn’t mean it should be played on guitar. As your palette of instruments and sounds expands, how do you decide the way something should be orchestrated?
Emily: I would actually bring up a talent of Jocelyn’s, in that she’s able to hear exactly what she wants. I think that’s part of the beauty in working with people who speak different [musical] languages. I have a degree in music, but Jocelyn has hers in just ‘living’ music. She’s able to hear things in her mind without judgment. We all like to experiment though, and when the right sound hits, you know it’s right. It’s like when you see the most beautiful woman or man walking your direction and you think, “wow, that’s a really beautiful person.” You have to experiment until that feeling comes and clicks.
Jocelyn: Yeah, and I think that’s definitely true in the writing process as well as in recording. Our producer’s studio, that of Nadine Issagmial, is kind of like a wonderland that allowed us to explore any option. If you’re thinking something like, “I just want to see how this sounds on piano,” he’s willing to see an exploration through. Sometimes that process of experimentation yields the best results because you wouldn’t have thought of it on your own. “Yet” is a good example of that because it was originally supposed to be an acoustic guitar song. Nadine then busted out the electric and an incredible amp sound, which turned the song in a 60’s ballad. For this album cycle, it was important to us that we do as much of the playing as possible ourselves. In the past, if we thought a song needed to be amped up, we’d get someone to write a string quartet part for session players to come in and do. For this record, if we couldn’t play it ourselves, it wouldn’t make it on there. The only exception to that rule is that we were touring with a friend of ours, Sam McCormally, and wanted his voice to be present, so we invited his into to put some extra flourishes on some of the songs. There was one other song where we wanted an Ani DiFranco guitar part, but Jeremy couldn’t because, simply, he is not her. So we called up Ani and she did it for us! But besides that, it really did sound like us because it was only us playing.
As you get further away from your earlier material, does it get hard to incorporate and make it fit into the newer stuff live?
Emily: Yes it is harder. I’m going to use a cheesy analogy: it’s kind of like teaching your children to be better people. They’re still yours and they still came from you, but you have more maturity than the when you wrote it. I think the old arrangements are totally valid, but there are some that just can’t be rearranged.
You have described Beast as being more cinematic. Emily, considering your experience writing film scores, was there any visual aspect you had in your mind when creating this album?
Emily: I think probably more privately that in conversations that happened out loud. When I’m playing “James” or “The Lament of Coronado Brown”, I see a cinematic scene. They have colors, feelings, ambiance, shadow, and light. More than the past albums, Beast has that for me, which I why I feel so different about it. Although we don’t talk about it openly, it certainly is there.
What can we expect from your show at Rough Trade next week?
Emily: A t-shirt cannon. At least that’s what Jeremy would say if he could be here.
Jocelyn: We’ve gotten that question before, and the answer is that we would love to have amazing lighting and other elements that incorporate the visual aesthetic as well as the songs. We would like to have that overarching feeling of totally being consumed. Even without those things though, the biggest responsibility (and my favorite part of the job) is making sure the listener in consumed. Truly, we’ll never know how successful we are at that. Never! Even if someone says it’s amazing, we’ll never actually know. The only thing we can do is to be the most communicative with our bodies and voices.
Be sure to see Pearl and the Beard live at Rough Trade on 1/29.