An avalanche of adjectives comes to mind when listening to the music that has spilled from the boundless mind of Sandro Perri over the last dozen years. The multitalented Toronto native has immersed himself in everything from Jazz guitar to ambient-driven Electronic Dance music (under the moniker Polmo Polpo), has worked on film scores, collaborated with like-mindedly adventurous sonic sculptors on a multitude of one-off projects and done a plethora of production work.
In 2007 Perri released a Folk-inflected album called Tiny Mirrors, which for the first time was presented under his own name. While the shift found him dabbling in more conventional singer/songwriter waters, it still left room for his more experimental leanings. His latest “solo” album, the addictive Impossible Spaces, expands upon Tiny Mirrors, employing a variety of sounds, instruments and textures — Arto Lindsay’s Brazilian-tinged post-DNA solo records pop to mind — all anchored by Perri’s understated yet oddly affecting vocals and guitar work.
The peeps at Pitchfork named Impossible Spaces one of the 40 best albums of 2011, and Bryce Dessner gushed when asked why he was compelled to have Perri play at this year’s MusicNOW: “It’s one of the best records I’ve heard in a long time. It’s interesting because it’s not the type of music I tend to be drawn to. It has a bit of a Jazz-inflected kind of range to it, and I tend to be turned off by kind of Jazzy songs, but his music is so incredibly well made, the melodies are so infectious and the playing so inventive.”
CityBeat recently phoned Perri to talk about his creative process, his move from Electronic music to (relatively) more conventional songwriting and his hometown of Toronto.
CityBeat: How are you, Sandro?
Sandro Perri: I’m well. And you?
CB: Not bad. A little hungover.
SP: (Laughs) I’ll be gentle.
CB: Were you familiar with MusicNOW before agreeing to play this year?
SP: I had heard about it, yeah, but I had never been to it and wasn’t that familiar with it. I think I heard about it through Owen Pallett, who lives in Toronto and played there a couple of years ago.
CB: Right. Given your initial Dance-based Electronic recordings, I thought it interesting that you studied Jazz guitar in college for a time.
SP: Yes. Part of my training is studying guitar through Jazz theory. It’s the kind of thing where you learn some of the techniques and the theory behind it, but it takes a lot more than that to really be a Jazz guitar player, to really embrace the whole genre fully in spirit and everything. I didn’t quite have it in me to follow one specific sort of genre, so I just kind of studied the music and some of the theory. I’m a big fan of a lot of Jazz, but it’s not by any means a foundational thing for me.
CB: How do you think it impacted what you’re doing now?
SP: I got interested in Jazz mostly through the stuff that was considered outside (the genre) at some point — like mid-to-late ’60s Miles Davis and Eric Dolphy and Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman, stuff like that. It’s interesting for me because of the harmonic richness you hear in a lot of Jazz. There are also some challenging rhythmic things that you hear in Jazz that were appealing to me as a kid, and just the sense of freedom that you hear within a lot of Jazz. That’s what has impacted me the most. It took a lot of studying to scratch the surface to how musicians start to approach that kind of style of playing.
CB: How then did you get interested in Electronic music? It seems like a complete 180 in many ways.
SP: Yeah. Partially it was a reaction to being in Jazz school, but more than that it was just being seduced by how good Electronic music really plays with timbre and texture and the idea of morphing sounds together and creating new sounds and having music which can end up sounding more liquid, I suppose, than a lot of performed music or acoustically made music. That’s appealing for someone who thinks just in terms of pure sound.
Once I had been in school and sort of started to get over the idea of music having to be performed by live musicians, then it opened up this whole world of the seduction of working in a studio and creating music which is more like creating a painting or creating a film where you’re doing it in real time but you’re creating something in a medium that will be experienced outside of a performance. That kind of opens you up to this whole world of possibilities that doesn’t really exist in performing music. I think Electronic music kind of embodies that idea, and that’s very appealing.
CB: Creatively you can do almost anything when you’re not limited by your own technical skill as a player and musician.
SP: Yes. The studio allows for all kinds of things to happen that might not happen in real time and don’t necessarily need to happen in real time. I think the idea of music as a performing art is only one way of looking at it.
CB: Well, interestingly, the new album has a lot going on sonically, a lot of interesting textures. I’m curious how you go about presenting the songs in a live setting. Do you try to re-create them as they sound on the record, or is it a little bit of different take on the songs?
SP: By necessity it ends up being a different take on the songs because the kind of process that went into making the record and mixing it is not really possible in a live setting because there are so many factors that are unknown. It’s a bit of a rabbit hole to try and control the live situation as much as you can control a recording. You end up working against the essence of performing live, which is to communicate in real time and to try and reach a place where you’re needing more broad strokes to express what is at the heart of a song or a piece of music. A lot of details can’t really be adhered to. As much as I’d like to — I’m tempted often to try and do that — it’s just not really feasible. I think it would end up coming off as being hyper-controlling to try and do that in a live setting. Hopefully the essence of the music remains when a slightly different approach is taken live.
CB: Well, specifically, in the song “Love & Light” there is this rhythmic, kind of breathy, panting at the beginning that works so well on the recorded version. Do you try to re-create something like that live?
SP: We do usually, yeah. There are a couple of different ways that we approach it. We’re sort of working out some of the details. We do things and we try different approaches and we’re always sort of experimenting with different ways to play things live. I can’t make any guarantees about any part at this point, but, yeah, we usually try and do stuff like that if we can.
CB: In recent years you’ve come to a more conventional singer/songwriter approach. Why were you interested in moving in that direction?
SP: It’s a new challenge. I like words. I like the idea of putting words to music. After a while I got stuck in a place where I was repeating myself a lot with the Electronic music. The stuff I was doing had a very similar tone all the way through. I found it to be a little bit of a safe place once you find your thing. It can feel comfortable, but it can also get kind of boring. I get restless, and I think that writing words and music was just an extension of what I was doing.
I was doing that when I was a kid, too, but it was not something that I chose for whatever reason to have be part of my output. I initially started putting out the Electronic records because maybe it seemed more feasible at the time. Ultimately I think it just comes down to wanting more challenges and being excited about those challenges and deciding to try it regardless of whether you think you can do it or not, just stretching out and putting yourself in a place where there is an unknown factor.
CB: Can you tell me about your songwriting process? Do you come up with the sounds and the music and then write the lyrics based on that? Or is it more of a combination?
SP: It can be more of a combination, and it can be sometimes lyrics first, sometimes music first, sometimes just a melody first. It can be a very slow, laborious process with endless revisions and experimentation with instruments and with length of the songs and tempo and arrangements and the key. Often the things that end up on my records have been through so many revisions and re-workings that there might be 10 or 15 different versions of a song somewhere in my sketchbook or on my hard drive.
That’s the joy of it, too — all of the possibilities that you can go through with a piece. But all of that just goes to the essence of what it is, and sometimes it takes a while to learn what a song actually is before it’s ready to be finalized. The process can involve a lot of different approaches depending on the song and depending on how it came about. I’ve found that for me there hasn’t been any standard way yet that I’ve hit upon to write.
CB: Do you basically create the songs on your own? You don’t really have a full-time band, right?
SP: Most of it is on my own because my band tends to change from time to time. Different members will come and go depending on the music, depending on schedules and all kinds of things. For the most part the process is one that I do on my own. I often play things for friends and ask them what they think, but for the most part it’s a solitary thing because sometimes too many options can come in the more people you involve. It can be easy to lose focus sometimes if there is something really specific that you’re trying to get at. But it’s nice to have other people involved later on, once you’ve worked on a bunch of ideas. It can help to re-energize when I start to introduce the music to other people and we start to work at putting it together in the final stages.
CB: I’m not that familiar with the Toronto music scene, but I go up every year for the film festival. It’s a really fascinating city, much more multicultural than I envisioned before going there. I’m curious how Toronto and the arts scene there have impacted you as a musician.
SP: Well, like you said, it’s very multicultural, it’s very broad and it’s very non-competitive, which is maybe more specifically a Canadian thing and a Toronto thing. There are a lot of opportunities to play regularly, and, coming back to a national thing, there is pretty good arts support in Canada federally, provincially and even locally within cities.
If you get to a certain level of seriousness as an artist you’re eligible for funding for making records and for touring and stuff. I’ve been lucky with some of that — I’ve been turned down plenty of times as well — so it can be nice to make music in Canada for that reason. Or to make any art for that matter if you’re serious about it. Even if you’re not a full-time professional artist there is still encouragement to explore things and to try things even if you’re just semi-professional or a hobbyist.
There is a lot of exchange that can happen amongst musicians, in particular, in this city. Over the last 10 or 15 years I’ve made a lot of inspiring connections with musicians and artists here in the city. It’s hard to say or pinpoint exactly how that impacts your work, but I think overall just having people around you who support and who do similar things creates a feeling that you’re not doing it in a vacuum. That gives you the confidence to keep working and to keep pushing yourself into new territories, but without it being a competitive thing. I find there is a distinct lack of competitiveness amongst the people I know in Toronto making music…
CB: What do you mean when you say “competitiveness”? Do you mean in terms of getting attention?
SP: I think just the general feeling between people. The feeling is very supportive and people help each other out and play on each other’s recordings. There is just a general willingness to help other people out and to be involved in what other people are doing without there being a feeling of threat to your professional aspirations. It’s maybe not a matter of survival like it is for some people in other countries. I’m really not sure. Maybe it’s the way the social system is set up here in Canada where it’s hard to feel like you need to cut the person beside you in order to survive.
I’m not sure what it is, but there is just a general feeling of support and friendliness between artists here that I think has had a pretty positive long-term effect both in your ability and your willingness to try different artistic mediums and try things and feel safe and entitled to do so. I might not be the right person to comment on this, because it’s probably a lot more complex than that, but that’s just my general feeling on making music in Toronto and Canada. As a result there may be people here in Toronto who are phenomenal talents but who just don’t reach the outside world because they don’t really care to or they don’t try to. It’s just about what they’re doing and less about who they’re reaching.
CB: I looked at your bio on your website the other day and it was interesting that the very first sentence describes you as “a songwriter and a producer of new music.” I thought that was a curious way to describe what you do. What does the term “new music” mean to you? Is it that you’re creating new music all the time, or is it that you’re trying to do something new with the music?
SP: Maybe a little of both. It’s maybe one of those things that just has a nice ring to it. You also have to be careful what you read into bios, because it ultimately can be sort of a meaningless thing. But to me the idea of making “new music” means not worrying too much about what genre you’re doing or what someone will call it and just think about following your gut and your instinct. That to me is “new music.” Anything else is when you say to yourself, “Oh, I make Hip Hop or whatever.” When you decide and tell yourself, “I am this and this is what I do,” then it informs in a lot of the choices that you make and what you are willing to do and what you are not willing to do, what you are afraid of and what you’re not afraid of. There is a lot of music that just goes for it and doesn’t try and define itself or whatever.
To me that’s “new” music. I think it’s a pretty broad term, but it’s optimistic to me to call something new but without the trap of something having to be new to be relevant. That’s maybe a dangerous way to read into it; that it’s only good or relevant if it came out this week. New music can be found new maybe long after it’s been made, long after it’s been released into the world. The reason for that is that it comes from a place of just genuine curiosity and adventure, and that lasts through time. You can sort of smell that in music, you can sense it.
So, yeah, a longwinded answer, and perhaps meaningless, but that’s kind of how I feel about it (laughs).
CB: I hear a lot of different influences on the new album, including, maybe surprisingly, a kind of 1970s and ’80s Pop radio singer/songwriter thing. Did you listen to Pop radio growing up?
SP: Oh yes, I definitely heard all that stuff when I was growing up. I probably listened to a lot of Pop radio that was playing older music, like even for the ’80s. I would hear a lot of Motown. I definitely wasn’t in a vacuum growing up. I didn’t latch onto a lot of popular music in the ’80s, but I certainly heard it. Though sometimes it took me 10 or 20 years to get into music from my childhood, to really get into it in a new way.
As much as I love listening to and exploring different and more “difficult” music, Pop music has always appealed to me if it’s done well. If it speaks to me then I don’t discriminate against Pop music at all; I definitely love it. So I suppose there is probably a lot of that in the new album. Trying to write melodies will often end up sounding pretty Pop (laughs).
Sandro Perri will perform as part of MusicNOW at Memorial Hall (1225 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine) Thursday. More info: