Elvis Perkins: Out Of The 'Dirge' The folksy songwriter returns with his second album, Elvis Perkins in Dearland, now with a more upbeat, countrified sound. Yet even with the shift, Perkins continues to wrestle with his past.

Elvis Perkins: Out Of The 'Dirge'

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(Soundbite of music)


The musician Elvis Perkins once released an album of downbeat songs, and when asked how much was autobiographical, he said all of it. Perkins' second album creates a completely different mood, even though it includes songs with titles like "Doomsday."

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. ELVIS PERKINS (Musician): (Singing) Man, I went wild last night, oh, I was feeling all right. I don't let doomsday bother me. Do you let it bother you?

INSKEEP: The album is called "Elvis Perkins in Dearland," D-E-A-R-L-A-N-D. And there's a story behind the way that its author lived through tragedy but recorded these upbeat songs. The story becomes more remarkable when Elvis Perkins reveals that the song you're hearing changed. He originally planned it to sound like what he calls a dirge.

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. PERKINS: I was high last night, was feeling just fine, 'bout doomsday…

INSKEEP: Elvis Perkins is the son of Anthony Perkins, the actor most famous for his role in "Psycho." Anthony Perkins died of complications from AIDS when he son was a teenager. Elvis Perkins' mother was Berry Berenson-Perkins, a noted photographer. On September 11, 2001, his mother was onboard one of the planes that struck the World Trade Center.

And you begin to sense the way that Elvis Perkins things when you hear him talk about the links between his parents and his music.

Is there a song that you associate with either of your parents?

Mr. PERKINS: Not really one more than the other. You know, I come from them and the songs come from me. So, in a sense the songs are their grandchildren that they didn't get to meet.

INSKEEP: The songs are their grandchildren that they didn't get to meet.

Mr. PERKINS: Sure, why not? They strike me as offspring from time to time. And some of them on the new album sort of stare back at me a little funny.

INSKEEP: Kids do have a tendency to do that.

Mr. PERKINS: They do, yes. You know, some resemble one more than others. And sometimes you wonder if there's a bit of the mailman in some of the songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PERKINS: (Singing) (unintelligible) arrow, kissing.

You know, I've never been a very good storyteller when it comes to sort of regular conversation, which I think is in part why I've been driven to write these songs. I get to put as much as I like into it, say my piece and then sort of feel more successful than I do in having a regular conversation.

INSKEEP: In the conversation, you don't have control over the situation necessarily.

Mr. PERKINS: It just seems like so much can go wrong or so much can be missed, you know, in the midst of a conversation. I'm sort of overrun by thoughts that it's not going well or that we're not really understanding one another.

INSKEEP: Is that happening now?

Mr. PERKINS: No, actually. I think I feel all right.

INSKEEP: Which does not mean that Elvis Perkins feels comfortable talking about the meaning of a song called "123 Goodbye." It includes the line I love you more in death than I ever could in life.

(Soundbite of song, "123 Goodbye")

Mr. PERKINS: (Singing) It was happy, 1-2-3, it was sad, 1-2-3. We were happy once, you and me, when we were sad. Once upon a time, we were happy in the bathtub, in the abacus of the rain…

INSKEEP: Elvis Perkins, I've listened to this song again and again, wondering what the 1-2-3 was. And then I had, I think, an epiphany about what I think it might be but…

Mr. PERKINS: Tell me.

INSKEEP: No, I want you to tell me first.

Mr. PERKINS: I think you might know. I think you should tell me, no?

INSKEEP: Okay. I'll tell you. The thing that struck me, "123 Goodbye" - it was happy, 1-2-3, it was sad, 1-2-3 - I wondered what that was. And suddenly I had an image of the fact that you often will say 1-2-3 when you're taking a photograph. And I had an image of someone looking through photographs of a loved one who has died.

Mr. PERKINS: See, that's better than anything I could have said. I'm glad I let you do it.

INSKEEP: He may be uneasy in conversation, yet there was a kind of conversation behind the way that one of Elvis Perkins' songs evolved - the song we heard earlier that started out grim. That song changed because of a musical conversation between members of his band.

I want to come back, if I might, to "Doomsday" and just understand a little better how that song evolved.

Mr. PERKINS: It all comes back to "Doomsday," doesn't it?

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. PERKINS: (Singing) Oh, you voted for that awful man. I'd never refused to hold your hand…

It actually started as a very slow sort of dirge of a waltz.

INSKEEP: And then tell me how you went about presenting this dirge to your band.

Mr. PERKINS: Well, we just played it one day in Providence.

INSKEEP: Providence, Rhode Island.

Mr. PERKINS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Not talking about a state of mind.

Mr. PERKINS: Well, that too, but mostly it's the Ocean State.

INSKEEP: Okay. And you play this waltz dirge for the band, you feel pretty good about it.

Mr. PERKINS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: And then what happened?

Mr. PERKINS: And then we find ourselves in Stanfordville, New York, and our drummer Nick has recently acquired a marching drum, which he fastens to his person and bangs the hell out of. And any song that is having any sort of difficulties advancing or evolving, you take this drum to it and suddenly it's - um…, everything's all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PERKINS: And we did that to "Doomsday" and it felt all right.

INSKEEP: Do we hear that very drum in the recording that made the album?

Mr. PERKINS: Yes, we do.

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. PERKINS: There it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. PERKINS: The drum feels good and it's something to make music with your friends, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

INSKEEP: Did you feel like you'd lost something in giving up the dirge?

Mr. PERKINS: No, I felt like we'd gained something for sure. And the dirge is not lost. Like I say, it will…we'll see the dirge before this thing is over.

INSKEEP: Boy, there is a statement for life in general, isn't it?

Mr. PERKINS: We'll see the dirge before this thing is over?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: That you can name your next album.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Doomsday")

Mr. PERKINS: (Singing) Ride across the sky, see his face before I. There is a innocence to a good by and by. Oh, I don't plan to die, nor should you plan to die.

INSKEEP: The album is "Elvis Perkins in Dearland," and you can hear complete songs from it on NPR.org where you can also hear live concerts and Podcasts from the South by Southwest Music Festival this week.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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