Interview: Joe Pernice on the forthcoming Pernice Brothers album “Who Will You Believe”

Joe Pernice has been writing for a long time—most of his life, in fact—and has crafted a remarkable catalogue that often reinterprets and recasts classic American pop. “Who Will You Believe” may be his most moving and nuanced album yet and Keith Hargreaves caught up with him via Zoom in his Canadian home where he was sporting a very natty beard.

I say, that that’s a proper lockdown beard, that is.

For me, it’s just a couple of months. So I just decided I’m not shaving or cutting my hair ’cause I don’t care.”

About shaving or cutting your hair?

Yeah, what’s the point? It’s Canada, I was planning for a cold winter. I cycle all year, right? I’m really into cycling. So I was planning for a cold winter, but we didn’t really get it. So it just hasn’t been that cold.

So, first up, I’ve got a copy of the new album today “Who Will You Believe” and I’ve listened to it twice. What a lovely, lovely album.

Thanks.

Is ‘Who Will You Believe’, the track, about Donald Trump? I’m saying this because of the lyrics about his blue eyes.

No, I don’t really write with anything. I wasn’t writing that with anybody in mind, to be honest with you. But you can put, you can tack it to anyone. If it sticks to anybody, go right ahead. But I don’t really think that way when I write, to be honest with you, I’m too self-centred.

Yeah, I mean, the vibe I got was that, it was maybe about referring to preconceived prejudices or listening to two sides of an argument.

Well, there could be some of that for sure. Sure, for sure, but I wasn’t, honestly I wasn’t, didn’t have any particular one thing in mind.

I just see that with the elections coming up in America and the way things are going, it must be very concerning. And do you find that affects  your writing, at all ?

Probably a little bit, just like it’s, like it affects everybody’s life. If you take two seconds and think about it, you know what I mean? Sure it does, but I try to, you know, for me, my writing is my kind of escape rather than, I don’t particularly feel like I go about writing as a way to deal with things, you know what I mean. For me, writing is, it’s just, it just feels good. It’s one of those, it’s one of those lucky accidents that I just found out that writing songs really makes me feel good. So I just keep doing it.

So when you’re writing, is it like, does it just all fall out of you? Or is it like constructing something artisan, that you actually go back to the drawing board every day and you put another little bit on and then another little bit on?

A little bit of both, but it’s not, they don’t take that long, songs don’t take super long for me to write. Some of them happen really fast, like the whole form, the whole shape and all the lyrics and everything and the melody, all of them come, some of them come really fast. And then there is some of that going over, playing something over and over. And then it suggests other avenues or it feels right or it feels wrong. So there’s definitely developing stuff. It’s rare that something happens a hundred percent, like a song will fall out of me, lyrics and changes and everything. There’s a song on the record called ‘How Will We Sleep?’ on this record. That song happened in 15 minutes maybe, top to bottom. It happened super fast where I was even thinking, okay, I felt like I was almost hanging on for the ride.

Just make sure you get it all down?

Yeah, well then the lyrics were just coming fast and they were making sense and the changes and everything, it happened really quick, minutes, 20 minutes maybe.

So the Neko Case duet is a beautiful thing.

Yeah, thank you.

I’d say it reminded me of the Beautiful South and a bit of Nick Lowe as well in there.

I can see that.

So when you’re gonna go to somebody like Neko Case, do you present them with the whole package or do you invite collaboration?

That song, the song was recorded completely finished without a female vocal. And I thought I gotta see, Neko had sung on one of my earlier records, a backup vocal on a song called ‘The Devil in the Gin’ that was on my record, “Spread the Feeling” from 2020, it was right before the pandemic, which is why I kind of just sort of fell into the void with everything else. She sang on that record. So I’ve been friends with her for a while. So when I wrote the song, I recorded the whole song before I even asked her if she would do it. And then I sent her the recording with me singing both lyrics. So then I’d say, I think what I did was, I sang both parts and I put my vocal on the left-hand side of the program. And I think I put the vocal for her on the right-hand side. And I said, this is what I was thinking. And then I left it with her and I sent her a version that had no vocals on it at all. So then she could just mess around with it. And then I went to her studio and cut her vocal and it was fantastic. So I didn’t tell her what to sing, not even outside of the lyrics, but she just did her thing.

She picked up your melody and went with it.

Yeah, for sure, made it her own, made it her own, which is what a good singer does.

So tell me about ‘December in Her Eyes.’ I mean, that’s got a really sort of Philly soul sound going on there as well as maybe even some Carpenters or Bread. 

Totally. Yeah, I had never written a soul song in all of my career I never wrote one with the idea I wanna write soul song. And I had this song, that song was cooking, that song was brewing up. That one, I forget, I went through a period where I was writing about many songs a day, like not finishing them, but I would get a sketch and in an hour, I’d have sketched four, five or six songs

Would you just record that on a phone?

That’s correct. Yeah. And then I’d go back to it. So I would get the initial thing down, and then I’d file it away. And I had a couple of days where like, I’m not kidding, there were days where I would do five or six different songs like that. And then I just, a week or so later, I remember, I’d go back and I’d listen to all my sketches, and I’d label them when I recorded them, so I had an idea what it was. And I remember I think I had like a, the idea that it could be a soul tune. And I went back to it, and then that, that one happened really fast. As soon as I sat down with it, the lyrics came really fast. And it’s one of the only songs I have that has kind of a story to it. I wanted to have a real narrative to the song, and I don’t do that very often. And that one just came out, it came out easy. I don’t, it just happened fast. I wanted to write it as the perspective of a friend, asking a friend to help him with his love life. And the implication being the friend is the one who’s with her, you know what I mean? 

So it happened pretty easy. And then the recording of it was also pretty fun. I initially had done it in a different key and a little faster. And it turned almost into like a, like a yacht rock type of song instead of a soul song. So I dropped it, I made the key a little less bright, and I slowed it down a good amount. And then it just all fell into place. So the recording of that was pretty easy. And we wrote the strings, wrote the chart. And then I sent it off to a friend of mine out in Seattle, who, this guy Andrew Jocelyn, who is a, you know, Grammy winning string guy. And my friend Josh Karp, who I played with for a long time. And he like is probably most known for doing his work with Macklemore. He’s a horn player. So he created the horn charts on, he played the horns on that song. It all came together beautifully.

I wanted to talk to you about the track, ‘The Purple Rain’. And I know it’s really emotive. I mean, it has a feeling of a sort of musical eulogy, But there is that redemptive quality to it. It must been very cathartic to write and indeed perform, if you’re going to perform it.

Yeah, I don’t know about cathartic, but maybe so, for me, the writing of the song is very exciting, probably the most exciting part. I’d say writing it gives me the most thrill. Recording of it is next, which is also pretty thrilling, but it’s, and then playing live, the song is a whole different thing. I played it solo live a bunch, yeah, a few times. It’s a fun song to play. Like you can really get lost in it, which that is for me as someone who, when you sing, you wanna be able to really connect with the song and feel like you’re tapping into something that maybe, or bringing something to people with the song and the performance. So I feel like this is a real vibe that comes off of playing that one live. To be honest with you, I haven’t thought about it as cathartic, so I can’t really say if that’s the case. It was exciting to write. Like I felt like I was, when I wrote that one, I felt like I’m onto something. And when we recorded a choir on it. Choir, choir, choir from Toronto. I think we had about 20 of the people from there, and we just kept trackin’ ’em. I think all told there’s like 300 voices singin’ at once after all the tracking. Like it’s just so many tracks, and it just comes in and it’s unexpected. I thought it might be hokey, but it actually, I thought it worked out pretty good.

It certainly did. 

Thanks.

So, a tour? You’re doing a few little solo dates over there. Are we ever going to see you live in the UK this year?

I’m dying to go. I don’t have a booking agent over there anymore, so I don’t know how about

And what would you do if you could? Would you tour with a band, or would you tour solo?

I don’t know. Sadly, it’s all about finances these days, really. It’s about what you can afford to do, but ideally, I would like to tour with a small band. I don’t think, I’m not feeling the big rock show band anymore, or like big electric, even though the record has some electricity in it. I’m so much more into playing like a mellow, large show now. I’ve always struggled to sing with a loud, two electric guitars and full drum kit. It’s hard for me to sing over that, because I don’t think my voice is, I mean, I know what I can do, and what I can’t do as a singer, and I don’t enjoy trying to sing over loud, super loud. And I just don’t think that my voice is at its best and most engaging to people when I’m trying to sing over, I’m not a screamer. I have like a whisper of a voice. So in order for it to be as implied, I think there has to be a certain level of quiet to it all. So to answer your question, I would like to tour with some kind of unit, but I can’t see it being like a two piece, a five piece electric, two electric guitars, piano bass. I don’t think that’s in the cards anytime soon for me.

Well, we’d love to see you over here.

If I played 100 to 200 people every single night. I would never wanna play to much bigger, that’s the ideal size. Financially, making it to work… playing solo, you can make that work for sure, but making it work with a band is a whole other thing. So, whatever. Mostly for me, it’s writing and recording are my favourite things anyway, so I’m not too stressed out, but to be honest with you.”

This is the first album for five years.

For the Pernice Brothers but I recorded another two other records in that time. And I’ve been and writing and recording at home up quite a bit.

And you do other writing, don’t you? You write for television and things like that?

I haven’t in a few years. I did write for a TV show up here in Canada. And that was pretty fun. And I think I would probably do it again if it was the right thing, I would consider it. But I’m a musician, I’m a songwriter. That’s my main thing. and if I have it my way, that’s what I would do to the exclusion of all other things.

So what is it that you’re listening to now that inspires you perhaps?

What was the last thing I queued up? I was listening to Kris Kristofferson yesterday, a collection of his stuff. I’ve been listening to a good amount of Waylon Jennings lately as well as Fred Neil. I just queued up Fred Neil and Tim Hardin. I like him a lot. Always listening to like Dusty Springfield. A lot of, you know, I’m not really looking forward too much. I’m looking, I’m going backwards.

You’re going back, literally with Dusty, you’re ‘Going Back’.

And it’s not that, I don’t have a ton of exposure to new music just because I don’t know how to get it, to be honest with you. And like I don’t really stream and I’m not really connected to a scene. So I’m not, and I have a son who’s almost 18, but he’s into, he’s more into like a modern or classic hip hop music. And he’s in a different zone than I am, a different genre. We overlap with stuff like Dylan in a lot of music, but as for new stuff, he’s not turning me onto any kind of new things other than some hip hop now and then, which I kind of like, but it’s not my thing. It’s just not what I came up with

It’s different. My daughter’s the same. The iPod, not the iPod generation, the I-Music generation or whatever. You know, they are like magpies, but where they get some of the stuff from, I have no idea.

I wish I had the kind of exposure when I was 17 that they have now. My son’s knowledge of music in general is so much bigger than what I have now. He knows more now than I know. I think, well, I think you still have your friends who are into the same kind of thing, and maybe you’re connecting. Back when I was young, you passed around the tape, or you had one person had, I remember when I got into the jam, my friend made a copy of “Snap” or something. And we passed it around, or when the first Smith’s record came out, only one of us had it. And we traded it around. You passed it around. And I told this story too a bunch of times. I was into a lot of like post-punk, British, that was the music for me. And when I grew up, like there was only one record store about, that got two copies of NME and Melody Maker. That was it. And those were, there were two of them, or maybe even one of them. And it came over, probably came over on a boat, for God’s sake. By the time you got it, it was a couple of weeks old. And if you didn’t get it, you didn’t know. And one of my friends, I had a friend who lived nearby that shop. I probably lived 10 miles away from it. And she would go and check, or my other friend would go, and as soon as it came in, they’d buy it. And then they’d read every word of it, and then passed it to somebody else. And you read every word of it. And there was no internet. And that’s how you found out.

Exactly, You’d read every word. I used to get Melody Maker every week. And it’s a broad-sheet newspaper, and you’d go from cover to cover. I suppose we’ve got all that on the internet, but it’s not the same.

It’s not the same to me, but that’s not to say it’s not as exciting for somebody else. I think it’s fantastic that you could be turned on to all that stuff. Like, you know, what did I miss back then? Because I didn’t get the only copy of NME or whatever. You know? Anybody who had a career or sold records back then, you know, I mean, you could just never find, you could never know about them. There were things that were probably regional hits way more now than now. Like you could have a local band who was famous locally, who people never, you know, never find out about because he was local.

So I asked Pete Bruntell if he had to ask you a question asked, like a celebrity question? And his question was, if you had to stage a celebrity boxing match, who would you put in the ring?

You mean, just so I understand, you mean I have to pick two celebrities to beat the shit out of each other?

That’s the kind of thing.

Putin and Trump. I’d watch that. Sadly, someone would have to win.

Thanks so much Joe for your time and really good luck with the album. I think it’s gonna really fly.

Oh, wait a moment, I have my celebrities. Forget about that other thing. I want to see Bruntnell and James Walbourne. In a ring together, they’ll love it. I’ve been friends with those guys forever. I love both those guys. I’ve played with Pete a bunch and James played with me for years. He’s one of my closest friends.  I’d like to see those two have a boxing match. They’d probably miss each other. There wouldn’t be a punch landed.

Thanks again Joe, it’s been a real pleasure. Enjoy the cycling when you get back out on the bike.

I never stop!

‘Who Will You Believe’ is out on New West April 5th. Go buy!

About Keith Hargreaves 365 Articles
Riding the one eyed horse into dead town the scales fell from his eyes. Music was the only true god at once profane and divine The dust blew through his mind as he considered the offering... And then he scored it out of ten and waited for the world to wake up
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