New Zealand artist, multi-instrumentalist and producer Merk (a.k.a. Mark Perkins) debuted his global album Infinite Youth on Friday, April 9 via Humblebrag Records. Singles from the album have gained support on Spotify playlists across New Music Friday, Bedroom Pop, Fresh Finds and Indie Arrivals.
Infinite Youth is a record that thrives on a certain simplicity of rhythm, melody, and lyric, and is compelled by contrast: pop songs influenced by art music, an album about adulthood that reflects heavily on what it is to be young, and a sonic world that is both expansive and deeply intimate.
In support of his efforts, Merk took an impressive amount of time and gave great depth in detail of what went into this album for readers of American Songwriter. Check out his tunes and give this a read, in his own words:
“Making this album has been one of the most important experiences I’ve ever been through. I recently sent it to my family as a private soundcloud link, which was the first time they’d heard any of this thing I gave two years of my life to creating. In that moment it struck me how much it cost to make. Not financially, but in all the days and nights spent at home instead of seeing friends writing, revising, then re-revising, the cost of all the career opportunities I gave up so I could work on the album, and the security and sanity one sacrifices when, wanting to explore uncharted territory, they are lead to the precipice of their abilities where the voice of doubt is loudest.
But the cost is outweighed a hundredfold by the privilege and joy it has been to make this album. It hasn’t been released yet and I feel like I’ve already received my reward in full. Most special of all has been the lifelong friendship that’s grown from working with my co-producer, Johan Carøe. He’s been my coach, gracefully revealing my blindspots and patiently coaxing me towards my potential even when I was resistant to the necessary growth.
The songs are simple and honest but have a depth to them that rewards repeat listens. They say you can tell how much someone knows about something by how simply they can explain it, and in retrospect the most important work for this album was for me to understand these huge ideas of love, life and ultimately myself well enough to articulate how I felt in a small number of syllables and notes.
The number one rule I had for myself while working on Infinite Youth was to make generous music. I really wanted to make music that added to people’s lives, never indulgent, but always giving more than it took. Now that they’re being released into the world I hope these songs can give to you as much as they’ve given to me.”
In my mind this track is a suburban anti-banger. It sets up the sounds, the story and the setting of the whole album.
Lyrically there’s a lot left unsaid. To me it’s about the end of a relationship and the start of a new time of life. The demo versions had more words explaining the story, but I found there was more room for imagination and subtext by saying less.
The production, like the album as a whole, was a process of slow reduction over time; with Johan Carøe (my co-producer) and I starting recording in Copenhagen and finishing in New Zealand over a year later. This song, as with most on the record had to go from basic to overly-complicated before it could arrive back at simple but strong.
Having my voice so forward and bare is still scary, but it eventually became an important sound for the album. In the past I think I’d self-consciously and sub-consciously cover my voice and lyrics with busy instrumentation, but as Johan slowly helped me understand It’s easy disguise how you truly feel by hiding behind complex production.
Alex Freer plays drums so well here. His subtle feel and tone make the song. Of course we can’t forget the iconic twisting of his squeaky drum stool that not only opens the song but whole album.
It wouldn’t be a coming of age album without asking the big existential questions about where we came from and what are we doing here. ‘GOD’ started as a joke, before I eventually realised how earnest I was. Having a religious upbringing meant I had a bit to unpack coming into adult life, trying to figure out what I believe for myself. So I’m poking fun at that whole process, but also meaning what I’m saying.
The challenge was to find the balance of humour, darkness and sincerity. It had to come across as, not ironic, but playfully self-aware of the weirdness of this song while also being profoundly heartfelt. Fun but touching was the goal!
Early on, while I was making demos that eventually became the album, Alex came over to my studio and I recorded him playing drums at various tempos to no music, mostly disco beats so I had a library of different grooves I could write to. GOD was built around one of those loops.
A lot of GOD we made remotely. With Auckland and Copenhagen being exactly 12 hours time difference I would send Johan what I worked on that day and wake up with feedback and ideas is my inbox. After slaving away for a while on this song I just woke up one day to a folder full of new synth lines and guitar leads from an inspired Johan that really opened up the song.
From there we were away. The big bass synth ‘clonk’ was some Shannon magic. We recorded saxophone, marimba and trumpet and Carla Camilleri sang those beautiful harmonies.
I wrote this song years ago, before my first album, and the song itself came easy but I just couldn’t find the right way to capture it. ‘American Parties’ and I danced a fine line between love and loathing each other for a long time. At so many points did I nearly throw this song into the trash and try to forget it ever existed. I have a playlist on my iTunes of different versions of this song that has 30 something tracks in it that goes for two hours, all completely different productions and tempos and feels. That is a very disheartening feeling!
But with each new version there was a lesson to take to the next new version, even if that lesson was simply knowing what didn’t work. When Johan joined the process it was sadly no different but at least I had some company through it!
I remember having a dream where I finally found the answer! There it was! The key to unlocking this mystery! And it sounded so cool. But in the morning I completely forgot everything. That week however, was the week we landed on the version that became what it is now – maybe my sub-conscious threw me a bone.
From writing it so long ago to today the song keeps finding new meanings with the changing world and political landscape. But at its core it’s not really about America at all, it’s just about a lonely person wanting a change of scene.
Laps Around the Sun
In my opinion this song sums up the whole album, lyrically and sonically. It’s my little bedroom anthem.
‘Laps Around the Sun’ is about finding poetry in the mundane. I wrote it on my birthday while feeling somewhat existential but to me the song has a feeling of bittersweet resignation to the idea that good stuff happens, bad stuff happens and the earth keeps spinning and we all just get on with it. Life is weird but beautiful.
One of the big ideas of this album was to use contrast to make the experience have more dimensions, using ideas that seem to work against each other to actually compliment each other. For example contrasting happy and sad emotions or pop cliches with avant-garde to make the whole thing have more depth.
With this song the contrast is intimacy and expansiveness. Like sitting in the tight confines of your bedroom but exploring the infinite landscape of your internal world. The album cover is actually a reference to this idea.
The breakthrough for production came from a Christmas show I played. I put together a “Merk Megaband” for the gig and we had 15 members on stage. It was a very hectic and memorable show (during a cover of Last Christmas I was doing a dramatic Christmas speech about food and presents when I fell off a speaker into the crowd). I wanted to road test Laps Around the Sun at the show, and because none of the band knew it I played it solo on a little synth. We fell in love with the simplicity of that version and essentially just recorded that!
Lyrically each little part contains the whole. I worked hard on making sure that there were no wasted words with every metaphor and adjective pointing back to things that spin in circular repetitions. Much of the vocals were from the original demos, even after recording them through fancy, expensive equipment we ended up preferring the quiet, intimate versions from my home studio.
This song has a dear place in my lil heart. While many of the other songs deal with a complex mix of good and bad emotions, this is one of the only purely positive songs on the album and acts as a good palette cleanse.
Producing this song we took many wrong turns, but then something clicked and it all came together in a couple hours one day. When that happens you often think “oh making music is easy!”, but you forget that it’s all that time spent searching elsewhere that makes those eureka moments possible.
I sent the new version to Johan who was travelling in Berlin, and he said he listened to it over 20 times while dancing in the airport. He was also falling in love at the time and this song provided a soundtrack to those feelings.
That wobbly, burnt synths that interplay, to me sound like pipes squeaking. That sound was first discovered on this song which unlocked a huge part of the album for us, it ended up becoming a little character that makes its way into other songs like, H.N.Y.B and American Parties.
Also buried in the song is a voice memo of Johan and I having our first jam back in 2016 at the Red Bull Music Academy where we first met. If you listen closely in the instrumental section you can hear us talking in the background. It’s a nice little easter egg from the very start of an incredibly important friendship, when I really need something new.
‘Canoe Song’ feels like a memory I never lived. The story never took place but the emotion is very real to me.
It’s an un-assuming but essential part of this album and the DNA of the project. It closes the A side and foreshadows the closing of the B side. A simple iPhone recording, it pays homage to the our process of making the album as every track was born from that medium.
Again here we are playing with the contrast of intimacy versus expansiveness, beginning with the intimate voice memo of guitar and vocals that opens up with Anna Olesen’s, almost nonhuman and celestial backing vocals. This expansiveness is ultimately realised in the final track, Infinite Youth.
This is a very dreamy, surreal track that has a sort of dark eeriness to it. It’s a sad song that speaks to the beauty and poetry in sadness. The lyrics are of someone offering their love to another only to say “it’s ok, I’m fine” when that feeling isn’t reciprocated. The music is telling us that things aren’t maybe as ok as they’re being made out to be.
While I was in Copenhagen Johan and I were experimenting when he found the American Minimalism vibe of the repeating pulses that constantly churn. The brief then became “The Carpenters playing Steve Reich”, two opposing music worlds that existed in similar eras to one another but fans of one would never usually be fans of the other.
This song holds a lot of memories of biking around Copenhagen in the long summer days, hanging with a really lovely community of musicians, many of which played on this album. The piano was recorded at Johan’s friend’s house who let us record there one afternoon. We tried re-recording the vocal take but eventually came back to the original demo version of me holding a crappy mic singing the whole thing in one go.
Back in New Zealand the year after, we recorded Marimbas, that ominous synth in the opening and Carla’s backing vocals which are reminiscent of Suzanne by Leanard Cohen. The finishing touch that made the whole thing come together was running the pulses through Tom Healy (mix engineer)’s crusty old broken tape machine to give it that wobbly, things-are-gonna-fall-apart-any moment-now feeling.
‘Deep Dive’ is about exploring your inner world. Different surreal scenes are all taking place like a weird dream. In fact a portion of this song actually came to me in a dream one night, I woke up and went to the piano and recorded the demo. For that reason it feels seperate to me in a nice way.
It’s one of the more pop moments on the album, a song that carries you the whole way through without changing too much. It reminds me a lot of our 80s Japanese city pop references as well as a New York New-Wave sound.
We started this in Copenhagen by chopping up a breakbeat sample to give this heavy groove and messed around with the guitar and Juno synth until they had this nice minimalist interplay with each other, almost becoming one instruments. When we recorded drums with Alex, we played him the song and told him to do whatever he felt. He laid down this really nice disco groove over the breakbeat that gave the song a lot of energy.
To add a sense of depth I buried in the mix a voice memo recording I made while on tour in London when visiting St Paul’s Cathedral of an organist playing while tourist walked around.
My favourite part of this song is the beautiful cello of Danish musician Nicole Hogstrand. In particular her pizzicato doubling the guitar lead in the instrumental.
Probably the saddest, brutally honest song I’ve ever written. I remember making my friends cry when I played them the line that goes ‘All of our friends/Are sadder than they were last year’ and them saying “oh you went there!”.
Obviously this came from a dark place, but I would like for it to give hope to people. One thing I’ve learnt about art is that you don’t always have to give a happy ending, that actually just knowing someone else has felt things similar to you is hope enough!
I wanted this to be the sort of song you would learn when you first picked up guitar as teenager, to be heard echoing down the school halls of the music department. The production is built around this repetitive plonking guitar line that is purposefully adolescent and catchy feeling. Johan added the synths that double this guitar and slowly open and distort over time and Nicole played that lovely cello that swoops and dives around.
As a sort of palate cleanser we added those random drum fills that sound like they’re in another room playing a different song to offset things a bit. It felt right to add a little playfulness or release after such a heavy chorus.
This is the lowest point emotionally in the record, the belly of the whale moment, but from here there is an upswing towards the end of the album.
But She Loves You
‘But She Loves You’ is a cathartic dance song. This is the “pocket symphony” of the album. Its origins lay very much in the 60s pop ballad universe and after much experimenting it became the orchestral sad disco song it is now. The song is probably me at most passionate and dramatic. To me it has apocalyptic, mountain falling into the ocean level of heartbreak feelings.
I recorded this with my friend Johan half in Copenhagen and half on a farm in rural New Zealand. My favourite moment in this track would have to be the searing string synths Johan played and the fluke of a bass line that we accidentally made, we had two options and accidentally played them at the same time and fell in love with the weirdness of it. I hope this song provides people with an opportunity to dance away their sorrows.
This is the first song Johan and I ever worked on and it just so happens to be the last song on the record. The whole album has been building towards this outro that becomes one big swirly sea of orchestral and choral disco.
Emotionally this song pulls the whole album together. To me it’s the coming-of-age feeling, being on the other side of the hard stuff and reaching a point of balance. There’s an internal youth you carry with you forever, but you’re no longer so volatile. Out from the suburban swimming pool and out into the ocean.
Johan and I met at the Red Bull Music Academy 2016 in Montreal and instantly bonded over our love for Arthur Russel and the similar temperaments of Danes and New Zealanders. We made a very weird demo of this song while we were there (elements of which made it into that final mix) and little did we know it was the start of this whole journey.
From a production point of view the album is also pulled together at this moment. The different worlds all collide: happy/sad, disco, orchestral, songwriter, bedroom universe vibes all appear in this final track.
Not only are most of the sounds referenced, but almost every collaborator we worked with finds their way into the ending. And working with those people is what made this song, and album, so special to me. I know this album is only now coming out, but getting to make it with such wonderful people – especially Johan, I certainly feel like I’ve already received my reward on full.
If you dig what you heard, Infinite Youth LP pre-order here.
SXSW 2021 Digital Edition Performance: Saturday, March 20 @ 7-8pmCT