Writer Of The Week: Rain Perry

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Rain Perry (not to be confused with The Band Perry, Katy Perry, Steve Perry or Perry Farrell) is a California singer/songwriter who’s clearly going places. Raised by hippies and reared on Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, Perry formed her own label, Precipitous Records, and released two well-received albums in 1999 and 2008. But it’s her latest effort, Internal Combustion, that’s got everyone talking. Packed with clever covers and brilliant originals, it’s helped gain the veteran artist a brand new following. Ready for the interview? Let’s get it on.

Your song “Beautiful Tree” is the theme song to Life Unexpected. Has that opened any doors?

Having my song chosen was a great boost in terms of my reputation as a songwriter. Also, it’s brought me to the attention of a group of people who might not have found out about my music otherwise; in particular, teenagers who watch CW network shows. I was wondering how they’d like it, and they have really embraced the song!

What’s a song on your new album you really want people to hear, and why?

Right now, it’s “Keanuville,” because we’ve just shot a video for it that’s going up on YouTube in November. I’m kind of excited about it! But I also hope people will hear and connect with my version of “Till It Shines” and “Let’s Get It On.” My current favorite is “Ambulance Song,” because the recording of it was kind of magical and it’s special to me.

Tell us about “Keanuville.” Is this based on a true story?

Yep, entirely. This song is taken verbatim from a conversation with the woman sitting next to me the time I went to see Keanu Reeves’ band Dogstar. He inspires an unprecedented level of fandom. He tries to sit on a park bench and have a sandwich, and next thing he knows a million different permutations of “Sad Keanu” are popping up all over the internet. Why? What is it about him that inspires the hundreds of thousands of YouTube views, the creepy x-rated fan-fiction, the perpetually morphing internet meme, the “Keanu is Immortal” video? The song looks at this phenomenon through the eyes of just one of these fans.

What’s a lyric you’re particularly proud of on the album?

I’m very proud of “A Perfect Storm.” I was looking for a metaphor to describe the suicide of my former guitar player, and I consulted Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. I wanted to describe the conflation of events that created the conditions that capsized him. The chorus goes:

The pull of gravity
The lift of buoyancy
Are made to equal each other
And most of us will never know
But there’s a degree of roll
From which any boat cannot recover

You cover Paul Simon’s “René and Georgette Magritte with their Dog after the War” , off his 1983 album Hearts And Bones. What drew you to this song? Can you believe that Hearts And Bones never got much critical respect?

I love that album – it’s the most personal, I feel, of Paul Simon’s albums, as if the rawness of his divorce and the loss of John Lennon forced him to a place that his intellect sometimes prevents us from seeing. I don’t know why it didn’t get much respect! It’s a great record.

What drew me to “Rene and Georgette,” besides the fact that it’s such a lovely song, was that I needed to record a song about a dog for a benefit album. I racked my brain for dog songs and thought of that one. So when it came time to put together Internal Combustion, I looked at everything – songs I was working on, covers I might like to do, and unreleased tracks for songs that fit the “things that drive us” theme. I realized that that song fit perfectly. It’s coursing with subterranean passion. And it was a nice, melodic respite to the all the other funky tracks we had come up with.

You also cover Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” and Bob Seger’s “Til It Shines.” What drew you to those songs? How did you make them your own?

I love doing covers live, so I am often re-interpreting songs as my own. I had done “Let’s Get It On” for a women’s acting class show, and I just thought it would work on the record. As far as “Till It Shines” goes, I don’t know. It got in my head and it just spoke to me at this point in my life – “Take the chip off of my shoulder / smooth out all the lines / take me out among the rustling pines ” – kind of an anthem for a perpetually confused, yet increasingly confident woman!

You have rheumatoid arthritis, and you’ve worked as an advocate for people who are also afflicted with it. Does it affect how you play your instrument? If so, does that affect how you write songs?

Yes, it took away my ability to play an instrument. When I contracted RA at age 22, my fingers got stiff and I couldn’t play my guitar, and haven’t since.

But the odd result of that is that – after a period of depression, and actually giving up on music for awhile – I learned how to actually be a musician. Whereas in the past I would play my primitive guitar parts and the bass and drums would fall in with me, now I had to describe to other players what I wanted them to do in real musical terminology. The truth is that I was never that interested in being great on the guitar. My focus was always on singing and writing. So not playing was freeing to my ability to inhabit a song as a singer. Plus, I was no longer fettered by my skills as a player – only my skills at explaining what I want from other musicians.

Luckily, though, before I got RA I had already learned to write charts, which is an essential skill when you are delegating the performing to other players!

Are their any words you love, or hate?

Hmmm…I listen to a lot of pop radio in the car with my daughter, and I’m getting pretty sick of hearing about what brand of liquor everyone is drinking and what brand of clothes they are wearing at the club. Is this actual product placement? The fact that songs refer to “Abercrombie” and “Captain Morgan?”

I don’t usually love impressionist songs, but I love the way Imogen Heap puts words together.

How do you typically write songs? Words first, or melody?

Always words first, but once I’ve got a couple of lines, I start feeling around for a melody.

Do you find yourself revising a lot, or do you like to write automatically?

Revising a lot. I am very passionate about the importance of the first draft – the one where you throw everything out there with no real form. Then the craft of sewing it all together comes in.

Who’s an underrated songwriter, in your opinion?

The best songwriter around is Eliza Gilkyson.

What’s a song you wish you’d written?

Anything she’s written. Oh, jeez, so many more. Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.” Todd Snider’s “Long Year.” This is impossible. There are millions.

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