‘Tis the season for giving.
And this year, I’m thrilled to be able to share this gift with you.
In my 15 years of listening to the music of Lancaster natives The Innocence Mission, it did not occur to me that I would one day be given the opportunity to interview the band about their new album and be privy to an encounter they had with Joni Mitchell. Evidently, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
I was first introduced to the band’s music back in Y2K days, when I was eager to graduate from high school. I’d spend my spare time digging in used CD bins of now-extinct record stores like XYZed, Music Den and Young Ones to try to assemble The Innocence Mission’s discography.
The band’s 1995 A&M Records release Glow has been a mainstay on my ever-changing list of favorite records over the years. The group has a unique ability to make something beautiful of the moments in which we experience sorrows and joys. Their song “Bright as Yellow” from that album is featured on the Empire Records soundtrack, which is the coolest Lancaster-related achievement I can think of.
The band formed in the early ’80s after meeting through a Lancaster Catholic High School production of Godspell. They were a four-piece ensemble up until the late ’90s, when drummer Steve Brown left to pursue his culinary dreams. He’s now chef and owner of Lily’s on Main in Ephrata. Always open to collaborations, Brown has shown up on various Innocence Mission tracks over the years since his departure.
Mike Bitts is the group’s bassist and has been rounding out their sound from the beginning. He switched from electric to upright acoustic bass when the band transitioned into a trio and began moving in the fresh, folk-inspired direction that drives their sound today.
At the core of the group are husband-and-wife team Don and Karen Peris. Both multi-instrumentalists, Karen is the principal songwriter and lead singer of the group and Don is the lead guitarist. Karen’s voice is angelic, sweet and lilting while Don’s guitar work glows with moving fluidity. The pair are a musical match made in heaven.
Recently, their son and daughter, Drew and Anna, have been making Karen’s family-band dreams come true. They contributed violin and viola on a few tracks from Karen’s 2012 debut solo album, Violet, and on the final track of The Innocence Mission’s newest release, Hello I Feel the Same.
“I would love to be able to make an album of instrumental music with our son and daughter and, of course, with Don,” says Karen. “That is a big daydream for me.”
Karen was heavily involved in the making of Hello I Feel the Same, from writing the songs – including a co-writing credit with Don on the Radiohead-esque instrumental track “Barcelona” – to creating the album artwork.
“I guess what I always hope is that the songs could be relevant to someone else,” explains Karen. “It’s really the feeling of joining in a conversation with other people that I especially like about trying to write poems or lyrics in general.”
The album was released in October on Korda Records, a newly formed Minneapolis cooperative label co-founded in 2012 by longtime friend and fellow Central Pennsylvania native David Schelzel of The Ocean Blue. After seeing many label changes over the years, Don explains why they decided to release on Korda this time.
“We have been close friends since before both of our bands began making albums,” he says. “It seemed exciting to be label-mates for a time.”
When the band was signed to A&M back in the ’80s, they recorded their
first two albums in the home studio of Grammy award-winning producer Larry Klein, Joni Mitchell’s then-husband. I just had to know – were there any Joni Mitchell encounters?
“We did get to be around her from time to time,” Don recalls. “I mostly remember being really quiet and tongue-tied, nodding my head a lot, which was okay because she is an excellent storyteller. I do remember her stepping on my feet when I arrived one day with a new pair of white sneakers. She thought they looked too white. It hurt.”
Seeing the band live is a rarity these days. But thanks to Chameleon Club owner and Lancaster Roots & Blues founder Rich Ruoff’s persistence, they’re scheduled to perform on the first night of the music festival in February. There are also plans for at least one more Lancaster show in April for a lower ticket price.
Finally, I had to ask a question about the band’s wintry 1999 release, Birds of My Neighborhood, from which singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens covered “The Lakes of Canada.” I’ve always wanted to hear a version of “Green Grass, Red Tree” that extends beyond the part when the drums kick in and the song fades out at the end.
“That seemed like a nice way to end that song – to leave open the destination of where that song is leading to,” says Don, adding, “or, I might have just been running out of steam on the drums.”
Either way, it manages to tug at the heartstrings. While a chronological tour of their entire catalog is worth your while, the new album is an excellent place to start fresh if you’ve never heard their music before.
And to combat the pain of having to hear Christmas pop songs and sleigh bell-driven monstrosities pouring out of every radio and PA system this holiday season, I suggest mellowing out to Don’s 2007 holiday instrumental album Brighter Visions Beam Afar. It’s a beautiful record to put on this time
of year – and it makes a great gift.