the innocence mission

For listeners of the innocence mission, the Lancaster, Pennsylvania trio are beyond a favourite band, more like a beloved companion, such is their intensity and fragility of their sound and vision, spearheaded by Karen Peris’ heartbreaking, breathtaking voice. Those fans include Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), who have both covered innocence mission songs, and in whose company the trio deserve to be bracketed.

Now, with “Sun On The Square”, their first album in four years and first UK/ European release in over a decade, the trio have joined the Bella Union family, following Karen’s guest appearance on “Ojalá” by Lost Horizons, the band collective co-created by label skipper Simon Raymonde.

“There’s less than a handful of artists on my Bella Union dream list,” he explains. “The Innocence Mission are on there but they’ve remained an elusive mystery, and believe me, I’ve tried! I’ve been a fan as long as I can remember. From the second I heard Karen’s voice, I’ve been smitten. ‘Birds Of My Neighborhood’ is in my Top Three albums of all time. It’s a heartbreaker though. Guarantees tears. But the more the tears fall, the deeper I go!”

1999’s Birds Of My Neighborhood kickstarted the innocence mission as we know them today, following three albums as a quartet that drew comparisons to The Sundays and 10,000 Maniacs. But when drummer Steve Brown left to become a chef, Karen Peris (guitars, piano, pump organ, accordion, voice), husband Don (guitars, drums, voice) and Mike Bitts (upright bass) forged ahead with an orchestral, at times cinematic, folk pop sound which they felt was truer to their real nature in any case, a sound rich in atmosphere, innately sad, but ultimately hopeful. This feeling defines the new album’s lead single, Green Bus, a threnody which marries nylon string guitar, ukulele, and swells of violin to help build the lyric’s visual world of green and rainy city streets.

Sufjan Stevens calls the innocence mission “moving and profound”, adding, “What makes Karen Peris’ lyrics so remarkable is the economy of words, sensory language, concrete nouns – everyday objects take on tremendous meaning.” Images of nature, colour, weather, and season are continued throughout the album. “For me it’s helpful to be able to see the song, if I can” Karen says.

Records from your Room, the album’s opening, speaks of “the way other things, like the weather, or the music we’re listening to, can sometimes be felt to speak for us in place of words, which often fall short. Or the way everyday objects and actions can be felt as possible outward flowering of the internal life and of our best intentions (umbrellas open could be the arms we would reach, etc.)”. The song’s refrain, beginning ‘Is there a word for these things we’ve felt and we’ve seen?’ seems emblematic for the album, as many of its songs address “the difficulties and the possibilities of communication and the longing we all feel for a shared sense of understanding with other people.”

Of the music they listen to, long-cherished albums like Pink Moon, Astral Weeks, After the Goldrush and Bridge Over Troubled Water playing alongside Talk Talk’s final record Laughing Stock, Camera Obscura’s first, Biggest Bluest Hi Fi, and Yann Tiersen’s Amelie soundtrack, are a few that Don and Karen mention as favourites, immediately adding that this list leaves out a great deal.

To best capture their intimate sound, the band have recorded every album from Birds Of My Neighborhood onward in various rooms of the Peris home, like the dining room where the piano sits. On this record, their teenage son and daughter are guests, adding violin and viola, respectively. They’re a tight-knit family, strengthened by the parents’ choice to stay home through their children’s upbringing, and not to go on tour. The scarcity of innocence mission concerts is perhaps why they have remained something of a well-kept secret.

Despite her references to nature, Karen says she often hears “city scenes” in Sun On The Square – part of the record’s own air of mystery. Such as the title track, inspired by Astrud Gilberto,‘60s folk and pop, and her “admiration for someone going out into the world bravely and in kindness – the possibility for one person to be a light in the world. That love will prevail over fear.” Don adds, “I loved recording to and being drawn into so many of Karen’s circular guitar parts like the bossa nova-ish chords for Sun on the Square or her great finger picking in Green Bus.”

Big life changes, such as their eldest child leaving for college, and changes in work and family health, and in the world, make for another universal theme that runs through the album. Love and fear – longing and loss – belief and awe – Sun On The Square is an emotional journey. For example, ‘Light Of Winter’: “Not letting one’s fears take over being a good parent.” ‘Look Out From Your Window’ addresses, “missing someone, the hope to communicate over distance, shouting and waving across – though of course the person you miss cannot see or hear you.” ‘Shadow Of The Pines’ – the title from a road sign in New England that “somehow became part of the feeling of change and absence and starting over.” Of the lush arrangement that builds in intensity to the song’s end, Karen adds, “Our favourite part of recording this was trying to grow the music as it went on, hearing our daughter’s deep viola with my accordion part and Don’s guitar, and I love his drumming. Adding a very high harmonica to the end, doubling the piano with pump organ. It’s a little, old, wooden field organ that I love playing. It always surprises me because it can have an enormous, low, reedy, but also strings- like sound.”

With Bella Union behind them, and a record as exquisite and emotional as Sun On The Square, the innocence mission are sure to find new fans, and re-establish contact with those already in the fold. Either way, prepare to have your heart broken and your breath taken. Tears might fall. You have been warned.