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M Ross Perkins channels psychedelia and social commentary on 'E Pluribus M Ross'

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Recorded in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, E Pluribus M Ross, the new album from Dayton songwriter M Ross Perkins, combines newly written songs with fresh recordings of older material. Ahead of the album's release party, Perkins joined WYSO's Juliet Fromholt to talk about the project.

Interview Excerpts (hear the full recording above):

Juliet Fromholt (JF): I know some of these songs going way back; some of these I'm hearing for the first time. Tell me the story of putting this album together. Was this a pandemic project?

M Ross Perkins (MRP): Yes, one of the many, you know, like artistic manifestations of the pandemic, I guess. I tried to revive several old songs that I wrote years and years ago. And, you know, we kind of talked over like, what should be on this record? And it dawned on me that a lot of people have never heard this material before. I mean, for me, it was like, "Oh, that's old material." But Andy Gabbard actually kind of reminded me [that] nobody's really heard that stuff. So I decided to kind of breathe new life into some of those songs from, gosh, more than 10 years or 15 years ago. But then there are some new ones, too. In the middle of the summer of 2020, everything was kind of going crazy and it just felt like a good time to to exercise that creativity. So I went down and cut the whole thing.

JF: Was that an easy thing to summon amidst the chaos? Were you able to lock into the opportunity of the time we had with the pandemic fairly readily, or was it something you had to kind of coax out of yourself? Because I've heard artists kind of going either way on that. For some people, it was like, "Well, I have this time I might as well." And for others, it was very hard. It was like, "I should use this time, but feels a little weird being creative right now." So I'm wondering what that was like for you.

MRP: So I think that the idea of in the midst of all of that going down and writing a record that was superficial or kind of falling back into old patterns and old tropes in songwriting, you know, and writing love songs or something just seemed like a really trite thing to do. And so in a way it was tough because, yeah, I think I knew that like a lot of artists. This was just, in some ways, a golden opportunity where you had permission to kind of be with yourself, creatively in a new way. But at the same time, it felt really silly to go like, you know, I'm going to go down and write music right now. I'm going to sing songs like, what a dumb thing to be doing when the world is exploding, you know, and we were sort of looking down, you know, two barrels, one the pandemic and the other, you know, the presidential election, which seemed at the time just really bleak. And so I think that that's why, when I did decide to go down and write this this album and sequence it and put it all together, it made natural sense that it should have a really, really prominent social commentary in it. And so that's largely where that sort of thematic, tongue in cheek patriotism or, you know, overtly American kind of idea came from.

JF: Some of these songs have, as you said, have been around for for quite a while. When the first single came out, I was like, I remember that one from way back in the day. 15 years ago you were a different you and, and those songs come from a very different time, both for you and for our country, quite frankly. Is it hard to lock back into those and bring them into the present, or did you find that the themes were very eternal for you and for the overall theme of the album?

MRP: Well, I think the historical context or the context of the present helped to sort of reinvigorate those older songs because suddenly, you know, they made sense in a different way in the context of 2020 than they did in the context of 2008, like you said. And so listening to some of those old demos, it kind of dawned on me that that subject matter was relevant in a new way. And so I specifically picked a couple of those old old songs from way back in the early days of me sort of developing or, you know, becoming like a psychedelic songwriter. And they just made more sense, and I especially felt like they worked really well with some of the newer material. And that, you know, maybe the way that I was articulating things when I was 18 or 19 or 20 years old, those were articulations that I may not necessarily be able to make now and that there's value in that. There was some value to be found there that I could pull from those older perspectives and kind of re-contextualize them in the sequence of this new album.

JF: You refer to yourself as as a psychedelic songwriter, and when I think about the psychedelic era of music, there is a playfulness, but there's also a lot of commentary, a lot of reality hidden among the playfulness. How do you balance those two aspects of your songwriting?

MRP: I mean, my personality is a little bit like that, I guess, so for me, I just try to sort of be myself and write with a voice that isn't terribly different from my own. Learning to do that took a really long time. I think that, you know, 15 years ago, I was writing with what I wanted my voice to sound like. And now I think I've embraced what my natural voice, my personality is on its own. And so, yeah, I think that's what I love about some of that old psychedelic music from the late 60s is that there was this whimsy and they had the ability to be vibrant and colorful while also kind of upending social norms. It was an act of rebellion to be colorful and so in in the time since then, we've become so accustomed to things being colorful and being vibrant and being wild and sort of outlandish or whatever. But in that time, when all of this was fresh, it was an act of of rebellion, particularly in a place like Brazil. I love Brazilian psychedelic music and Tropicalia music and a group like OS Mutantes. They were literally rebelling against a right wing authoritarian government in Brazil and a dictatorship. And they were doing that not by necessarily writing songs that were, you know, "Come on, people now smile on your brother" or you know, "Let's go out in the street and protest." They were writing about eating ice cream, and that in itself was such an act of rebellion that the government was so threatened by a statement as simple as that or as abstract as that, that abstraction became an enemy of the state. And that's really played heavily into what I was trying to achieve with with this record.

JF: There's a sort of challenge, when you are working in social commentary and you are taking on a narrative voice, of balancing out wanting to explore that voice and using that voice to convey a message, but also wanting to make sure the audience understands this is almost like a character. How do you think about that as you're crafting a song or or does that even enter into the songwriting process?

MRP: It probably shouldn't, but it does. Like you probably really shouldn't be thinking about that kind of stuff as you're trying to write a song, but it does. And so it's almost like you have this instinct to to throw [in] a line, that is just clearly blatantly crazy or something, just so that people know that it's not you. And you're really relying on the listener to be able to discern that the person singing isn't necessarily the the narrator of of a song or a story. Like I as I'm writing it, I'm like, man, like people might think this is me saying this, you know? And like on the song "Wrong, Wrong, Wrong," there's a there's a line about tattooed undergrads and it's like, it's sort of this weird, misogynistic line. And again, I was trying to take on this voice of this very specific person that I had in mind expressing these ideas. And it does sort of rely on the listener to be able to to know that what I'm hearing right now is tongue in cheek or or a commentary of some sort. That there's there's a distinction between the singer and the narrator.

JF: Do you find that's a challenge as a songwriter in general, that people want songwriters to always be autobiographical as opposed to functioning more like a novelist where you're exploring different worlds and different characters' stories that may not necessarily be your own but could be an amalgamation of feelings put into a story. Is it hard to sort of break out of that box that people want to put you in, especially when you're performing solo?

MRP: Yeah, I mean it's an understandable box because I think that the music that is especially evocative is music that is genuine, where the listener feels like we're getting a glimpse into the the persona or the soul of this person who's singing. And so I understand the desire for that, you know, and I find those types of songs harder to write. I think it's much, much harder for me at least to write a song that is deeply, emotionally expressive than it is to write a song about some subject matter. But I also think that's an added challenge. So if you can write a song that manages to be evocative and expressive while sort of exploring, like you said, these sort of alternate worlds or, you know, creating these lush kind of images, I think that's an added challenge to the process. I try to do that myself. But I think also there is something that to be said about why particularly genuine music does seem to have that emotional power behind it.

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After joining the WYSO staff in 2009, Juliet developed WYSO’s digital and social media strategy, working closely with her colleagues on daily news coverage. In July 2021, Juliet stepped into a new role, becoming WYSO’s Music Director. An avid music fan and former record store employee, Juliet continues to host her two music shows, Alpha Rhythms and Kaleidoscope, which features studio performances from local musicians every week.