[16 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Through the Looking Glass With Mandi Perkins
There are few greater pleasures in life for a music listener than holding a 12"x12” album in your hand, tearing off the shrink-wrap, and discovering the music inside. The images are a gateway to the music and, conversely, the music amplifies the imagery. The singer’s alluring visage on the cardboard sleeve comes alive through the grooves in the vinyl.
Some albums, quite simply, demand a vinyl release. I envision Mandi Perkins’s Alice in No Man’s Land as a luscious, gatefold package. While listening to the album, the songs unfold like a collage of images, creating a darker version of the fairytale from which the title was derived. (Imagine the artwork possibilities!) “Alice is me”, says Perkins. “The album is about finding your voice.” The thirteen tracks on Alice in No Man’s Land provide ample proof that Perkins’s voice is anything but lost.
There was a time, however, when that voice clamored inside an echo chamber. Like the protagonist of Alice in Wonderland, Perkins found herself caught in a vortex of strange situations as she vetted offers from mad hatter executives who tried pulling her in directions she didn’t feel comfortable going. (She ultimately signed with Victor Records, a boutique label of Sony BMG.) “I couldn’t control my surroundings,” she remembers. “I didn’t understand them. I couldn’t contemplate and I couldn’t dissect them. All I could do was say, ‘I am me. Everything around is crazy. I feel like ‘Alice in No Man’s Land.’” The rabbit-hole reality invigorated Perkins’s writing, and she channeled her frustration into an album that is a work of cathartic beauty.
Raised on acts ranging from Gene Pitney to Queen to Barbra Streisand, writing has anchored Mandi Perkins ever since she wrote her first song at four years old, a wistful tune entitled “Come, Come Along With Me”. Reflecting on how her writing has evolved, she says, “I’ve always written. I’m a writer that was blessed, blessed, to be able to sing. I never went to music school.” As a teenager in Toronto, though, Perkins withdrew from her feelings. “I blocked myself off to all of my emotions and just became numb. I wasn’t feeling anything. That’s were ‘Condemned’ comes in, actually,” she says, referring to one of the album’s more emotionally charged tracks. “It’s my version of ‘Comfortably Numb.’”
Escaping the inner turmoil, Mandi Perkins fled Toronto and enrolled at UC Berkley, where she majored in English Literature. Immersing herself in a completely different environment helped the healing process. “It was like I was cold and then I started to warm up. I’ve always been happy, in person,” Perkins clarifies. “That’s the thing: It was never like I was walking around all sad and sulky. Most of the time, you couldn’t tell. I wasn’t writing as much. I write every day now.”
With a catalog of more than a 100 songs, Perkins’s prolific writing process led to “Bleeding the Line…” (2007), an independent album released online via De Novo Music and INgrooves Distribution. She financed the project herself, accepting donations through her MySpace page. Retaining control of her sound and image guided her choices as she campaigned for a record label that could appreciate her intense, deeply personal, sometimes angry, yet undeniably universal stories.
In fact, anger is an emotion that fuels Perkins’s writing. On the day she signed with Victor, she asked the label if she could revisit a couple of songs that were already recorded to make the album sound less angry. She explains, “Sometimes people say, ‘I don’t understand how you can be so happy and energetic and your songs come out so dark.’ It’s because when I’m upset or angry, I write. When I’m happy, I don’t write. It’s the juxtaposition between the dark and the light: I think having an outlet allows you to be light, and I don’t want to come to the table and be all introverted and have all my demons. I want to make people happy, but I need to get the darkness out somehow, and that’s through the song.”
With its infectious hook, “Who I Am” is one of those lighter-sounding-but-no-less-angry songs. Underneath the sweetness is Perkins’s sour retort to a former flame’s unwelcome advances. Backed by a mellifluous piano, she sings, “Your insecurity causes me to have to break away from you”, before the song launches into a mid-tempo groove. Perkins explains that the song is not about being the “2:00 AM girl or guy.” She says, “You know at 2 AM, when you’re at the bar and there’s no one to go home with, and there’s that person that you always call because you know they’ll be around? ‘Who I Am’ is about not being the last person that somebody calls. It’s about having enough respect for yourself to not let yourself be the one that is picked last.”
Much more straightforward in its malice is “Everybody Knows”, which begins by Perkins spitting out the words “You disgust me”. On the album and in her concert performances of the song, she unleashes a passionate torrent of emotion. The visceral impact of “Everybody Knows” is underscored by how quickly and intensely it was written. As Perkins recalls, “I was sitting with my producer, Warren Huart, and I found out something about someone who I totally admired and really respected. I looked up to this person so much. He’s a big person in the music industry. That song came out in one rush. My producer whipped out his guitar and he started playing chords, and I sang all those words. It is so dark and honest and real.”
The dark tenor of the song, Perkins has found, resonates most with male listeners. “Something about ‘Everybody Knows’ reminds guys of something in them,” she shares. “It’s dirty. There’s nothing pretty about that song. I feel like I’ve robbed it of any prettiness. It’s melodic, but it did not deserve to have ‘sparkle’ on it. It needed to be a ‘rough stone.’” Further to that point, Perkins has observed an interesting dynamic between what songs of hers men gravitate towards (the rough stones) versus what songs her female listeners tend to favor (ones with a little sparkle):
“I’m not trying to stereotype the genders, but what I’ve noticed is that guys seem to be drawn towards the rough stones of ‘Crawl’ and ‘Everybody Knows’. The girls are drawn to things where I’ve sprinkled some honey on them. ‘Who I Am’ is a dark, dark song. It’s dark. Everybody’s like, ‘It’s so happy!’ I’m like, ‘That’s not a happy song,’ but it’s uplifting. What happened was [the songs on the album] all came out like ‘Everybody Knows’, originally, and it wasn’t as palatable to girls because it was all rough stones. When I went back and recorded it, I sprinkled a bit of honey on it, because I wanted people to get past the music and hear the words. Guys hear the words through the darkness of the music. Girls hear the words, in my understanding, through the prettiness of the album, so I wanted to make a unisex album.”
With a strong online community of fans, Perkins has interacted with a whole range of listeners, discovering what her music means to different people and how they relate to it. Her audience ranges from troops in Iraq to a teahouse owner in Japan to listeners throughout the African continent. “There are people who I don’t think actually understand the words, but know every word,” she enthuses about her international audience. “The melody is moving them in some way. I’ve spoken to thousands of people, and I’d love to be able to go around the world, which I will do soon, and actually meet these people.”
Joined by her specially handpicked four-piece band—“We love each other,” Perkins exclaims—Perkins is preparing to bring Alice in No Man’s Land to many more stages, having just completed a short pre-release tour. Night after night, Perkins jumps, sweats, shakes, lunges, crouches, whispers, and screams, sometimes on little or no sleep, in front of all kinds of crowds. The most difficult part about the unpredictable nature of life on the road, Perkins maintains, is saving her voice. “It’s a constant battle,” she concedes, continuing, “I love every other aspect of it. I love living out of a bag. I love wearing the same thing three days in a row. I like waking up in a different city every day. It is the number one best job in the world. It doesn’t matter if I have 16-hour days, and I play for six people in a bar, and I’ve driven for ten hours, and I haven’t eaten because I can’t find a restaurant that serves fish. I am so lucky to be able to be doing this.”
Perkins’s commitment to her material electrified the room at a recent Mercury Lounge appearance in New York City. Her feverish six-song set invigorated the mostly industry audience. Watching her test the microphone and take one last swig from a water bottle, then transforming into a lithe figure swaying to the music and cloaked in Amo and Bretti threads was an intriguing sight to behold. Perkins insists her offstage and performance selves are one in the same. “Some performers say that when they get onstage they have a different persona,” she shares. “I feel like me when I’m onstage. The difference is that I show a lot more intensity through the music. It’s an amplified version of me. I structure the songs a certain way. A lot of them are carefully constructed to give off a certain type of feeling that I would want if I was going to see somebody’s show.” From “Why Pretend” to “Crawl” to a new song entitled “Acid Rain”, Perkins embodied the sweat and guts of rock and roll at the Mercury Lounge.
On that particular evening, Alice in No Man’s Land was only two weeks away from its August 5 release date, yet the songs Perkins performed that night represented a lifetime of experiences. The DIY ethic that carried Perkins from open mics, to small clubs, to recording demos, to a full-length album is deeply rooted in Perkins’s attitude towards singing and songwriting. “I can truthfully tell you that I did not get into this to be famous,” she says. “I worked damn hard to get to this point. It didn’t just fall in my lap. I love my label, because they don’t want to change me, or make me different, or make me wear different things, or have me say different words. They just want me to be myself. I’m really lucky—a lot of artists don’t get that luxury.”
A determined, confident musician who climbed her way up out of the rabbit hole, Mandi Perkins is clearly no longer in no man’s land.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/mandi-perkins/