Adding weight to the belief that Kiwi musician success can spring from anywhere (so long as it’s original), sisters Clementine and Valentine Adams developed their synths, ghostly vocals, sample and sound effects-drenched sound amidst Hong Kong’s oddball underground art music scene. Within just a few years Purple Pilgrims were being welcomed internationally, high profile indie darling Ariel Pink notably taking them under his wing for a 2013 US tour. The local market possibly holds little relevance to their future, but as Briar Lawry discovers, it was in a quintessentially Kiwi bush hut that their newly-released first own album, ‘Eternal Delight’ was created.
A pilgrim is a traveller, someone who travels to a specific location for devotional purposes – religious or otherwise. Or, if you like your interpretations a little more literary and esoteric, someone journeying through life. Whatever your take, the sisters who are Purple Pilgrims are proud to bear the name – wherever it takes them.
Clementine and Valentine Adams hail from Christchurch, but their life has led them all over the globe – for music and for family. That being said, for this duo the two are very much intertwined.
“There’s a lot of folk in our family,” Clementine explains. “We’ve had the same musical exposure in our lives.”
With a gypsy grandmother and a grandfather who was a songwriter in London in the ’60s, the band’s eclectic, ethereal sound has evolved from a variety of intriguing places. Beyond their broad, multi-generational musical grounding, the sisters developed their own musical talents and interests in quite starkly different ways.
“I started off with folk singing,” explains Valentine. “Lots of a cappella stuff, with quite a classical grounding.”
Clementine found her footing in the musical world through time spent at art school – and a gradual movement through disciplines.
“I studied visual communications, then moved very naturally from that fine art world, to performance art, to music. My sense of performance has always been about bridging the gap between fine art and sound.
“Playing together was a natural progression – it wasn’t planned. From there, we just kind of slowly started to merge.”
Their paths had clearly deviated a fair amount before they started collaborating. But their different established styles didn’t cause issues.
“Whatever one of us is into, the other has always supported it,” Clementine says. “We have always been very present in each other’s lives.”
Their first show together in Christchurch was in early 2011 – just before the devastating February earthquake. They played one more hometown show not long after, then joined the exodus – leaving the broken city for Hong Kong. The sisters had spent many of their formative years growing up in the territory – so it was a natural safe haven to flee to when ‘home’ became a place of orange cones and red zones.
Band naming seems to fall into one of two camps – either it is something that the group agonizes over for a protracted period of time, or else something quickly agreed upon because a venue needs a name for next week’s poster. Purple Pilgrims fall into the latter camp – but they still very much identify with the name put together with ‘urgent need’.
“I just love that the colour purple is so expansive,” Valentine enthuses. “And as for pilgrims – we’ve moved around a lot, we’re constantly learning, constantly on a journey.”
Hong Kong proved invaluable in terms of developing their own distinctive style. Valentine says there is a great community of underground art music.
“It’s very inclusive – since in Hong Kong in general if you’re doing something ‘different’ you’re really going against the grain – so everyone in this scene is this amazing mismatch of freaks, which is cool.
“And we’re super adaptable. Travelling so much at such a young age helped that. Even after the earthquake, in Christchurch, that adaptability helped.”
Being based in Hong Kong while their music started to really develop also provided a real benefit in terms of access to possibility. Purple Pilgrims were often jetting out to other parts of the globe, touring taking them initially to New York and Los Angeles, then through other parts of the US, and later across the Atlantic to the UK and Europe. Being such a hub for travel, Hong Kong made perfect sense as a base, even after Christchurch’s post-earthquake form started to establish itself.
“It’s so central to everywhere,” Clementine explains. “We’ve seen some pretty big extremes so far – from dusty old spaces in Hong Kong to Irving Plaza in New York.”
Touring was what led Purple Pilgrims to their Los Angeles-based label, Not Not Fun Records. Having already worked with two different labels for their previous two releases – their eponymous debut was released by PseudoArcana and the split LP they created with Gary War was released by Upset the Rhythm – they had clearly had a chance to consider exactly what they wanted from their relationship with a label.
“We met Britt from Not Not Fun through friends, the first time we were in the States,” explains Clementine. “He asked for a demo… and we didn’t have one! They had been in our peripheral vision for a while. We’d really connected to some of their music – and had admired their approach. They really put in effort and enthusiasm, and that got us excited.”
After their split LP release, the duo were on tour in Europe… and another email appeared. Better prepared this time, things fell into place – which ultimately involved Clementine and Valentine coming back to NZ. Amidst so much touring and travelling, recording had been difficult, if not impossible.
“We didn’t have anywhere to do it – we needed the space and time to ourselves. All we wanted to do was come back home,” Clementine relates.
“We made a studio out of a hut in the bush. It’s totally idyllic, there are no distractionsIt’s quite a leisurely approach. We’d lay out part of a track, go for a swim, come back into the studio and pick up where we left off.”
Their secret musical hideaway in the Coromandel is miles away (literally and figuratively) from the place they most recently called home – their 26th floor apartment in the midst of Hong Kong’s concrete jungle. The change of scene and pace provided the sisters with some much needed renewal and rejuvenation.
The result of this time of recording and reflection is ‘Eternal Delight’. It’s a dreamy, hazy kind of a record, full of heavily layered synths and samples with both sisters’ vocals artfully draped on top of the instrumentation.
“Some songs are quite old, some are tracks we’ve developed just for the album. With the older songs, we often let them evolve – we tried new gear, changed some of them up.”
They recorded the tracks themselves, even though neither had a lot of prior experience.
“Learning those processes was really valuable,” Clementine says. “It’s nice to not have to rely on any one person.”
This self-directed approach also meant they could take the time they needed to hone and develop their sound for the album.
“It was so important – we’d spent so long playing live that we needed to take the time to relearn the process.”
Though the tracks that make up ‘Eternal Delight’ blend into one another to create one beautiful broad tapestry, each song stands on its own – and each was created uniquely.
“We have no formula per se – it’s different every time,” says Clementine in describing their songwriting proces. “We’re kind of jacks of all trades. We do all sorts of different parts of the process – one of us will come up with a melody or lyric for one song, and we’ll develop it from there. It’s oddly telepathic working together. When it comes to music, we know what the other’s thinking. ”
With the texturally rich sound they have developed for ‘Eternal Delight’, the sisters admit that translating the current iteration of their sound to live performance may now be more of a challenge.
“We’re figuring that out,” they both laugh.
“We have a couple of really nice synths and a drum machine,” Valentine says of their studio gear. “There’s also acoustic and electric guitar on the record – a lot of electric guitar, actually – with lots of effect applied to the sound.”
“We use a lot of found sounds, samples of field recordings or ethnic instruments. Growing up in Asia, we’ve been exposed to a lot of different instruments – we’ve used some beautiful wooden flutes and there’s quite a lot of guzheng – a Chinese table harp.”
In past touring they had a condensed version for what was a more condensed sound.
“We had two guitars and lots of effects pedals. We used to create these cassette tape collages for a really analogue, lo-fi sound. But now that we’ve progressed to samplers, we couldn’t go back!”
The song titles are as varied as they are intriguing – from Is You Real to Into Night (Brush My Hair, While I Cry). There’s a motif of myth and storytelling running through several of the tracks, including an homage to Greek mythology’s Oracle of Delphi – False Friend (Pythia) – and the particularly curious Penglai.
“There’s a real port called Penglai, but Mount Penglai is this mythical place. Chinese and Japanese rock gardens are based on this island – it’s a place full of goddesses, and trees made of jewels, and mushrooms of eternal life. It’s really this cool myth that we became obsessed with.”
Once the album was handed over to Not Not Fun, things hit a slight delay as vinyl printing was bottlenecked for a while. But for Clementine and Valentine the wait to get the format that they want is entirely worthwhile.
“I really like the warmth. I’m just kind of enchanted by the old school. It’s beautiful to have – it’s just more real,” says Clementine. “With Spotify and things like that, it becomes too easy – people are taking music for granted. We’re losing touch with the physical aspect of music.”
Clementine’s background in visual communications and graphic design has given her a real passion for the physical object.
“For me, the visual and sound aspects are almost equal. Sometimes there are things we can express through art that we can’t through sound. For the first release in NZ, we made a whole zine with drawings and illustrations and this heavy duty Xerox aesthetic – it came with the record. I’ve always wanted to formulate that equal component.”
Finding a label that understands your vision, especially when a particular visual aesthetic is integral to your act’s ethos, can be a tough call. Not Not Fun has, they say, been amazing in that regard.
“They have given input, but left us to do what we want. They are very sensitive to their bands’ aesthetics, and at the end of the day, they are really about the music.”
Even though they’ve toured extensively overseas, Purple Pilgrims have not yet played much here in Aotearoa, and an album-release tour is on the cards later in the year. For now,