“I think I’m embarrassed by everything I’ve ever put out. That’s the sign it’s done. I like to feel some risk or sacrifice of ego is involved.”
Reluctantly, via email, Liz Harris is explaining the thinking behind Ruins, her newest album – and possibly her riskiest. Consisting of a collection of warts-and-all songs for piano and voice, Harris admits that she felt a little embarrassed by the album, “by how plain the emotional outpouring is. How simple the piano melodies [are]. [I] called it ‘the adult contemporary album’ for most the past year while I was prepping, and wouldn’t play it for friends.”
There is something characteristically Grouper about this dynamic: withholding an album from friends whilst preparing it for release to an adoring listenership of thousands. Whether exploring longform, shadowed ambience or a frail kind of bedroom pop, this contradiction powers Harris’ activities. Her music is intimate in scope, but extremely broad in reach; it refuses to gesture at specifics, but its aching emotionality invites the listener to apply their own. It’s a fitting soundtrack for the social networked age, where it can seem more natural to broadcast your private thoughts to a hundreds-strong follower list than to open up to a close friend. “I’m not a very straight person,” Harris says. “[The music is] more honest to the way my mind works when it is blurred and gestural; more meaning comes across.”
In this regard, Ruins bucks the trend – at least to a degree. A song like ‘Clearing’ is simple, lilting, almost nursery-rhyme like, Harris’ usual shroud of reverb only hinted at in the way its sustained piano notes smear together like lamplight on a rainy night. Elsewhere, instead of allowing us to drift off into universals, Harris keeps us tethered to the environment in which the album was recorded. Opener ‘Made of Metal’ consists of a single, steady drumbeat, so muffled that you’re compelled to reach for the volume control. As that pulse comes into focus, so too does the background noise: the hiss of an air conditioner perhaps, the croak of frogs outside the window. ‘Holding’, the record’s highlight, ends with a distant rainstorm – a subtle reminder that there is a world beyond the confines of your headphones.
Still, in other ways Ruins is the quintessential Grouper album, conceived in almost impossibly romantic circumstances and out of deeply personal imperatives. It was recorded in 2011, shortly after the completion of the A I A double album, a hugely ambitious project which helped put Harris on the map – but at a cost. “That album was torturous to produce,” she recalls. “I didn’t finish feeling clean. I’d been living in a basement studio by myself for a year trying to finish it, and when it was done I didn’t like it.”
Having had the residency lined up through Lisbon’s Galeria Zé dos Bois, Harris cut off all her hair and left for Portugal. “[I was] pretty infested with self pity and anger. Just starting to process a relationship that had ended a couple years prior. Being alone and near the water started drawing some of it out. Emotions built up over years emerged. I felt incapable of being in a relationship, of finding love. Bad at taking care of people, no one taking care of me. Governments not taking care of their own people, world economy taking a nose-dive cause of shortcuts and greed.”
These themes suffuse Ruins. It is an album haunted not only by the ruins of rural Aljezur, through which Harris walked on her several-mile hike to the nearest beach, but by emotional ruins – the sort of edifices which, while long since uninhabitable, still persist in the mind. Not to mention the ruins of collapsing political and financial systems: Portugal was hit hard by the financial crisis, and the residency almost didn’t happen when the gallery’s funding was cut at the eleventh hour (in the end, Harris stayed in the house of music director Sérgio Hydalgo’s aunt).
“It’s wild there, by European standards,” Harris says now of Aljezur. “Not too many people, some farmers and lots of old crumbled buildings. I was alone for a week, week and a half. Mostly I wrote songs through the day, taking breaks to get outside; to go running or hike to the beach; to take photos and field recordings. Every few days I had to walk some miles to the market to get food. I worked on drawings in the evenings and drank port and listened to the three CDs that Sergio’s aunt had left there—Carlos Paredes, Nina Simone live, Leonard Cohen. Some of the [Cohen] was really odd live material. I fell in love with Carlos Paredes.”
Harris seems irritated by the question of why the album took so long to emerge (“aren’t everyone’s releases from an earlier time by the time they’ve been mixed, mastered and pressed?”). Of course, Ruins isn’t her first retrospective release, and like the recent The Man Who Died In His Boat (a partner piece to 2008’s exquisite Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill), it hasn’t suffered at all for its time spent on the shelf. It’s tempting to see this slowness as a calculated strategy on Harris’ part; an attempt to escape the hectic rush of contemporary life and enter a slower slipstream, where music from three years ago feels like it could’ve been recorded yesterday, or a decade prior. “I honestly feel I move way too quickly most of the time,” Harris says. “I make an effort to space releases out and still end up releasing more often than I’d like, make an effort to have time at home and still end up traveling and performing more than I’d like.”
Ruins closes with ‘Made Of Air’, recorded much earlier, in 2004, in Harris’ mother’s house. This time the difference in time and place is audible, the track’s piano figures sunk deep into oceanic swells of delay. Following the simplicity and clarity of much of the album, it is lengthy, withdrawn and cryptic; it seems intent on disappearing beneath a cloud of its own reverberance. Ruins might be Harris’ most direct work to date, but ambiguity remains her goal. “Once a song has left me I want it to belong to whoever finds it,” she says. “I write a song about feeling isolated. Listeners know the song is about their mother dying, the birth of their child, the way their last relationship ended. All these things and more. An open door.”