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A short conversation with Eric Terino

14 February 2022

Can we just start with a bit of background? Tell me a bit about your journey as a musician, from early days through to the making of Innovations of Grave Perversity?

Eric: I’ve been writing songs since I must’ve been about 7 or 8. I remember starting bands with my neighborhood friends and we’d write these little songs and record them on a tape deck. I was always really interested in the concept of creating an album as a work of art, even back then. I’d take polaroids of the band members and myself and cut them out and collage them to make little CD covers for our dream albums.

Though my early life was more centered around visual art (painting, graphic design, sculpture, illustration, etc.), music has always been where the passion lies and what ties all the mediums together for me. Writing songs and allowing them to exist in the context of an album is what I’ve found to be most important in my life. I really love the process of creating a record from top to bottom, designing the layouts, painting the cover art, all of that stuff. Being able to put a visual face on the recordings basically. When I think of the albums that really influenced me when I was growing up, the artwork was such a huge part of how I saw and felt the music.

Actually, before I made my first record in 2013 (Mountains of Nothing In Love), I had shot the cover photograph of this stapler looking like a couple after having just had an argument, and I’d come up with the album title, and I just carried that around with me for years and years before I actually wrote any of the songs. It was an interesting approach. It was like I had a brief to fill with this title and cover art, and I wrote the songs that I felt would be on a record that looked like that. That was the complete opposite approach I took to making my sophomore record (Champagne and Childhood Hunger), which was built from the songs up.

And what musical and perhaps non-musical influences have been important touchstones for you regarding the way you make music?

Eric: I grew up casting a pretty wide musical net. As a kid, I loved people like the Spice Girls, and even in that very light-pop context, I was always super interested in the songwriting process, how these things I was hearing on the radio came into existence. It was an almost mystical kind of thing, and as I got to be about 11 or 12 I took a sharp turn into stuff like Patty Waters, Bob Dylan, PJ Harvey, John Cage, Marianne Faithfull, Nico, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, and Jolie Holland. So I definitely think all of those artists that I love are buried somewhere in the DNA of my songwriting, but on the surface, it might be hard to hear those influences. I’m definitely never trying to make a record that sounds like such and such, or even sounds like anything I’ve already done myself. It feels a bit pointless to fill the space with some new or slightly different version of a thing that already exists. For me, I feel like if I’m going to make music it needs to be music that I wished existed and just isn’t out there.

But specifically with Innovations of Grave Perversity, musical influences weren’t really what I was tapping into. As I was writing and recording Innovations… I was looking at a lot of stuff like John Everett Millais or Andrew Wyeth paintings, woodcuts by Aristide Maillol, films like “Shit House”, Mark Thiedeman’s “Last Summer”, “20,000 Days On Earth”, or Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend”, books like Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” or Françoise Hardy’s “The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles”. Generally, I do try to avoid listening to too much music when I’m writing so I can make space for the words and melodies of the songs I’m trying to form to enter my orbit. But visual art and stories told through books and films have a great impact on sculpting the mood. They can really help to further the process of getting out the story that I’m trying to tell myself.

Talking of making music, Innovations of Grave Perversity is an album you made during lockdown. How hard was it to make an album that way and what were the processes and people involved?

Eric: I think my experience of living through this pandemic has been slightly different from the average person. I’ve faced various forms of mental illness throughout my life and in the last 10 years or so that has manifested itself as pretty severe agoraphobia. So even prior to the pandemic it had been years since I’d been able to leave my home. Before things got really bad, I was actually living in NYC for about a decade and then I ended up moving out into a forest in New England to be closer to my family, which is where I set up my home studio.

So fast forward to 2018, I’d just finished recording Champagne and Childhood Hunger and the process of beginning the sessions that would form the Innovations… album were loosely beginning. I’d started writing “Felt” and “I Didn’t Live There” and those two songs actually took me over two years to finish. They were such big songs, and I knew they were going to be the opening and closing tracks on the next record. So they were extremely important to get right. I’d been very casually moving through the process of writing those two tracks and then the pandemic hit. At about the same time, I’d received a message from Michael Cepress, who is an absolutely wonderful musician and human being, and we became fast friends. Whether he intended to or not, he really gave me the push to finish those two songs and start getting serious about putting the whole record together.

The next bit of luck was making the connection with Jolie Holland, who has been a musical hero of mine throughout nearly all of my life. Her songwriting is so unparalleled, the way she crafts her songs is just astounding. So I actually worked with her first, she was able to record vocals and violin for a song called “Body Gets Stoned”, which ended up being the first song I completed for the record. After that, a lightbulb went off and I realized that this was the perfect time to be connecting remotely with other artists to play on this album. It wasn’t just about utilizing other musicians, it was about turning the process of making the record into a means of connecting with other artists when we were all in such a severe state of isolation.

And what did you learn through being forced to work in such a different way and will what you learned affect the way you work going forward in any way?

Eric: For the two records I made prior to this one, I’d done everything myself. Played every instrument, done every mix, everything. So it truly was a completely new way of doing things for me when I decided to work remotely with all of these fantastic artists. I was discovering this, just insane pool of talent, and from all over the world. Cellists in Russia, French horns in Italy, double bass in Poland, harps from England, even this incredible guy from Greece, Nikos Giousef, who plays the most beautiful musical saw I’ve ever heard. So yes, absolutely the experience of making this record has affected how I’ll work moving forward. I’ve made some really beautiful friendships and it just felt so appropriate to this project for it to not be such a solitary and isolated process. It’s really a record about opening oneself up to the possibility of potential for joy, the idea that there’s beauty to be found out in the world. As someone who deals with agoraphobia and mental illness, that was really important to me. Being able to find a way to break out of feeling so alone and using the experience of making music from my home to connect with other people.

Did you have to alter your approach to songwriting to fit this album? Perhaps tell me a little bit about how you used to approach songwriting and how you adapted it for this latest album?

Eric: Basically, the way these songs came to be was I’d write them and record the demos on my own, just playing piano or guitar to get a rough outline of the song. Then I’d send those demos over to the other musicians and explain what I was looking for in terms of their contribution. And it would build up and up, and then as I was mixing it all I’d strip things away, record new parts, chop up bits and rearrange them, etc, etc. So the approach to recording was significantly different but yes, the writing process was very different as well.

I find that it varies quite a bit from record to record. For example, with the Champagne… album, I was in such a different place. I’d just gone through something horrific in my personal life and was barely getting my bearings again when I decided to start writing that. Maybe it was out of a desire for more structure and stability or something, but that record was written in a pretty regimented way. Every morning I’d wake up early and walk down the street to an empty house I’d been left to take care of, and for maybe 5 or 6 hours a day I’d just sit in this big empty house with a piano and write. I basically did that every day until the record was completed, which I think took 4 or 5 months. The circumstances with Innovations… were totally different. I was now settled into my own home, with my own studio set-up, and I had a very different story to tell. I wasn’t allotting hours of the day to sit and write, I was just writing as words or melodies came to me. Nearly all of this record was written in the dead of night, mostly from my bed. Almost every night as I was trying to get to sleep I’d find myself chipping away at lyrics or melodies, really thinking deeply on them and making slight almost imperceivable shifts until I felt they were just the way I needed them to be.

Are there any messages running through the album, anything that you are trying to share with the world or does it take a more personal journey?

Eric: The goal I set when writing is to make the personal as universal as possible. So yeah, these songs are incredibly close to me, and they’re more autobiographical than anything I’ve written before, which is saying a lot. I think the difference is that in the past I’ve sort of filtered my own life through a lens of “characters” if you know what I mean. The characters in those songs are all… well, for the most part, they’re me or people from my life, but they’re dressed up a bit. On Innovations… I wanted to be more honest and open, it seemed like that was the best way to be true to what I wanted out of my life at this point. After the trauma I’d addressed in my last two albums, I was finally in a space where I wasn’t so furious anymore. I wanted the best for myself and everyone I’ve ever known or loved. That was the key to making this album, renouncing damnation and moving from a place of despondency to a place of hope. This is why I structured it as a journey from winter (beginning with “Felt”) to the edge of spring (“I Didn’t Live There”). That’s also how I came to use this beautiful illustration, by an incredible artist named Gina Furnari, of crocuses blooming from a snowy field as a visual for the album promo. The cover painting actually reflects this idea too, I wanted it to be this portrait of a figure emerging from the shadows, entering the light.

There’s a whole host of themes running through my life present on this album, I actually think it’s kind of a “mature” record in that sense. There are songs that deal with parenthood or accepting childlessness (“Torture The Dead”, “Boulder”), looking back on young love and the experience of coming out as an LGBTQ+ teen from a more advanced age (“A Snowfall at Dusk”), or the death of close friends and loved ones and how we manage those emotions in the years after they’ve passed (“Invocations”). I guess what I’m trying to share with the world, and what I’m trying to allow myself to believe, is that we’re not alone.

There is a wonderful soothing quality to the music, do you set out to make understated music, or does it come out that way naturally because of what the songs ask of you?

Eric: Thank you! It’s really lovely to hear that, especially about this set of songs. Because I definitely haven’t always made music that one would describe as “soothing”. My first album was in a much more punk/DIY/outsider-music sort of vein. I was young and furious, and I recorded that album just a few months after I’d lost one of the most important people in my life. When we were in our early twenties my best friend was killed in a car accident one morning on her way to work. She was truly my partner in life and to be separated the way we were, especially at such a young age, was excruciating. So I made that record and it’s full of acerbic vicious aggressive sounds and pained vocals. It’s actually something that’s difficult for me to go back to these days. Just recently I was revisiting one of the songs from that record with a friend of mine who’s a guitarist, and it was just too bleak of a place to try and reconnect with. So I think the evolution in sound from where I started making music in that incredibly pained place, to where I am today has absolutely been because it’s instinctively what the songs are asking of me when they present themselves. I don’t necessarily set out to make an “angry” record or an “understated” record, the nature of the thing is just inherently built into where the songs are coming from.

And where next for Eric Terino, both musically and otherwise?

Well, it’s always hard to answer that. I try to be as present as possible in what’s currently going on. So at the moment I’m super focused on promoting this record and getting it out into the world, and with any luck, people will be able to discover and connect with it. We’ve still got some music videos and a few fun surprises lined up before it comes out in March. But I’ve yet to start really thinking about what the next one could be like. I think with that sort of thing, it’s a when-you-know-you-know kind of situation. I always feel like the next record could jump out of me in a couple of months or maybe it’ll be years before it’s time to start again. But what I do know is I’m incredibly proud of this album and the experience I’ve had in making it. It’s allowed me to build some beautiful friendships and make some work that I’m very proud of, and that’s more than the little kid recording songs on a tape deck with his neighborhood friends could have ever dreamed of.

Innovations of Grave Perversity is out March 11th via Perpetual Doom

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