Wandering Spirits

Elvis Perkins on being a nomad, Leonard Cohen's synthesizer and the Episcopalian way

Elvis Perkins is a self-admitted wanderer. He claims to have no base of operations. ("I'm baseless," he says.) Sure, he's always looking for a chance to break his nomadic existence, and he's keeping an eye out for a good place to put down roots.

Right now, that'll have to wait. He's currently on tour in support of his debut record, Ash Wednesday, which is garnering rave reviews for its quiet power and melancholy wisdom--qualities usually associated with two of Perkins' musical (and equally wanderlusting) forebears, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

"I think I've managed with some success to draw from both of them," he says. "They've had an equal influence on me, I think. I don't listen to too much music in general, but I've spent a lot of time with Cohen and Dylan's work."

Like his itinerant lifestyle, Perkins' songs stretch across sonic and lyrical expanses. There's everything from the sweeping country-rock romanticism of "Moon Woman II," which edges deep into Lee Hazlewood territory, to the spare yet epic piano ballad "Good Friday," its simple chords allowing Perkins' plaintive voice to grip the listener's heart:

Come lay here beside me
And I'll fear no death
I'll give you my body
And I'll breathe your breath
No one will harm you
Inside this song

Despite Ash Wednesday's overall spiritual intonation, Perkins believes himself to be faith-challenged.

"I don't consider myself as a religious person," he confesses, "but I was, in fact, raised in the Episcopalian way. I was an altar boy, so I have some history with the church, and people hear religious themes in my songwriting, I'm sure. The church and the Bible have a resonance for me, and certainly Cohen and Dylan have engaged in Christian or Catholic iconography and images from time to time."

Indeed, Perkins' lyrics are as lovely and thought-provoking as the most celebrated verse. He finds no pleasure, however, in reading books of poetry.

"I have a blockage to reading straight poetry," he says. "It seems to lack a kind of direct access to my brain. I'm better able to respond to what one might call poems put to music--or songs. However well I may seem to deal with words, at the end of the day, it's still a foreign tongue to me. I mean, what is a word? I think it's amazing that you and I are even able to talk to each other right now."

While Perkins is touring with a band these days, he has no anxiety performing a solo acoustic set. He sees both formats as possessing a certain charm. On his current tour, he's been supplying a bit of both--stripped-down and band arrangements.

"It's just two different settings to getting similar things across. I have a lot of fun playing with my band, though, and it can be lonesome being just a guy all by myself on stage."

Having a band, of course, has allowed Perkins to cover some of his favorite songs. Indeed, Elvis Perkins has been known to perform Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and the deep cut of Dylan's "Million Dollar Bash." The timeless folk-pop sound of Ash Wednesday recalls earlier masterpieces like Songs From a Room, which leads us to ask if Perkins appreciates the more recent synthesized arrangements of Mr. Cohen, who has seemingly jettisoned his guitar in favor of a Casio keyboard.

"I haven't been able to get as near to Cohen's newer songs as I have to his earlier records," says Perkins. "I think perhaps it is the synthesizer. It doesn't matter, really. The earlier records are untouchable. If he had made those and quit, it would've been fine with me."

Like his hero, Perkins' songs should come with passports, originating in one location, taking shape in another and reaching completion in yet another part of the country. For instance, the shuffling folk gem "While You Were Sleeping" began in Cape Cod, Mass., made most of its bounds in Santa Fe, N.M., and was finally recorded in Los Angeles.

"That is a pretty good cross-country trek," he laughs. "There's only so far I can push the writing of a song before I feel like I'm forcing it. Songs can have a long maturation process. They're as human as their makers. They need time to figure out how to walk on their own."