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Most of the songs on Ruins (Kranky), the new album by Grouper, the solo project of Oregon-based Liz Harris, are three years old, recorded during a residency in Aljezur, Portugal—with one exception, the final track, which dates all the way back to 2004. It’s not uncommon for Harris to let her material marinate for years on end: Last year’s The Man Who Died in His Boat was comprised of songs recorded at the same time as her breakthrough album, 2008’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill.
But this habit of long incubation periods isn’t intentional. “I feel like one of these old, slow Mac computers with the rainbow wheel spinning,” Harris explains. “I’m always trying to do 10 other things at once.” (In addition to 10 solo albums released since 2005, she regularly collaborates with other musicians and, recently, avant-garde filmmaker Paul Clipson.) In the case of Ruins, the stretch of time enabled Harris to see that the album’s eight hushed, intimate songs were already complete. “I initially thought that I was going to go back to these recordings and add a bunch of things to them, because they felt bare,” she says. But the distance from them revealed their sparseness to be an asset. Most are composed of just piano melodies and Harris’s haunting vocals, much clearer here than on previous, reverb-drenched albums.
To create Ruins, Harris spent a week in total solitude, in a rural Portuguese cabin with intermittent electrical problems. She passed the time going for long runs, drawing, and recording on a battery-powered four-track.
“These songs felt like they were just waiting to come,” she says. “I hadn’t written anything before I got there, but as soon as I was there with a piano, they just came out.” The change of scenery proved fruitful and afforded her the chance to work through long-gestating, unprocessed emotions. “I was immediately able to think in a new way; you can step into this little side room and look back on the place that you’ve come from.” Once she was in that space, the rest came naturally. “I’m very in the moment when I’m recording a song,” she says. “Songs tend to just kind of arrive, like a guest at the door.”
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