FEATURES How Quitting School and Learning About Wolves Impacted Purrer’s Songs By Jeffrey Silverstein · November 11, 2016
Purrer. Photo by Shannon Partrick.

Both live and on record, the music of Amanda Glasser is a safe haven that allows her to explore her darker thoughts. So it’s no surprise that her songs can generate strong emotional reactions: At her shows, it’s not uncommon to find audience members—and sometimes even Glasser herself—crying. On her debut EP as Purrer, she is joined by Jarrett Gilgore and John Birkholz on bass and drums, respectively. In contrast to the home recordings she released under the name Saint Julien, her music as Purrer is far more dynamic. Glasser writes about serious topics—trauma, assault, and mental health—but she does so with kindness and sensitivity. Recorded in a proper studio for the first time, Glasser’s vocals and guitar work have a newfound clarity, adding depth to her open-hearted songwriting. We spoke with Glasser about quitting school, the history of wolves, and being emotionally vulnerable.

You were recording and performing as Saint Julien for some time. What does the name change represent?

I used a pseudonym because I was afraid of putting myself out there—mostly because I felt creeped out, to be honest, by the blogosphere. I flew under the radar and never really promoted anything. Then, I decided I wanted to take music more seriously when I quit school. I graduated from undergrad and had this whole wild plan to go to med school, and I was working on that. Then I quit, and realized I wanted to do music. I started using my own name, because if this is what I want to commit to, I should use my own name. Purrer is just the name of my band and is the result of me wanting to have a rock band, and not wanting to be a singer-songwriter. The name is an onomatopoeic reference to the way delay, vibrato, and distortion sound, which is something I’ve gotten really into. I use all three of those a lot with my band, and on the record too.

What was the specific moment when you realized you were done with school?

It was very dramatic. I was at Bryn Mawr doing their Post-Bacc program where, if you get in and you get through it, you are definitely going to go to med school. It’s intense, and I liked the school work, but I did not like the lifestyle. It was strange, because I was getting really good at the guitar. I was playing a lot of classical guitar, finger-style, in my very limited free time. But you couldn’t sit down and be like ‘Okay, on Sunday from 2-4, I’m going to write a song.’

Obviously, because of school, I couldn’t tour, and I was having constant anxiety about just not feeling right. It got to the the point where I was not doing so well in my classes, because I was having panic attacks during my exams. Which is so not me—I love school and I love tests. One day, I was taking this biology exam, and I just totally blanked. It took everything in me to just get through it. I left and was sobbing and decided I just had to quit. It was ridiculous that I knew the information on the test, but my brain was not letting me demonstrate that I knew it. It seemed like that was because I shouldn’t be doing it.

It’s not that often in life where you have moments that are so clear.

Right. And it’s not like I have panic attacks all the time. I have anxiety issues, but panic attacks are only something I encounter when something is really, really wrong. I don’t get them out of nowhere.

There’s such clarity and power in your vocals and guitar work on the EP. Where does that come from?

I never even played electric guitar until 2010 or 2011. I had only been playing and writing songs for a few months when I made the Saint Julien tape. It was just me in my apartment, trying to figure out how to play guitar and use a loop pedal. The recording is just everything coming through one amp with a field recorder. Then, I’d put drums over top of that in GarageBand. That’s obviously a big difference from working with Craig Bowen in a studio [on the new record]. Also, I just have had a lot more time with guitar. I sang in children’s choirs when I was younger, which shaped my voice and gave it the quality that is on the Saint Julien tape. When I quit school, I started playing this adorable little open mic night in a suburb of PA. I felt that during that time, my vibrato was unleashed, and I figured out how to sing outside of just a straight tone. It was letting go of old training that was no longer relevant, and getting more confident.

I love hearing about musicians doing open mic nights. In the indie world, they’re usually deemed inherently uncool.

It’s definitely not ‘cool,’ but it’s such a good experience. It’s so low pressure, and at this particular one, people were very supportive, and there were a ton of great musicians. Some of them were just playing cheesy covers—there can be a lot of cheese at an open mic night.

Sometimes cheese is good.

Right—no one is pretending not to be cheesy when they are cheesy. Except for the 16-year-olds. ‘Great, please come and play an acoustic Smashing Pumpkins set, just do it!’ I had gotten to the point where I was playing nonstop, and I had to start doing this in front of people, ‘cause I was starting to feel crazy doing it alone all the time. After a point, I started playing house shows and DIY shows in Philly. That was a great experience for me, because I was accepted so much more immediately than I felt I was in Baltimore.

That’s the other thing with the Saint Julien stuff: I was feeling very marginalized in Baltimore when I made those songs. It’s unfortunate, and I’m not trying to say that this is specific to Baltimore at all. I hate when people say, ‘Oh Baltimore is like this…life is like this.’ At that time in Baltimore, it was much more dude-centric—more than it is now. There was a lot of party-rock music. Since I was a girl and wasn’t making ‘cool or hip’ music, there was a lot of me feeling like I wasn’t welcome by this circle of dudes. Or if they expressed interest in my music, it turned out that they were really expressing interest in something else. That sucked. That really held me back, being surrounded by these dudes that are like ‘Yeah I shred…what’s your deal?’

When I was there it was after some of the Wham City stuff. It felt like the scene opened up a little.

People definitely have a prejudice against solo performers, because they think, ‘Oh it’s gonna be some cheesy asshole that wants to do Elliott Smith.’ It sucks, but it’s a lot easier to play a solo set when you’re bad, because you don’t have to convince anyone else to agree to play with you. That creates this idea that if you are playing solo, it’s because you aren’t good enough to have a band. And, at the time, I kind of technically wasn’t—but the songs were good.

Do you still run into those same issues in Baltimore now?

I have shows at my house and certainly book solo performers, but I do think one person with a guitar is just sort of ‘out’ in Baltimore. In a lot of cities, one dude with a guitar is out, but in Baltimore one of anyone with a guitar is out. If you have a noise table and are making weird noise music, you’re fine. People want to party. People want to go to a rock show. And that’s valid, also, but there need to be more spaces.

Are you writing from a different place now?

Now that I have a band, it’s changing a little. Mostly the way I write is that I’m freaking out about something, and I sit down to write, and a whole song comes out. Especially because I started writing songs using the loop station. That filtered into my process. That linear thing, where I can make a whole song in real time. When I started these songs, it was similar. I would start editing more. There are more chords, because I can play more chords. The lyrics are more self aware, and the song structures are a bit more complex.

The Saint Julien stuff was written between the ages of 18 and 21. They were me being like, ‘I’m angsty, what am I doing with my life, I want to die, I’m miserable, I’m sad.’ By the time I got to these Purrer songs, it was me realizing these things that happened in my life are the reason I felt so shitty, and now I’m processing them and facing them head-on, rather than wallowing. Wallowing music is still great music, though.

I hear that on these songs—the sound of someone actively working through something.

I’m glad to hear that. It does reflect a lot of the process. It was me being like, ‘I can’t take this anymore. I’m going nuts. I have to pick up my guitar.’ It sounds cheesy, but it’s only cheesy because it’s true, how therapeutic it is to write a song.

You mentioned these songs touch on trauma, and how that trauma affects different relationships.

The way this EP came to exist is that Jimmy from Friends Records came to me about wanting to put out a record, and I wasn’t ready for that. So I said, ‘I’ll give you four songs.’ The whole collection of songs—it’s a narrative. There are moments where it’s not explicitly speaking of trauma, but if you listen to the whole thing, its obvious.

So there are themes that shape them?

One thing that was largely shaping for me is the fact that I’m only child. I never connected that well with my parents, even though they are extremely supportive. But I was a lonely, sad kid. I was ripe for abuse by the time I was a teenager. I had a really terrible first boyfriend—as a lot of young women do—when I was 17. He was really abusive. I was also assaulted during that time. Being assaulted in my teens really affected me, because those were my first sexual experiences. As someone who grew up really lonely, of course I craved intimacy. People see that, and they prey on it. And that’s why people like me who crave intimacy and are also very outgoing tend to repeatedly run into these issues. It makes it really hard, even when you are with someone who is good and is a good partner and not abusive, to not be scared all the time. That’s something that I’ve really struggled with. I’ve gotten out of the pattern recently, but the impulse is still there. A lot of the songs are about that. ‘Wolves’ is pretty explicitly about that, but also I was really bummed one day about dogs. I was like, ‘Is it fucked up that we have dogs?’ Then I learned that [at one point in time], wolves started hanging out with people, but it was only the friendly ones who wanted to eat our trash. Metaphor, you get it: It references being in a co-dependent relationship.

And what about ‘Tree that Bears the Golden Fruit’?

That was me being like, ‘Fuck school—I want to play guitar and be with the person I love.’ But I was still in that co-dependent thing, and didn’t realize that it was bad. ‘Jewel Case’ is about social anxiety. I was at a party at a friends place in Baltimore when I wrote it. All the cool kids showed up—it was winter, and they were all in these black coats—and I was like, ‘What the fuck, this is so ominous.’ I felt like I was on the outside.

‘Black’ might be my favorite cut, despite the fact that it’s pretty grim.

‘Black’ is actually a really old song that I used to play as Saint Julien that is straight-up depression—‘I’m miserable and went to shut everything out.’ It’s not just depression—‘depression’ implies that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain and it has nothing to do with anything. It’s just getting down on the world and shutting it out because it hurts. On my full length, there are songs that deal a lot more explicitly with really serious stuff that I’ve been through. One of them is in French. It hides the fact that it’s me learning to deal with the fact that I have bipolar disorder. Another one is called ‘Bed,’ which is very clearly, but metaphorically, about getting over assault. Pretty dark.

Do you speak with other musicians about mental health?

I don’t talk to other musicians about it one on one. I’m really open. I’m not worried someone will be embarrassed or not cool about it. But if a touring band comes through, I’m probably not going to get into that unless there is some sort of great connection that happens. When I was touring solo a lot, I would talk a lot more on stage. I would talk about assault and trauma and mental health. The songs are really intimate. I think I’m pretty good about talking about feelings and engaging a group of people. Maybe it’s narcissistic, but making music is sort of like a broadcast. Especially as a solo artist, or someone who writes songs themselves. It feels more comfortable to me to also talk about the content. The things that have happened to me work their way into the songs, so it feels more comfortable to talk about that in the of context a performance.

Sometimes I feel like talking before a song is seen as ‘uncool’ in certain scenes. There are also crowds that are looking for it.

I never started doing it until it seemed like I had tapped into this circuit of shows, and people would be into it. With ‘Wolves,’ I never have a problem saying, ‘This song is about how wolves domesticated themselves, isn’t that cool?’ Because then I’m not saying, ‘This song is about this guy that broke my heart.’ Boring shit. That is uncool. Ok yes, write a song about having your heart broken, but you don’t need to explain it. We get it. If there is nuance where there is likely something someone will miss, like songs like mine with lots of lyrics, [explaining it] can add a dimension of depth. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me recently after shows to say that they cried, which I love. I’m surprised that it happened more with the band than before. I would cry through the second half of my set sometimes.

Some of these songs are painful to get through live.

None of them are always painful, but if something is going on in my life, all of a sudden I hear a new meaning as I’m playing it, and I just break down. But when I get through the song, it sounds good. Crying can sound really beautiful, and I think people tend to agree. I feel really lucky. I feel like I’ve had this privilege. I don’t know where it came from. Some of it is classic white girl privilege, but I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never had a problem with people talking over my set, even though it’s quiet. That’s something that most quieter acts struggle with. Knowing that I have that, and that not everyone does, is one of the things that has pushed me to keep doing this. It’s not that I think I’m making groundbreaking music. But if people are willing to engage in this and want to, even though it’s a musical context that’s not popular right now, then I must be doing something right.

Some artists take on the mindset, ‘I’m on the stage so you have to be quiet and respect me.’ I’ve always felt like a room is quiet when the music demands it.

Some bands are like, ‘I’m entitled to your attention.’ But you’re not, necessarily. There was only one time where I told people to shut up at a show. It was at the Crown. There were people in the front sitting down on the floor, really into it. Then there were people at the bar, and Sara Autrey from Wing Dam, who is my knight in shining armor came up to me and was like, ‘Tell them to shut up! We can’t hear you.’ So I told them, ‘You can go to the other room if you don’t want to listen.’ Then they came and sat down and listened! That was cool. I get anxiety, worrying ‘Am I fraud? Am I a narcissist? I have a degree in science that I’m not using, and it’s rude of me to waste it.’ I worry, ‘Who am I to sit here and spend all my time playing guitar so I can work through my feelings, and then try to get people to listen to me do it, and to pay me to do it?’ It feels self-involved at times.

In that case, I’m glad to hear people are having that emotional connection at your shows.

We played at a street fair recently, and during a really intense song I saw someone squatting on the ground with their face in their hands. I was like, ‘Sorry!’ But also, ‘Thank you—buy a tape.’ I’m not trying to make people miserable or put my pain on anyone, but it’s that kind of feedback that has led me to to keep doing this. I haven’t had any success in terms of publicity or anything. It’s hard not to get caught up thinking, ‘I’m not a buzz band yet, so maybe I should just quit.’ But people hitting me up to play shows, people buying things after the show and talking to me—that stuff is way more important.

Jeffrey Silverstein

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