Chris Pureka writes about choices, those we make and live with, those we wish we’d made and mourn for their absence. This is what fascinates me about Pureka’s songwriting and her finely produced recent records, “Chimera” (Sad Rabbit, 2009) and “How I Learned to See in the Dark” (Sad Rabbit, 2010). A new record is due this spring, but I don’t want to wait to write about her work. I want to start here. See, life is all about choices.
It’s the real mystery of life. The lives we live, not the lives we wish we were living. We build it. We move into it. And sometimes we long for a wrecking ball to swing through everything and smash it apart. Sometimes we want to bring it all down ourselves, sometimes we hope others will do it for us. All because we’ve come to hate what we’ve built. Our lives, if we look closely, don’t hide anything.
It’s easy to long for what we imagine is just waiting for us outside if we could only muster the courage to bring the whole thing down and start over. It’s all an illusion, of course, an illusion I think Pureka fully understands in her soul-searching work. What we have is what we wanted, in the beginning. We just don’t want it anymore, and we need some way to explain why we’re about to smash everything. Why we’re about to hurt people we love. Why we make ourselves suffer. Chris Pureka’s work hovers just over that moment of awakening. It’s a truth that’s hard to talk about. As I look over her lyrics and listen to “How I Learned to See in the Dark,” with its hypnotic music weaving into the story she’s written, Pureka isn’t hiding from herself, or from us.
A few weeks ago, seems like ages now, I went to a show at the Tractor Tavern, one of my usual Seattle haunts, to see bands, take photos of the artists, and escape into the fleeting moment of exchange that is live music. I came for another artist, and I discovered Chris Pureka. Her “band” was just her (unlike the ensembles she assembles for her finely crafted records) and her supporting guitar player, Andrea Alseri (from Los Angeles), but her impact was huge. There are some artists who somehow find ways to connect lyrics to their sound that make the two things into one thing, inseparable. Sera Cahoone does this, and I’ve written about her skills. Now, I can add another to this list, Chris Pureka.
I listen to Pureka’s work at night. It’s music that fits the night, when we’re the most vulnerable to imagined demons. Her lyrics, economical and accurate, seem to pull down the night. Songs like “Wrecking Ball” illustrate my point: “…what I miss the most, is knowing just exactly where it hurts, is knowing just exactly what is wrong.” “I pushed it hard, that goddamn wrecking ball.” Or in the song “Hangman”: “We made the rope, we grew the tree.” These fragile thoughts that come at night take time to understand.
These are not songs about wallowing in what’s wrong, or what’s gone, or what we didn’t do. I think it’s very simple: These are songs about being honest with yourself. No answers, just seeing what is. No life is a perfect construction, even the people you look at and think, “Now, they have it all! Why didn’t I do those things instead of the things I did?” This, from Pureka’s song “Shipwreck”: “I wish I was drunk in the back of that car that was speeding away.” She fully understands it’s not about escaping painful insights, either. Yet, escape is such a seductive idea, isn’t it? A speeding car is all it takes to be free. And someone else is driving. In this song, however, you still have to get drunk to take the plunge, if only in the imagination. But that’s no escape either.
Achingly beautiful lyrics. Not a word misplaced or wasted. Pureka is a versatile musician as much as a writer. She contributes both acoustic and electric guitar on her records. Her voice lays over these songs and lends a sense of longing and an intimacy, like letters written to herself but left for others to find and make of them what they will. Shadow words for her shadowlands.
At the Tractor, Alseri’s Gibson guitar added a haunting, weeping accompaniment to Pureka’s sensitive acoustic rendering of her set. The house was packed and noisy, like all bars. We had to press in close to hear all the feeling these two artists were trying to convey. Now I look forward to the day when Pureka can tour with her full band and be the headliner, so her sound can roll out. She has four CDs, “Dryland” (Sad Rabbit, 2006) and “Driving North” (Sad Rabbit, 2004), in addition to the two I’ve already mentioned. So far her work hasn’t been released on vinyl. It needs to be.
We all make choices. Life presses down. We think we can stop time, just long enough to fix things. It’s just one illusion after another, laid bare in these songs. Desire defeats us every time. “How I Learned to See in the Dark” is a record for seekers. A record for the heart. The real mystery remains. Mirrors versus clocks. What is, and what never was. It’s just the way we live our lives.