Innocence Mission, The (Contemporary Musicians)
Image Pop-UpThe Innocence Mission.
Steeped in the spirit of 1960s folk rock, the Innocence Mission brought an ethereal sound to the adult alternative rock genre. Performing a core repertoire of original songs and compositions, the band took its cue from Christian music but superimposed onto that tradition a type of emotion that avoided the sometimes sentimental imagery of classic gospel. Rarely regarded as catchy, swinging tunes, the songs of the Innocence Mission had staying power nonetheless. Originally a quartet and later a trio, the band has had a subtle but solid presence on music sales charts over a long period.
The Innocence Mission was founded as a foursome of schoolmates. The seeds that would grow into the band were sown in the mid-1970s in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, when ten-year-old Karen McCullough received a guitar from her parents. She had already experimented with her brother's guitar and was intrigued by the sounds she could make on the instrument. Shy by nature, she discovered that composing lyrics to the lilt of a gently strummed guitar served as a release for her pent-up thoughts. Thus she was already a vocalist and songwriter when she entered Lancaster Catholic High School a few years later. There she teamed up with Don Peris, a guitarist whom she would eventually marry. The pair, joined by a bass-playing schoolmate, Mike Bitts, and drummer Steve Brown, performed as a quartet in their school's production of Godspell in 1982. After graduation the members of this teenage quartet dispersed, all going their own separate ways to attend college during the mid-1980s.
The band reunited in 1986 and released an extended-play (EP) disc, Tending the Rose Garden, that same year. When Joni Mitchell heard the recording, she appreciated the group's uncluttered sound as well as the warbling voice of lead singer and lyricist McCullough, which was not unlike her own. Mitchell alerted veteran record producer Larry Klein to the group's potential, and Klein enlisted a colleague, Dennis Herring, to assist in producing a debut album at Klein's private home studio. Called The Innocence Mission and featuring 13 original songsach penned by one or both of the Periseshe album was released in 1989. The Innocence Mission's debut was well received, and its eighth track, "I Remember Me," was issued also as a single. After entering the Billboard magazine Top 200 the recording peaked at number 167. Additionally, the album's second track, "Black Sheep Wall," rose to number 22 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart.
Despite the early chart success of this debut album, some observers criticized it for its loosely defined style. Taking this criticism to heart, the group reunited with Klein and Herring in 1991 and recorded a follow-up album, called Umbrella. This second album, again released on A&M, was co-produced by group member Don Peris and featured an all-new signature sound. With this softer, more focused tone the quartet set its sights on crossover territory. The Innocence Mission found itself in popular demand in the early 1990s and hoped to achieve Top 40 success. The band embarked on a tour with Natalie Merchant and Emmylou Harris, and individual members collaborated as guest artists on assorted recordings. The Perises had already contributed music to Amy Grant's Lead Me On in 1987; Don was heard on Peter Himmelman's 1991 album From Strength to Strength, and Karen contributed to John Hiatt's 1990 release, Stolen Moments.
A new Innocence Mission EP, consisting of four songs, appeared on Valentine's Day of 1995. Marketed in particular to college audiences, the EP's title track, Bright as Yellow, climbed to number 33 on Billboard 's Modern Rock Tracks chart. The disc offered a sneak preview of two songs slated for the group's third album, Glow.
Glow was released by A&M Records in June of 1995. Produced by Herring with input from the band members, the album was well received and earned recognition for Karen Peris, whose voice had matured dramatically as compared with her earlier recordings. Although Top 40 success eluded the band, Glow found a niche on adult alternative radio. Selected tracks made mainstream inroads when they were heard on television's Party of Five and on the film soundtrack of Empire Records. The band contributed music to Julie Miller's 1997 album Blue Pony, and Bitts contributed electric bass and vocals on the Robert Gordon album of that year that simply had the artist's own name for its title.
After the conclusion of their tour with Merchant and Harris in 1996, the Innocence Mission returned to Lancaster, where they resumed recording in an improvised studio in an old candy factory in the town's Keppel Building. The Perises subsequently joined Merchant on her 1998 album, Ophelia.
A final album by The Innocence Mission quartet was released on the Kneeling Elephant label in August of 1999. Called Birds of My Neighborhood, the album marked Brown's final appearance in the group's lineup. Produced and recorded by Don Peris, the album was distributed by RCA. Birds of My Neighborhood featured Bitts on the upright double bass in addition to his electric guitar accompaniments that had been heard on the band's previous releases. Around the same time an enhanced-play disc, called The Lakes of Canada was also released by Kneeling Elephant and picked up by RCA.
Christ Is My Hope, an independently produced project released in April of 2000, featured a selection of original hymns interspersed with traditional folk songs. This album was recorded as a benefit for the charity group Food for the Poor. Small Planes, released in 2001, offered an eclectic mix of outtakes and material recorded between 1996 and 2001, including some songs that featured Brown on drums. That same year, Don Peris released a solo effort called Ten Silver Slide Trombones. In September of 2003 the group released a seventh album, Befriended, on a San Francisco-based label, Badman Recording Co.
Karen Peris, a lover of poetry, and Don Peris have together been the artistic force behind the Innocence Mission. The parents of two small children, they profess belief in the Roman Catholic faith. Each is the product of years of Catholic schooling, and religious undertones are clearly evident both in their lyrics and in the tone of their melodies, which sometimes veer toward chanted intonation.
The Innocence Mission, A&M, 1989.
"I Remember Me," A&M, 1989.
Umbrella, A&M, 1991.
Glow, A&M, 1995.
"Bright as Yellow," A&M, 1995.
Birds of My Neighborhood, Kneeling Elephant/RCA, 1999.
Christ Is My Hope, Innocence, 2000.
Small Planes, What Are Artists, 2001.
Befriended, Badman, 2003.
Powell, Mark Allan, editor, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, Hendrickson, 2002.
Lancaster New Era, November 26, 2003, p. 1.
"A Quiet Work: A Conversation with Don and Karen Peris of the Innocence Mission," The Crossing, (February 4, 2004).