It's Elvis Perkins's birthday. February 9.
"This is a funny place," he says over the phone from the city where he was raised. "Los Angeles essentially exists to support the make-believe."
Yet for all the make-believe going on in Hollywood, the wrenchingly surreal life of the now 40-year-old singer-songwriter has been one that even the most imaginative screenwriter wouldn't fathom. A life that can be heard, felt, and glimpsed in his dreamlike, highly literate music. Perkins's third and newest album, I Aubade (MIR Records), is the perfect portal into this weird, wistful world. (To his credit, its maker eschews the term "singer-songwriter," which dredges up images of "open mike nights and coffee shops and lazy chord structures." He prefers, simply, "recording artist.") I Aubade's softly strummed, acoustic-based songs have a sad-happy cast. They shimmer like afternoon sunlight as it dapples through trees, bringing back the half-napping car-seat warmth of family drives on visits to relatives in the country. Its tracks—"& Eveline," "I Came for Fire," "Gasolina"—flicker, crackle, and float with Perkins's distant coo swaddled in oscillating radio waves and other found sounds. Think Leonard Cohen meets Syd Barrett in a vat of Vick's VapoRub.
There's no easy or delicate way to broach this: Perkins is the son of actor Anthony Perkins, who died in 1992 of AIDS-related pneumonia, and photographer Berry Berenson, who perished as a passenger on American Airlines Flight 11 when terrorists crashed it into the World Trade Center's north tower on September 11, 2001. Unsurprisingly, those events have dramatically colored the singer's life and his music. But they're far from the only events that have done so. Born in New York, he and his older brother Osgood (a drummer, actor, and, coincidentally, a screenwriter), moved with their family to Los Angeles when Elvis was four. "I remember the confusion of being in a new house, the relative spaciousness and the smell of the magnolia trees," he says. "In LA, I just became a kid and I grew up. But I've always had a complicated relationship with [the city]." His father, who also played piano and made pop records before his defining role as Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho, was a huge Elvis Presley fan, although Perkins maintains it was his mother's idea to name him after the rock 'n' roll king. "At first they weren't intending to name me Elvis—it was a joke that got out of hand," says the singer, who, admittedly, once rebelled against his moniker. "Eight out of every 10 times I introduce myself to someone there's a reaction of disbelief. For a while, when I lived in Santa Fe, I went by my middle name, which is Brooke. But that's a girl's name, so it wasn't any better. And to my friends I was always Elvis, anyway. So I guess it just means I'm probably doing what I'm supposed to be doing. If I'd been named John, who knows what would have happened."
Perkins started doing what he does at a young age, taking piano and saxophone lessons before studying guitar with Prescott Niles, the bassist of power- pop greats the Knack. Although his parents had an excellent record collection, especially when it came to musicals, the sounds that first grabbed him were a bit less intellectual. And they came with visuals. "I grew up in the heyday of MTV, so I watched music more than I listened to it in the beginning," he recalls. "It's a funny way to get music. So I was a big fan of appearance then. I was definitely the intended audience for hair metal." He and his brother formed some basement bands with high school friends, although at that point he was simply a guitarist and not yet a songwriter. Still, playing music was a helpful outlet for both the typical growing pains of teendom and the processing of his father's passing. "Because of my dad's work, my brother and I weren't really supposed to talk about him being sick," Perkins says. His initial songwriting inspirations were Tracy Chapman, Simon and Garfunkel, Leonard Cohen, and the Traveling Wilburys, the last a door into Dylan and the Beatles. "The first time I heard Simon and Garfunkel was when I was riding in the car with my parents," he remembers. "The parts in their songs had a special force and were powerful while doing very little musically."
He attended Brown University, taking "random" courses in ethnomusicology and philosophy and playing in the school's gamelan ensemble. Dropping out after a year, he started writing songs in earnest and performing, and returned to Los Angeles. Then 9/11 happened. Understandably, it took him some years to attempt to come to terms with his mother's murder and the overall pall of the events of that day. This procedure culminated in his self-released 2006 debut, Ash Wednesday (reissued in 2007 by XL Recordings), although, despite how the press has presented it, Perkins stresses that not all of the album's songs are about the loss of his mother. "It's essentially just a collection of songs, arranged chronologically," he says. "About half of them were written before she died and about half were written after. Of course, the post-9/11 songs are more than slightly darker. But there are love songs, joke songs. Songs I'm not sure what they are. The title track is equally about the day after 9/11 and the fumigation of our family's home."