Four Track Substack
Four Track Substack Podcast
"The Purple Rain"

"The Purple Rain"

from the LP Who Will You Believe
I made many recordings of The Purple Rain. Here’s a screenshot of one of many pages of The Purple Rain recordings in my phone’s voice memo folder.


I realize that I already published a Substack for this song. It was my first Substack post a few years back. But in that post I made no mention of how the song came about. And at the time the LP version was not yet completed. Now you may stream the LP version. And come April 5, you may cue up your own vinyl version. Or spool up your cassette version. Or whatever it is you do to a CD version.

In the first Substack post I was reluctant to talk about the writing of the song. I wanted to share the song, but I was still feeling too raw to talk about the writing of it. Here’s a little backstory:

When Covid landed in spring of 2020, I was already well on my way to a decent depression. The previous year was a tough one. By Spring of 2019 my cousin Joe “Harvard” Incagnoli had died of cancer. I only have one brother, and that’s Bob. But Joe was as close to that as anyone ever came or will come. When I was a teenager, Joe founded Fort Apache recording studios in Boston. So, I got to do more free recording than most 18-year-olds were doing back then. Joe and Boston legend Billy Ruane also pitched booking bands to the owner of The Middle East restaurant in Cambridge. Those two guys got that wheel rolling on what would become a legendary Boston gig. So, I got to play live pretty regularly.

But music stuff aside, I loved him and still do. Near the end, one of the things he said to me was, “I’m not afraid to die, but there’s just so much cool shit in the world that I haven’t done.”

And just like that, a giant human personality was gone. To this day his absence is an enormous presence.

But the hits just kept on coming. Not long after Joe’s death, I learned that my friend Gary Stewart had taken his own life. I just couldn’t believe it. Gary was, among other things, the VP of A&R at Rhino Records. He was a super fan of mine since Overcome By Happiness. We became friends immediately after our first meeting. Anyone who knew Gary knew that he was the biggest, most vocal champion of art he loved. He bought boxes of the Overcome By Happiness CD (literally hundreds of copies), kept them in the trunk of his car, and gave them to people he thought might like it. And it wasn’t just me. He championed other musicians, TV creators and filmmakers. I had never met anyone like him before, especially not a music industry insider.

When I got out of my deal with Sub Pop, Gary offered to give (not loan) me the money to try and buy the rights to Overcome By Happiness. I couldn’t do it.

I dedicated the New West Records 25th Anniversary Deluxe Vinyl issue to Gary. Honestly, I think he would have been happier to see that issue than I was.

And then a few months later Berman took his own life as well. I’d known David since our MFA days at UMASS in Amherst. I didn’t lose a brother in him, or even a super-dear pour-your-heart-out friend, though we were friends, for sure till the end. I’ve always liked his music a lot, but his poetry absolutely floors me.

I first met David in a writing workshop run by James Tate. There were maybe 10 people in the class. I remember David reading a few poems that would later appear in his book Actual Air. I thought, This guy is on a plane wholly his own.

Nobody should really give a fuck what I think, but for me great poetry is one of the things that makes living most acutely worth it. Berman was a truly great poet. And it was something to witness from close proximity.

And then the world really went to shit. Everything—not just human life—seemed fragile. I didn’t particularly want to write this song, but there was no getting around it, really.

I recall thinking that the middle eight section of the song summed up my feelings more accurately than probably anything I’d ever written;

Here’s a man one heartbeat from a ghost.
Here’s a vein. It spiders coast to coast.
One thousand quiet cuts
And I do believe we’re close.
Been bleeding out for years and years and years.

When the songwriting was completed, the earliest recording sessions for the LP version kicked off at Eternal Rest Studios in Boston. The only tracks from those sessions to make it to the final mix were my acoustic guitar track, and two gurgling electric guitar swells that Peyton Pinkerton played.

When I got back to Toronto I enlisted local piano titan Mike Evin to lay down a piano track, which he did. He recorded a Steinway grand that belongs to Jim Creeggan, bassist extraordinaire of the Barenaked Ladies.

I recut the lead vocal, then sent a rough mix to string arranger Andrew Joslyn. He had written and performed some string parts for my music in the past. I was confident he’d nail it, and he did. (hearing strings for the first time on a track of mine is still the most exciting part of recording.)

I made a rough mix of all that, and sent it to Seattle arranger and trombonist Greg Kramer. Greg had also played on some of my earlier songs, so I knew I was getting a serious player.

The song has a double chorus at the end. It felt like it was too much. I experimented with chopping one of them out, so that the song ended kind of mellowly. It was obvious pretty quickly that the opposite was the way to go. I wanted the song to end kind of powerfully. I don’t know what made me think choir, but I did. Toronto is home to the internationally renowned Choir!Choir!Choir! I reached out to founders Daveed Goldman and Nobu Adilman. I told them what I had in mind, and they said yes with literally zero hesitation. I’m really grateful to them, and to all of the members who turned up for the choir recording session. It was a thrill for me to behold. My bud and musical collaborator Liam Jaeger engineered the choir session. In the end, I believe upwards of 200 voices were sub-mixed down to what can be heard on the album.

Liam ended up laying down a bass part. And then he mixed it while a literally and figuratively breathed down his neck. There were many moving parts and people involved with this one. I was very relieved to be done with it.

My brother played a guitar line that got Ringo’d out of the final mix. (Sorry, Bob). And Patrick Berkery played a drum take, but with all the other instruments already there, I kind of left him no space. I’ll save the take though. Maybe an alt mix will surface at some point.

I think that’s about all there is to tell about the song. Thanks for sticking around.

As for the recording included today, it’s a demo I made in Logic. I’m not exactly sure when, but I noticed that I sang “the purple rain” on the choruses, and the LP version omits the definite article. So when I made the demo the lyrics hadn’t been finalized. (I made many recordings—maybe 25—of this song as is evident by the screenshot of a single of many pages in my voice memos folder on my phone.)

By the sound of the demo, there are two acoustic guitar tracks. Sounds like I played my small body acoustic. Mics sound pretty meat and potatoes SM58. Nothing wrong with meat and potatoes.

Again, you may stream the LP version of The Purple Rain if you want to hear it and the demo next to each other.

As always, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves and those around you.


Four Track Substack
Four Track Substack Podcast
Musician and writer Joe Pernice shares recordings and some words about making them.
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