Clementine and Valentine Nixon, the enchanting voices behind Purple Pilgrims, have been making music together since they were teenagers. The siblings tell Fiona Ralph how their itinerant upbringing informed their expansive sound.
It’s been a whirlwind decade for Clementine and Valentine Nixon. The sisters, who make up the dream-pop duo Purple Pilgrims, have evolved from playing experimental soundscapes in a Christchurch art gallery to writing folk-infused records from their isolated, bush-clad home on the Coromandel Peninsula – performing in Hong Kong, the US and Europe on the way.
It’s hard to imagine a more peaceful or inspiring place to pen music than the band’s home, half an hour from Thames on the Coromandel’s sleepy west coast. Set in a verdant valley with no cell phone reception, the house is surrounded by native trees, with a music studio in a neighbouring cabin. Paths wind through the bush to a river and swimming hole, past a traditional caravan, where their mother paints and their grandmother contemplates (part Scottish Traveller, Romani Gypsy and Sámi, their grandmother was born in a similar caravan).
It’s a world away from the sisters’ itinerant upbringing, between Hong Kong and Christchurch, by way of Borneo, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The solitude and space of their current surroundings appears to suit them, although it hasn’t come naturally. “We are city dwellers observing this environment” says Valentine, 28.
The sisters, who have just finished recording their third full-length album, are best friends.
“We probably should fight a lot more than we do, considering how much time we spend together,” jokes Clementine, 32. When the pair were younger, they communicated in a way that they describe as telepathic, leading to an unspoken connection when making music.
“It’s like a sisterly telepathy I think,” says Clementine. “We have such similar reference points and perspectives and tastes. It feels like we completely understand each other.” This understanding became slightly problematic when collaborating with musicians for their latest record. “We’re learning to be a bit more descriptive with our language,” she laughs.
The pair were brought up in a creative environment, with dancing an early passion. Their mother, Shena Hubbard, is an artist who worked as a cutter and framer at an art gallery, and their father, Clive Nixon, is a writer and poet who taught classics. “Music was always in the house and surrounding us,” Clementine reminisces. “We both picked up instruments, our grandfather played piano and there were always guitars lying around.” Their grandfather, Jim Hubbard, was a songwriter in London, while their grandmother, Mary Hubbard, a big influence in their lives, inspired Valentine to study folk music, enabling her to “build up a pretty big repertoire of ancient songs”.
“It was a very free education until I started studying singing later on,” she says.
Born in Christchurch, the sisters moved to Hong Kong with their parents in the late ’90s, and bounced back and forth between the two locations for the next 15 years. While in Hong Kong, they were homeschooled, with travels around South and South East Asia forming part of their learning.
“I think that shaped us quite a lot and gave us a restless spirit,” tells Clementine. Spending time in foreign countries without speaking the language – or having other siblings, friends or schoolmates – helped to forge their close connection. “Our bond was really established then,” says Valentine. “We’re pretty self-sufficient where we can live in our own little bubble – I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or not!”
While living in Christchurch, the sisters went to Tamariki School, the oldest free school in New Zealand. “It’s this very tiny free school that’s been around since the 1960s,” explains Valentine. “The philosophy was dreamed up by some hippies and child psychologists. It’s based off the philosophy of [original free school] Summerhill in the UK. It’s like learning through play and there’s an emphasis on mental health.
“We’re schooling Merlin in the same way,” she laughs, as their seven-month-old English bull terrier jumps all over us. “She’s very free, we’re not sure if it’s working yet!”
Valentine was just 18 when Purple Pilgrims played their first gig at a Christchurch art gallery. Clementine recalls, “We’d been playing at home, writing bits and pieces, and a friend at the gallery I was working at said, ‘We have this band coming, do you want to open for them?’ And we were like, ‘OK!’ It kind of all started from that.”
They had to scramble for a band name for the poster. “Obviously we were very young when we got the name, but I think it still relates to what we do in a way,” Valentine says. “I feel like we’re constantly learning and we’re constantly searching, and within music there’s always some new thing we want to do, so a pilgrimage sums that up quite well.”
There’s always some new thing we want to do, so a pilgrimage sums that up quite well
Their sound has developed from its early incarnation of experimental noise music, when improvised shows incorporated Clementine’s interest in sonic arts, with abstract compositions and the use of field recordings: street sounds, wind, rain and insect noises. They’ve since stripped things back to allow their exquisite intertwining voices and evocative songwriting to take centre stage. Although they play multiple instruments, including the piano, guitar and guzheng (Chinese table harp), their voices are their main tool, says Valentine. “That creates our sound, our singing together, how [the voices] interact.”
It’s still an art performance, though. The band’s image, from their music videos to their ethereal stage personas and collaborations with local fashion designers, is just as important as their sound. This is due, in part, to Clementine’s art school background – she studied visual communications and has worked as a graphic designer, designing album covers for Purple Pilgrims and other bands. The sisters also taught themselves production techniques, so they could record their own albums. Their first two were recorded in their Coromandel backyard studio, but they’ve expanded the production team for this latest effort, working between Auckland, Coromandel and New York.
Unfortunately, not long after their first gallery gig, their family apartment, situated in one of the oldest buildings in the city, was destroyed in the Christchurch earthquake. Ten years on they are still coming to terms with the experience. At the time their response was to get straight out of Christchurch. They moved back to Hong Kong, where they became immersed in the underground music scene.
“It was a very pivotal point in our lives,” reflects Clementine. “We went straight into being really busy and playing live shows and travelling. I guess only when we came back to New Zealand, we started to realise the impact that it’d had on us; when we had time to think and to stop and be in this kind of environment in the trees and just realise, ‘Wow that was intense.’”
Valentine adds, “I think it took a while for us to face it because we were so young. Because we lived in the central city, when the actual earthquake happened we were in a really dangerous situation. I think it’s that kind of denial, just not wanting to be defined by it or victimised by it, so we did a lot of running. It’s taken a number of years. With the 10-year [anniversary], you realise what a massive deal it was.”
As horrific as the experience was, Clementine says, “It definitely gave us a push. That feeling of experiencing something that was so awful, it made you want to do something good or exciting.”
“We were excited by it but I think there was probably a little bit of PTSD involved that we’ve since sort of identified,” adds Valentine.
At the time of the earthquake, they were in the middle of making their first two-track recording and their laptop and instruments were stuck inside the condemned building. “We actually snuck in through the army cordon and grabbed our gear and that’s how that recording even happened,” admits Clementine. “It nearly didn’t exist.”
That “wild noise soundscape” helped propel them onto the international stage, after it was picked up by a notable blog. This led to a number of US shows, and eventually European tours, spliced between Hong Kong gallery gigs. Five years ago, their parents moved back to New Zealand from Hong Kong, choosing the slower pace of the Coromandel over returning to Christchurch. In between touring, Valentine and Clementine split their time between the idyllic base and an Auckland apartment; since lockdown they’ve been based in the Coromandel full-time.
They were touring Europe when the pandemic hit, fresh from a residency at a New York bar. They managed to finish the tour, but almost didn’t make it back for a set of shows with Aldous Harding and Weyes Blood as part of the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. They were meant to be leaving again for a performance at the South by Southwest festival (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, followed by a number of other gigs around the US and Europe, but lockdown scuppered those plans. “We had the whole year pretty much planned out with tours,” says Clementine.
The sisters channeled their disappointment into the making of their third album. “I think we started three days after we got back and we’ve just been writing and recording since,” tells Valentine. “It’s been a real silver lining because we got to work with a dream producer.”
That producer, and the band’s management team, are based in the States, so the sisters have had to become morning people to facilitate 5am Zoom calls. They’ve also collaborated with a number of musicians for the record. “There’s basically an orchestra on it this time around,” explains Valentine.
Inspiration for the album came from a recent show in Aberdeen, Scotland, at a venue where their late great grandfather Davie Stewart, a Scottish Traveller and well-regarded folk musician, once played. A surprise performance of one of his songs by Alan Davidson and Gayle Brogan, who were opening for Purple Pilgrims, combined with playing on the same stage as their great grandfather and exploring his old haunts, proved an emotional experience.
“It was like this really unexpected spiritual moment because we never saw the world of that family music and what we were doing, we never really felt it collide so profoundly,” says Valentine. “We were both very emotional, unexpectedly, because we were in such a different headspace at that time. It was a realisation that what we were doing as Purple Pilgrims actually did have deep roots back to ancestors past.”
Clementine continues, “We thought we were doing something new and we’d found this on our own, but subconsciously we were following the footsteps of all of our ancestors. That line are Gypsies and they spent their entire lives travelling and performing. That was their livelihood and their lifestyle, and we didn’t realise we were so similar until it was hit in our faces really.”
Subconsciously we were following the footsteps of all of our ancestors
In fact, their folk roots have never been too far away. Many of their songs are inspired by myths and folk songs, with the tragic undertones of these stories coming through in the band’s lyrics, their haunting melodic sound and unsettlingly beautiful music videos (some of which were self-produced, filmed in the river and under the trees in their backyard).
“It’s not jolly subject matter so we’ve always been drawn to that thematically,” Valentine says. “Growing up we read a lot of different myths and legends and collected things from wherever we went.” While these characters have played a part in their music, their personal stories are entwined too. “It’s interesting sometimes to look back at something and see that maybe it’s more personal than you set out to project,” she adds. And with such an intriguing upbringing, why not pour those life lessons into your music?
Now that the sisters have finished recording their album, they’re busy dreaming up ideas for music videos and the album’s release later this year. And with international shows postponed, they’re focusing on virtual and local gigs, recently touring with The Veils, performing online at this year’s SXSW festival, and playing a show earlier this month with The Chills and The Bats at Auckland’s Powerstation. With their European tour delayed until February 2022, it’s worth catching them on our shores before they head back to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps once more.