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Purson: Hallucinogens, 70s dreams, and cruising with Kiss

On their second album, Desire’s Magic Theatre, Purson have dreamt up a very English psychedelic rock opera. We take a trip with bandleader Rosalie Cunningham to find out more.

Rosalie Cunningham has always felt like she was born out of time.

“It’s the bane of my life,” explains the 25-year-old. “I find it so frustrating and am sickened by the whole internet age, which I really find quite grotesque. I wish we could go back to how things were, when it was just about music. Ideally I’d have liked to be the age I am now in 1971, because I would’ve been able to have had a music career in the late 60s, then carried on well into the 70s before I’d even got to the age of 30.”

It’s a piece of wishful thinking that finds physical expression in Purson, the London-based band she’s led since their formation in 2011. As songwriter, singer and guitarist, Cunningham has fashioned music very much in the image of her favourite epoch, from the psychedelic splashes of The Beatles to the heavy classicism of Black Sabbath and on through the starry glam rock of David Bowie.

Perhaps the most cogent example of Cunningham’s wistfulness is Tragic Catastrophe, a standout from Purson’s 2013 debut The Circle & The Blue Door. The song maps out its protagonist’s dream of being a rock star in an age that doesn’t quite fit, directly echoing the time Cunningham chanced upon her dad’s collection of 70s music weeklies. ‘In a dusty attic he found a magazine,’ she sings, her voice luminous with the sensual thrill of discovery. ‘Full of gods and heroes, of deities and queens/He took it as his bible, with religion in his eyes/He saw his life before him, he saw his name in lights.’

I wish we could go back to how things were, when it was just about music. Ideally I’d have liked to be the age I am now in 1971.

Yet Purson’s peculiar allure runs far deeper than simple nostalgia for a bygone age. Cunningham and her band draw from a vast swathe of prog, folk, acid rock and electric blues to create music that bursts forth in fresh and unexpected directions, each new trajectory busily feeding off those around it. Allied to her fine-tuned gift for a melody and richly forcible tones, it’s the kind of music that speaks to a meta-modern era where anything and everything is ripe for picking.

Purson are emphatically prog, in the very real sense of the word. Not for nothing did this magazine bestow on them the Vanguard Award at last year’s Prog bash. “That was a massive deal for me personally,” says Cunningham. “It’s been a tainted word in the past, but calling our music progressive is the biggest compliment that anybody could give me. Prog takes you on a journey, it takes you somewhere else. It can paint a picture and be a lot more poetic than the standard rock or pop structure.

“The first prog bands that I really got into were King Crimson and Genesis, and once I’d exhausted their back catalogue I realised there was a never‑ending world of 70s prog out there. I went down the Canterbury scene – Caravan, Soft Machine and the rest – and Bowie as well. I consider him quite prog, especially his second album [1969’s David Bowie, aka Space Oddity]. Plus Van der Graaf Generator, whom I liked a lot. And lesser unknown stuff like Gracious! – I just became obsessed with it all.”

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