Every good Berlin story starts with an anecdote about the pressures of finding a space to rent. In the case of the Irish expats Saramai Leech and Cormac O’Keeffe of Perlee, it was about having to leave their rehearsal space down in the Moabit district, just down the road” from the café where I meet the couple. Being relatively new to the city myself and not well-acquainted yet with the rough charm of the Kiez, I must say I like the idea to be close to the heart of the duo’s creative centre, where they recorded the bulk of their sweeping debut Speaking From Other Rooms. “Most of the album, if not all of it was done in Moabit”, Cormac says.

 “When we began renting that studio, there was talk of, like, maybe we would have to move. It was always something that was potentially going to happen. But it didn’t happen for four years.” (Saramai Leech)

Setting foot on new grounds, not without a nostalgic eye for the beauty of transition is a pattern that sticks to Perlee and is not only essential of their hazy, melodic sound, but happens to apply to the working surroundings of creating Speaking From Other Rooms as well. Right during the recordings Saramai was pregnant with their son, which not only coincided with the recording process, but also seemed to prolong the conception of the album. “I was overdue by a week, so it was quite funny”, Saramai laughingly recalls, while Cormac adds that “it was like our unborn son was giving us the extra time we needed just to finish this. Finish this project before the bigger project came along”. Well, that sounds like perfect mutual benefits for both sides and I can only imagine how that whole process now culminates in that finished record. “It is such a multitude of feelings”, Cormac concludes on how they look back on that time now.

Saramai Leech and Cormac O’Keeffe (Photo by Andreas Peters)

Art, Space, Moabit

Originally from Navan on the Irish East Coast, a forty minute drive north from Dublin, Saramai and Cormac met in their 20’s, “just kind of through the local DIY music scene” there, the duo decided to set up camp in Berlin in 2018, lucky to get the rehearsal space in Moabit, as Saramai recalls: “When we moved here and we got that studio, we couldn’t believe it… it’s just like all these different hospital buildings, and then this little tiny red brick thing and when you go in, and it was like a whole other dimension opening up, there were three bands sharing. I think Berlin is like that. You never really know until you go through the door.” And although just a “modified rehearsal space… very DIY”, it was something to start with and a welcome gateway for the two to get their talents working in the city.

“The gods were on our side when we first moved over… we felt like we had no excuse except to get down to work and make the art.”

Romanticizing the unknown often works both ways, if you were raised in the countryside or in the city and it seems that either one attracts the other – and so in the case of Saramai and Cormac who moved back to their hometown after college and to the countryside after getting engaged, “finding a sound … among peacocks and trees”, as Saramai comments. “We were ready for a city, because we were living in the middle of nowhere”, she adds, “actually playing to real people”. All the while, one experience that really drew them to the German capital was a visit for a studio launch of a friend several years back, which left both of them fascinated by the low-threshold space of opportunities this city still is capable of offering:

Saramai: “I think it was when I was doing a solo show and you were coming to play guitar with me.  And a friend was opening a studio in Schöneberg. And it was so DIY. And we got beers to sell. And our friends running the gig had put up posters with, you know those little pieces of paper where you pull off the details? And we didn’t think anyone would come, because in Ireland that wouldn’t work. So just posters in the Kiez and details. And the room was full, and people bought the beer, and we had a great night, and we covered our flights and made a little bit of money. And it was just so connected and lovely.”

Cormac: “It was like a snapshot of what Berlin is. So yeah, I guess we kind of got the bug for Berlin then. But then, I guess years passed, and we were doing other musical projects. Saramai was doing her thing, and I was doing a different thing as well. But I think it was always somewhere in the back of both our minds that if we ever do decide to fly the nest from Ireland, then Berlin would be an obvious place to go.”

In front of the old studio surroundings (Photo by Andreas Peters)

As we meander through their imagined and experienced city of the past years, the Moabit district keeps coming back into focus and it is no wonder, since these were the streets where they first smelled the air of Berlin. “There’s some great little gems in Moabit. I mean, I miss it in a way”, Cormac points out and Saramai jumps in, recalling the genuine affection of the crowds, once they started playing here: “People were really interesting. People would be like, why did you play a cover? I came to hear your music … I think there’s such a curiosity. People are curious. They want to know what you’re doing in Berlin. That’s cool.”

“When we first moved over, we played so much. We played like two or three times a week.  Obviously pre-pandemic, from 2018 to 2019, we were playing an awful lot. And that was great for us. We’d have a little system where Saramai would have her keyboard on her back, and I had my little system with the guitar. We were quite compact. We’d jump on the U-Bahn and we’d go and play wherever. Try and not forget things on the U-Bahn. And coming back at like two or three in the morning with all our stuff.” (Cormac O’Keeffe)

Making Music Together

As much as Speaking From Other Rooms is about overcoming a certain distance, as much does it arise of a closely shared space of mutual affection and desire. With the two being a couple, sharing a close space and being responsible for their little son, constellations have changed drastically and so has the system of shouldering an artistic career for the two . “It changes you utterly”, Saramai resumes their whole new setting. Just from a logistical standpoint, planning their rehearsal sessions around the baby, making space for their art, as they watch another life unfold. However, that has not kept them from finding inspiration, she ponders: “When we get to the studio, we are more efficient. We get more stuff done because time becomes more precious.” 

“We used to bring him when he was a baby and we had little kind of headphones that would muffle the sound and put him in a guitar case or a keyboard case. It’s all fluffy. And we might get half an hour, or we were rehearsing and we would have him asleep in the next room and check after every song.” (Saramai Leech)

It might also be that little Liam sort of epitomizes the process of arriving at their debut full-length, I wonder, as Cormac continues to describe their artistic relationship which is built on pillars of trust and equality: “We both contribute in every sense, musically and lyrically”, he reflects. Saramai picks up his train of thought and aims at the intense and long-lasting process that brought them here:

“It’s hard. I mean, it took us, we’re together a while, it took us about ten years to be, like it’s such a vulnerable place. Because when you get excited about an idea or you feel like you’ve hit on a bit of truth or a bit of something that is worth pursuing, you’re so excited and then you bring that to somebody and then if they don’t like it, it’s really difficult to kind of, I don’t know how to articulate it, but it’s a really vulnerable place to be.” (Saramai Leech)

And as she looks over to him, she adds: “And there isn’t that politeness that you might have with somebody you don’t know very well. Or even if you try, because we know each other so well, you know what the other person thinks straight away.” 

From The Well

Winter’s gone: Cormac and Saramai in front of an indoor market in Berlin Moabit (Photo by Andreas Peters)

Speaking From Other Rooms, from a musical standpoint comes rushing in like a slow-burning flame, reaching for the intimate realms. Lush, moody and noir-tinted, and yet able to aim profoundly at the notion of transition, nostalgia, love basically and how to attain what’s real and what not, quite bluntly put. “You don’t really know what it’s about”, Saramai states and emphasises the sentimental side of the songs, explaining they are more about a certain feeling than something in particular from a topical standpoint.

“I think a lot of it is about moving, being in different places and feeling, I guess, love, desire, all of those emotions, feeling how real they are, even when you have space. So for me, it’s about how real things are that you can’t see and exploring that idea. When you miss somebody, you love them. The love is as real as if they’re there. And kind of those ideas and what it feels like to be on the move a lot. Yeah, I think it’s a contrast between things feeling very up in the air but then other things feeling very real.”

“For me they’re like films, and I need to know what the film’s about, even not in words, just the feeling has to be, and then it’s like, great, we can go here”, she adds and admits that it has “taken us a long time to figure out this way of working, but we’re still changing”. As Cormac steps in, he details how the dynamic between the two divides into him being “quite melody-focused”, whereas his partner is able to shape the and “extrapolate” from a melody hunch to lyrical shape, giving the songs a home “emotionally and structurally”.

In the end, Speaking From Other Rooms is about the big questions and the stark contrasts and in that it exercises in how far you can stretch an idea to its limits and experience what that might sound like. Perlee have followed that aesthetic in a quite uncompromising manner, finding beauty in the loads of moving places, manifesting their relationship, finding beauty in between the stages of life and voicing these spaces, at times loud and clear, on other occasions quietly and in a hushed manner.

“I think it’s the contrast between darkness and lightness. It’s like, how far can we push this? But then we need some catharsis. So then bringing it back to the light, and it’s kind of like this game between darkness and light and trying to find some sort of balance, I think. I think playing with that. And then beauty. I mean, just trying to find something beautiful.” (Saramai Leech)

Perlee’s Speaking From Other Rooms is out now via Backseat Recordings. Go fetch your copy over at Bandcamp.