Folk singer Elvis Perkins has been rootless much of his life. As an adolescent, Elvis was shepherded between L.A. and New York by his famous parents, and now that his burgeoning career has him employed on the road, he doesn’t keep an apartment anywhere. “I have no need to,” he says, “and by now I’ve forgotten that it was ever any other way than the constant shuffle between cities.”

Since the release of Perkins’ debut album Ash Wednesday—a collection of eleven songs that, because of personal tragedy, took him five years to write?he’s toured non-stop for nearly a year with his band, Elvis Perkins in Dearland. Together they deliver dense, quirky orchestral sets shot through with deft guitarwork, an insistent upright bass, and Perkins’ pained voice.   

Crippling Elvis’ songwriting for nearly a year was the death of his mother Berry Berenson, a Life magazine photographer who was on board one of the airplanes that was highjacked into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. His mother died one day before the ninth anniversary of the AIDS-related death of his father, actor Anthony Perkins.

In chronological order, Ash Wednesday is centered by its title track, which divides the album into songs written before and after the death of Elvis’ mother. Though the tempo slows and the mood darkens in the latter half, exchanging sing-along choruses for mournful wails, a morbid quality pervades even Perkins’ opening tracks, in which he implores, “Do you ever wonder where you go when you die?” But what were expressions of lesser sorrow (“We go all the night without love”) in earlier songs become more profound (“No one will survive alive—no soldier, no lover, no father, no mother”).

On a cloudless Tuesday in New Orleans, Elvis Perkins is “very happily” enjoying a day off and a discussion of the legacy of his late parents and the writing of Ash Wednesday. “I wasn’t even conscious of writing a record when I was writing any of the songs, and some of them go back seven years at this point,” he says, his serious eyes looking out from circular spectacles. “So the songs occupy different spaces in my history or in my psyche.”

How did losing your mother mid-way through the process of writing your songs affect your songwriting process?

It’s hard to know how anything affects anything. I lost my mother in an unprecedented and horrible moment?I don’t even know what to make of that in my regular speak. I think I know more in song how to deal with anything than I do with regular words. Something so massive is bound to affect someone massively, but I don’t know how that works in the songs themselves.

Were your parents musical?

Yeah, my mom played a little guitar, and not so many people know, but my father cut records in the ’60s, singing standards with big bands. So he played piano quite a bit and sang in the house, and we were always encouraged to join, which we did with not so much frequency, but enough.

How did you learn to play guitar?

I was about 11 or 12 when I first attempted the guitar, having gone through trying to play the piano and the saxophone?not really trying hard enough, but I had a friend who took lessons from the bass player of that band the Knack, Prescott Niles. I saw what he was teaching my friend, and I had to know how to do the same thing so I quickly enlisted the guidance of this bass player. I took to it, and I’m glad I did.

You’ve got quite a collection of Gibson acoustics.

Yeah, I’ve had my time with the Hummingbird, the Dove, and now I have in my possession a J-45. We’re also traveling with an electric ES-335, which my friend Wyndham [Boylan-Garnett, Perkins’ keyboardist and guitarist] mostly plays, but I from time to time in the set will pick it up myself. Gibson makes good guitars, don’t they? [Laughs.]

Which musicians have inspired you the most throughout your life?

Lots of different ones at different times—Ravi Shankar and Nina Simone and Simon and Garfunkel.

You’ve toured with My Morning Jacket, and Cold War Kids, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Have they informed your music, too?

Yeah, it’s true, I love them all. They all play Gibson guitars as well.

Is that a coincidence?

Is it a coincidence or a conspiracy? I’m not sure!

What do you hope for when you’re on stage each night?

I hope that my strings don’t break. I hope that my voice doesn’t break. I hope to get through it without losing touch with myself and without losing touch with my band and without losing touch with the audience, and initially I hope to gain touch with the audience. Once that’s achieved, which happens more times than not, I just try to make nice and make friends.

Has playing live come easy to you?

It’s taken some work, but I started on stages as a youngish teenager in rock bands so I have been in New York busy at the concept over a long span of time. But it is a different thing to be playing my own songs in front of people. It constantly takes work—actually it is work itself. It’s a strange reality, but it’s a good one, and I’m happy to put in the time.

Have you found much time to write any new songs?

Here and there. Little scraps of things take form, but I don’t find the road to be the most conducive lifestyle to contemplation and actual production.

Do you think though that you’re accumulating experiences that will help you when you do sit down to write songs?

I must be, but I don’t know exactly what they are yet. The paradoxical nature of touring?with the constant repetition and the constant monotony, and you’re in a different place every day, but what you’re doing is the same?it’s gonna take some weeding out or reshuffling of the information to make it worth singing about.

You have a U.K. tour and then quite a few summer festival shows coming up. How is it different to perform at the festivals?

I enjoy being at the festivals and riding the golf carts more than actually performing at the festivals. They’re great, but they’re overblown and overdone, and there are all these sun-stricken, wandering ticket holders who are half-dazed by the music and by the constant onslaught of information and food and drinks and all that.

They’re staggering events, and it can be difficult to emit the music into this sprawling world. You don’t have the confines of a club or of a room to hold the music. You just release the music, and it goes into the ether, and it gets wafted in the wind. It seems more of a challenge to hit the mark that way, as though the music evaporates along with the heat and sweat of all it.

What are your hopes for the future in terms of your music?

I’m trying not to hope for the future. I’m not sure I believe that it really exists. The best way to be in the future is only to occupy the present, and all I can really do is be ready to write the songs when they come and put them down when that time comes, and keep focused, keep my eyes open.