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Sixpence None the Richer’s Strange Conversation

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Photo credit: Tec Petaja

“It feels like we have some records left in us. Perhaps we aren’t quite done yet.” Matt Slocum, principal songwriter and founder of Sixpence None the Richer, one of the most successful pop acts of the last decade, is sitting at the kitchen table in his East Nashville home. He is contemplating the return of the band he and his musical partner Leigh Nash shuttered over six years ago. Nash, sitting just across the table, immediately agrees and adds her own punctuation. “The only reason you’d want to get back into it is if you felt you had something to say.”

In 1992 Matt Slocum and Leigh Nash started their musical journey in their home town of New Braunfels, Texas. Inspired by the great author C.S. Lewis and his classic book, Mere Christianity, Slocum dubbed the project Sixpence None the Richer. Additional musicians were gathered. Low budget, but spirited records were assembled, and a small, devoted cadre of fans began to discover this graceful, dynamic and eloquent little band. A few hundred concerts and a few band members later Sixpence landed a deal with Nashville label Squint Entertainment, an imprint of Warner Brothers. Their 1997 self-titled album came, almost literally, out of nowhere to earn a Grammy nomination, a Dove Award and widespread critical acclaim, as its lead single “Kiss Me” dominated radio charts, reaching the #1 spot in ten countries and achieving absolute ubiquity in the US. From church basements and white cargo vans to David Letterman, MTV and the top of the Billboard charts in a short six years. It’s the kind of long slow overnight success that kills most artists. Sixpence was no exception. In 2004, after scoring three additional radio hits and having their songs land in major films and ad campaigns, Slocum and Nash packed up the tent and shut down the show.

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“It’s pretty simple,” Slocum explains. “We needed a break.” Their musical adventure had started as a quest to make meaningful music that contemplated life in a broken world through the lens of faith, in a language accessible to all. Once the world discovered their little song, though, the gig changed. Constant touring and promoting singles left them frustrated and sent their personal lives into disarray. “The time that we have actually spent music-making has been relatively little compared to the time we’ve been at this,” Slocum emphasizes. “A lot of our time was spent being a pop band on a major label trying to ‘break’ a single. In the span of thirteen years we have just four albums. Would it have been cooler to have made an album every year and keep growing? We didn’t even get to do that much of what we set out to do in the first place. It just blew up into this thing.”

Slocum started a new progressive pop group called The Astronaut Pushers and became a sought after cellist in the Nashville music scene. Nash began a solo career and focused on developing her songwriting skills with some of the biggest names in the business. Though the repercussions of their foray into the pop stratosphere included significant personal pain and brokenness, in time real life came back into focus. Then in 2007 Slocum started thinking that maybe it was time to dip his toe back into the water. “Maybe we should have called it a hiatus instead of just breaking up,” he says.

Photo credit: Laura Dart
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Towards the end of an extended honeymoon in Europe Slocum called Nash to see how she might feel about trying to re-start the engines. She was very receptive. “Putting out a solo record made me miss every part of being in a band – being in this band,” she admits. When Slocum returned from Europe the two met and decided to attempt a re-start of the band. This time, though, things would be different. Soon after that meeting Sixpence was invited to head out on a tour promoting Bono’s One Campaign. “We thought it would be really cool to do that tour,” Slocum explains. “We definitely wanted to have some new music for it, so we went into the studio really quickly and recorded an independent EP with producer Daniel Tashian.” Though the tour ended up falling through, it had very quickly motivated the two to ramp the band back up. They re-connected with long-time bassist Justin Cary and discovered some new musicians in Nashville, namely drummer Will Sayles and pianist Cason Cooley. “We’ve been re-learning the process over the last two years,” he adds. “Putting a great band together and writing new songs. I think we needed these two years to know what we wanted to do.”

After the digital release of their independent EP, My Dear Machine, the band started to perform live, both around Nashville and at festivals, and on small tours around the world. They followed with 2008’s independently released Christmas LP The Dawn of Grace.
After months of writing, Slocum and Nash spent a considerable amount of time considering who they would tap to produce the new record. “We really stressed out about the producer,” Slocum admits, “because we knew it was such a crucial decision. We knew that we needed somebody that would really take the reigns and push us… to not let us fall into what we would just sort of naturally do. We wanted to pick somebody we could really trust.” On their dream list was the legendary Jim Scott, the much celebrated genius behind Wilco’s albums, a favorite of both Slocum and Nash, as well as many of the most important records of the last 30 years. “I knew Jim Scott,” Slocum says, “but I had no idea how many records he had worked on. It turns out his discography was pretty much my listening experience from about sixth grade on.” Names like Johnny Cash, Tom Petty, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Cracker and a few more obscure faith-fueled artists that influenced Slocum early on, like Tonio K. and Vigilantes of Love rocketed Scott to the top of their list. They met, and Jim enthusiastically agreed to produce the album.

The band road-tripped from Nashville to Los Angeles to make the record, and enjoyed every minute of it. From Scott’s state-of-the-art equipment and engineering prowess, to the hyper-creative and consistently laid-back ambience of his space, Slocum and Nash crawled down the creative rabbit hole with great abandon. “The vision for this record, from the beginning, was to capture great band performances and to get Leigh’s voice properly recorded and positioned in each song,” Slocum explains. “Most of our records have been very heavily orchestrated. There was just so much stuff on there. Jim was very enthusiastic and encouraging about our past work, but he said that a lot of what we had done sounded like music with singing on top of it. I thought that assessment was right on.”

Slocum and Nash showed up at the studio committed to the band they had been playing with for two years. Half of the songs they brought had been developed on the road in front of live audiences, and half were simple acoustic demos. Scott and the band took the arrangements and deconstructed them together, re-building them in the studio. “I felt like I was in production school,” Slocum explains. “We played a lot less on this record, but got better performances. It was a very inspiring environment sonically.”

Nash enjoyed the experience so much, she didn’t want it to end. “If things ever got tense or frustrated we just took a break,” she adds. “And the way they built the tracks around my vocals was just wonderful. We’ve never done it that way. And every instrumental track is so tasty. There are no wasted parts.” On her last day of recording, she literally broke down. “When we left on the last night we were driving away and I completely lost it. I was bawling like a baby. I love him. He’s amazing.” In the end both Slocum and Nash agree that Jim Scott not only captured their best performances, he helped them re-connect with what they love most about making music.

The resulting tracks unfold as pure Sixpence; melancholy mixed with romance; pain wrapped up in grace. Themes of brokenness, confusion and failure amble around encouraging words and pleas for mercy. The opening song, “Radio,” captures a perfectly catchy pop melody as it tells the story of an estranged couple hearing “their song” on the radio and processing the flood of memories the tune elicits. “I think everyone can relate to that situation,” Slocum says, “but that probably won’t happen too much anymore. Radio doesn’t have the same kind of impact it once had. Everyone has their own little world going on.” Between its nostalgia and its beautiful sadness, “Radio” has all the makings of a hit.

On “Give It Back” the singer pleads with God to restore what once was. “If you’ll blow on the ember, the light will shine on my face, the streams will run in the desert, and sing Amazing Grace.” Slocum admits that the sentiment is personal and not abstract. “It’s a plea with God saying ‘I used to have this thing that you blessed me with and it’s gone away by your choice or whoever’s choice and I’d like to get it back.’” The prayer seems to be answered as the rest of the songs unfold. Never has Sixpence sounded this confident, elegant or poised.

Slocum admits that he is more a fan of Nash’s songwriting than ever. “I really loved Leigh’s solo record,” he says. “I thought she did a great job. It felt like her writing skills had really blossomed in that process.” Nash contributes more songs to this collection than she ever did on any of the band’s previous efforts. The shimmering but sad “Go Your Way” explores the somewhat disturbing idea that a particular couple can decide to stay together or walk away. “Should Not Be This Hard” articulates a frustrated observation about the difficulty of human relationships, and “Sooner Than Later” observes a failed relationship through eyes of grace. All told Nash wrote on half of the album’s tracks.

With some songs by Slocum (with various co-writers,) and some by Nash, they seem to create a dialog amongst themselves; one that is directly related to the personal struggles Nash and Slocum have observed in their own and each others’ lives over recent years. That is the thread they noticed when they arrived at the album’s interesting title, Strange Conversation. “We wrote completely separately from each other,” he explains, “but the songs started having these conversations with each other.”

Nash adds, “If they seem simpler and more laid back it’s probably where we are in our lives. We wanted to make a record that wasn’t complicated. We wanted great songs recorded very well. I think we have achieved that.”