For years the darlings of the Christian music underground, SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER have finally found mainstream success. Mike Rimmer went to Nashville and met up with the million selling hitmakers.
Let's see, how many Christian bands do you know who get a call from the Royal family requesting their music be included in a royal wedding celebration? How many come out of nowhere with a summer hit that becomes the most played song on British radio? How many manage to sneak past the renowned anti-Christian prejudice of the guardians of the Radio One A list? You'll only need to count on the finger of one hand! Sixpence None The Richer, by anyone's reckoning, have made it big both sides of the Atlantic and no mistake!
"Kiss Me" became a number one hit record in the USA after months of careful promotion and the UK success followed. The song was, of course, featured in the very popular and very distasteful teen movie She's All That. The band's video won coveted slots on MTV and VH1, and slowly but surely the single broke into a trot and then galloped to the top of the pile. The British release that followed was guaranteed to create interest on the back of the American success. In Sixpence's case, success was definitely breeding success! It won them a spot on Chris Evans' TFI Friday before the programme's production team could suss that this was a Christian band!
The first time I ever met Leigh Nash, she was a shy teenager and the band were playing at Greenbelt for the first time. The year was 1994 and when I interviewed her in the GB press hut, the room was memorably suddenly plunged into darkness! Being a trooper, I carried on interviewing her! Meeting again, Leigh giggles at the memory. In the light of recent events it all seems a long, long time ago.
Even back at the start, Sixpence None The Richer always seemed a band with something special to offer. In fact the original demo of 'Spotlight' featured regularly on The Cross Rhythms Experience after the programme's producer Jonathan Bellamy, discovered it on a sampler compiled by America's ACM Journal fanzine. But it was, of course, the release of their 'proper' debut for REX Records The Fatherless And The Widow', and that made-in-Heaven combination of Leigh's goose-pimple-inducing voice and Slocum's artfully crafted alternative pop songs, that the band were recognized by discerning CCM buffs as something special.
Now of course, they're having to endure the 'overnight sensation' of uninformed journos and Sixpence None The Wiser intros from dumb BBC presenters. And it's particularly ironic that even the 'Sixpence None The Richer" album with its "Kiss Me" sleeper hit has been out since 1997. It was Squint Entertainment's first release and was of course produced by label boss and Christian rock pioneer, Steve Taylor. At the time of the recording the band were still living in the shadow of their collapsed record deal with American independent REX records. Many of the songs on the album reflect the inner turmoil of the band's main songwriter, Matt Slocum, as he struggled with seeing his art and future in the hands of corporate lawyers.
The entrance of Steve Taylor into the equation gave the band a light at the end of the music biz tunnel. The idea of his newly formed Squint was to sign bands who were Christian and yet capable of making an impact beyond the realm of Christian music in the mainstream culture. In his mind, with the formation of the label, Sixpence None The Richer were his dream band to launch the label. Long negotiations and financial settlements ensued, and the band that had come so close to splitting after drowning in the corporate sludge were able to come up for air, the debuting band of a new label.
Now those nice people at Squint have invited my wife and I to dinner at a rather swanky restaurant to catch up with Matt and Leigh. There's certainly plenty to talk about! My initial reflections on the album are that it's full of pain because of the journey from the last record company and all the pain the band experienced. With the passage of time, I asked Matt whether he thought it all now felt a long time ago. He agrees, "Yeah, it really does. I think what is so special about this record is that it literally came from the depths of nothing to hitting the Top Ten, and it's an amazing and liberating and validating thing, it's a lot easier to look back on it now and say that's just part of it, that's part of the way the world works, the way the music business works, but when it's happening to you for the first time it's very dramatic. You're still in the stage where you have very high ideals and you're trying to hang on to those ideals, and I think we've hung on to them as best we can. But it's so dramatic because you thought you were going somewhere and you realise you're not, and you realise that you're back to square one, and looking back on it it's very difficult."
The whimsical summer feeling of the hit single is in stark contrast to some of the darker material on the album. This will come as no surprise to long-term fans of the band who are used to Slocum's introspection. He explains, "I like for each record to document where I've been and where the band's been at that particular time. You can look at that record as a journal that you can go back to and relive those times. That was sort of the purpose, to document, and to say it, and it's said, and it's on a permanent record, and you can go back and look at it. But looking at it now, it's cool to get it out, but it is hazy, I've moved on, it seems like a long time ago"
As we wait for the main course to arrive, I asked Matt whether recording was a cathartic experience? He responded, "I think it was very cathartic when it was in the process of creation. I usually experience the catharsis in the actual writing and recording stage, and then it loses the initial catharsis and moves on into playing live, I tend to be a very silent, introspective person that really wants to go beneath the surface, because I don't function very well on the surface of things. I think that God called me to a son, because I have trouble communicating things. In songwriting I can somehow come out and reach into and communicate things that I normally wouldn't be able to communicate in normal everyday conversation. So it's very therapeutic - it's a way of finding out how to know yourself and communicate that to this world. And I think that's what is exciting for people to listen to the music, it is that you're almost like watching the person find themselves and communicate that to you, and that can be a cool relationship or journey."
So do Sixpence attract the bedsitter crowd? Communication phobics? Are Slocum's songs going to attract that type of disposition?
Matt agrees, "Yeah, I would think so. I guess everybody is born with certain dispositions, and that's where my disposition tends to go, and it's an amazing thing that people gravitate towards people of certain dispositions, and you don't even know that person, but you sort of gravitate towards that. What's interesting about this group is that Leigh and I are opposites of dispositions. They come together to make a certain chemistry of a melancholic disposition, exploring those things, and then meeting up with a very hopeful, cheery disposition, and what that produces for the world - it's a kind of mysterious thing."
Mystery is not a very prevalent feature in Christian music where the industry prefers to work in safe, obvious certainties. The band haven't been shy in interviews when it comes to letting people understand the spiritual nature of their music but with Sixpence, you get the feeling that God has called them to intrigue people. Matt agrees, "I think there's just a big lack of seeking and the mystery of God, and the way the world works, everything has to be immediate. It has to be in a two minute sound bite, or has to immediately affect them when they change the channel. I don't know if God really needs to compete with that, because he's out there, and if you want to go find him, you have to go seek him, and that's just how I've always lived my life, so it kind of comes across in the songs."
Matt continues to expand on this, "My personality is not to go in and be very heavy handed ministry-wise, although I think that there's a place for that, and it works wonderfully. But I think there's also a place for people just being salt and light, and letting people seek and discover things and make them their own. When I became a Christian I was lead very gently to the Lord, and from that was able to seek things out and make them my own. I feel I'm a stronger Christian because of that, instead of somebody coming in and pounding it into me, but that's just me, but there's a lot of people like me out there."
And those people could so easily have missed out on the delights of Sixpence's music if the behind-the-scenes wrangles hadn't been sorted out. Talking with Leigh, she elaborates on the consequences of the legal battles with their former record label which took their toll on the band. She remembers, "We couldn't record for about a year and a half, so it was pretty rough. A ton of bands go through this though, it's not like we had special circumstances! But it was very difficult for us, and we ploughed through it and I think the thing that kept us going was the love of the music that we were doing."
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