http://nashvillepublicmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Sixpence-None-the-Richer-Reunion.mp3The Kiss Me single from 1997 reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100.Just before the turn of the millennium, Nashville’s Sixpence None the Richer was all over MTV and VH1. The band’s ticket to ubiquity was a dream-pop fairytale called “Kiss Me.” That irresistible piece of songwriting and arranging from Matt Slocum and singing from Leigh Nash also landed on the teen soap “Dawson’s Creek,” in the high school romance flick She’s All That and in the Top 40. But the band eventually tired of record label headaches and split up in 2004. Now that these one-time icons of youthful innocence have reunited, their new album sounds unmistakably like the work of experienced adults.
Off the Page
If it had been up to Matt Slocum, “Kiss Me”—the band’s biggest hit—would never have seen the light of day. “I actually had to be talked into keeping it on the record,” he confesses with sheepish amusement. “I tried to not have it on there. But then I realized I know nothing about what can be successful, because obviously that was very successful.”
Multi-instrumentalist Slocum practically grew up in his dad’s bookstore, and from the start, he wrote highly imaginative, literary lyrics. Mass market ear candy wasn’t even on his radar. “It’s weird that we’re known for being sort of a teenage pop band with a few really big radio hits,” he says, “when I think, really, that’s not fully reflective of what we’re about or what we’re into or what we do.”
The fact that Slocum got the moniker Sixpence None the Richer from the writings of C.S. Lewis—and not the British author’s children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia either, but his philosophical musings on faith—is one more bit of proof, hidden in plain sight, that there’s always been something headier going on with this band than the hits suggest.
Slocum first teamed up with Leigh Nash two decades ago in the Texas town of New Braunfels, when he was 18 and she was all of 14, and in no time at all they were signed to a Christian indie. “We recorded four songs together, very cheaply, on a cassette, and sent it out to some people in Nashville,” Slocum explains. “And we had not even played a show when we got a record deal, like, with just these four songs that we recorded.”
That cassette tape is apparently still around, and Nash has gotten reacquainted with the sound of her much younger self, thanks to her eight year-old son. “He found it and really wanted to listen to it,” she says with a chuckle, “and I think he could see that I was uncomfortable hearing it. Therefore he wants to listen to it all the time. So I’ve had a lot of time to kind of meditate on that [early music].”
And what’s her current impression of Sixpence’s beginnings? “I mean, I hear the youth mainly. I remember how innocent we were in what we were doing, just not really knowing. I certainly didn’t. I think Matt did a pretty good job of steering the car at the time and had some goals. But I was so young and just distracted by school and all this other stuff that I was just literally singing the songs and that’s it.”
The band had already released a couple of albums before scoring a platinum-selling breakthrough with album three. That self-titled set contained “Kiss Me” and a follow-up hit, a cover of the British pop song “There She Goes.” Then, after a several-year wait, they had one last Top 40 single off of their fourth album, Divine Discontent.
By that point, everything about the business of being Sixpence had grown more complicated. “I think we’ve just managed to be a magnet for album delays and bad label issues, hopefully through no fault of our own,” says Slocum. “That’s just kind of been our course. I know for me personally, I was just worn out. I just wanted a break. It wasn’t fun anymore. We had sort of lost that initial energy and purity that we started with.”
Nash felt the same way, and on top of it, she was going through her first pregnancy while they toured behind Divine Discontent. She says, “I think I might’ve tended more to try to call it a hiatus if I hadn’t been so pregnant and just tired and worn out and, at the same time, really ready to become a mother, and definitely frustrated with all that we had been through business-wise, that I just felt like it’d be much healthier for me to just clear the deck and have this baby and have some space to become a mother and see what that’s all about.”
When they parted ways—permanently, they thought, at the time—Slocum put his cello-playing talents to use as a studio guru and started up his short-lived side band Astronaut Pushers. Nash not only embraced motherhood, but launched a solo singer-songwriter career. When she released her first album under her own name in 2006—Blue On Blue—she found that she sorely missed her musical foil.
“Doing it on my own, it was nowhere near as fun,” she reflects. “I had nowhere near the confidence that I usually had with the Sixpence stuff. The excitement was… I felt a little lackluster about it.”
Resuming the Conversation
Matt Slokum and Leigh Nash reunite after parting ways in 2004. Image courtesy SixpenceNash eventually called Slocum up—during his extended Italian honeymoon—and found she wasn’t the only one pondering a musical reunion. This time, they didn’t worry with trying to recreate the old hit-making formula.
She contributed just as much songwriting as he did. Says Slocum, “I like the way the writing has morphed into more of a partnership, as opposed to, like, a one-sided thing.”
They worked on songs separately, then got together once a month and caught up on each other’s lives as they shared their new compositions, a process that Slocum describes this way: “So you’re sort of hearing what you’re thinking deeply, but not really talking about it, just sort of singing it to each other. And when all the songs were compiled, that’s what it sort of felt like, was a conversation without ever really having had an actual conversation.”
At first they toyed with calling the new album Strange Conversation, but they settled on a title that really captured the drastic sense of change: Lost in Transition. The dozen tracks on it—recorded with the longtime rhythm section of bassist Justin Cary and drummer Rob Mitchell—are worlds away from “Kiss Me” territory. Instead of romantic flights of fancy, Nash’s anthemic tune “Be OK” describes what it’s like to pick up the pieces of a disintegrated relationship.
“That was inspired by my marriage splitting up,” she explains. “I’d been married for eleven years. Soon after that I lost my father. So there was just this time where I just had all this—I don’t know—just like I was walking around with these shackles almost. …A couple of the songs on this record have helped kind of—I don’t know—shed some of that weight.”
Those kinds of songs come from sitting with reality, as opposed to floating above it. And Slocum matched his band mate for weighty subject matter with a tune called “Failure.” When Nash starts singing, her voice is utterly alone with the subdued pulse of the drums: “The clock in the hall is louder now, and I don’t know what to do about it/As I hear it make its metronomic round, there’s nothing I can do about it/With it’s constant tick like the footsteps of someone approaching I don’t want to meet/She’s a messenger with the message my journey is over, and I failed to make it/Time is not my friend anymore.”
Says Slocum of the song’s real-life inspiration, “It was sort of tied up around someone that was going into a life-threatening surgery at the time, so there’s a lot of angst of like ‘What’s going to happen here?’ and not really wanting to encounter the future, because it could be pretty bad.”
Change Is Not the Enemy
He’s not exaggerating about the song expressing a lot of angst, but Sixpence’s well-formed pop instincts certainly make it easier on the ear. One thing Lost in Transition has in common with the band’s earlier work is an abundance of superbly crafted hooks, some of which sound positively buoyant. “Should Not Be This Hard” is a perfect example; a sunny melody, playful syncopation and jangly guitar carry the chorus easy as you please.
What’s happened with the band’s lyrics, when you get right down to it, is that vivid imagination has given way to the poetry of experience, and the songs gain much of their power from being true to life now. Slocum and Nash both have made peace with the fact that their perspectives, their music, their image and the opportunities before them have changed. And that’s a rare and admirable thing among reunited bands that once rode high on hits.
Slocum quips, quite sensibly, “I mean, geez, I’ll be forty this year. So why wouldn’t the music be more adult and mature? But it’s nice that that’s coming across.”
How’s this for hindsight? There’s even a song on the new album called “Radio” that explores the bittersweet memories stirred when a favorite old love tune comes on the air.