The Discontent Between Business and Artistry
The songwriter and singer of Sixpence None the Richer talk about how the business side of the music industry—and outside expectations—can constrain the creative process
August 1, 2003
Songwriter and guitarist Matt Slocum first heard Leigh Nash (then Bingham) sing at a Texas church event in the late '80s. He was 17. She was 13. Before she was even old enough to graduate high school, the two formed Sixpence None the Richer, a group now popular in both the Christian and mainstream industries. Known for insightful lyrics and melodic modern rock, the group is currently riding the radio success of its critically acclaimed 2002 album, Divine Discontent.
But the road has not been easy for the band, which has released consistently strong albums but suffered from bad business luck. After forming the group, Sixpence signed with Nashville independent label R.E.X in 1993. The band released three recordings before the company went bankrupt—just as Sixpence members moved to Nashville.
The label's financial woes left Sixpence tied up in a legal mess that meant they couldn't record for more than a year. Eventually, the band was freed of its contract and allowed to sign with Steve Taylor's Squint Entertainment.
While Sixpence was a longtime cult favorite in the Christian music scene, Taylor released the band's third full-length album into both Christian and mainstream markets. The self-titled 1998 album, and its runaway hit "Kiss Me," exploded in pop radio. Suddenly, the band was huge. Sixpence got a slot on mega-tour Lilith Fair and recorded a cover of the song "There She Goes" for the She's All That movie soundtrack. In 2000, they returned to the studio to record their next album.
But old frustrations returned in early 2001 when Squint's parent company, Word Records, put Taylor's label up for sale. Again in legal limbo, Sixpence was eventually picked up by Reprise Records in 2002 and soon after released the long-in-progress Divine Discontent.
Christianity Today Associate Editor Todd Hertz interviewed Slocum and Nash about the album, "Christian bands" in the mainstream, and the frustrations of being hampered by music's business side.
What was the creative vision you originally had for Sixpence?
Slocum: We were so young when we started—I was 19 and Leigh was 16—that we didn't have a huge vision other than just making good music together and using the talents that God had given us. That has never changed.
However, with the huge commercial success and being on a large major label, we found ourselves within certain parameters. We've become a pop band with a Christian underside. The creative vision has become a little bit more linked with the success of "Kiss Me" and people wanting us to repeat that.
When people look at you for large radio hits and large pop success, it can be a little bit limiting. But the flip side is that a lot of bands don't get this kind of large platform and resources to work with. So even after 10 years, we're still working through how to best use what we've been given.
Does commercial success change the way an artist approaches writing music?
Slocum: It does. You're not just writing whatever you want. You tend to think a lot more about what people want to hear. There's a lot of people [commenting] from all sides saying, "This is what we need to sell records" or "This is what we need to appeal to this fan base that you've created," or "This is what radio wants to hear."
You have to strike a balance between what's inside you with how it's going to connect with what you've done previously and with what the audience wants to hear.
These factors can constrain you artistically. I have a lot of different musical itches that need scratching. When you find yourself limited and hemmed in by new parameters, I think you start looking at other ways to scratch those musical itches.
Nash: When we first started Sixpence, I was so young. I was determined not to ever see the ugly side of the music business that people referred to all time. I was absolutely determined. I would say in interviews, "Well, I just let everybody else deal with that stuff, and I concentrate on the music."
Down the road, you realize that it's impossible to do that if you have a brain, any desires in life, or you want to make a living. It is unfortunate that the business and the creative sides should ever cross paths. But they're forced to. The business side of things dumbs down the creative process. It puts strain on it and makes it into something unnatural and forced. That has become something that's been unavoidable and very disappointing.
How have the legal and business struggles held the band back?
Nash: Hopefully we're stronger. It's created quite a bit of conflict within us; it makes us question, "Why in the world did this have to happen and what did we do wrong?"
Looking back, I don't believe we did do anything wrong. I don't think we made any decisions that at the time were wrong decisions. We just did the best we could with the knowledge that we had. So that's frustrating to look back and say, "What were we supposed to do?"
I don't necessarily think this was something that God meant or willed to happen. But I know that good can come out of it. I believe in free will. People make mistakes, and I think that's what has happened.
I like to think that God's hand has been on us this whole time, and that's been the reason for the success. Matt and I both do, and that's why we're still together. There's more to be said and more to be done. I hope that we're blessed enough to be able to affect the culture for the better and for God. That's what we're sticking around for, anyway.
With that said, what's next for Sixpence?
Nash: Well, I think maybe—I don't know why I said maybe. We probably—Oh, I said it again. For some reason I can't make a sure statement anymore. I've learned to stop making sure statements because it seems like when you do that it never actually comes to fruition, and I'll have to eat my words.
Are the band's behind-the-scenes frustrations present on Divine Discontent?
Nash: Every record is a reflection of its time, and of what Matt and I have been through together and separately. The first record dealt with the death of Matt's father. Several of the songs were directly inspired from that experience, and they helped him to deal with it. A lot of the songs on the next record were about broken relationships.
After that, we went through this whole legal thing. Several years passed and a lot more musical growth happened and a lot more life happened. For Divine Discontent, we had songs about the frustration of what we went through business-wise.
Slocum: "Divine discontent" is the problem of pain idea that C. S. Lewis talks about. Suffering and pain can be actually a gift from God to put you through the fire and bring you to a better place. It may not feel that way at the time. The album is about learning to accept pain as a doorway to a closer relationship with God.
As songwriters, you obviously share a lot of personal things. How do you deal with that much disclosure?
Slocum: To be honest, in the future I will probably tend to be a bit more guarded with it only because, especially early on, a lot of the stuff I was writing about ended up having a resolve to it.
On this particular record, there are a lot of personal things that still bring up stuff that I don't want to remember. It's stuff I don't want to feel. Frankly, there are days I just don't feel like talking about it. One can really think, "Well heck, why did I release that on a public record?"
I find that artists who break open and pour themselves out have a huge resonance with me and change my life. But also there's the other side that says you should be a little more guarded because you don't want to keep picking the scabs and opening up these wounds.
Sixpence, P.O.D., and Jars of Clay tend to be viewed as "Christian bands" that broke into the mainstream. As an artist, how do you view the distinction of a "Christian band?"
Slocum: I definitely think about it. Sometimes I envy artists who are Christians writing lyrics with spiritual foundations, but aren't necessarily involved in "Christian music." People are receptive to spiritual stuff but the Christian music label is a wall that you have to jump over with some listeners.
People are mostly just curious about what it means. What is Christian music? Why does it have its own culture? It's a little confusing to some people out in the mainstream. You have to do a lot of upfront explanation about what Christian music is and why you are involved in it. Sometimes you wish that you were approaching them as a peer. Sometimes the label of "Christian" gets in the way.
Nash: I'm starting to come around to realize [that the distinction] is a really big deal. We've never wanted to trick people into thinking that we're Christians when it's a good thing and then we're not Christians when it's good for us. We've never wanted to pretend that we weren't Christians.
Sometimes we have wanted to downplay the label—that this is a "Christian band"—simply because we don't want people to turn away from the music just because of that title. We want them to get the benefit of the beautiful lyrics and the fact that this is music being made by a Christian worldview. So it is Christian music, but we don't want to lose people's ears just because they think they're going to get beat over the head with something.
What makes Sixpence who it is?
Nash: Ultimately, Sixpence is who God made us and a combination of gifts that Matt and I were given. Our faith is probably the biggest reason Matt and I have stayed together musically. Plus, we have the belief that God put us together for a reason. We both think that's a really big deal and we want to be accountable to each other. That notion has completely driven it all along. Without our faith, we definitely would not be a band and we certainly wouldn't still be together.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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