Learn­ing to soar

Low’s Alan Sparhawk talks side-projects, the creative spirit and Shape Note singing with Siobhán Kane

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

Low’s Alan Sparhawk has been bat­tling the rain, and run­ning around his house try­ing to “save things from the wa­ter”; he is damp, but in good spir­its. “We have had the worst rain since the 1970s. I have been kinda house­bound with it, mainly hid­ing in the base­ment.”

Weather can af­fect many things, in­clud­ing work and mood, of­ten be­com­ing a metaphor. “The win­ter is very long [in Min­nesota],” says Sparhawk. “It’s a gi­ant fac­tor in peo­ple’s lives.”

The sense of a com­mu­nity hud­dling to­gether for warmth in­forms Low’s work, and along with his wife, Mimi Parker, and Steve Gar­ring­ton, Sparhawk has been keen to swell that com­mu­nity, through his work as Ret­ri­bu­tion Gospel Choir, or his most re­cent col­lab­o­ra­tive EP, Im­per­fecta, a side pro­ject with vi­o­lin­ist Gae­lynn Lea, for which they work un­der the name (thee) Mur­der of Crows.

“I saw her play with Char­lie Parr. She has a bone dis­ease [Os­teo­ge­n­e­sis Im­per­fecta], and her limbs are lim­ited. Ev­ery­one re­acts to her hand­i­cap im­me­di­ately, as well as the spirit she ex­udes. I call Char­lie ‘the teacher’, be­cause if you play with him you al­ways learn some­thing, and she could hear where Char­lie was go­ing, it was so ex­cit­ing to see a vi­o­lin­ist do that. Bands like Dirty Three are a huge in­flu­ence on the pro­ject. Low toured with them years ago, and they in­flu­enced us in the way they can float above struc­tures, and when I saw Gae­lynn play, a bomb went off in my head.”

Bombs are al­ways go­ing off in Sparhawk’s head – he is both pro­lific and rest­less. I ask him whether it is a re­sponse to the con­trolled, struc­tured na­ture of Low’s sound, since some­thing like Ret­ri­bu­tion Gospel Choir is about im­pro­vi­sa­tion and loose­ness.

“That is what it feels like. I love stuff that is vis­ceral. Low is very spe­cific. Once we de­cide the way the way the song goes, it usu­ally stays that way, it’s the car­di­nal rule.”

Yet even in Low’s work, there is rest­less­ness; no two records are the same. Last year’s C’mon was pretty and in­ti­mate, in re­sponse to the more bru­tal sound of 2007’s Drums and Guns.

“That one was like stand­ing up on a bench try­ing to talk to a lot of peo­ple, wasn’t it? I was talk­ing to Steve about this re­cently. We were driv­ing to Min­nesota, the ra­dio was on, and I was think­ing about some bands’ lyrics, and I said that the older I get, the more I feel like I am run­ning out of things to say. There will al­ways be some twist and a creative way to do things, but I am less in­clined to use an idea, a word, or a metaphor if I have used it al­ready. Is it pos­si­ble to still use those words and have some­thing new to say?”

Yet sim­ple lan­guage, for ex­am­ple the Neil Young lyric “only love can break your heart”, can be so shat­ter­ing.

“I quoted that ac­tual lyric to Steve, be­cause it is such a jewel. Maybe that is what makes great artists, tak­ing the lan­guage we use ev­ery day, but turn­ing it into some­thing beau­ti­ful. I have been try­ing to write again lately, and I’m in wor­ry­ing mode – can you tell? Writ­ing songs is so hor­ren­dous, and though I wouldn’t give up that feel­ing when you have hit on some­thing, get­ting there is ter­ri­ble – though I know there are worse job haz­ards.”

The al­most tribal Shape Note singing, a tra­di­tion that Sparhawk mined when he and Parker were writ­ing mu­sic for the Walker Arts Cen­tre-com­mis­sioned pro­duc­tion Heaven, in 2010, with chore­og­ra­pher Mor­gan Thor­son, has slso in­spired Sparhawk.

“I didn’t hear about it un­til 10 years ago, when some­one gave me the red book of songs, and some record­ings. You have to come be­fore that al­tar pretty hum­ble and clean, you know? I have sung in a few Shape Note choirs, and it’s a good thing you are singing, oth­er­wise you’d be cry­ing, it’s so pow­er­ful. Ev­ery per­son’s voice has a place, even the weird­est hol­ler­ing. It’s what it is to be one with a group of peo­ple. It’s like com­ing up for air.”

That “red book” is The Sa­cred Harp, the tra­di­tional book of Shape Note songs. Sa­cred Heart is the name of the stu­dio Low part-owns, and a space where var­i­ous bands have not only recorded, but per­formed. That it is also a de­sanc­ti­fied Catholic Church seems ap­pro­pri­ate.

“I think build­ings hold a spirit, it has ev­ery­thing to do with who has been there, their con­cerns and feel­ings, peo­ple sit­ting in the pews, paus­ing from their lives. There are a mil­lion stu­dios, but who wouldn’t want to record in a space like that? Ev­ery mu­si­cian gen­er­ally agrees that space has so much bear­ing on mu­sic, like when the sound bounces off the wall, how long does it take to come back to you? Imag­ine hav­ing a space that al­ready has that spe­cial­ness.”

That “spe­cial­ness” ra­di­ates from Low’s mu­sic, some­thing that reached one of Sparhawk’s he­roes, Robert Plant, who cov­ered their songs Sil­ver Rider and Mon­key on his 2010 record Band of Joy.

“It was so ex­cit­ing and bizarre and funny. That was one of those things that made me think ‘wow, I guess this is for real, I guess I'm do­ing this’. It was truly, truly weird.”

And yet so nat­u­ral. Maybe he could yet col­lab­o­rate with Plant on some­thing?

“Wow, can you imag­ine that? Well, I do keep say­ing he needs to hire Ret­ri­bu­tion Gospel Choir as his band . . . ”.

Low play The But­ton Fac­tory, Dublin, on Tues­day, July 10th, and Cyprus Av­enue, Cork, on Wed­nes­day, July 11th

Aim­ing high: Low (from left) Alan Sparhawk,

Steve Gar­ring­ton and Mimi Parker

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