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