Monday 8 June 2020

INTERVIEW: White Tail Falls (June 2020)

The remarkably talented, often hilarious, always welcoming and all round lovely chap Irwin Sparkes just put out his debut solo album Age Of Entitlement under the moniker White Tail Falls. Having heard some of the tracks live at a sort of 'secret' set in 2018, and singles released over the past months, hearing the record in full for the first time was a joy. By joy I mean sitting in awe with tears rolling down my face... a lot of emotion and heart has been poured into the record, and it would be difficult not to be moved by it. Many listens later (you can thank me for the streaming revenue later, Irwin) and, well, I'm still in awe. This is a genuinely gorgeous record from an artist who I have long had a lot of love and respect for. 

I'd try to be cool and blasé about this but I'm delighted to be sharing an interview with Irwin (via email, distancing through the ether) about the record and the project more generally. This post feels like a highlight of my time running the blog, and I'm enormously thankful to Irwin for taking the time to share such detailed responses - now... read, listen, buy the record!!

Hello! Firstly, for those who are yet to discover the wonder of White Tail Falls (the small minority of people, that is) - who is White Tail Falls, and where does the name come from? 

My name is Irwin. I read about a location called White Tail Falls in the Pacific Northwest of America. Having never been, I liked that this place could be anything; I had no frame of reference to project upon it, so it held a mystery. It could be anything. Like a fresh start, which I liked the sound of. Rather than use my name I like the use of a disguise; it can become anything. 

Colour. Noun. Verb. What's not to like?

It’s been just over two years since I first heard about the project and saw you performing what I guess was one of the first live sets as White Tail Falls, at a tiny London show alongside The Ayoub Sisters and Alexander Wolfe. I’m intrigued to know when the project first came to be… and if you always felt that you had a solo record brewing under the surface? 

The idea for the album started forming around 2015. I'd partaken in too many co-writes where the artist had no investment in what they were saying and this exacerbated my delusion with music to the point where I was struggling to see how I'd move past that. The choice was cynicism or see if I could write something I believed in. Something reflective of the music and genres I'm into and wanted to listen to. It was terrifying. Doing this took me back to writing my first songs: where I was trying to figure out my own feelings. The songs I started writing tended to be very reflective. Bordering on grotesquely self-obsessed, you could say. 

I think I just had about three demos which I showed to Erland Cooper, who I'd written with and clicked with. Erland understood what I wanted to make, but pushed me to work at recording it myself (I was hoping he'd do it all.) He heard something in my rough demos that could be complimented with strings and a harp.

In terms of always having a solo record... I honestly didn't know what I had to say. Age and an earth-shattering amount of humility (ha) have made me question the value of my own opinion and voice. To start, I thought I'd write about what I knew: myself. So this album has an insular quality. That allowed me to check on myself and ensure I was telling the truth/saying what I really wanted to say. Some of my favourite albums (Benji by Sun Kil MoonLast of The Country Gentlemen by Josh T. PearsonCarrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, any Elliot SmithThe Eels and Blake Mills' first two albums, to name quite a few...) draw on their own experiences but allow the listener to share in it. By virtue of being truthful and expressing an emotion that's common to all they create a communal experience. What I'm saying is, I don't want to be a navel-gazer. 

If I'd have made a solo album ten years ago I would have cared so much more about what people thought - it couldn't be anything other than contrived and a product of paranoia and fear. 

On that note! As I write these questions, it’s just one week until the debut album Age Of Entitlement (plug plug plug) “drops” figuratively and literally into our hearts, our streaming services and our postboxes. How does it feel to finally be sharing the record in full, especially in these unpredictable and crazy times?

Sat here, responding the week after release, it couldn't be crazier. I feel so sad and frustrated with what's happening in America following the murder of George Floyd. It's terrible timing to be self-promoting when there are clearly bigger issues to be addressed. Desperately searching for the positives, I hope this moment can be a catalyst for change in our western systems to address the injustices faced by black and minority people. That all sounds good but to do it I've got to take responsibility for my adding to the problem.

As for the release, it's been finished for a couple of years and the label (Physical Education Recordings) and I have been building to this moment so it's a lesson we are not in control. Regardless, I'm so glad it's out there. Getting the Rough Trade Edit was a real cherry on top of the day of release.

To me WTF makes sense as an album. I didn't set out to write singles and so releasing the three singles felt a little disjointed. I get it; that's how bands/artists introduce themselves to the world: "Hi, here's my most immediate record, can we be friends?" To me the tracks make the most impact in the context of the album. Finally having the full LP out there allows people to experience the whole journey as intended. 

Can you talk a bit about the recording process for the record, and the guests that helped out along the way… especially the foxes in your garden - they’re receiving royalties, right? On your recent live stream with Alexander Wolfe you touched on the differences in recording as part of a band in the past, and now having the responsibility of making those big decisions yourself. A learning curve?

Don't get me started on those foxes. I'm over city-living, having (humanely) gotten rid of the fox den under the "shed-io", the accompanying fleas, plague of moths and as of yesterday: rats. So gross. 

I had to learn how to record as I went. The album running order is pretty much chronological and you can hear me learning how to record as I go. Most of the vocals are recorded on a £30 USB mic. A lot of the early demos were recorded in my cousin's shed in Cornwall, or a motel travelling around America. After deciding that the demos would form the bedrock of the album it helped me accept my limitations and if there's one thing I've got a lot of... I made some rules: only three attempts at a part. Hence I couldn't play all the parts on the piano, or whatever, to you, that you hear on the album, as often, what you hear recorded is the only time I ever played it. Mistakes an all. And there's a lot of em. 

Initially I envisioned my album gleaming with professionalism and finesse, as are the other recordings I've been a part of. I realise now how much I've relied upon the better ability of my bandmates and producers and engineers. Once I accepted my newfound "raw", lo-fi approach, I can't see how it could have worked any other way. It's a fortunate occurrence, as I'm singing stories I've lived, seen lived and learned from, it makes sense that the recordings are lived in. I began to relish the bleed of the metronome through my cheap headphones on Body Weight, or how my sense of timing is a law unto itself. This, too, a reaction to the chart-filled perfection of locked-to-the-grid timing.

I knew I didn't just want to be some guy with a guitar. Maybe for fear of being exposed, but I also wanted some drama.

I wanted to use a restricted sonic palette. I'm trying to think of a less wanky way to say that. I just can't think of one... I wanted organic synth sounds so I bought a Yamaha VSS30 after hearing one in a co-write in Nashville. It's an 80s toy synth with a voice sampler that's all over the record. That way I get to augment my first instrument of a guitar with a synth that's using my voice as a texture. Restrictions in sound help give the album a cohesiveness. That said Devout is the only track that uses a phone app...

Hardest thing was making all those decisions. Erland was great for that. I'm surprised he's still talking to me! I must have driven him mad. Like a clingy eaglet that really doesn't want to leave the nest... it took time to trust my instincts. I have a new found respect for every record in existence. Even if you hate it, someone was able to choose THAT note, THAT sound, etc over all others. Mind blowing. I hope I've learned how to do that quicker. I'm writing the next album, so I'll find out pretty soon.

I got myself in fixes that required professional help. I just couldn't play bass well enough to do justice to Disintegrate or Only Getting Easier, so I roped in the amiable axeman Leighton Allen, who plays with The Hoosiers amongst others. Crucial to the sound was how we blended my rough-hewn takes with the sonorous beauty of strings and harp - Stephanie O provided violins and Lisa Canny the harp, both are solo artists in their own right and well worth your time. The Ayoub Sisters joined me on the second half of the record for violin and cello duties. 

Bernie Gardner got me out of trouble on the drum programming of Disintegrate. Alexander Wolfe wrote the string line on Age Of Entitlement and it's probably the biggest hook on the album. Paul Frith (arranges for Bear's Den, Mumford & Sons amongst others) helped me out with the strings for Fake News and Disintegrate. At live shows I always ask any string players what their favourite arrangements are, in case they choose mine over Paul's. None have yet. There's always next time...

Naomi Jensen (Rinngs), Hayley Wolfe (Tygermylk) and Alexander Wolfe lent me their voices for backing vocals. 

Nearly forgot, early on in the recording my Dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer and I felt a sudden burst of needing to work with him, so I got him playing piano on Body Weight and Give It Up, Son. It was tough going. Not sure we'll work again. Creative differences. He's doing ok now. Great help courtesy of the NHS and Prostate Cancer UK.
I find that favourite albums can be like a crutch to lean on when I feel low or when the world becomes a little too much, so I’m revisiting a *lot* of firm favourites at the moment... music always helps, and yours, in its various guises, has really helped me in the past (you know that!) I guess in the sort of mirror of that, you’ve shared online about the therapeutic process that writing the record was for you during a difficult time... how it helped to put you “back together”. I really admire the honesty in those posts, putting yourself on the line both there and in the songs, and I’m interested to know how it feels to be sharing them, with their incredibly personal origins in mind? Turning full circle, it must be heartwarming to know that people might take comfort from the tracks. 

Great question. Truthfully, I struggle with being vulnerable online. Especially when I feel like I've already done that to write and record the songs. And that was always my intention: to exist in the songs I write, not in my online presence. That said, a couple of folks, who stumbled upon my online biography, told me it got to them in one way or another and so I was encouraged to really boil down what the record was about and not hide behind the metaphors in lyrics or my usual online brevity. Truth is, when I came to write these songs, I was hurting and didn't know why and felt I had no right to hurt and in writing, attempted to figure that out. That's probably the shortest answer. 

Once you're committed to releasing the record, you want it to reach as many people as possible, although, I'll offer a caveat that I know not everyone will like it. It's not for everyone. So I will open up online, occasionally and against my better judgement, from time to time, because I want the music to reach people that it needs to and so that means telling people where it/I've come from. First time I did it felt like disrobing for Playboy. On an emotional level.

Like many musicians, you’re adapting to the newly popularised ways of connecting with fans at the moment, mostly via livestreams. You can’t hear me clapping and singing along (unfortunately… or not) or see me crying in the front row, and it must be a little (a lot) strange to be playing into your phone. How are you finding that side of things? 

First couple of livestreams brought on an existential crisis. Strangely tiring. Apparently there's some science to being watched and how that being "on" takes it out of you. Can't really complain. Especially when trying to moan to Fran, aka Ajimal, who finishes a shift as an NHS doctor helping covid sufferers then does a livestream. What a guy! Though he is making the rest of us look really bad so I wish only bad things for that man and his beautiful music. 

My livestream when the album came out got me all choked up. There were people there! I felt more relaxed - actually it was relief that the album was finally out there and to see people respond to it felt like the years of work and multitude of decisions made along the way were vindicated. That was my favourite and I hope I'm settling into them. Not expecting it to be perfect or me aiming to use too much tech (cos I don't know what I'm doing) is helping.

Public service announcement: we interrupt the interview with some dates for your diary.... 

Tuesday 9th June 7.30 BST: Twitter album playback listening party. Press play & lets drink in the Age Of Entitlement together. Tell me how it makes you feel and I’ll tell you how your feelings make me feel. 

On Thursday 11th June at 7.30 BST: come back to Insta and Facebook and I’ll get acoustical and talk more. Deal?

Finally, who or what is in your headphones at the moment? Aside from the cool music and things 2020 playlist, of course, which I hear is brilliant.

That playlist is the bomb! 

Nnamdï's BRAT is blowing my mind. 
Moses Sumney's græ
Little Feat
Basia Bulat
Andrew Mayling

Buy/stream Age Of Entitlement here (check out the clear vinyl!)

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