The Gospel According to Sixpence None the Richer

How did a Christian pop band from Central Texas get to the top of the charts? Pray, tell.

November 1999By Comments

TO HEAR “KISS ME,” THE SMASH SINGLE BY SIXPENCE NONE THE RICHER, is to be overcome by a series of romantic images: a young, awkwardly beautiful girl feeling the first flush of love, shedding her shyness in the arms of a good-hearted hunk on prom night; a pair of teenagers tingling with the knowledge that their relationship is more than that of the archetypal boy and girl next door; and in the ultimate romantic fairy tale, a prince and a princess joining together in holy matrimony.

Yet these scenes are not from singer Leigh Nash’s life, and they aren’t allusions to song lyrics. They’re clips from, respectively, the hit teen movie She’s All That, the ultra-trendy teen TV show Dawson’s Creek, and the BBC broadcast of the Prince Edward—Sophie Rhys-Jones nuptials. Each of these very high-profile moments came off with the simple sentiments and indelible melodies of “Kiss Me” playing in the background, making Sixpence a contemporary success story—the hottest Texas band that isn’t the Dixie Chicks. Consider the numbers. After releasing two unheralded albums earlier in the decade, Sixpence recorded a third, self-titled CD in February 1998 for the Nashville-based independent label Squint. Largely because the group already had a following in the Christian-music scene, the record sold 38,000 copies over the next four months. But in January 1999, She’s All That hit the theaters, and with that exposure the album was in another 100,000 homes by April. The song then became the lead single off the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack, adding Columbia Records’ marketing clout to Squint’s efforts. By the end of May, Sixpence had sold half a million CDs, earning its first gold record, and “Kiss Me” was the number one pop song in the country. June’s royal wedding, with more than 200 million television viewers around the world, was icing on the cake.

Of course, topping the singles charts is a grand accomplishment, but in today’s youth-driven, attention-deficit-disordered market, it can sometimes be your swan song. “The music business has changed so much,” acknowledges Matt Slocum, Sixpence’s 26-year-old guitarist and songwriter. “Everything’s based on just one song. Being a one-hit wonder is a pitfall that we weren’t prepared for.”

Six months later, however, Sixpence is doing its best to rise above it. The band’s summer included a well-received stint on the popular Lilith Fair tour, as well as visits to Japan and England. A new single, “There She Goes,” hit the airwaves in July, beating out a song by ’N Sync as radio’s most added track that week. Sixpence has sung for both David Letterman and Jay Leno, and an Austin City Limits taping is not far off. Since June the album has sold another 250,000 copies, and that’s not taking into account the full effect of “There She Goes” (which hit the Top 40 on October 2) or the band’s current two-month U.S. tour alongside Better Than Ezra. In addition, the critics, never an easy bunch to please (and especially skeptical when it comes to bands who’ve been embraced by radio), have noticed that Sixpence’s music goes deeper than its chart-topping calling card: Band members have been showered with positive comparisons to the likes of R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs.

Now if only the press would stop lumping them into the teen movie—TV phenomenon. “After a while,” says 23-year-old Nash, “all the questions are like, ‘So, who do you think is cuter, James Van Der Beek [“Dawson”] or…?’ I don’t even know the other one’s name!”

OKAY, SO NASH CAN’T QUITE CALL TO mind the name of Joshua Jackson (“Pacey”). But the truth is that Sixpence’s own story is a high school drama worthy of prime time on the WB. Growing up in the Central Texas town of New Braunfels, Slocum was your average teenager—he abandoned piano lessons, had a summer job at Schlitterbahn, and received an electric guitar for his fifteenth birthday—when he first heard Nash, then a thirteen-year-old Patsy Cline fanatic, singing in the local church choir. He asked if she would lend her voice to a song he had written. By the time they were classmates at New Braunfels High (he was a senior when she was a freshman), they had a serviceable demo recording.

Slocum, who had rebelled against his father’s Catholicism and mother’s Episcopalianism only to embrace Christianity on his own, was a veteran of various religious youth camps and summer festivals. He was attending the 1991 Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois, when a Nashville-based Christian label called R.E.X. offered him a deal. Taking the name Sixpence None the Richer from the C. S. Lewis novel Mere Christianity, he and Nash recorded their first effort, The Fatherless and the Widow, in Chicago, and it was released in the summer of 1993. “It’s kind of weird—we didn’t even have a gig before we got signed,” says Slocum, who played everything but the drums on their debut. There would be plenty of gigs to come, however, so the duo hooked up with drummer Dale Baker, a Branson, Missouri, native who now lives in Nashville. (The current lineup also includes bassist Justin Cary and guitarist Sean Kelly, though Nash and Slocum remain the only members actually signed to a record contract.)

At the time, Slocum had enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin, gaining admission to the School of Music as a cello major despite little formal training. Yet his presence in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World didn’t have any real ramifications for Sixpence. With Nash so young—she was still in high school—the band couldn’t play the repeated gigs required to make the Austin scene, and their music was too poppy, too slick, and too Christian to gain any truck with local tastemakers (Fun facts: Like Hootie and the Blowfish and the Dave Matthews Band, Sixpence is a big-name act that was rejected early on by the South by Southwest Music Festival, though they eventually did play the conference. And they once shared practice space at the Austin Rehearsal Complex with a decidedly unchristian combo. “We were like, oooh, the Butthole Surfers,” Nash remembers. “I was so young that I thought, ‘What kind of tomfoolery is that?’”).

Anyway, the action was in Dallas, where venues like Club Dada, which had nurtured Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians, offered Sixpence regular gigs. On a typical night Nash’s parents would drive her to Austin, where she’d hook up with the band and head up Interstate 35 for the show; then Slocum would have to take her all the way back to New Braunfels before returning to Austin—and then both of them would have to get up and go to their morning classes. Surprisingly, Nash’s parents—a former teacher and a banker-turned-medical-entrepreneur—were unperturbed by the idea of their daughter hanging out in rock clubs and occasionally lagging behind in her studies. “They really believed in Matt’s talent as much as mine,” Nash says. “They believed that there was a reason we were together.”

Slocum’s mother, a former teacher who raised him pretty much on her own, was not as convinced. “I think your parents at some point say, ‘Well, we love you and we know you’re not going to listen to us anyway, so we’re going to support you,’” he explains. “She didn’t want to force any of her expectations on me, but she definitely thought I was crazy for a few years. So it’s been really neat to have all this success. She’s really proud.”

By 1996 the band had completed a second album, This Beautiful Mess, and Sixpence was a full-time job. Nash and Slocum relocated to Nashville, but two weeks after they got there, R.E.X. laid off most of its employees. The company went bankrupt soon afterward, only to be taken over by another label, Platinum. “This company was horrible,” Slocum says. “We knew that if we fulfilled the deal, they’d just run our career into the ground.” A legal struggle followed, during which time Slocum made his living as a cellist on other people’s recordings, including Natalie Imbruglia’s “Smoke.”

Meanwhile, Steve Taylor, a friend of the band’s and a fellow artist on the Christian-music scene, was planning to start his own label, Squint, with seed money from Gaylord Entertainment, the Tennessee conglomerate that used to own the Nashville Network. The band finally broke free of Platinum (the company still owns the rights to Sixpence’s first two records) and signed with Squint, learning hard lessons in the process. “The Christian-music industry is just like any other business,” Slocum says. “And it’s hard to get out once you’re in it. It ended up being really confining for us.” Says Nash: “When somebody hears you’re a Christian band, they think they already know what you sound like.”

While Nash and Slocum still value the fans who have been with them since they started out, the genre they’re associated with has changed. Since the early eighties, when everybody from cutie-pie songstress Amy Grant to light-metal band Stryper first gained attention, Christian pop music (songs with spiritual content and mainstream musical ideas that bear little or no aesthetic relationship to gospel or hymns) had become fairly commonplace, giving rise to a specialized network of fans, labels, radio stations, and touring venues. “We would play Christian colleges, or we’d come in to a church and play for a youth group,” Nash says. “It’d be like, ‘Okay, kids, here’s a band, and then we’re going to have some pizza.’ Those markets started to grow and grow, but some churches were still completely offended by it. I’ve had people berate me: ‘You say you are Christians, but you’re playing your guitars so loud you can’t hear the words!’”

Sixpence still managed to nab a 1998 Grammy nomination for best rock-gospel album. But these days, the group gets criticism from the Christian scene for other reasons, as the longtime faithful debate the appropriateness of its current career moves. After all, Dawson’s Creek features teen sex, adultery, and a sympathetic portrayal of gay people. “We have excellent fans who are very passionate about us, one way or the other,” Nash deadpans. The band also gets razzed for its decision to join the Lilith Fair. Biblically speaking, Lilith is not considered a positive role model—“She ditched Adam or something,” Slocum cracks—which, of course, is exactly why Sarah McLachlan gave the tour that name in the first place.

Nash has no patience for the complaints. “It’s embarrassing to me,” she says. “It gives Christianity such a bad connotation.” It’s the reason Slocum prefers to call himself a “follower of Christ’s teachings”: “Born-again” comes with so much baggage. He cites as one of his inspirations Sam Phillips, the wife of Fort Worth’s own T-Bone Burnett, who made a similar transition to secular artistry. Then there’s a certain Irish band that was never really stereotyped as religious, despite being faith-oriented from the start. “U2 was able to be relevant musically, politically, and spiritually all at the same time,” Slocum says admiringly.

SECULAR OR HOLY, IT’S OBVIOUS THAT controversy has a way of finding Sixpence. There’s even a story behind “There She Goes.” Originally an early-nineties hit for the Liverpool band the La’s, the chirpy, innocuous song is not about a lady love but rather a different kind of lady: heroin. It’s fairly easy to decode lyrics like “There she goes again, racing through my brain…pulsing through my vein,” but Sixpence has simply looked the other way. “We’re interpreting it as a love song,” Slocum offered when first confronted on the subject in the British weekly music paper Melody Maker.

Whatever its subject matter, “There She Goes” is very much a pop song, bathed in cheer and catchiness the same way “Kiss Me” has an aura of fairy dust and starlight. The problem is that if you know Sixpence None the Richer only from its hits, you don’t really know it. “It’s hard when what you’re famous for doesn’t really give the whole picture,” Slocum says. Yes, he loves the Beatles and the ornate pop of XTC, and he’s never denied obvious influences like the Smiths and the Sundays. But overall his songwriting tends to wander into darker, more poetic places. He can be a bit of a miserabilist—“This is my forty-fifth depressing tune,” the opening line of “Anything” announces. He references Dylan Thomas (the inspiration for “Kiss Me”) and Pablo Neruda (“Puedo Escribir”). And while he contemplates religion, he does it in a fairly primal manner, with the appropriate amount of angst, suffering, and burning questions.

The record’s musical accomplishments are also significant. Once again Slocum plays most of the instruments, and he also crafted the heavy-duty string arrangements, which have been mentioned by one critic in the same breath as the work of the great Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks. Nash’s voice, meanwhile, is a thing of guttural beauty ranging from plainspoken warmth to a fluttering level of abstraction that suggests Van Morrison or Kate Bush.

As it happens, Sixpence’s personal demeanor can be just as multifarious as its aesthetic. The sweet-as-can-be Nash, for instance, is often cutting, brash, and funny, whether recalling a shared bill with one of those boy bands—“I think there’s a ‘Jeremy’ in every one,” she jokes—or going on the Internet to anonymously strike back at her critics. And that Melody Maker interview found her discussing her married life in a forthright manner. “I have no idea,” she was quoted as saying, “how my husband can get pubic hair under the [toilet] rim.” (“I didn’t say the p-word!” she now protests. “It was embellished. I just said ‘hairs.’”)

Nash’s husband, Mark, is a 28-year-old musician and producer from Minnesota who took a turn as Sixpence’s drummer when Baker briefly left the band. It was nice for husband and wife to be together, but it soon became clear that neither the band nor the marriage would ultimately benefit from the arrangement. “It was obvious it would have been a lot of pressure, us both being on the road,” she says. “It brings on all kinds of conflict—not between us, but if there was ever conflict between him and the rest of the band, I’d kill them and go home with him.”

Needless to say, Nash has a vision of the future that doesn’t include pop stardom. Her own family, and possibly college, are still on the horizon. “All of us in Sixpence definitely see ourselves having a different kind of life in ten years,” she says. “We just want to keep making music together. I don’t know for how long. It depends on whether we get tired out or if nobody wants to hear us anymore. But we never really cared about that before, so I think we’ll be okay if there’s never another ‘Kiss Me.’”

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