Sixpence None the Richer’s
“This Beautiful Mess” turns 20
J.J. Plasencio (bass): (This Beautiful Mess) was a tipping point for me… That record, I went back and listened to it once all this started to resurface. I realized, we did create something timeless. When you are in the process of it you don’t really know; you are just trying to get by. Recording that record, we were broke, our label was in a little dire straits… it was from all that struggle that greatness happened. When I listen to it, and man, I look back at some of the struggle that we had, and yet some of the great things that God did from it. That was a big lesson for me. I just love the writing, the playing… We were risk takers, and I love that we were.
Leigh Bingham Nash (lead vocals): The songs, the lyrics, the guitar, bass and drum work… so much artistry is in what got put down.
Matt Slocum (guitar, cello): Finding Dale Baker was a great catalyst, as he embodied what we wanted, someone who was very technically accomplished but very song-conscious. Needless to say, both Tess Wiley and and J.J. Plasencio fit this bill perfectly, and when the line-up was solidified it really felt like a band.
Tess Wiley (guitar, vocals): This was my fourth time in the studio to record an album, but my first one for a proper label, and I learned so much. Armand gave me tips for life in recording background vocals, and watching each song come to life as Matt tried out different sounds. The engineer changed mics on drums according to which song we were playing and just the overall synergy of the players opened my eyes to new possibilities. It’s also where I first saw a real loop made on the tape machine. Tape died out soon after that, so that was a lucky chance.
Dale Baker (drums, percussion): I really think the world of (producer) Armand Petri and all that he was able to accomplish for us sonically on this record. This record needed to have an edge and he was able to give us that and more! We did this record on analog tape, before the use of Pro-Tools, and though we were using a click track to play to, there was minimal editing done on the basic tracks. I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish with this record.
Today is the 20th Anniversary of my favorite record of all-time. I initially hesitated to use “my” or “I” when writing this story, but somehow, providentially, I have become a mediator and have brought these five incredible musicians back together (at least electronically; they are physically spread apart three states and two countries).
Sixpence None the Richer is known around the world for a great pop song Matt Slocum wrote in 1997. “Kiss Me” made them famous, but the band had been around for more than five years before that song changed the band’s trajectory.
The band’s second album, This Beautiful Mess, was released on April 18, 1995, exactly 20 years ago to this day. A few months ago I wrote a review of the album, summarizing what is so great about it, and what it means to me. You can read that in full here, but there is one sentence I will highlight to explain why the story you are beginning to read exists:
It is bizarre and providential that Matt Slocum, Leigh Bingham Nash, Tess Wiley, Dale Baker, and J.J. Plasencio ever ended up in the same room together, much less the same band.
As I wrote that, I wondered, is this true? How bizarre is it?
I decided to find out, and over the course of the last three months I have interviewed eight individuals about the process that resulted in bringing this wonderful album to my ears and yours.
Sixpence None the Richer has been a band for 23 years, and the only constants have been songwriter/guitarist Matt Slocum and singer (and eventually also songwriter) Leigh Nash. There have been countless drummers, bass players, guitarists who have joined and left the band over three decades.
The line-up that recorded This Beautiful Mess was only together for ten months. But in those ten months these five very different people with very different backgrounds, skills, and tastes collaborated on an album that has stood the test of time, and stands out as a very unique piece of Sixpence’s diverse and exceptional discography.
In addition to interviewing Matt, Leigh, J.J., Dale, and Tess, I also got in touch with producer and band manager Armand Petri, and former bass players Joel Bailey (1994) and James Arhelger (1993–1994, who co-wrote three songs on the album).
I worked to convey as much as I could using the words of these eight people, omitting the questions I asked them, and using my words only when absolutely necessary (in italics and parentheses). But what has been fun about this process for me — as a writer and huge fan of this album and band — is that many of the thoughts and assumptions I have had for 20 years have been confirmed and elaborated upon; and in some cases, debunked.
Part 1: Assembling the band
Matt: TJ Behling (Sixpence’s first bass player) and I grew up together in New Braunfels, Texas and played in various bands together in high school, namely Chris Taylor and Windows, Love Coma, and a few other dubious cover bands. He introduced me to Martin Baird in Dallas, and we recorded the original Sixpence demos at his studio (strangely enough, we eventually met Dale at this studio). TJ played bass and wrote the song “Spotlight”, and I think we may have played a few shows for fun.
Between the making of the demo and the year when Sixpence signed to R.E.X. Records in Nashville, we kind of drifted apart musically, as he was in college at University of North Texas and I was studying cello at UT Austin. However, after recording The Fatherless and the Widow, Leigh and I started playing a small amount of shows around the country to promote the album, and we needed a bass player.
I had met James through a mutual friend in Austin, and because of our mutual love for everything on the 4AD label at the time he seemed like a great fit. His tenure was short lived but we had a good time, mainly opening up for the tour 10,000 Maniacs was doing at the time without Natalie Merchant. He had great musical ideas which led to the songs you mentioned (“Love, Salvation, Fear of Death” and “Thought Menagerie”). Joel Bailey was able to fill in for awhile before J.J. came on the scene.
J.J.: I had no intention of joining the band. I am from El Paso, and I was on my way to (the University of) North Texas; that’s where Dale graduated from. And Dale is very modest, but he was in the One O’Clock lab band at UNT, which is probably the best in this country. If you think about jazz schools, UNT is probably in the top 3 in the United States, and Dale was in the One O’Clock, which is insane. I had no intention of quitting school — which I had a scholarship for — to go on the road with Sixpence.
But some mutual friends of Dale and I put us together. Dale said, “Hey this band I am in needs a bass player”. I drove down with Dale to a rehearsal (one rehearsal!) and then the very next time I am in the band. I did it one time! …But I did drop out of school. I talked it over with friends and family and decided to pursue this.
Dale: I first came to know Matt and Leigh (and TJ Behling — the original bassist) through my friend and roommate at the time, Martin Baird. Martin was an engineer/producer in Dallas and worked on the first Sixpence EP… that got Sixpence signed to R.E.X. When he finished the recording, somehow I got a hold of a cassette tape copy and listened to that thing non-stop for probably close to a year.
I remember hearing that Sixpence was recording their first record in Chicago, and I so badly wanted to be a part of that… but at that point I’d not really met the band. In the Fall of 1993, Martin told me that Sixpence was looking to do some touring, and they were looking for a full time drummer. I immediately bugged Martin to get in touch with the band and let them know that I was interested in auditioning. I think I might have traveled to Austin twice to meet with the band and audition. I had a sampling keyboard at the time, and I would bring that down for rehearsals, as the EP had sampled sounds and I was keen on figuring out a way to recreate the vibe of the EP as best as I could. I used that keyboard to trigger samples for a few songs we used to do during my first year or so with the band.
Tess: Matt saw my band Nothing in Return play at Emo’s in Austin. I had dropped out of college to go on tour with Nothing in Return in early ‘94. My parents were thrilled about that! Well then the band broke up and I was back at home and all depressed. Then Matt Slocum called me up and asked if I wanted to go on tour in Europe. “Yeah!”
(How well did you know him?) I didn’t know him. I might have known about Sixpence, sort of. I had no idea about the Christian music scene. When I started playing with them I was like, “What the hell is going on?!” People wanted my pick, my setlist, my autograph. I said, “I didn’t play on the record”, they would reply “I don’t care!” (They wanted you to sign “The Fatherless and the Widow”?) Yes.
Matt: The This Beautiful Mess 5-piece lineup was definitely the first “permanent” band we had in those early years. Leigh and I had decided after the recording of The Fatherless and the Widow that we wanted to define Sixpence more as a band and less as a duo, and we spent some time trying to find the musicians that felt right together.
Leigh: Bringing Tess in was great in a lot of ways. She was funny, beautiful and extremely talented. It’s always a funny situation getting thrown together with a girl on the road. You have to get in all the way or sort of tip toe around each other. I think mostly we dived in pretty far, for knowing each other such a short time. She and I had laughs that I’m STILL laughing about. I love that girl to pieces.
Dale is one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with. Very creative and so passionate about music. His joining definitely took everything up several notches. J.J. was a great addition… skill level — through the roof, like Dale. Together, they made a pretty rock solid rhythm section. His playing was so great it was jarring and in the best way! It was a pleasure to be on stage during one of his bass solos and watch the crowd’s faces. Amazing!
J. J.: Sometimes, very rarely, there would be chants of “bass solo!”. And I remember one time Matt just said, “Play something, J.J.”, and I think I did this version of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” that I had been working on. That was a lot of fun.
Tess: Obviously, they were really good, they were kind of intimidating to me! J.J. was actually playing the bass, and playing a 6-string. Dale was really good as well; they are both fabulous musicians. I didn’t know to appreciate them at the time, I was only 19, and I had only been in one other band, and that band also had a great drummer and great bass player- Matt Hammon (The Gloria Record, Bob Mould) and Jeremy Gomez (Mineral, The Gloria Record). I was spoiled, thinking, “Of course this is how it is supposed to be!”
Matt: No doubt about it, Dale was, and continues to be, a great drummer. His love for songs and the record-making process naturally led to some writing collaborations. As I mentioned before, adding Dale as a consistent member was a great catalyst for the band, and I think his combination of technical prowess/musicianship was the backbone for This Beautiful Mess.
Leigh and Tess sang well together, so it was great to have those harmonies available both in the studio and on tour. And I know Leigh loved having another woman to hang out with in the midst of a bunch of dudes. Tess was and continues to be a great songwriter.
Part 2: The Sound
Matt: I think the “aggressiveness” of This Beautiful Mess can definitely be credited to the members of the band at the time, namely Tess. She brought that energy into the band, and I think everyone reacted to it accordingly. We would listen to albums constantly on the road, and I can remember a steady playlist of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream and Gish, The Posies’ Frosting On the Beater, Jellyfish, Jeff Buckley, Sunny Day Real Estate, My Bloody Valentine, Sugar, Bob Mould… I had been into some of these albums independently, but Tess introduced me to some great music and pushed the guitars on This Beautiful Mess to channel some of that edge.
Leigh: My memories are scattered but the ones that remain are pretty vivid. From my perspective, the dynamic at the time between members musically was great. I think the sum of everyone’s influences at the time made for a harder sound. It was so early in our life as a band that our identity hadn’t yet been formed.
I think the sound was due to influences at the time… certainly Tess playing another guitar freed Matt up to do more and probably opened up new inspiration in his writing as well. I don’t think it was intentional as much as it was a natural progression; trying things out. I loved the rock songs live, those were always my favorite live songs to sing with the band.
Dale: As the band began touring after the release of The Fatherless and the Widow, I think it was natural that the sound became more aggressive. But a lot of that had to do with the players. Early on, with James Arhelger playing the bass and his brother playing guitar, the sound was not as aggressive, and we even played some shows with a small string ensemble. But then James left the band and with the addition of Joel Bailey, who played bass much differently than James, I think it was decided to become more “rockish” or “punkish”. I don’t think it was a conscious decision though, I think we just all adapted to each other’s playing style and so the band became more aggressive in nature.
When J.J. joined the band, his technique allowed us to revisit some of the vibe and style that James and his brother brought to the band, but retain all the aggressive nature we had gained once Joel joined the band. And then as we toured with J.J., we were able to explore more “jammy” type instrumentals and our sound developed from there.
Tess: The record had a really rough edge, and I think I had a lot to do with that. I had come from an aggressive pop-punk band, and I think Sixpence got a little more rowdy once I joined. We met in the middle and the results were great.
J.J.: You know what’s funny, is that whatever we would listen to in the van on the road, you could see how those became the songs we would write. So for example, even on the Sixpence self-titled record, with “We Have Forgotten”, we actually had to change some words, because it was too close to what we were listening to in the van, which was Red House Painters- “Have You Forgotten”, from Songs from a Blue Guitar. And I can hear, if you listen to it, I can tell… this is this song, that is that song… from all the stuff we were listening to all the time. And I think some of the stuff I was listening to… We would each bring our CD bags and we would all have different things. Jeff Buckley was always playing, Over the Rhine was always playing. Peter Gabriel was always playing, that was more Dale and I.
Joel: Tess and I both come from the same musical background. She had much more to do with it than me though, as she was the guitarist. But it made for a much “bigger” live sound which ended up coming through on the next album.
James: Just playing together brought more edge to the band. The first album was made with just Matt, he gave the songs to Leigh to sing and then brought someone in to do the drum tracks. After practicing and playing live together for a long time, it just evolved into a more interesting sound. Dale just brings any song he works on more life. And I think Matt was more comfortable using a more aggressive sound after being accepted by what we were doing.
Part 3: Touring
James: I answered an ad in the Austin Chronicle for a bass player (in 1993). Dale was already a member but he was living in Dallas, Matt and I lived in Austin and Leigh was in New Braunfels still going to school I think. That was the lineup for the longest time. I think my brother joined to provide guitar support for the upcoming tour with the 10,000 Maniacs. He was actually living in Seattle and moved back to Austin to help out. But his style was very close to Matt’s so they complemented each other well which is kind of rare for guitarists.
For the most part the shows went pretty well. I do remember the “I Need Love” cover by Sam Phillips, “How Does It Feel” by Over The Rhine…. We also did “Hideous Towns” by The Sundays just because I knew the bass line.
My favorite memory of playing live was one time we were doing a show in Dallas and playing “Meaningless”. There is a part where it’s just Matt droning on a single note and Leigh sings over it. Just them two. And she forgot to sing, so it’s just Matt soloing on one note for what seemed like forever. She’s looking at me, I’m looking at her, Matt is looking around and no one knows what is happening. That was funny. Also, when we played at Indiana University and there were people crowd surfing to “Falling Leaves”.
We always played almost the entire album (The Fatherless and the Widow) when I was in the band. There were only 4 new songs while I was with them (“Love, Salvation, Fear of Death”; “The Garden”; “Thought Menagerie”; and “Drifting”).
Joel: We toured all over the United States in 1994. We played a few big festivals such as Cornerstone as well as some concerts with acts like Dakoda Motor Co. and Audio Adrenaline at a various Six Flags. We played everything from coffee shops to clubs on that tour. It was a very interesting experience. The vibe was pretty good. We were all so young. It was my first tour. I was just 18 at the time. We had spent two weeks together rehearsing at Dale’s house and then hit the road. The best part was getting to tour Europe for a bit. Doing some big festivals like Greenbelt and Flevo as well as club shows over there. I will honestly never forget it. It definitely confirmed what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to make music and tour. It was just the most fun I’d ever had.
We played several songs that would end up on This Beautiful Mess on that tour. We cut about 10 or 12 songs up in New York and it was titled “The Ghost Sessions”. The theater we recorded in was haunted. It was quite interesting. If anyone out there has that demo, I would love to get a copy of it. (If you are reading this and have a copy, please contact me; no one in the band has it!) Those demos were the early stages of This Beautiful Mess. Matt wrote all the music. He would show us the tunes and tell us what he wanted to hear. He is a fantastic composer.
Dale: There was a whole string of dates in June and July of ‘94; Cornerstone was in there, but there were also about 10 dates we played at various places in the Chicagoland area… and then from Chicago we headed out to Idaho to play at a Christian summer camp for about a week… we also did a show in Gouda, Holland around the time of the Flevo show… Soon after we returned from Flevo Fest that year, Joel left the band to be replaced by J.J.; I think J.J. joined in September of ‘94. I think we began cutting demos and rehearsing for This Beautiful Mess in the Fall of ‘94. And then headed to Nashville to record in the winter…
Leigh: I felt a huge amount of pride in who I was sharing the stage with and what they, and we collectively, were capable of. I loved the harder sound. Being so young, I was up for anything and I do love a challenge. Tess for sure was a big part of that bigger, louder sound and it was welcome.
Tess: Matt said, “Hey we are going to go on tour for six weeks”, and asked if I want to go, and I said, “I don’t know, maybe?” Then he said festivals in America, and then two weeks in Europe. The Europe thing was the kicker. That’s what made me want to go for sure.
The six week tour… that was pretty brutal. That was when I realized I don’t ever want to do more than 3 or 4 weeks. It was rough. Yeah, just six weeks all in a van together, mostly circling all around the Chicago area. But then Matt got this offer to play at a youth camp in Idaho I think? It was the very end of the tour, we were so tired, and wanted to go home. It was the middle of nowhere, the rest of us were going to kill him. I remember my Dad sent my mail to me at that camp.
Then it was a 24-hour drive home. We drove all night and made it to Dumas, Texas. We all got these buttons that said “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas, Texas.” We stopped there and stayed at Knight’s Inn, that was Leigh’s favorite place. And I remember Dale was biting his hands and slapping his face trying to stay awake. We just wanted to get home.
This was the Summer of ‘94. I made a $1,000 from the tour, which for a 19-year-old who was just getting started, that was good… to even make money. So I took all that money and bought my Guild. I’ve never seen anyone else play a Guild, and I’ve never had anyone ask me about my guitar except when I went to Nashville in 2011 when I was on a tour with Jason Harrod.
I wore some pretty funny stuff during shows. We played a church and I found these cardboard wings covered in aluminum foil so I decided to wear them. Then we were in Nashville and found this big roll of aluminum foil and I got Leigh to help wrap me from the waist down to the floor. I looked like a geisha! And then during the show I did this high leg kick and it ripped the foil apart.
J.J.: You are cooped up in a van all day eating sunflower seeds and pork rinds, and you are finally able to get your instrument out, and “ahhh”, just play a little bit. That’s what a part of it was, “Let’s just play.” One time Matt just kept going and we’re all like, “Yes! Thank you!” It just kind of developed into this thing. Leigh’s like, “Thank you too! Let me go get something to drink.” And it became very organic, it was never planned, it wasn’t “Hey guys, were going to jam out for another 16 bars…” It was never like that. It always happened, those jams. It was some of the best times, being in that band. We were all reading off each other, creating dynamics.
Matt was brilliant. Matt can play with his feet so well. And what I mean by that is you have to know your pedal board, you have to know your rig. Some people, they look up, they only need one pedal, and bang, they are playing. But Matt created these sounds, these textures. He just understood his foot board really well. He was able to create some keyboard sounds, horn lines, it was crazy. Just really good.
It just allowed Dale and I… I have never been as tight as I have been with a drummer as I was with Dale. But that’s also because he was my roommate buddy, too. So it was always Dale and I. I have tons of stories of Dale and I hanging out. So we were the rhythm section but we were also roommates, and that helped. It was always Dale and I everywhere, so sometimes we’d be jamming, and I didn’t even need to hear anything else. We had the whole set memorized, so I’d just stand by Dale and we’d rock it out. We created… man, yeah, we created something really unique for sure.
Matt: It was really a treat having such great players in the band. And when you can tour for long periods of time with the same musicians the music deepens and you just know where things are going without even thinking about it that much. Both J.J. and Dale came out of studying jazz and were great improvisers, and it was nice to engage with those aspects of their personalities/studies in a show in addition to playing the arranged songs. I guess it kept life on the road interesting and made a for a nice balance musically.
Leigh: I remember Wendy’s #6 for lunch. I remember missing my mom terribly. I remember the smell of deodorant and crayons in the hallway where we stayed. Sarah McLachlan had just put out a record the guys were in love with. And I heard “Lightning Crashes” by Live for the first time. I had a black velvet one piece suit I’d found in some Goodwill bin and wore it like it was a ball gown, until it tore, in a most tragic spot. There were freak-outs about “splicing” that went awry, I remember that. Amidst all the being young and in a band making a record, I did notice: “This is awesome”; “I love these people”. Still do.
Part 4: The Songs
Matt: I really like the way the first four songs flow together on the album, but I’m not attached to any one song in particular.
Leigh: “Melting Alone” and “Bleeding” are my favorites. I think “The Garden” was my first attempt at writing something that could contend with the rest of our songs. I was just stretching my writing muscle for the first time and BOOM! Mediocre song hahaha but not a heinous first try.
James: “The Garden” was brought in by Matt and Dale, I guess they had already worked on it. Still has the most amazing drum part on it. Matt plays a descending line on the guitar but I thought it would be boring so I came up with the bass line that is on the recording. The reason we got writing credits is we were all talking about being in a band and what it meant to be in a band with everyone contributing. And used that song as an example of where everyone brought something that made the song work. Dale’s crazy drum part during the verses really makes that song for me. And I think Leigh either wrote the words or the melody. Anyways, everyone got a writing credit on one song!
“Thought Menagerie” was just me and Matt working in his apartment. We came up with the music one night. From what I remember, my bass line was much different, a lot more busy, and J.J.’s probably works better. We always were trying to figure what to do after the middle part, trying different things, and messed it up a lot playing live. (James Arhelger co-wrote “The Garden”, “Thought Menagerie”, and “Love, Salvation, Fear of Death”. There will be a follow-up article about that last song and how it was written, developed, and played by three different bass players.)
Tess: I do remember when Matt first played “Within a Room Somewhere”. And at first I wasn’t sure what I was going to play with that, but then I came up with my part and that was really cool.
J.J.: There were a lot of tours; we were milking The Fatherless and the Widow and the demo. And then all those other songs started to come to fruition: “Within a Room”, “Angeltread”… “Angeltread” is interesting: I am the one that is adding that line, which is a latin groove. There is a latin rhythm called a tumbao, and when you are doing this (hums the line and claps his hand on the table), when you hear a Reggaeton, on the upbeat, that upbeat is a pulse, an afro-cuban groove. I think a lot of my background, growing up in El Paso, is coming through in the music, which is really interesting. I am playing this Latin groove on a rock song and it is just working! Having this blend — and we had to have a lot of touring, a lot of playing together — we had to let the personalities sift through to create This Beautiful Mess.
Matt: Tess presented “Disconnect” at some point in the pre-production phase of This Beautiful Mess, and we may have played it live a few times before the This Beautiful Mess sessions. Armand thought it would make a great addition to the album and we all agreed.
Tess: I wrote my first song when I was 16, but I didn’t know how or when anyone would hear it. I can’t remember… I am sure Matt probably just said, “Play some songs for me.”
If I wrote a song for Sixpence, obviously Leigh was going to sing it. But we recorded “Rainy Day Assembly” with the plan for Leigh to sing it, but they didn’t do anything with it… Later on I was telling Chris Colbert about it. So he said, hold on, let me make a phone call, and he called the studio. He said, “The record company says I need to come in and get access to a reel.” I can’t believe they let us in; we walked into that studio, Chris spliced my song off the end of the recording reel, and we just took it with us. Then I went back and sang on it.
It never occurred to me to consider singing lead on a Sixpence song; everybody loved Leigh. I liked being on the edge. Of course I always wanted to sing lead, but I just figured I’d do that with my own stuff. I never planned on being in Sixpence forever. I wouldn’t have pushed it anyway, but Armand made it pretty clear that Leigh was going to sing the songs (no matter who wrote them). I actually think it is really cool because it makes you a real songwriter. If I gave a song, and someone else sings it, it means you are a songwriter; I’m not just singing my own stuff.
There was this one song that Matt wrote that never got recorded — it may have been too dark — and I LOVED it, and we played it on that tour. “Close the curtain on me?” It was basically about suicide.
J.J.: Tess and I always got along great…. And those songs were fantastic as well. I am so glad she is still out there making some ripples. I remember playing with her on some stuff even after that. Just going in and playing some bass work for her. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but you know, on some of her other tunes, and always loved it. I always loved her songs, and her writing.
I kind of removed myself from the process of trying to dive in to get songs in place; it seems like that’s going to take a lot of energy for me to try to do. But I was glad to see more collaboration. It was encouraging for me to see, that if Tess can put some songs in there, I’m going to get through this record then see if my influence can come through a little bit more as well as a writer on the next record.
Part 5: Album title, lyrics, and artwork
Matt: My friend Chris Taylor used to keep a small notebook full of potential album titles which he let me peruse through sometimes, and this is how I found “This Beautiful Mess.” I instantly connected with it, and Chris was gracious enough to let me use it for the album. It certainly sums up the way I view myself and the world. We have to view our brokenness with compassion and admiration.
Looking back at the lyrics 20 years later makes me realize how depressed I was at the time. I couldn’t have afforded therapy back then but it probably would have done me some good! I don’t really remember any reaction from friends/family. Maybe they were just too nervous/freaked out to say anything. :)
Leigh: Singing Matt’s words has been a great privilege. I have always been truly stunned by his gift with words. I felt it was my calling to sing them. He would usually play me the song, hand me the words, to teach it to me. Those were always the best moments, hearing them for the first time.
Tess writes great songs too; it’s different singing songs of someone who is a singer. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything she couldn’t do better; because it was her own song.
Matt had a strong hand in naming records and seemed to have strong vision even for what he wanted covers to look like. They were always great and I was proud of how they turned out, but I had my mind elsewhere most of the time. Usually up in the clouds, for better or for worse.
Matt: Expecting rejection, I presented the idea of commissioning a painting for each song of This Beautiful Mess to Tyler Bacon at R.E.X., and to my surprise he approved it. This was a really fun part of the This Beautiful Mess process. Many of the painters in the album are still good friends of ours, and continued to play a role in the career of Sixpence moving forward, namely Ben Pearson and Jimmy Abegg who photographed/filmed the band for many years, and Debbie Taylor, who painted the album cover of the self-titled record and is the wife of Steve Taylor, who produced the band and signed us to his his label Squint back in the late 90's. Also, I still think it’s really cool that Howard Finster contributed an original painting, given that he had done that in the past for Talking Heads and Adam Again, and continues to be a towering figure in the folk art world.
Kim Thomas (painter of the cover art and the third painting in the row above): My involvement was much like how Nashville seems to work — “A friend or someone mentioned you to someone I know and said you are an artist”.
Someone came to me and asked if I had anything that might work for the cover of This Beautiful Mess, and I thought of this very early piece of mine, I was a very young painter when the record was produced. It may have been one of my first ten paintings ever. So it was a piece I had already painted, but it seemed like a perfect fit when I heard the title of the record. The title I had for the painting was “Pearls, please” and to me, in it’s Picasso-esk style, it was a woman who didn’t always feel quite put together, but still wanted to see herself, and for others to see herself, as lovely.
Pearls are a classic metaphor for womanhood to me — as a young girl, I thought that if you are a lady, you wear pearls, the mark of a woman. The process of how a pearl comes into being fit perfectly with the theme; an irritation gets into the oyster, a nacre builds up around it and over time, what was ugly becomes beautiful. All of us, not just women, want to have a sense of being put together, whole, flourishing. The Gospel is the only hope for that longing in all of us, it is the true pearl of great price.
As for the other piece, I did paint it for the album specifically. As an artist, it’s so bizarre to look back over your journey and see the many “painters” who have lived inside you. I hardly recognize this piece, or the cover piece for that matter, as something in my vocabulary now. But back then, the painting was done with a great deal of physicality and freedom, joy and undone-ness, celebrating the beautiful mess that we are when Christ sets his initiating love on us, and the joy of the whirl that follows in his patient and graceful work of redemption throughout our lives.
Part 6: Armand Petri and OmniSound, Nashville, TN
Matt: R.E.X. paired us with Armand for the recording of The Fatherless and the Widow. We became good friends, and he really helped the band out a lot in those early years. He was the band’s manager until 1997, and I think he did a great job producing This Beautiful Mess. Armand really cared about the band and the individuals involved, he’s got a big heart.
Leigh: Armand was great to have in the studio. He brought humor and intensity and gave us a sense of our potential that was maybe not quite formed in us yet. Also for me, he represented a bit of a parental figure for a while. I wasn’t the most independent kid. I still got really homesick when we were away and Armand felt somewhat familial.
Armand: This Beautiful Mess is still one of my favorite albums that I have done… (I was) asked if I would be interested in producing a young band call Sixpence None the Richer. He (Gavin Morkel of R.E.X.) sent a demo (The Original Demos) and I liked the band and the name. On May 29, 1993, I went to Texas for pre-production (for The Fatherless and the Widow) and loved the band. On June 14th, we went to a studio called “The Sonic Temple” (a converted masonic Temple) in Elgin, IL and did a complete record in less than 2 weeks. It usually takes 6 to 10 days to do drum tracks. It was a challenge to do record from set up to mixdown in that amount of time. I worked with the time and the budget that I had and essentially recorded a duo “live” record with a drummer.
With This Beautiful Mess, the band had been together and touring for about a year, developing a full band sound. We had a small budget to do the record again and as the band’s manager, I went to R.E.X. and told them if they wanted to break this band, we needed to make a competitive record and needed 28 days make the record. To their merit, they agreed and asked that I not go over $20,000 in recording costs. So essentially relinquishing a producer’s fee, I agreed. (Fortunately, Wendy’s had an all you can eat salad bar in the 90’s and I ate once a day there.)
We signed the management agreement in May of 1994 during a short tour with 10,000 Maniacs. I was working with the Maniacs at that time and we set up a studio in Jamestown, NY. Sixpence came there in June of that year and we demoed the first songs for This Beautiful Mess as a band (“The Ghost Sessions” as mentioned by Joel). Matt came to my house in Silver Creek, New York a few times in the next few months to demo more songs on an ADAT studio I had there. We began pre-production in November in Dallas, Texas at Dale Baker’s church. I do not remember where I stayed but I do have a lot of memories working on the songs relentlessly at that time.
Matt: One great memory was getting to record the whole album on tape. Armand was splicing tape right on the tape machine, and overdubbing was more high-stakes than it is today, both for the musician and the engineer. We even created some real tape loops in the control room for the last part of “I Can’t Explain”. I don’t remember ever thinking we were creating something fantastic and awe-inspiring, but I definitely loved the recording process and working in a great studio on songs I had written and was playing on.
Tess: I remember we were on tour and Leigh was talking about Armand. I’m not sure when we first met. I actually stayed at his place in New York when I was on tour in 2011. He went with us on the Europe portion of the ’94 tour because we needed someone to guide us. And during that time we would stay at his house when we toured in that area.
There was a big performance room for the drummer and then these little rooms off to the side (at OmniSound). Matt and I said, “Let’s make these little booths a pleasant atmosphere,” so we went to the Yankee Candle store. We bought everyone a huge Yankee candle for their tiny little booth. But of course, after hours in these air-tight, isolated booths with these candles burning everyone got really tired and light-headed. So we had to blow them out and air out the studio to get some oxygen.
(How much freedom did you have to write and create your own guitar parts?) Total; completely. A couple times Armand had to tell me not to play so much. Like when Leigh was singing to play little, simple, lay back… and it took me a long time to understand. Actually, I just watched the video for “Angeltread” for the first time in awhile, and I was surprised at how loud my rhythm guitar is. And I can hear my part clearly on “Within a Room”. And you can hear my guitar throughout; I bought a 12-string Stratocaster. I didn’t even like the sound of Stratocasters, I just thought it was awesome to have a 12-string electric guitar. So I played the crap out of that thing! Also my background vocals added a lot of dissonance, they sounded different than Leigh.
J.J.: Armand was pretty brilliant. In the studio, I remember one time, we were recording to tape, we weren’t working with Pro Tools. We had an engineer, Bryan (Lenox), who was also brilliant. But I remember this one time, where we had to cut something. And Bryan didn’t want to do it, but Armand said, “I’ll do it.” And to watch that exchange, you had to understand, Bryan was the engineer, and Armand was the producer, so he wasn’t touching any of the knobs. But Armand knows how to touch the knobs too. I can’t even remember what song it was, but four full bars had to be removed. And to watch Armand… if you mess up on tape, it’s done. You can’t put a one millimeter sliver back into time. So Armand sliced this thing up, and it was flawless. So flawless you can’t even hear it, I can’t even tell you what song it is. But there are 4 or 8 bars missing from a song that just didn’t work. And to watch Armand with that tape machine was an experience for us all, and probably for Bryan too.
There’s that side, but my memories of Armand have always just been he was an encouragement. I thought he always… to me he was a great support, he was happy that I was in the band, he loved the things that I could execute. He was great; he is a great guy.
Dale: This Beautiful Mess was one of the first “real” records I worked on. It was a record of firsts for me: This was my first time traveling to Nashville to record, first time working on a complete record that involved pre-production, first time having a song I’d co-written on an album, first time working with Bryan Lenox (who was involved in some of our pre-production — I really liked the version of “Within a Room” that we did with him, which you can hear on the Tickets for a Prayer Wheel album).
Recording the record was quick; I think we had 4 or 5 days to record 12 (drum) tracks. I was nervous and unsure if I could do 3–4 keeper tracks in a day. I remember Tess mentioning that I wasn’t playing hard enough on one of the songs we did (I was really playing hard), but she was in an isolation booth and I was confused as to why she couldn’t just get more of me in her mix, since we weren’t playing in the same room! I remember having my former percussion teacher Lalo Davila come in to play shaker (and maybe other percussion?) on a song we were recording. He was (and is) the Professor of Percussion at Middle Tennessee State and had helped us out when we did an acoustic video performance of “Spotlight” a year(?) earlier, so it was fun to reconnect with him again and have him play on this record.
I remember watching some Sarah McLachlan video with some of the guys from Jars of Clay in the lounge area of the studio and being so impressed with the quality of the video and musicianship of her band. I remember there were some specific ways in which Armand mic’ed the drums — he used a folded up ping-pong table behind the drum kit and taped PZM mics to the surface of the table to use as room mics. I used an extra hi-hat for most of the recording placed above my regular hi-hat, so that I could get a trashy quarter note sound when needed, but still provide tight 8th notes using my foot with my regular hi-hat. I know that you can hear me switching between the trashy hat and the closed hat a bit on the more rocking parts of “Angeltread.” It’s a pretty subtle gear/setup thing I did, but I was really happy with how it worked.
Armand was one of the first producers I ever worked with, and though I’d done some recording in Dallas with some producers there, this was the first time I’d really been involved in a project from beginning to the end. Armand was smart and quick — he knew how to actually edit tape (by cutting it with a razor blade and taping it back together), and was able to organize our sessions in such a way that we accomplished a lot in the short time we had together…
He had a great knowledge of the business of music and how it could be possible for an indie band to actually make a living playing music. In some ways, I don’t know if he ever got the credit he was due. The work he did to keep the band moving forward in the early years (prior to the band signing with Squint) was pretty incredible. He got us opening dates with some pretty big name bands (The Smithereens, 10,000 Maniacs), without having much of a following at that point, and figured out a way for us to tour Europe a couple of times too…Pretty amazing I think. And he made it all look so easy too…
Matt: I am surprised and flattered to still be talking about This Beautiful Mess 20 years later! It’s what every musician hopes for, to foster a long-standing connection with an audience through an album or live show.
Leigh: I always felt that my position in the band was to interpret Matt’s lyrics from my heart the best I could. Even when my voice was “new” and very much still developing, I was eager to share the beauty Matt was coming out with in those lyrics. I wanted you, the listener, to get chills the way that I did when I read them and performed them. That was and always has been my place, I feel. I did not get involved in the music beyond being the voice. I recall feeling pretty out of my league when it came to discussions about guitar sounds or even parts for that matter. Those decisions were in very capable hands.
I’m so happy that there are people wanting to know more about us- always! Twenty years or 50! I found myself in this amazing situation where this incredibly thoughtful, smart guy was giving me words and beautiful melodies to sing and man, I dug it. ~fin
Matt Slocum lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a session cellist and a member of the Overdub Hub. He frequently collaborates with the band Hammock. He has become a beekeeper and manages almost 25 hives in the Nashville area.
Leigh Nash lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is currently working on her third solo album. She says, “I am preparing to make a record I’ve been desperate to make since I was very young… It’s a country record, but not the kind you’d think.”
Tess Wiley lives in Gießen, Germany where she teaches music in kindergartens across the Frankfurt area. She released her fourth solo LP, Little Secrets, in 2013.
J.J. Plasencio lives in Austin, Texas where he the music director at Austin Oaks Church. He recently started a new jazz band, Certain Wonder. This band includes Fletch Wiley, Tess’s father, on trumpet.
Dale Baker lives in Durham, North Carolina where operates a private drum studio, Durham Drum Lessons. He is producing and writing songs for his band The Maudlin Fee along with recently playing with Claybrook, Christa Wells, Aaron Gallagher, Treemen, and The Silent Wurlitzer Collective.
Much of this story remains untold. I will soon write a follow-up article about the song “Love, Salvation, Fear of Death” that will appear on my blog Turn Off the Radio. Over the next few months I will also publish all eight of these interviews in full, as they contain informative, funny stories any fan would love to hear.
I am working to get a hold of as much media as I can from the ten months these five musicians spent together. My number one goal is to find video of shows they did during that time. There are YouTube videos of the band before J.J. joined, and after Tess left, but none of them together. I am also looking for audio recordings of the This Beautiful Mess line-up, and any other photos you may want to submit. I will publish as much as possible on my blog. Please contact me!