Sixpence None the Richer’s self-titled turns 20
“Being a one-hit wonder is a pitfall that we weren’t prepared for.”
~Matt Slocum, Texas Monthly
In the late nineties I became increasingly frustrated that my favorite band was known as a one-hit wonder. If you search “one-hit wonder,” you’ll come up with lists of catchy songs, most of which you will know well and can sing by heart. And when looking at one-hit wonder lists, there is a good chance you’ll find Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” on most of them. As Drowned in Sound writes:
‘One-hit wonder’ is more often than not used in a derogatory fashion, a casual slur to be thrown at those who struggle to replicate their Eureka moment.
“Kiss Me” is track four on Sixpence None the Richer’s self-titled album, released twenty years ago this month. Over the first few months of its release only a few hundred people had heard the song. A “Kiss Me” CD-single was released in summer 1998, and by the fall of that year the video, filmed in Paris (below), was showing regularly on VH1 and MTV. In 1999 the song was used in the popular film She’s All That and on the television program Dawson’s Creek. In mid-1999 Sixpence appeared on countless radio talk-shows and television programs such as Conan O’Brien, Regis & Kathie Lee, and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. On July 6, 1999, Sixpence performed on the Late Show with David Letterman, and unlike most of his musical guests, lead singer Leigh Nash was actually able to sit on the couch with Letterman and chat. At that point in time “Kiss Me” was possibly the most popular song on the world.
Now twenty years later, the song remains one of the most well-known pop songs of all time. Over the years I have heard the song in more places than I can keep track of, from convenience stores to restaurants. When I lived in Zambia in 2003 I saw the video on a television at the bar at the Elephant Cafe in Livingstone, near Victoria Falls. I now live in Germany and recently heard the song in a grocery store in the small village of Kandern. Leigh Nash herself said, “I buy yogurt to ‘Kiss Me’ sometimes.” (The Village Voice)
Part 1: What is a one-hit wonder?
“And they in the habit of saying the same things all over again, about the money we shall make.”
The first song that came to my mind as a one-hit wonder is “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. I was 14 when it hit the radio, and I briefly thought it was a new U2 song. It is catchy, easy to sing along to, has a distinct guitar riff, is only three minutes long, and was therefore perfect for top-40 radio. It is one-hit wonder according to the most common definition: “A composition that is someone’s one and only successful creation” (according to Collins); because Jesus Jones never had another hit as far as I know.
What if I did go back and listen to all of Jesus Jones’ songs? What if I had heard a full Jesus Jones’ album prior to hearing “Right Here, Right Now”? Would “Right Here, Right Now” still be a one-hit wonder?
That redefinition would depend on the quality of all other Jesus Jones’ songs. “Right Here Right Now” is a great song. If Jesus Jones has other songs that could even be called good, then I would say “Right Here, Right Now” is not a one-hit wonder. Were Jesus Jones’ fans equally as frustrated as me in the early 90’s that the general public knew their favorite band only by that single song? Do Jesus Jones’ fans prefer the band’s other songs?
For most people in the world, “Kiss Me” is the only Sixpence None the Richer song they know, and according to the definition of the phrase, that makes it, or them, a one-hit wonder. (The only other song the general public recognizes from Sixpence None the Richer is a cover of another one-hit wonder: “There She Goes”, originally by the La’s. That song was added to a re-release of Sixpence None the Richer.)
Part 2: How did we get here?
“Here we are in the waiting room of the world.”
Matt Slocum and Leigh Nash met as teenagers in 1991 in New Braunfels, Texas and signed a record contract before they had performed their first concert. They recorded a five-song demo in 1992 and then their first full length album, The Fatherless and the Widow, in 1993.
With Slocum as the primary songwriter, guitar player and cellist, and Nash on vocals, they had a revolving cast of musicians supporting them for years. They found what Slocum called their “first permanent lineup” for the recording of their second album, This Beautiful Mess. That 1995 album (which I wrote an oral history of two years ago) was the first to feature the rhythm section of J.J. Plasencio on bass and Dale Baker on drums (and also Tess Wiley on guitar and vocals, but she left the band soon after that album was released).
Baker and Plasencio each studied jazz at the University of North Texas, and provided an experienced, creative, and impressive backbone to the band. The four-piece of Slocum, Nash, Baker, and Plasencio toured non-stop in 1995 and 1996, averaging around 100 shows per year. Most of the songs that appear on Sixpence None the Richer were written by Slocum while on the road, and fleshed out during touring. Baker and Plasencio also co-wrote “Puedo Escribir” with Slocum, as it’s 11/8 time signature would have been impossible to pull off without their talents.
Slocum was a prolific song-writer, and the two-and-a-half year wait between album releases was not an easy one for the band. The problems the band faced after their move from Texas to Nashville were numerous and varied. In January 1997 an update appeared on the band’s website announcing a tour for April. The update also stated: “Sixpence is currently working on demos of new songs, but an ongoing dispute with the band’s label R.E.X. has left any plans for an album up in the air.”
On February 1, 1997 I was fortunate enough to see Sixpence None the Richer debut nearly a dozen new songs in a coffee shop at two, back-to-back (7:00 and 9:00 p.m.), small, and intimate performances at Jammin’ Java in Franklin, Tennessee. I later learned the primary purpose of these two shows were for the band to perform the songs for Steve Taylor, who was considering starting a new record label (Squint Entertainment), with Sixpence None the Richer as the first artist.
The coffee house shows were a radical departure from the Sixpence that I knew. I had seen them 13 months earlier with the hard-edged vocals/guitar/bass/drums line-up. But these shows were relatively acoustic, with Slocum’s guitar playing being much more subdued with less distortion. Additional instrumentation was added by violinist Peter Hyrka and guitar and percussion by Leigh’s husband at the time, Mark Nash. The violin especially had become an integral part of the music which was much more classical than modern rock. As nearly the entirety of the set was made up of songs I had never heard before, it was an immersive and overwhelming experience. My strongest memory of the shows were how the first three songs of the night were connected, as if one long song (the first three songs on the album).
When I left Jammin’ Java that night, “Kiss Me” was an afterthought. I was excited about the new songs I heard, but most of them were far more memorable than the short pop number. I was able to pick up Slocum’s setlist before I left that night (off the ground only a few feet away from my chair; this setlist can been seen in the collage at the top of this page), and while most of the songs were numbered and hand-written in blue ink on yellow legal paper, “Kiss Me” was a late addition in black ink with an arrow pointing to its location in the set. The show began with eleven new songs, ten of which appear on Sixpence None the Richer (the eleventh, “Breakdown Ready Engine”, was never released. Also at the time “Easy to Ignore” was called “One Night”, with different lyrics). The set ended with two older songs, one from each from The Fatherless and the Widow and This Beautiful Mess. I am fairly certain that night was the first public performance of “Kiss Me”, and I was in the room.
I saw the band perform again two weeks later on February 15 at Rocketown, which was a rock show more similar to the band’s past. They didn’t play as many of the new songs, but I do vividly remember the new song “Sad But True”, which would end up on the vinyl release of Sixpence None the Richer. Things seemed to be looking up until Sixpence dropped off their Spring tour. On April 28, 1997 they posted this update to their website (abbreviated):
“We sincerely apologize to those who were planning to attend the remaining shows we had scheduled… last-minute cancellations are not our normal course of action (and we certainly do not condone it), but…We felt it was the best thing to do to preserve our health, sanity, and relationships…
“We did not cancel the tour due to personal differences… when we were given the final routing, saw that it was to cover over 15,000 miles in one month. We severely questioned the safety and feasibility of this amount of traveling, but our doubts were unheeded, and in order to be true to our commitment we decided to try and make the best of it. We were met with insanely long drives, no promoters at some of the shows, vans breaking down. In fact, some days we did not even eat a decent meal or sleep in a bed…
“As many of you know, J.J. has left the band to pursue a new endeavour with the group Plumb. There is not much to say other than the parting was completely amicable and that we wish him the best. We really enjoyed the years together with him, musically and as a friend, and we will miss him dearly.
“That good ol’ record company: I wish I could spill my guts on this one, but we’re not allowed to talk about this one too much. in short, we will never work with R.E.X. if we don’t have to. Our lawyers are continuing to try and free us from an unethical contract…when we are free we will release a new record. Please pray that we’ll make it that long…”
Sixpence’s first record label, R.E.X. Music, was a part of CCM (Christian Contemporary Music), and eventually went bankrupt and was bought out by Platinum Entertainment. Platinum was not only responsible for the poorly-planned April tour, it also asked the band to write certain kinds of songs, which was sadly common practice in the Christian music industry. The song “Anything” outlines this situation, and Slocum summed it up in one line:
“They’re looking for money as they clean my artistic womb.”
Steve Taylor began producing Sixpence’s album in February of 1997, before his new record label had officially gotten off the ground and while he was still seeking funding. Sixpence had found and reclaimed an abandoned studio in Nashville (“The White House”) to record. Plasencio was thankfully able to take part in the initial recording sessions before his departure from the band. The album had largely been recorded before that April tour began, although no one knew it at the time.
The June, 30 1997 update on the band’s website was a big one:
“After more than a year and a half of slow negotiations, Sixpence None the Richer has been released from its recording contract with R.E.X. Music. Sixpence had refused to record another album for the label for a variety of reasons. Now that the band is free from all affiliation with R.E.X., Sixpence plans to release a new full-length album this fall. The album has been in the works for the past few months and is being produced by Steve Taylor. Tentative release for the yet unnamed album is scheduled for November. Fans may be interested to know that former Sixpence bassist J.J. Plasencio will be playing bass on most of the songs.”
Bass player Chris Donohue was brought in to help the band finish the album, and also co-wrote two new songs with Slocum: “The Waiting Room” and the album closer “Moving On”. (Donohue was the bass player when I saw Sixpence perform for the fourth and fifth times in 1997: at Cornerstone Festival in Bushnell, Illinois in July and at Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville in August.)
An initial release date of November 4 was announced before Sixpence None the Richer officially dropped on November 22, 1997.
Part 3: The Album
“Tonight I can write the saddest lines, The saddest lines about her.”
~Slocum quoting Pablo Neruda
Sixpence None the Richer’s discography and catalog of songs is large, diverse, gorgeous, and profound. The primary reason “Kiss Me” is one of the most recognized songs in the world, and the only song from Sixpence None the Richer that has that distinction, is that it is radically different than any other song the band ever wrote, and radically different than any other song that appeared on the original version of Sixpence None the Richer. Most Sixpence None the Richer songs are melancholy, mellow, sad, and lengthy (“This is my 45th depressing tune,” as Slocum wrote in “Anything”). “Kiss Me” is bright, happy, joyous, and brief.
In an interview with Cuepoint, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie says:
“One of the many reasons people gravitate toward sad music and melancholy is that, when you’re listening to a sad song and you’re feeling that way, it gives you the impression that you’re not alone in your melancholy. That’s a really empowering feeling when you’re going through something difficult and you feel like you’re a freak or you’re all alone, if you’re feeling this way. And then you’re listening to a song that’s echoing a similar sentiment, it’s very empowering.
“And happy songs just don’t feel that way. You may crank up “Walking on Sunshine” when you’re driving in your car on a nice day and you’re headed to the beach, but I highly doubt that Katrina and the Waves have people coming up to them saying, “Hey, man. ‘Walking on Sunshine’ really helped me when I was in a really happy place in my life.’” You know what I mean? That’s not to diminish the value of that song. I personally love that song. It comes on the radio, I crank it up. But people don’t do that. They don’t go, “Hey, R.E.M. I was really happy one day, and ‘Shiny Happy People’ just really made me happier. So thank you for that. I really needed it.’” That’s just not how it goes. That’s why people’s relationship with sad songs are the way they are. Because people do come up to me and say, “Hey, I was in a really difficult place in my life and ‘I Will Follow You into the Dark’ was very helpful to me. It gave me a lot of comfort.”
The bulk of Sixpence None the Richer, and the majority of Sixpence’s prior two albums are like Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark”. People are able to relate to these songs in their struggles and find encouragement in them because they are honest and real. Sixpence None the Richer has released nearly 100 songs like this, but most of the world has only heard the one exception. As Slocum himself said:
“It’s hard when what you’re famous for doesn’t really give the whole picture.”
“Kiss Me” is like “Shiny Happy People”. If you are feeling good or having a fun time, you are going to want to listen to it and it will compliment your positive emotions; this is the kind of song that people want to hear on the radio. But if you go to Sixpence None the Richer or Out of Time looking for more songs like those you aren’t going to find them. In fact, the album almost didn’t even contain this hit song. As Slocum said in 2012 on Nashville Public Radio, “I actually had to be talked into keeping it on the record…I tried to not have it on there.” Nash expounded on this idea in 2012:
“‘Kiss Me’ was kind of the weird song on that record, and ‘There She Goes’ as well. Those stuck out and of course we became known for those hits, and that’s totally fine. But that’s not what had made up the body of work of the band, that music was different. We had a producer come along that had an ear for, like, ‘Oh my gosh this is a great pop song, you have to put it on the record,’ and Matt didn’t wanna put ‘Kiss Me’ on the record and kinda fought to have it not on there. But we didn’t have a chance because everybody was like, ‘You have to put this on the record, and while you’re at it you’re gonna record and put ‘There She Goes’ on there, as well.’ We were doing that live because we loved The La’s so much. We really came by the whole pop-band-thing accidentally.” (The Village Voice)
As you might expect, Sixpence None the Richer is not the most sunny album. The songs chronicle the band’s struggles, but in a beautiful way. It is fairly easy to identify the meaning behind each track. Not only that, the album is almost a chronological retelling of the band’s experiences before and during the time the album was written, recorded, and released. As Steve Taylor recently shared, the band was near breaking up at the time and it was the recording of new music that kept them together.
Musically, the album was a radical departure from the edgy modern rock of This Beautiful Mess. Gone were the guitars, replaced by lush string arrangements and unique instruments.
The album opener “We Have Forgotten” speaks of the bands dreams and how difficult it was to see them through. It indirectly mentions the band’s move from Texas to Nashville, with Slocum saying, “I’m starting to like this town”, and there is a hint of regret and nostalgia for different times.
Track two, “Anything”, as previously mentioned, sums up the time period leading into the album release perfectly: “We’d like to know if we should pack our tents, shut down the show. Yes, we should like to see a burning bush-type sign. But anything would be fine.” Musically “Anything” featured elaborate string arrangements and mellotron from John Mark Painter, giving it a sound much different than all other songs in the band’s first five years. Painter’s fingerprints are found throughout the album, each time with a different uncommon instrument.
If you aren’t paying attention, you won’t even realize when “Anything” has ended and “The Waiting Room” begins. The seamless transition between the second and third tracks is not only musical but also lyrical and speaks of the battle the band was fighting to wait for their new album to see the light of day.
“Kiss Me” comes next, and the challenge now is attempting to listen to the song in context of the whole album and forget the pop culture reference. The accordion from Painter is my favorite part of the song; how many pop songs have accordion?
Depending on the version of Sixpence None the Richer you are listening to, this is where the track order may be different. If you happen to be one of the lucky few with the vinyl, following “Kiss Me” is “Sad But True”, the only hard rock track from the sessions. Lyrically, the shift is drastic and ironic:
It’s sad but true, beauty never sells
and we remain same, it’s true, it’s sad but true
I won’t give in to what they want
Or has the window closed anyway
Between the words they want to hear
And what they allow me to say
The vinyl version sadly omits two of the album’s best songs, a decision which was logistical rather than intentional (to fit onto a single 12” record).
“Easy To Ignore” is the fifth song on the CD, and the only song on the album penned by Nash. Musically, the final one minute of the song has long-been my favorite segment of the album, highlighted once again by John Mark Painter and his playing of a buhl-buhl. (Don’t know what a buhl-buhl is? You are not alone, and Google won’t help you either. Here is what John Mark Painter had to say: “It has a keyboard you play with your left hand and you strum strings with the right. It has drone strings that are tuned to the key you want and then the keyboard makes several strings change pitch. Sounds like an Indian lap dulcimer.”)
Track six, “Puedo Escribir” is the most technically impressive song on the album. The unique time signature and verses in Spanish distinguish it from anything the band has ever recorded. Lyrically the theme of struggle continues, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines, The saddest lines about her.” The song is one of the oldest on the album, and was played on tour consistently throughout 1996. The song went through multiple arrangements, one beginning with hand claps from Baker (video), and another with Plasencio’s bass (audio below).
“I Can’t Catch You”, the seventh song, is the only other remotely poppy tune on the album. It was promoted as the third single on the album, and a CD-single was released in the year 2000. It did not work as a radio single however, and ended the album cycle.
My current favorite song on the album is “The Lines of My Earth”. It is also the most depressing song on the album, and I am thankful it did not prove true. Painter’s muted trumpet perfectly captures the mood:
“It should be our time. This fertile youth’s black soil is ready for rain.
The harvest is nigh, but the well has gone dry.
And they in the habit of saying the same things all over again,
about the money we shall make.
This is the last song that I write
’Til you tell me otherwise.
And it’s because I just don’t feel it.”
If the album has a forgettable section, it is tracks nine and ten. “Sister, Mother” starts far too slowly, and doesn’t come into its own until the instrumental bridge. There is another seamless transition into “I Won’t Stay Long”. The song was written by Sam Ashworth, who Slocum would collaborate with a decade later in the band Astronaut Pushers. While not written by Slocum, it might have well as been, with lyrical consistency continuing from This Beautiful Mess: “The state of depression that I’m walking in, got the impression that I won’t stay here long.”
“Love” is the most well-known song on the album outside “Kiss Me” and was a regular in Sixpence concerts for the following decade. The live version of the song took on a life of its own with a guitar riff not found in the original recording.
Sixpence None the Richer concludes perfectly with “Moving On”, a song clearly written later with Slocum in a different mind-set. Finally signed to Taylor’s label and with the album release in sight, he has much to be thankful for:
“It has gotten to my head. Permeates the path I tread.
But I tread, I’m moving on in a new and happy song.
I can sing about the night, how my tunnel without light
Led me to the other side where the sky is blue.
It’s all I can do to not let them ruin me.
I will not let them ruin me.
I will not let them ruin me again.”
Part 4: Where did it all lead?
“It’s sad but true, beauty never sells.”
After “Kiss Me” exploded and then dwindled, the band’s journey continued on a difficult path. Due to the popularity of the song, the rest of Sixpence’s plans at the time were put on hold. The band had intended two 1998 independent releases, an EP titled A 6-Pack of Sixpence and a full length of country cover songs called On Steel Horses We Ride. Both releases were initially postponed due to “Kiss Me” promotion, and eventually were canceled altogether.
The album-cycle for their follow up album, the apt-titled Divine Discontent, was possibly more traumatic than the one for Sixpence None the Richer. Dale Baker, the band’s drummer for eight years, left in the midst of the struggles, leaving Nash and Slocum as the only original members of the band. The album was ready for release in 2001 and a promotional copy was floated to the press. but then a label change and the band was asked to go back into the studio to make it more poppy and radio-ready. The core of Divine Discontent is long, beautiful, cinematic songs with ornate string arrangements; and none of them sounded remotely like “Kiss Me”, much to the chagrin of the record company.
Pop songs did not come easy for Sixpence, and the most radio-ready songs on the final version of Divine Discontent were not written by the band. “Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House was inexplicably added, and “Waiting on the Sun” was penned by Jason Wade of Lifehouse with the help of Ron John Aniello. Overall four songs were removed from the original version of the album and three poppier tunes re-tracked in their place.
After the touring ended for Divine Discontent, Slocum and Nash went their separate ways, putting Sixpence on hiatus for what would be four years. 2008 brought the My Dear Machine EP and a Christmas album full of covers. Sixpence was to release a full-length in 2010 titled Strange Conversation but it was delayed for two years (more label problems) and had its name changed to Lost in Transition. There were a few short tours and some promotion for it, but by and large Sixpence has been inactive ever since it’s release, with Leigh Nash focusing on her solo career.
Despite these struggles, Sixpence None the Richer has a large and impressive body of work, highlighted by Sixpence None the Richer. Despite This Beautiful Mess being my personal favorite album from the band, their self-titled album truly defines them, but not because of a three-minute pop song. From the beautiful string arrangements to the honest lyrics, songs like “We Have Forgotten” and “The Lines of My Earth” display the talents of Slocum and Nash in all their glory.
Was Sixpence None the Richer the last album the band was able to write and record without the pressures of the industry? Had “Kiss Me” not been included, could the band have thrived in the indie scene? Could have Sixpence been known for epic, picturesque songs like “A Million Parachutes” and “Within a Room Somewhere” rather than a pop song and covers?
“It’s weird that we’re known for being sort of a teenage pop band with a few really big radio hits,” Slocum says, “when I think, really, that’s not fully reflective of what we’re about or what we’re into or what we do.” (Nashville Public Radio)
For the longest time the band’s status as a one-hit wonder upset me, but I have grown to accept and appreciate what “Kiss Me” did for the band’s career. It gave Sixpence None the Richer an escape from the strict confines of the Christian music industry and allowed the band to experience years of success and relevance. However, because of the drastic differences in that song and the rest of the band’s catalog, most of their greatest works remain unheard. I am thankful Slocum and Nash have been able to release music on and off over the last 25 years, and I am hopeful that we have not heard the last of their partnership.