In Conversation with: Irwin Sparkes

"I'm not the most musical person, but I I just loved it and I still do." Irwin Sparkes talks about songwriting, his solo project White Tail Falls and why he didn’t set out to make a mainstream record.

In Conversation with: Irwin Sparkes

House of Coco’s Music Editor Emma Harrison spoke to Irwin Sparkes about his intriguing album ‘Age of Entitlement’, why his solo project ‘White Tail Falls’ is such a departure from The Hoosiers and why he didn’t set out to make a mainstream record.

House of Coco

You recently did a socially distanced gig in Bournemouth which I attended and loved. How was that for you and how did you approach it differently from a normal gig?

Irwin

Definitely, there’s a change right from the offset. So, in terms of gear, you’ve got to bring your own mics.

That’s the first change and then there’s the plastic guards. I felt like we were sort of half Hannibal Lecter kept behind a shield of Perspex and half like the audience at SeaWorld and we were just going to spray them like Shamu doing a belly flop!

House of Coco

That would make for a great finale, but it’s a reflection of lockdown life isn’t it?

Irwin

I just hope we’re not going be inundated with charts full of songs called like ‘Lockdown Lover’ – everyone’s album is going to be about isolation!

House of Coco

Lockdown Lover sounds like something sing Alan Partridge would release!

Irwin

Yeah, with Phil Collins!

Irwin Sparkes

House of Coco

Let’s make it happen!

So White Tail Falls! Irwin, tell me how did the name and indeed the project came about? It was at the back end of 2016 – beginning of 2017 and you were going through a bit of a difficult time?

Irwin

Yeah, I think that catalyst of it was more of a dropping of the gauntlet because I was doing co-writes for other artists to help them write songs to say what they wanted to say. I found it a little frustrating because I realised lyrics are really important to me.

There was this great quote from Eg White who has written for the likes of Will Young and Adele who said when starting to write a song ‘Why bother writing a song? There’s so many written.’

I felt the lyrics were being forced to take a backseat because of the demands of current chart pop writing. There’s nothing wrong with songs that get you on to the dance floor and you can still get great songs, but I realised I wouldn’t want to do that all the time.

It was turning what I considered an art into more of a craft – it was just becoming functional. The artists didn’t seem that interested in what I’m singing and so, I thought, ‘Well, okay, if that’s getting me down, what do I have to say? What do I believe?’ and that kind of forced me to really think about it.

I guess I wrote what I knew, and I think people can relate if you’ve ever found yourself somewhere, and it doesn’t have to be geographical. Such as ‘how did I get here’, ‘why am I here’ I did not see myself at this point in my life at this age, being here. This wasn’t part of the plan and it’s kind of searching for the meaning and answers to those questions.

I also had a bit of a recalibration, or what you would call a ‘wobble crisis’ when The Hoosiers took a year off and it was just a realisation that everything that I’d spent building and thinking was going to go a certain way didn’t.

Even in relationships, I was sort of floundering and I wasn’t sure where everything was going in my life, I suppose. I ended up committing to a couple of years of therapy, and that just massively changed my life and I realised I was quite keen on sort of wanting to talk about those issues with no intention of jumping on a mental health bandwagon.

House of Coco

Definitely, it’s a really emotional and confessional body of work. If you look at ‘Body Weight’, that’s a really beautiful track and it is one of my standouts. Lyrically, it’s very revealing, was it quite cathartic to write that song?

Irwin Sparkes

Yeah, it was very freeing and very cathartic. With ‘Body Weight’, I don’t think I’ve ever been suicidal. I know it sounds very heavy, but the concept was really celebrating the reasons to keep going. I guess I wanted to talk about it being very much an anti-suicide song and finding hope, in your darkest moments of despair. Finding a reason to keep going, and kind of marvelling at the fact that really this human race – like all of us, when you to still sort of know yourself and know, and have experienced such trouble to still go through another day is a huge victory – it’s a real win.

I think I’ve found it tough, it’s, it’s not all just me and I didn’t want to make this entire endeavour about myself, which is why I kind of came up with it the ‘Age of Entitlement as a slight dig as being afforded the luxury to indulge in self exploration and all that nonsense. It’s not nonsense. It takes quite a lot to do. I thought I might be undermining it at times by calling it like, saying ‘Oh, it’s self-indulgent’, because I guess that’s maybe how I felt at times. But I think anyone who sort of takes on that pursuit of trying to get to the issue of why they’re acting the way they are, it’s takes a lot of strength. So yeah, I’ve got to remember that.’

House of Coco

Yeah, you do need to remember that. It’s not self-indulgent at all. It takes a lot to look inside yourself and to be so candid, especially as so many people, particuarly those who are in a similar situation to you can take inspiration from the lyrics as well.

With ‘Age of Entitlement’ how long did it take you to bring this project to life? You mentioned it’s been a few years in the making.

Irwin

Yeah, that’s right. I mean, just because I’m not a producer – it took a few years to just formulate, and I wanted to find a particular sound, and Erland Cooper who is having a real moment himself as a post classical composer really helped me accept all my rough demos. He said that they’ve got something -a bit of integrity and that felt like quite an important part of the puzzle and that the recordings had a degree of honesty. I didn’t want to be lying to the listener. So, you can hear bleeds of a click track or kids kicking the ball against the fence and there’s planes flying overhead because most of its recorded either in hotel rooms or my shed which is pretty basic.

House of Coco

I think because it is quite raw that it adds to how stunning the record is. So, how was the approach to doing everything by yourself? Obviously, in comparison to having a big team behind you, in the early days of the Hoosiers?

Irwin

Yeah, yeah, that’s a really good question! I’d say it was frightening, because I wouldn’t have anyone else to blame, but that’s also one of the reasons it took so long.

I realised this now that when it comes to being a director or a producer that it’s just decision making. Every time you play a chord you ask, ‘why not that chord’ or ‘why not this note?’

So, when it comes to being able to kind of pick and decide what you want it to sound like, I found myself throwing away chords that I felt would be too hooky. Or if I was trying to manipulate the listener, which is probably not what the record label Physical Education want to hear. Because, you know, it would have been a lot easier to get the songs on radio and so on if they were a bit more ear wormy.

But. I’m really happy with how the album came across because I felt like there’s some integrity there and it’s more indicative of the music that I listen to which is more North American alternative folk type stuff.

House of Coco

That definitely comes across. Did you play other instruments (as well as the guitar which you are amazing at) or did get people to remote in?

Irwin

I am going to have stop you there and correct you! I am a guitarist but not amazing! I’ve just been playing for longer than Jimi Hendrix was alive.

I play some bass on it. There’s even a track on the album – Devout where I am even playing a phone app! On the really cute little robot – I will show it to you! (Irwin shows me this funky app)

It’s just pretty cool and it’s really cute and it requires very little talent. So, it was right up my alley!

 

House of Coco

You’re very self-deprecating.

Irwin

Sorry. Yeah, I guess that creeps in every now and again. But I’ve got to say I love my album and I’m really happy with it.

I like the idea of it being quite organic and I wanted to think about being just a guitarist and singer. I thought how I could make a record and not just sound like another singer-songwriter type thing.

So I tried to limit myself to a couple of options, so that there’s these sounds that you hear throughout the record like a little toy synth recorder which is a kid’s toy from the 80s and it has a voice sampler. It uses your breath and makes a synth sound. So, I would work that in and layer it up and have as much fun with harmonies as I could possibly fathom.

House of Coco

In terms of your approach to song writing – what’s your process and where do you get your inspiration from?

Irwin

I’m always writing notes, and always keeping ideas. As I have written I’ve got a stronger sense of the identity of White Tail Falls and what I want to say. In fact, I’ll answer your other question from way back, even down to the name because I like the idea of the name being a sort of colour noun, verb, and also being that idea of, that it’s a place I believe in the Pacific Northwest of America that I’ve never been to. And I like the idea that it can exist in your mind and it’s a place that you’ve never witnessed.

So, it could be anything! I like that idea of a project I wanted it to be taken as something people didn’t know about it and there’s an idea of history that can be anything. And I like the sound of the words together if that helps. Now I have forgotten your actual question!

House of Coco

About your inspiration and the process of song writing. Do you find it quite easy? Does it just flow off the page or can it be quite hard sometimes?

 

Irwin Sparkes

Irwin

Yeah. I feel it’s like doing the mental equivalent of a spinning Zumba class!  Then there’s a little breakthrough.

For me anyway, you know there are times when in an interesting way that it’s a very humbling way to write music. Often, it’s some chords that surprised me, or it’s a certain pattern or progression. And I think, oh, I don’t even know what I’m playing. I don’t know what this chord is. But it’s just, it’s nice. And you’re using your ears to write with.

I like that way of being led that way, rather than theoretically. And so often, you know, I might have a piece of music and I really liked how it sounds. And that will then evoke a mood. You kind of let the song write itself. So, you go what does it want to be about? Is there something foreboding about it or is there some kind of suspense to it? What’s the story trying to tell what you’re trying to reveal?

 

House of Coco

Declan O’Rourke told me that when he heard a certain phrase in a conversation that ‘all his alarm bells went off’ and he knew it had to be used in a song. Have you ever had an alarm bell moment when it comes to lyrics?

Irwin

There are certain lyrics that stand out and one of which is ‘Other Kind of Guy’ and it’s this idea of comparing yourself with someone being found wanting. So, I was looking for examples for doing that which I hadn’t heard being done. As Lennon said, ‘there’s nothing you can do that hasn’t been done’  

But there was this idea of a lyric ‘I want to be like him. I want to do the right thing, but it won’t compute. On the same day I give blood, I spent 37 minutes with a prostitute’.

 

 

House of Coco

I was going to come on to that lyric!

Irwin

Yeah, I can imagine I could be asked very unsettling questions from this lyric, but I kind of thought it’s not standing in the way of writing the song. And for me, I just thought that’s it, that makes me pick my ears up. And it makes me uncomfortable to sing. And to put myself in that and I had to look at it and go ‘No, it is something that I felt needed to be said’ in terms of a song and not hearing that being expressed in a song and what that meant.

I was intrigued by the lyric and the idea of it, and that felt like it just sort of came together. And really then for me, it was having the courage to actually go through with it and to commit to it.

I know as well, it will turn a lot of people off, it isn’t for everyone and I’m okay with that.  I kind of didn’t set out to make a mainstream record. I’ve been really fortunate that I think the people who have connected with it get it. When it’s released, it’s for everyone. And that’s not to undo everything I’ve just said. I mean, not everyone will like it, but it’s not your possession. It’s surrendered.

House of Coco

I think there is merit in being a bit disruptive. I think, now that if there was ever a time to not play it safe, I think it’s now. So, I think it’s ballsy, but I think you have to be ballsy and be true to yourself as well.

Being authentic is everything and the album’s very authentic which I love. One of my favourite tracks is ‘Fake News’, this is all about lies, false promises and mismanaged expectations isn’t it?

Irwin

Definitely! It’s what to believe and how some people can hear something that I do not believe but for them it’s complete gospel and it’s almost their ability to turn a blind eyes to facts, or in any other way to not be curious about other sides of story. And I find that in a way almost impressive that people are that willing to go along with something because the uncertainty (and there’s a lot of that in life) can be harrowing. To make your peace with that and to throw your weight behind a cause or something can be quite a binary sense.

House of Coco

Do you have a favourite song from the album? I’m guessing that each song touches you in its own way, but do you have a standout?

Irwin

For me, I am still getting choked with the idea of playing it live. I’ve only probably done that less than 10 times – before lockdown, obviously. But ‘Body Weight’ I think, for me is the one I am perhaps the proudest of with how the music reflects the nature of what’s been said.

I like to think of songs in have they are successfully set out what they were saying out to do? That one feels like it’s been quite a journey, so I am really happy with that one.

When I’m in that mood, something like ‘Only Getting Easier’ and with anyone who has made mistakes, and it’s, I guess, it’s a truism. You feel like, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve really discovered something about myself. And it only gets easier to make the same mistake.

You know, it’s that those lyrics for me feel very on the nose. And I can certainly relate, you know, after too many drinks, I will make idiotic decisions. It’s elements of like staring yourself in the mirror and realising what you’re made of. It’s not all pretty, but we’re still here.

 

House of Coco

We are all still here. So, if you had to sum up that album and White Tail Falls music for the House of Coco readers who may or may not have heard of you, how would you describe it?

Irwin

It’s rooted in melancholy, but it’s always looking for something uplifting around the edges. It’s probably at that point of darkness before the dawn. It’s kind of for that liminal moment or just perhaps pre liminal moment? I think it’s a sound of being, maybe something I’ve said, it’s like the sound of pieces being put back together. So, there’s this real sadness, but there’s this joy there as well.

House of Coco

So where will the next album take you? You’re already writing it – what can we expect from it?

Irwin

Well, I’d love to say that we could play with the London Philharmonic, but they’re not getting out much and neither am I! So, I think I’m going to use what I’ve got!

I’m always drawn to writing melancholy music. I feel very fortunate and with The Hoosiers, we make upbeat, uplifting music. So that scratches that itch. And I think we’re all free with multiple sides to us. And so, this will always be exploring something a bit more waiting.

House of Coco

You mentioned you had few more albums in the pipeline for The Hoosiers. What are your plans for this?

Irwin

It’s really early days but one of them is pretty much done. Two of them are collaborative and are incredibly different. We are doing our first studio album in five years. I think we have got some of the best music we’ve written since the first album.

I am really genuinely excited and I’m having trouble sleeping at the moment and the songs are just going through my head.

House of Coco

That’s good that you have that level of excitement. If you think about ‘Trick To Life’ which came out in 2007 so it’s 13 years old. I re-listened to the album today and it’s still as fresh with some great tracks on there. Such as ‘Everything Goes Dark’, ‘Worst Case Scenario’ which are two of my favourite Hoosiers songs. I think if you were to re-release this album it would still be well-received. It went platinum didn’t it?

 

Irwin

Double platinum, but who’s counting!

House of Coco

Who’s counting indeed?! Is that and getting awards important to you? I know you don’t create music to get awards, but it’s a nice thing to have.

Irwin

Why, do you have one?! I’ll have it!

House of Coco

You can have this from Morocco! (reaches for first random available thing on her desk and holds up a metallic water bottle)

Irwin

I’ll have it!

House of Coco

I will need an acceptance speech though!

Irwin

I always have one planned, I have just never had the opportunity to do it.

I would say that is an absolutely brilliant and layered question because you know, you can give an offhand remark that came up recently with Al (our drummer) the other day. We were talking about how there was a point when we sort of became like, ‘Oh, this is how we could do commercially well’, and that was a bit seductive. It was like getting the needle in your arm and you wanted more. Because I think we’re quite competitive as people and music, it’s an interesting one because it’s art or it should be.

So how do you gauge how well you’re doing? How do you gauge your success? Because you’ve made music? Congrats, it’s a success! That’s it really. It’s an awkward crossover where art meets commerce, but someone tells you that ‘Oh, that’s not successful because it only went to number two or whatever it was.’

So, I remember Peter Robinson saying, Oh, your second album failed because it only got to number ten’

I said, ‘Well Crazy Frog went to number one, so that means everything that doesn’t get to number one isn’t as good as Crazy frog?!’

House of Coco

Exactly!

Irwin

How do you gauge success in music? Awards – all that stuff is very flattering, but it’s also nonsense because it’s supposed to be art, but it took a while to remind ourselves of that and to not get swept up in it all.

House of Coco

What’s your earliest musical memory? Is it a record that you bought or a song that you heard? Do you remember?

Irwin

I do remember! I still got it actually – it’s this 1980s spaceship. It has these really annoying effects on it that I just used to not stop pressing. I realised that it’s that joy of making noise which is just so primal. You know I just think that banging anything was just such a thrill.

There was a point of when I never felt good enough at music – I’m not the most musical person, but I I just loved it and I still do.

Irwin’s solo album ‘Age of Entitlement’ is out now. 

More in…

Emma Harrison
peter-broomfield-m3m-lnR90uM-unsplash
05/09/2021
A car recall is when a manufacturer voluntarily contacts its customers to inform them that all or some of their cars need repair because they pose safety risks. […]
Scroll to Top