White Tail Falls
“I could end it all, just a shift of body weight, sun rising as I fall from the top of the Golden Gate.” – ‘Body Weight’, White Tail Falls
New York City is a bad place to be when your world falls apart. When you wake up to another three-day hangover and remember you’ve fallen out the bottom of the music business, your girlfriend left you, your therapist has done all they can and the songwriting life you always dreamed of has become a spirit-crushing grind, chasing major album writing credits as if your talent isn’t your own anymore.
It’s moments like these that make or break lives. Some shift towards the sheer drop into dark water, others pivot onto more positive paths. Luckily, when Irwin Sparkes found himself right here in 2016, he picked up a guitar and wrote the fragile, exquisite, life-affirming ‘Body Weight’, a broken angel’s swoon of a song about the threads that life hangs from and how easily they snap – with a tip over the edge, a turn of a steering wheel. And just like that, his own turned brighter.
“My band got dropped, I had a breakup and I had a mini-mental wobble,” the Londoner recalls of his NYC epiphany. “I remember going into counselling after waking up to find myself screaming in my girlfriend’s face, before uncontrollably sobbing. I’d been trying and failing to make commercial music for other artists. Attempting to facilitate the dreams of others by writing pop songs that I felt weren’t saying anything, weren’t truthfully expressing emotion… or when they did have something to say, never going anywhere. I felt burned-out. If this was music then I didn’t want to do it anymore. It took away all the joy and expression, it just made music ‘work’. It made me think, ‘why bother doing this? It's like any other job now’. And that got me thinking, ‘why did I first pick up a guitar, why did I first bother writing a song?’ It was that idea of self-expression, trying to figure out what I mean. What have I got to say?”
At such a low point, Irwin had a lot to say. “At the time, you’re not necessarily aware of how low you are, of how much you’re struggling. With the benefit of a lot of therapy it was like I’d made it to an elevation and could see what I’d gone through; the path I was on and where I could have ended up.” Demos came quickly, detailing his descent; at first they were just field recordings, then he began skipping off from co-writing sessions in a “shoebox” in LA to take weekend trips around Southern California and the deserts of West Texas, escaping the built up areas he’s called home for the remote state parks of Big Bend and the Yucca Valley. Family would support the recordings by providing bases - a brother in Texas and a cousin in the wilds of Cornwall, locations that offered space to find the right words to say and the sounds to support them.
He’d set up his laptop and USB mic in hotel rooms and outhouses wherever he could, driven to get his delicate, soul-baring confessionals down on hard drive. “I wanted it to chronicle that time of realising you’re a little unsure of your way, and then trying to find it, and chronicling that with actual sound bites that root you to a time and a place, an actual geographical location. So I've got sounds from inside this concrete installation in a ghost-town in Texas that had the perfect natural echo, I was keen for it to feel like it was living and breathing. It’s ugly in places. I’m creaking in my chair, but I like that. You can hear planes overhead, kids kicking balls against the fence and screaming and the same blackbird that would not shut up. That's my breath on there, I like the idea that it's still embedded. It became about making something that still felt alive and acoustic. Those tracks have a warmth for me.”
Reacting to the shallow perfectionism of modern pop, Irwin found himself discarding choruses that sounded too polished or catchy, too manipulative. “I wanted to write a record I’d want to listen to. The record is about limitations: in my ability as an engineer - I had to learn as I went and you can hear me progressing as the album plays – and only allowing myself three takes of each song. I learnt to love the imperfections. I guess it mirrors a lot of the lyrics, which are about facing up to your own imperfections too.”
It’s tempting to assume, listening to the creaks, crackles and groans in the background of ‘Body Weight’ and the wintry, isolated tracks that would follow, that Irwin was swept along on the earthy honesty of Bon Iver, Kevin Morby and Fleet Foxes. In fact, it was Josh T Pearson’s 2011 album Last Of The Country Gentlemen that turned Irwin towards the tender, guiding him towards Sun Kil Moon and Sufjan Stevens. “When I heard Last Of The Country Gentlemen I was particularly lost, I wept like a baby,” he admits. “It was the album I needed to hear. It rekindled that idea of ‘that's what music can do, that’s the power’. Songs you can believe in, there's honesty, integrity and truth. How about that aim over a chart-position?”
His confessions, however, were all his own. He might not share the suicidal tendencies of his protagonists in ‘Body Weight’, but its supportive spin is the result of extensive therapy. “I always wanted make something with a positive hue and undercurrent in there - very much anti-suicide, looking at what holds you in place and trying by force of will to find that good side. Everyone's had that, you're always aware of how close you are to that other side…it was taking something to quite an extreme degree to celebrate the reasons not to follow through.”
On the surface, the rich, pastoral, Sufjan-esque ‘Fake News’ concerns media propaganda and the dashed dreams of immigrants and refugees; at heart though it’s about the false hopes and promises we’re all fed, a hangover from Irwin’s religious upbringing and his ongoing explorations of faith. First single ‘Give It Up, Son’ - featuring Irwin’s dad on piano - is a stark, mechanised addiction song, seen both from the inside and the outside. “It's something I have some experience of,” Irwin says. “I wrote it from the point of view of my mum and dad, if they knew the truth about their son, what they might say. What might any concerned party say to a loved one subject to their own compulsive behaviour? I think it helped achieve more objectivity in the songwriting than if I was just writing about the first-hand struggle. What made it interesting to get out there is that idea of it being addiction from someone else's point of view, seeing the effect it’s having.”
The brittle-yet-breezy ‘Other Kind Of Guy’ is more brutal still, a filter-free catalogue of personal failings in which Irwin admits to being unreliable, deceitful, unholy, hedonistic and hopelessly horny: “I wanna do the right thing but it won’t compute/On the same day I give blood I spend 37 minutes with a prostitute”. “That song is about holding yourself up to the example of someone else and finding yourself wanting,” he says. “There's definitely a place on this album for out-and-out confession. It was essential therapy to decloak at times - metaphor can be a coward's way out. But not everything in there is one hundred per cent true. I've never given blood. The melody and music are so sweet to me that the lyrics had to jar with it. And sometimes it’s good to be jarred.”
Then came the spirit-stirring R&B ‘Devout’, inspired by Hippocrates’ idea of the ‘four humors’, which some of his family members had taught him growing up. “It advocates the existence of conflicting sides of the personality. Most commonly one side is extrovert and one introverted. I’ve been ‘diagnosed’ as ‘sanguine-melancholic’. This album has been freeing to live in the introverted world of the melancholic.”
With five songs completed, Irwin felt he had an EP in the bag. He turned to musician and producer Erland Cooper (The Magnetic North, Erland And The Carnival) to help him record it, but Cooper heard a crumbling magic in the demos and instead used them as a bedrock, pulling in favours to add harps and strings. “That elevated it,” says Irwin. “You've got these tawdry demos with a little bit of majesty.”
For eighteen months, the White Tail Falls project gathered dust. Then, towards the end of 2017, another six-month burst of song-writing gave him a second batch of songs, this time less wounded, more reflective, about “where I found myself afterwards, and where I was heading.” The haunting ‘Disintegrate’ tackled the thorny topic of procreation – to help bolster what might be humanity’s last few generations or to frolic in the face of extinction as proud end-points of our bloodlines? “I wanted life to just be about me and I always put off having children,” Irwin – now a father of one – says. “It’s that weight I’ve never felt of what's hereditary, of going ‘everyone in your bloodline has procreated to get you here’ and then it being a choice. There's a nobility to choosing to surrender, to hold hands and walk into the sea together, and a fear of wanting something that’s beyond your control.”
‘Rome’s Already Fallen’, powered by piano, orchestra and steam, pinpoints the pivotal moment in a relationship when tempers blow, bruises bloom, things can’t be unsaid and there’s no going back to how things were. “That initial aftermath,” Irwin explains, “that wave of regret. I've been the perpetrator as much as the victim, and, to various extents, we all have. It's interesting to explore themes of violence, shame about sex, the loss of control and struggles with faith on an album that's sonically very gentle.” ‘Age Of Enlightenment’, a sepia chamber pop wonder, concerns the expectation of success and celebrity we all feel in our cossetted social media age.
“That's why I chose that as the album title, Age Of Entitlement,” Irwin says. “That is something experienced in today’s younger generations like never before. You want that approval, you want that affirmation from a peer group. That's just the way we're constructed. But this is the flip-side of what happens if you believe people telling you that you can be anything, that greatness is your right. These days it's never been more pertinent and it's certainly something I can relate to. People telling you, ‘you're a star’ and then having life turn out a different way. That was a good year in therapy, just realising you have worth just because you are a human being, not having to earn it.”
Irwin didn’t even realise that he’d given the album, the chronological diary of his step back from the edge, a redemptive ending. He wrote the sumptuous ‘Only Getting Easier’ from the first-hand experience of someone trapped in a cycle of habitual wrong-doing (“time kills the sting of doing the wrong thing/It’s only getting easier to make the worst decision of your life”) but barely realised it opened with a pertinent Note To Self: “it was hard in the beginning, you thought the world would end, you did a little breaking and now you simply bend.”
Come the end of 2019, White Tail Falls finally began to creep out of the shadows. A debut show at Dalston’s Servant Jazz Quarters – all voice modulators, drum pads, triggered samples and half a string section, taking this singer-songwriter out of his comfort zone and into new territory. The single release of ‘Give It Up, Son’, accompanied by the final part of a three-chapter short film directed by Craig Young, “to tell a story of battling your inner demons. Taking the idea of a comfort blanket, your safety net, that act of simple escape that was an objective, innocent action offering somewhere that you'd go and hide – be it a drink or sex or whatever - becoming something that gets a life in its own right and starts to take over. That thing that you sought solace in you’re then trying to run away from, and it's always there, it's always following you.”
At the end of the journey, Age Of Entitlement emerges as one of the most life-affirming, honest, empathetic and heart-stopping records you’ll hear this year – a record which will make you cry like a baby and remind you of the power of music. A record to imperceptibly pivot lives to the positive, not least Irwin’s. “It’s blown music open for me again and I'm just loving diving in,” he says. “Making this album has changed my life. It’s forced me to confront what I’m made of. I still don’t know how I feel about that.”
Enjoy the plummet.