It's hardly news that '90s nostalgia has swept the land. Last year, the 20th anniversary of Nevermind brought on a steady stream of personal reflections on hearing Kurt & Co. for the first time. Veteran indie rockers like Pavement have been drawing much bigger crowds on reunion tours than they ever did the first time around, and VH1's pop culture yearbook series didn't stop at regurgitating memes and trends of the late 20th century — there's an "I Love the New Millennium" edition.
If the mood's taken longer to grip Nashville, part of the reason may be that mainstream country of that era — Garth, Shania and so on — is blamed for everything "wrong" with the format, and is therefore still a long way from being accepted into the canon of cool, old, critically defensible country music.
Sixpence None the Richer isn't a country band by any stretch of the imagination, though lead singer Leigh Nash was quite taken with the voices of Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette as a kid. Even so, the alt-pop outfit is among the most underappreciated '90s-impacting bands in town. They were officially broken up for just a fraction of the past decade, but their new album, Lost in Transition, has been a long time coming. Nothing puts their uncommon career arc in perspective like sitting down with the co-founding core duo of Nash and multi-instrumentalist Matt Slocum at Ocean Way Studios, where they made the album's pricey predecessor, 2002's Divine Discontent.
"Divine Discontent was post all the big pop success, so we got to really experience what it was like to make a record with obscene amounts of money," says Slocum. Then, with a chuckle, "I'm glad we got to experience that once, and to work in a world-class studio like Ocean Way."
The path to that big recording budget was paved by a three-and-a-half minute love song called "Kiss Me." Courtly, picturesque lyrics, jangly guitar and a fetchingly simple structure — not to mention the sublime innocence of Nash's delivery — won the tune prominent spots in the feel-good high school romance flick She's All That, the hormonally charged prime-time drama Dawson's Creek and several other shows on the way to bona fide hit status. And just like that, a half-decade before indie music found showcases in Garden State and Grey's Anatomy, Sixpence became one of the first pop bands in these parts to get real mileage out of song placements, and helped establish a viable model for the post-radio age. Now it seems everybody in town is trying to get in on the licensing thing.
"It's weird comparing Nashville now to what it was back then," says Slocum, "when pop music in Nashville was not really on the radar. The whole indie scene that's cropped up, I mean, there's so much great music in Nashville on every level. It wasn't quite like that back then. We were definitely sort of entrenched in the Christian music side of Nashville as well. So that was unique to be a band that was identified with that type of music that was moving over into, you know, more of a mainstream pop thing."
Not just any band could've crossed over to the secular side so smoothly. Sixpence came of age in a contemporary Christian music industry that embraced a strategy similar to the one behind those drugstore designer imposter fragrances: Take a popular mainstream band — one that's, no doubt, a horribly corrupting influence on the kids — find an evangelistic act that imitates their sound and market them as a squeaky-clean alternative to the real thing. Nash, Slocum and the various bandmates they've had over the years didn't play by those rules, weren't out to convert anyone and had their own considerably more nuanced sensibilities — they crafted wistful, searching chamber pop with literary and Anglophilic undertones.
"We just didn't know anything about the Christian music subculture, that kind of business here in Nashville," says Slocum. "So after having spent a few years and a few records within that system, that's when you started being questioned and being told, 'Well, if these are the people that are gonna buy this, you probably should be focusing on these kinds of themes or writing this sort of thing.' I think that's when we started getting a little frustrated and balking at that and disagreeing with it."
Nash recalls interviewers — not fans — posing the dreaded category question: " 'Do you consider yourselves a pop band or a Christian band?' " She muses empathetically, "But I guess if there were some Christian fans that only considered us a Christian band, then they heard a song called 'Kiss Me' on the radio, maybe there was a moment where they were confused. But I think we just tried not to make too much out of it."
That's the key right there. Nash and Slocum have maintained a rare balance between being aware that there are people with varied perspectives on the receiving end of their music, refusing to narrow the scope of their expression and accepting the fact that all this has meant kinda sorta dwelling between worlds.
Lost in Transition is only the fifth proper album in Sixpence's 20-year history; along with the commercial highs, they've also spent a good chunk of time suspended in record label purgatory. That and Nash's desire to focus her attention on first-time motherhood contributed to the band's breakup, which ultimately became just a hiatus.
In between Sixpence full-lengths, Slocum married and started a family, launched the side band Astronaut Pushers, played cello on sessions and did some string arranging. (Searching for his album credits turns up jazz drumming and bluesy keyboard playing too, but that's the work of two other pro musicians who share his name.) Nash divorced and remarried, collaborated with the ambient group Delerium, stretched her songwriting muscles and released a pair of solo albums, though she says, "Doing it on my own, it was nowhere near as fun."
A lot's changed since Sixpence's music set the mood for Freddie Prinze Jr.'s big onscreen moments. And everything about their moodily melodic new Jim Scott-produced album — including its complete and total independence — suggests they feel no need to try and relive the past.
"It's our first time to get to experience what it's like to have control of your master and own your own label and just kind of do it independently," says Slocum. "We've been watching our friends here in Nashville do that for a long time, and they're happy and they're successful and they have more of a sense of ownership. So I'm kind of excited to see what that feels like, and what happens."