White Tail Falls
Four years ago, Irwin Sparkes’ world fell apart, leading him to experience something of an epiphany. Channeling his experiences into his new White Tail Falls project has helped him return to making music that really says something. The Hoosiers’ frontman catches up with Headliner to talk about chasing approval, thoughts that keep him up at night, and fish. Feeling “effervescent as ever,” Irwin Sparkes admits that he is, however, reeling from the decision to release an album halfway through a global pandemic. “Although that’s small fry in the grand scheme of things,” he begins. “So I'm just counting my blessings, and none of my chickens.” The album in question is Age of Entitlement, released under the name White Tail Falls. Four years in the making, Sparkes put pen to paper following a protracted: ‘How did I end up here?’ moment. “I can literally hear the CEO of Spotify, Daniel Ek just rolling his eyes at the idea of it taking that long to make an album,” he points out. “For me, it was a real learning process not knowing what the project was going to be and having to create an overall sound. It took me a lot of time to settle on what I wanted to make and get the sound of the record right.”
For as long as Sparkes can remember, he’s chased approval and has sought out affirmation, admitting that for a time, music rewarded his efforts, and then very abruptly – it didn't. Hooked on chasing success, he suddenly found himself in the throes of withdrawal after The Hoosiers hit their peak.
Four years ago, he found himself alone in New York – groggy from another three-day hangover and the realisation that he had fallen out the bottom of the music business. Suddenly single, therapy no longer cutting it, and chasing writing credits for other artists – he refers to this as “a make or break moment”. Channeling this “mini mental wobble” into music, he picked up a guitar and wrote the fragile, life-affirming Body Weight – which would become Age of Entitlement’s opening track. “I wrote the track Age of Entitlement very much from the heart,” he says – his characteristic humour and self-deprecation momentarily making way for a vulnerable sincerity when reflecting on this difficult period of his life. “You take a look in the mirror, and you don't really like what you see. In writing the song, it was that petulant child that was asking, ‘When's my turn? Why aren't I there? Why haven't I got the adulation I like to think I deserved?’ It was giving a voice to those nasty impulses. The whole spin on it was me being like, ‘wow, what an entitled point of view’. It’s not something I'm particularly proud of, but I can definitely see myself in that thing of wanting more all of the time.” Sparkes says that attempting to facilitate the dreams of others by writing pop songs that he felt weren’t saying anything worth hearing left him feeling hollow, leading him to question why he was doing it at all. This got him thinking: ‘why did he first pick up a guitar?’ He was hit with the realisation that it was important to vocalise what it is he wanted to put out in the world. He started work on his album, seeing it as a raw return to the initial reason he bothered to pick up a guitar in the first place, even if that meant this turned out to be the last record he ever made: “In its rawest form, a song is communication – it's trying to make sense of something that you are perhaps struggling with yourself. I thought, ‘what have I got to say?’ and I thought of writing what I knew: having gone through my early to mid 30s and having to put myself back together with the help of a very talented therapist, and a lot of love. I think it was making sense of those feelings, where you didn't know quite how you'd ended up where you'd ended up. And this isn't anything innately special to me,” he stresses. “I think it's a predicament that a lot of people are aware of, but I just wanted to write something that I really believed in. It’s that legitimacy that I am very drawn to in songwriters.”
"In its rawest form, a song is communication."
Hearing Josh T Pearson’s 2011 album Last Of The Country Gentlemen when he was in just the right (or wrong) mood had Sparkes “weeping like a baby,” and reminded him of the power of music. Suddenly he saw it so clearly: chasing a chart position was futile. Music should mean something. “I won't talk about my own tears too much, but it’s a good example of experiencing music in the context of where you are. We've all had moments like that where it catches you at a particular vulnerable moment – psychologically – and you hear the right song for that moment. It can just stop you in your tracks, when some other time it might have left you cold as a freshly mongered fish.” Happily, Age of Entitlement leaves the listener with no such feeling: it’s a wonderfully delicate, dreamy (and yes, melancholy) listen that acts as the perfect vehicle for Sparkes’ falsetto, all the while offering an insight into the kinds of troubling thoughts that keep people awake at night. The Hoosiers this isn’t – instead White Tail Falls’ debut offering is a carefully crafted collection of songs that weave layered harmonies, simple guitars and glorious violins together as a backdrop for Sparkes’ vulnerable and searching lyrics. Some of Sparkes’ most interesting work to date (which is ironic given that he’s making a conscious effort not to seek approval), Age of Entitlement gently asks the bigger questions, yet in a way that isn’t even seeking the answers. “I got the fear that I appear see-through, and I fell foul of a dream my life can't live up to,” he sings on one track, and “stuck in a 10 year tailspin,” in another. The upbeat, radio-friendly hooks that helped The Hoosiers’ debut album The Trick to Life shoot to number one in the UK are nowhere to be found, and often the lyrics – bereft of metaphors – serve up frank confessions and numerous personal failings. “Metaphor can be a coward's way out,” he says of the confessional track, Other Kind Of Guy, while the opening track, Body Weight is from the perspective of a suicidal person – although he’s quick to point out that he has never felt suicidal himself.
“There wasn't a grand plan to it, but it felt like it encapsulates a little bit of the beauty of finding yourself still here, and the fact you can still carry on, regardless of any reasons to quit or how easy it is to give up. You might be held by the thinnest of threads, but it's really focusing on, wow, what a thread. Just turning up – that's enough. It still gets me sometimes playing live, which is a ridiculously self indulgent admission to say about a song you've written! My music just has a way of overpowering me, what can I say?” he laughs. “I think I've listened to nothing else this whole lockdown. That's probably where I've gone wrong…” On the stark difference of White Tail Falls when compared with The Hoosiers, Sparkes has an admission to make: “Myself and Al, the drummer have played together as musical man and man since 1995, which is staggering considering we're both in our mid 20s,” he insists. “The truth is, he wrote most of the good songs – there, I said it! A lot of the upbeat, poppy wonderment came from his pen: Everything Goes Dark, Run Rabbit Run, A Sadness Runs Through Him, Money to be Made – they were more my bag of fish.” Noting that this is his second fish metaphor of the interview, Sparkes suggests that he should have opted for “can of worms” or better still, “can of pilchards” as a way of referring to his early songwriting with The Hoosiers. “I tend to write those songs which are counterbalanced by our poppy optimism. With the new project, I really wanted to make an album that was something I would listen to myself. So I kind of felt like, I would listen to this album, and I do regularly, still.” Circling back to why he embarked on this personal project, Sparkes says that his background and success with The Hoosiers conditioned him to expect a reward for his work, which of course is not always guaranteed: “With The Hoosiers, we were signed, and there's an expectation to recreate past commercial successes. It's quite an insidious change where your expectations rise, so you feel like you're expecting something back from your music, like an actual return. With this album having moved away from those sorts of constraints and by not having as much success with subsequent releases, I think this White Tail Falls record was about getting back to why I first picked up a guitar when I was seven. You’re trying to make sense of what you're going through, and I think in that way, music can be a very pure form of catharsis.” Sparkes discarded many ideas and entire recordings that he felt weren't being authentic while making the album. Slipping back into old habits, he realised he was still subconsciously chasing approval by attempting to be overly hooky, which neutralised what he was trying to communicate. “It's making something that I felt was truthful, and it’s a representation of where I was at that time of writing,” he says. “I found myself having to discard choruses that I felt were trying to be a bit too manipulative by relying on things I've learned in the pop world – like a melody that was distracting from what you're actually trying to say.” By creating a body of work free from the constraints of chart pressure, White Tail Falls’ debut album holds a special place in Sparkes’ heart, and perhaps most importantly, he is happy with it: “But, I have to remind myself not to place such a weight of expectation on it. I set out to write songs to help me understand how I really feel, to tell me why I felt sad and disconnected from myself. Shining a light on what I'd gone through helped me figure out where I was going.”
Now, he sees the work itself as the reward: “You're not owed anything beyond actually creating something,” he says. “I think if the song means something to you, there's a good chance it'll find an audience. I guess it's all those ideas about legacy – we’ve got this one life, so what do you want to have made your aim? What do you want to leave behind? If you're going to make music – if you're going to bother at all – you're not guaranteed success. I had a taste, I think The Hoosiers clocked in approximately eight and a half minutes of fame, so we'll be back for the other seven and a half,” he deadpans. “What I mean is, you realise it didn't change anything. It's very fleeting, is my point. So make something that you believe in. That’s the least you can ask of yourself.” On using Age of Entitlement to reveal a more vulnerable front man than his fans may be accustomed to, Sparkes realises that this may be the reason he released the album under the name White Tail Falls: “Maybe subconsciously that's why I went for a name that wasn't my own – to give it a little alias and somewhere to hide, perhaps,” he considers. “The truth is, I didn't set out to write an album about mental health issues. I just wanted it to write about things I felt I was trying to figure out, like your place in the world, trying to figure out why you've ended up where you've ended up, and put that together to figure out where you want to go. And boom! There's an album.
“I’m not just hiding behind metaphor the whole time. Although there's still room for it, because I think that's important in songwriting – don't cut your nose off to spite your face. I'm surprised I didn’t get a fish metaphor into that one! Don't cut your fins off to spite your scales."