Glasgow-based dark folk trio Sparrow and The Workshop comprises of Belfast-born, Chicago-raised Jill O’Sullivan (vocals/guitar/violin), Welshman Nick Packer (guitar/bass) and Scotsman Gregor Donaldson (drums/vocals.) Their first full-length album ‘Crystals Fall’ was released in April 2010 by Distiller Records to critical acclaim.
Following the albums April release, the band completed a UK Tour supporting the Scottish band Idlewild and then crossed the English channel to support American psych-rockers the Brian Jonestown Massacre on their European tour in May. They have also toured with and/or supported British Sea Power, Blitzen Trapper, the Pink Mountaintops, the Oh Sees, the Lemonheads, and Broken Records. They played the BBC Introducing tent at Glastonbury Festival in 2009 and are gearing up to do a string of festivals this summer, including the Green Man Festival, the Hop Farm Festival, and Bestival.
Their cover of The Cars “Just What I Needed” was our musical gateway drug, leading us to explore the bands music and become hooked. Jill shared a few moments with TDOA staffer Amy.
TDOA: What was touring with Brian Jonestown Massacre like? How did it affect your overall sound?
Jill: It was great to be on the road with them, they’re amazing musicians who play epic 2 hour sets. I’m not sure how playing with them affected our sound, though. We’re a 3-piece and they’re an 8-piece so it’s a very different experience. They have a wall of sound with all the guitars, etc, and we have a lot more empty space on stage. literally and sonically…having said that, we were impressed with their instrumentals and thought, ya know, maybe we could experiment a little more with expanding our songs at live shows.
TDOA: On that, how would you describe your sound? I’ve seen “dark folk,” and I like that description.
Jill: Ha, I like that, it’s moody. Someone else called us post-country. maybe we’re post-country dark folk? Dunno, with a bit of rock and some surf. But I don’t know, it’s hard for me to describe what we sound like. It’s like looking in the mirror, you see yourself so often you forget what you look like. You know all the components are there but other people are better at describing your look. For instance, Gregor looks like Van Gogh but he is always a bit surprised and dubious when people tell him that. No joke.
TDOA: Can you talk a little about the politics of your music? How does the current climate affect the songs and musical choices you make?
Jill: I don’t know if any of our songs our outright political, but I guess the lyrics can be a bit angry and we tend to sympathise with people at the receiving end of bad political decisions…The current climate might well make the lyrics even angrier considering the Conservative government are heavily made up of wealthy aristocrats who are totally out of touch with people who were not born with silver spoons up their arses, but I do long for the day when we write a happy song with carefree lyrics. But if we do start writing songs for teen movies with premises like, “she’s hot and he’s SO not….” then you have permission to smash my guitar.
TDOA: How does being influenced by music of two completely different countries – the US and UK – function in your sound?
Jill: Well, I’m not sure if I can quantify that but I know there are influences from both sides. I grew up listening to my dad’s country and folk tapes (Irish and American) amongst other things, and Nick and Gregor grew up listening to American garage bands as well as bands from over here that I’d just never heard of like Gorkys Zygotic Mynci and the Yummy Fur…so I guess that must affect our sound, just having such diverse musical tastes and histories. But I’m too close to the music to know what we sound like. We don’t chart our sound, we work on songs individually and make instinctive choices based on the feeling we get from each song as its developing…and our various influences just trickle in kinda naturally.
TDOA: I really love the cover of “Just What I Needed.” How did that cover come about, and why did you choose to do it in such a gorgeous, stripped-down way?
Jill: Oh, thank you very much. We chose that one because we were surprised that it wasn’t the Cars most popular song. Everyone knows Drive but we personally prefer this one. The MAIN reason, though, is the infectious hooks in that song. We thought, ok, even if we only play guitar and sing it’ll work because that melody is really great…and Ric Ocasec’s lyrics to that song are quite tender, which suits a stripped-back approach.
TDOA: Can you talk a little about how the band was formed? From the descriptions I’ve read, it seems like sweet serendipity.
Jill: Ha, it was. Sweet Gumtree Serendipity. Nick and I moved to Glasgow from London into a flat inhabited by Gregor. Turns out he was a great drummer and i had some songs I was working on and he liked them so we did a gig and it worked better than expected, Nick joined a few months later and we just enjoyed playing together as a three-piece. SO we got more gigs and sent out some demos (all of which were ignored/rejected) so we just kept gigging for fun and then out of the blue an A&R guy for Distiller got in touch with us and said they’d put out an EP for us so we were like, sweeeeeeeet!
TDOA: Jill, who do you think you compare to vocally?
Jill: Gee, I don’t know. People have said I sound like anyone and everyone who is a girl but I most often get Grace Slick and PJ Harvey. I will let you decide who you think I sound like because I’m at a loss here.
TDOA: Who do you think among your contemporaries is making the best music?
Jill: Hmmmm, we have been listening to a LOT of Fists, a band from Nottingham, who are making interesting music, and also the Besnard Lakes are pretty great. And the Twilight Sad are a great Glasgow band making interesting records, as are a lesser known band called the John Knox Sex Club who are also from Glasgow. Camera Obscura make interesting records and also there’s a great band called Withered Hand in Edinburgh who are brilliant. And I’m listening to the Shipping News new album right now, it’s raucous. There are so many more too, do you have a few hours?
TDOA: As far as the arrangement of your songs goes, what do you do that makes the instruments blend together in such a unique way?
Jill: Wow, you ask hard questions. Ok, I can say that Nick has made a guitar that is also a bass (they have separate outputs) and that definitely sounds unique, also a singing drummer is not something you come by often, and also Gregor and Nick work very closely on interesting rhythmical arrangements. Also, I have a really awful strumming style with my thumb because I never learned how to use a pic properly…but I don’t know if that’s a good thing…but it’s definitely a bit different, if not just sloppy and bad.
TDOA: How does playing at festivals compare to touring? What about each experience is unique?
Jill: I like festivals because people are generally in a festive mood and it’s fun to play to a crowd of people who might not know you but still give you a good reception, but there is something great about dark venues and the smell of ale and peanuts and the buzz of people out to see a small handful of bands. Also, the gigs we have played on tour have been small so we can really develop an intimate bond with the audience during a set. Also, I like the dryness of gigs, I’m not used to UK festivals and mud and rain. Growing up in Chicago, summer festivals rarely involved camping but often involved lots and lots of sun…and if there was rain, it was warm rain.
Order their fantastic album via iTunes!