More Yellow Birds

By Alanna Eileen

I am in Richmond, Virginia, riding in the backseat of a taxi down an unpaved road lined with trees. “Haven’t been down this way before,” the driver drawls, chuckling slightly. It is autumn. The sky is a deep, cloud-streaked blue. The night before, I had caught a Georgia-bound Greyhound bus from New York, staring out at the grey highways, listening to Sparklehorse in my headphones. The track It’s a Wonderful Life brightened gently into focus, the theatrical wheezing of the Mellotron floating on a sea of static. It remains a fitting opener to a record sporting contributions from guests like Tom Waits and Nina Persson, with lo-fi and hi-fi elements intermingling.

  

I had come to Virginia to make a record of my own.  Flying from Auckland to Portland, then catching a small, crowded night flight to New York city, I arrived in Virginia feeling both overtired and excited. The leafy green trees, wild deer and country roads made me feel at home, but other things felt like products of a mythic, imagined America, the America of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee, with Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains sticking out on the map. We were going to be recording on Mark Linkous’s old Flickinger console, in a studio located on a former tobacco plantation.

Mark Linkous, who used Sparklehorse as a moniker, suffered from a near-death experience early in his career. He battled with the residual effects of pain and addiction throughout his life. He ran a studio called Static King in a corner of Virginia, later moving it to North Carolina, collecting vintage gear, creating unique soundscapes for his hushed voice and wildly surreal lyrics. Linkous’s whispered phrases are woven into unsteady beds of sound, laced with a haunting, ineffable quality.

The Spanish might call this quality a touch of “duende”. Federico Garcia Lorca writes of duende, “Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’” 

The Flickinger was a large desk, a genuine presence in the control room, and I thought about the records that had been made on it, those eerily beautiful Sparklehorse songs I had come to know. Linkous was quoted as describing how he could spend hours or days working on a track. That kind of immersion is therapeutic in itself. This plays into the concept of the “flow state”, popularised by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, which is defined as the experience of being fully absorbed in a creative task. In a state of “flow”, you are effortlessly focused and engaged with your work, and time passes without you even noticing.

In turn, listening to Sparklehorse offers a similar transcendence; the music is so layered and interesting, the poetry ornate and strange, the production a blend of soft and sharp. My favourite song is ‘More Yellow Birds’, feather-light and flickering, glowing with the warmth of nostalgia. It’s like finding an old photograph in the attic, a face you used to love obscured by dust and shadows, the triumph of time over memory.  Linkous sings of “amber sundowns and moody thunderstorms”, “sunken barge’s horns, with their cold and rusty bells”.  The imagery evokes T. S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, where mermaids linger in an existential twilight. 

I felt lucky to be able to record on equipment formerly owned by Linkous, and to incorporate some of the same samples he used into my album. It seemed like a passing ode to the artist whose work has most acutely influenced my musical taste over the past four years.  As I flew back over the Pacific Ocean, waiting to touch down in Auckland, I knew it had been an experience I would never forget.

Alanna Eileen is a musician, visual artist and writer based in Lyttelton. She undertook an artist residency in Iceland in 2019 and is currently studying English at the University of Canterbury.