Alan Sparhawk is best known for his work in his minimalist-pop band Low, the rock trio Retribution Gospel Choir, and his angst-ridden-blues band The Black-Eyed Snakes.
Alan Sparhawk is the singer-guitarist for the long-running band Low, whose highly acclaimed 13th album HEY WHAT was released in 2021 — and was recently nominated for a Best Engineered Album Grammy. Nat Harvie is a producer, recordist, and performance artist whose new EP, Married in Song, is out January 28 on Sparhawk’s tiny independent label, Chairkickers Union. These two artists share a hometown as well: Duluth, Minnesota informs both their music and their outlook. Below you’ll find a first look at the video for Harvie’s new single “Dog,” followed by a conversation between the two.
—Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor
Alan Sparhawk: Well, here we are in our little hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. I feel like for everybody that comes from here, there’s a little bit of both the intimidation of being from a smaller place and being away from where the action is and, ultimately, a little sense of pride as well. There’s a little bit of having to fight for it a little bit harder if you’re from a small town. Nat, you were born here and grew up here. Why do you stay?
Nat Harvie: I don’t know. Every time I come back here it doesn’t feel like I’m choosing to stay. Every time seems like an in-between and it’s always because I’m like, Well, I can be here on the cheap for a second, and I know people here and might be able to make some money while I get ready to do the next project or whatever. But I think more than I want to admit, my self and the way that I work has been so shaped by growing up here. And I think a lot of that is because of what I’ve been exposed to as a young artist here — to get to grow up with Low in this town, but also with Charlie Parr and with people like Haley coming through all the time. There’s also a near religious sort of magnetism that I feel to the lake — I feel very oriented here. And I also just culturally really appreciate the way that people are here. I think there’s something about the intensity of winter, specifically, that forces you to be in relationship with people. You’re not going to make it through that many winters here, or you’re not going to be alright by the end of winter, unless you sort of throw yourself into community. I feel like there’s a sort of collective here.
And at the same time, as a queer person I have a really hard time here. I feel like I’m pretty isolated and pretty lonely a lot of the time. I always imagined that I would like to eventually die here as an old person, but it’s difficult for me to imagine ever having access to partnership or the kind of stability that I see a lot of my friends having here, just because the culture doesn’t feel like it’s really there yet. I’m at a point in my life where I could not more fully understand that it’s OK and it’s beautiful to be a queer person. But I also think that because of growing up here, a part of this city and this landscape is still steeped in a lot of teen shame for me that lingers like smoke smell or something. But I can’t get out. This is, you know, irrefutably my home place. I feel alive here.
Alan: I think realizing you have the flexibility to go other places and developing relationships with other people in other places helps with the perspective of living here. If you’re only here, I think it’s tough.
Nat: If I hadn’t had the experience of living in Pittsburgh and Vancouver and Portland, I think I would be so much less grounded here than I am.
Alan: Interesting. You were talking about some of the early influences and stuff around here. When you were first playing music, what were the opportunities? What was easy to find? What was harder in this town?
Nat: I think what was easy to find for me was idols — accessible idols. I mean, I’m young. I’m going to turn 26 next week. I was like a late teenager in the Chaperone Records era of Duluth. And so we just had all these people taking music very seriously who were in their late 20s, early 30s, between Lion or Gazelle, Red Mountain, or kids like Chase Down Blue. I spent my teens trying to convince those people I wasn’t 17. And by the time it worked, I was probably 22. Being a musician was a way to access a kind of community that I wasn’t going to access any other way. I think I was impacted less from an aesthetic standpoint by this place as a kid and more from a community and practice standpoint. I would do anything to get into whatever patient 28-year-old’s basement to go make shitty four-track recordings.
Alan: And those people were there…
Nat: Those people were there and they were so patient and generous to me in terms of showing me how music and recording works. I think of Brian Ring from Lion or Gazelle all the time because he produced my first album back when I was on Chaperone Records. The bar above the studio was under construction at the time, so we could only record in the middle of the night. I was 18, my drummer was 16, Brian was probably 35. But he showed me his songs in process. He showed me what an album really is. I learned so much from him about how to listen to music. He just showed me all this foundational stuff that I needed to know about. He was the first person, I think, to show me White Light, White Heat. He got me into Alice Coltrane and Tom Waits. He got me into Bedhead. He made me listen to Gillian Welch’s Time (The Revelator) so much, which has served me.
Alan: That’s been a heavy record for this town. Oh, my goodness, I am surprised by how many people listen to that.
Nat: This is a big Gillian Welch town! Also, he was the person who showed me how to properly enjoy Low. I’m too young to have correctly first listened to, you know, Trust and The Curtain Hits the Cast in order or whatever, though obviously I do adore those earlier records of yours. I remember having my iPod classic in high school and skipping class and just walking around listening to “When I Go Deaf” and “Cue the Strings” over and over again, which were the only Low songs that I had on my iPod.
Alan: The long, repetitive ones — that’s funny. That’s one way to get through school, I guess. I’m fascinated with the idea of the artist-producer in the self-contained unit. When I started, there was more of a sense of like, All you have to do is be the artist. Obviously, multiple factors of progress and the modernization of the internet sort of blur that. And I think a lot of younger artists come into this — without even realizing it — with the understanding, Oh, you’ve got to do everything. The younger generations really see things very differently. If you’re a musician and you want to do something, you come in with much more of an understanding like, Oh no, you’ve got to do the whole picture. You might have to be your own producer.
Nat: You have to run a small business.
Alan: You do run a small business. You may end up having to promote yourself. You have to be the sole motivation sometimes for getting your record finished, and that’s natural, of course. When I look at you, you’re definitely in that world. You’re a writer — there’s a sense of vibe, you have a sense of how you want your records to sound. Obviously, the production part of organizing everything and getting everybody done and saying, “Hey, I need this person to do this” — finding a person to mix it and then getting the project finished. I think it’s really fascinating, and what I notice is that it’s not so much that there’s so much that you have to do, it’s that you have to hold perspective. You have to follow through on a project. A mutual friend of ours was talking to me the other day. He was working on this thing, and he’d gotten a certain ways with this project and then his mind was like, “Oh, wait a minute, I’m really into this now, you know, Oh, I’m switching…”
Nat: I mean, that mutual friend of ours certainly does do that a lot…
Alan: It’s just sometimes being able to follow through. You have this idea and you’re like, OK, form it. You put the time in and you do the work. Your perspective is going to change. Nobody goes into a record knowing exactly what it’s going to sound like, right? I just think it’s really funny. Do you notice that in yourself, and how do you compensate for that tendency? Obviously, if you’re looking at the full picture, that’s closer to true art. And you’re really responding to what’s really motivating you right now, right? There’s a bit of having to force that. It’s like, “OK, we’re going on this record for two years. I’ve got to stay with it.” How do you do that? I really rely on people and deadlines, sort of this obligation like, “Oh, you know, you got this thing and you need it.”
Nat: I think sometimes I don’t. I think we can listen to each other’s finished music and very easily say, “Oh, well, there’s a really cohesive vision here. It lands.” I have strategies for attempting to maintain momentum and an aesthetic that I’m interested in. I think that’s what production for me is about — just trying to at least suggest an idea of focus that might not be there. There’s some kind of raw emotion to be captured or engaged with somehow, and that is not a stable object. Your relationship to the song in the writing is always going to change. And the recording isn’t the song. The song is a living thing that’s going to evolve throughout its lifetime and your lifetime versus the sort of clinical, recordist brain of documenting a moment in an effort to sort of convey some sort of phenomenology.
So I try to work from a standpoint of emotional taxonomy. I try to let the thing be as wide as it needs to be, and then build a container around it. That’s production for me. I don’t know if I would identify so much as a producer/artist or a solo artist or, you know, this sort of like auteur role so much as I would identify as an austerity artist. I don’t have the budget or time or the energy to keep on turning something over that much. So I just try as much as I can to trust in a moment that my hunch about the way that I was feeling or whatever I was observing is enough, because I can’t afford to master something twice. I can’t afford to have the cellist come play those six bars twice.
Alan: Let’s talk a little bit about Holly Hanson. She’s quite the producer, engineer, kind of connected with a lot of the Twin Cities scene. I think Holly would be pretty surprised with the seeds that have been planted and the relationships that have been built off of what she’s done. Let’s talk a little bit about her connections and her help with this album.
Nat: The first time I met Holly outside of seeing her play was the release show for my last album, Broken Record. The bill was my one-night 10-piece band, you played a solo set, and Holly’s band, Zoo Animal, played for the first time in several years. I don’t think she wanted to play shows at the time. I really don’t know how I got her to do that, but she’s been an idol of mine since I was a teenager. I stumbled upon her work as a teenager and I didn’t know a thing about her. I just heard her on college radio and something about the voice and writing really resonated with me. I became sort of obsessed with the things that she did. I like to tell the story of me becoming close with a lot of my friends and collaborators like, “Oh, it just materialized. We just sort of locked into each other.” But I think I just hounded her for months and months, and eventually she let me come to one of her sessions and we started hanging out all the time.
She’s definitely someone who, in the hubris of my early 20s, taught me so much about what it is to really listen to somebody in the studio and what honesty looks like in writing, as well as the joys and perils of writing and erasing your own footprints and former selves. Holly was someone who really took me into the world of recording and who helped me get people to take me more seriously as an artist and as a recordist.
Something I learned from watching Holly that’s definitely centered in my recording practice is how to hold space for someone. In my opinion, your job as a producer or recording engineer is to help people into a position of comfort and challenge where they can perform and they can be vulnerable and convey something real. You get people in that position by being honest with them, by establishing reciprocity. I never imagined that I would ever get to work with her and that she is now one of my closest friends continues to blow my mind on a daily basis. I think her writing and production instincts are unbelievable and feel privileged to have played on one of her recent albums. I always learn something on sessions with her, especially working on Married in Song which she recorded and co-produced with me at her gorgeous St. Paul studio, Salon.
Alan: Tell me about songwriting with you. How does it come together? What’s literally the first syllable?
Nat: The bones for me are just becoming obsessed with a concept or a phrase and just repeating that to myself endlessly. And then maybe six months later, I’ll think of some simple pop progression that I can put that over. Sometimes it happens fast and sometimes it happens slow. I think I just find a phrase and I sort of pull out or commit to an attitude. My songs are simple. And then I lean in.
I think something that has been really good for me in the past few years — something that a lot of other people talk about, too — is the letting go of trying to sound smart or eloquent or as if you have a full understanding of what you’re talking about already. But especially with Married in Song, I was heartbroken and kind of crazy and I think I chose to write in a way that maybe would sound triumphant in the end, in album form, but also as sort of inhabited an obsessed, crazy person. I thought picking a stance like that or choosing to do more more character-based writing would be really generative for me, but it also created a tension between the person that’s me in the songs or the person that’s, you know, my ex-boyfriend or whatever in the songs versus the real, bleeding, growing, in-the-world people. It can be difficult to gently hold an ideal of experience or identity through something as grueling as making a record. And then sometimes you see that representation sit in the world and realize that you don’t necessarily agree with it anymore. That can be scary and make you not trust yourself as much, but I guess that’s part of the process. You can’t go back.
I wanted to ask you a similar question. I think I’m always really self-conscious of how much I say “I” or “me” in songs. What’s your relationship to the Alan that you write?
Alan: I’m usually pretty straight up with it. With Low, I think I always had a pretty strong ethic about it being pretty straight. I don’t know that I’ve ever put on a character. I’ve been self-conscious about that. You’ve got to check yourself once in a while. But I guess you kind of look back and go like, Well, what else are you going to write about, right? I don’t know another person enough to say something to them, even though I do that.
Nat: It’s a funny thing to get fixated on because, Oh, if I say ‘me’ too much in my songs, people are going to think that I’m a narcissist, but I’m already up there in front of everyone in my little outfits or whatever.
Alan: Right? Yeah, you’re on stage. It’s too late. You’re already a narcissist.
Nat: I think this is another thing that I was sort of recognizing with this album. I’m pretty sure that the Broken Record release was the first show that you and I played together — the first bill that I asked you on to. I sort of made that album for my ex-boyfriend, and we broke up that night. Writing for someone or telling yourself that you’re writing for someone is a pretty crazy, manic position to place yourself in because it’s not really a gift. People might think that they want to have a song written for them. It’s not an inherently nice thing to do. We were going to sleep and I said, “Hey, I know you know this already, but I did this for you. I made this for you.” And he said the absolute cruelest thing that he could have said in that moment — but he was right. He said, “You did it for you, too.”
Nat: And I didn’t want to believe that for a long time. But as soon as I did, I had a way easier time in the studio. I just had a way easier time writing. I’m not a pop star now, and I certainly wasn’t a pop star then. But just this notion of like, This is bigger than me. This ostensibly has some benefit to my poor ex-boyfriend, or whomever, feels false in my work. To recognize that, for me at least, it’s mostly a self-serving pursuit just feels more honest and simplifies the work. But I don’t think for a second that’s a baked-in characteristic of contemporary music, like, there’s so much incredible music that’s really deeply, you know…
Nat: And actually engaged with community. When I was starting out, the queerness of my work felt like an access point for that sort of self-serving ideology where I’d be like, Oh, yeah, I bet it’s great for gay teens on my Wisconsin tour dates to hear me sing about this stuff. And maybe that’s true to some extent. But that’s never why I was doing this. I’m doing it for me, right? And I’m not going to pretend that’s not the case anymore.
Alan: Maybe the conflict is the pretending. Oh, that’s interesting. I probably battle with that more than necessary. I guess every few years I’ll have a wave of like just real self-awareness, of realizing how indulgent it is. And as much as you think, This is great for the universe and people are going to enjoy it! I think, No, no, it’s still a selfish endeavor. I mean, there are worse selfish endeavors, for sure. Maybe that’s the conflict that’s been driving me.
I thought it was interesting that you mentioned the title of the record, Married in Song. I’m glad you talked about how it was very much this sort of exercise in songwriting, you were conscious that it’s about this specific thing.
Nat: It’s so easy to turn every way that I’ve messed up some relationship into my sick little art project. Every time someone makes me aware of that, I’m like, Oh, well what a great lesson in songwriting. There’s so many great avenues to not learn lessons through songwriting about, you know, being a good person or friend or whatever. I have learned a lot, to be clear. But it’s really easy to be like, Oh, this will be a nice, slow song, people are really going to like this, instead of dealing with the thing in real life. But with Married in Song as a title and concept, I want to access that conflict — the idea that the grounding of this relationship I’m writing about is that I have fictionalized it.The whole substance of it is what I said about it, what only I said about it.
Alan: Oh, that’s great.
Nat: I feel immensely privileged to have had access to a lot of really amazing mentorship as a young person entering this industry, getting to work with you, getting to work with Holly Hanson, getting to work with this sound engineer Madeline Campbell out East who kind of changed my life. I think part of that is that these people have been really generous to me and I’ve been in a position to be able to receive that. But I’ve also just hounded people to get together because I love people. I was curious about what sort of experiences of mentorship you had when you were my age and when you were early in your career?
Alan: We had a lot of people kind of take us under their wing, probably most famously Kramer, the person who first produced us, recorded our first couple of records. I mean, that was more of a fairy tale. We sent a demo to him and he happened to be bringing bands in and trying to try to do a lot of recording and stuff. He got us in there and he saw something special in us and took care of us — got us connected with the right people and kept us out of danger for a couple of years there as far as what was going on in the industry and stuff. I don’t know.
Having been on that end of it and then having been on the other end of it and kind of helping people out when you can and seeing things. I mean, you grow up, you struggle for things, and once you do have the resources and the perspective, you realize like, Oh, wow, I wish I’d known that back then. Or, I’m like, Wow, if I just had this resource or this or that, maybe I could have avoided this stagnation or that distraction, or whatever. Of course when you experience something you love like music, when you see someone else that’s kind of wanting to do it and who loves music like you do you, give them a hand. I’m here because people gave us a hand. A lot of people want to see someone else experience that, you know?
I remember the first tour we did was with a band called Eggs, from Arlington, Virginia. Andrew Beaujon was in the band and he was like, “I envy you guys. You guys are on your first tour. There’s nothing like your first tour. You will always have your first tour.” And he was totally right. I remember feeling the romance of like, “Oh, they’re great, we’re excited to join them and it’s so cool.” And sure, I think about that all the time and, you know, comes to mind every time you see someone else who’s sort of kind of getting their foot in there and trying to start, especially if you can tell that they’re ambitious and they really want it. You can tell they just want to devour everything about their music and everything about that world. I can name countless, countless times where someone reached out, gave us a little favor, whether it was thinking like, “This commercial needs a song…” Or Robert Plant saying, “You know what? I think I want to cover a couple of songs by this weird, obscure band from Duluth that has nothing to do with all the songs that we’re drawing from.” John Peel. I mean, I could go up and down the list of people that have been supportive…
Nat: I remember seeing you play in your Neil Young cover band Tired Eyes, maybe a year or two ago. You and Rich Mattson, I think you both had the same model of guitar. And you went on a little spiel, which was very exciting for me because you’re less of a spiel guy and I love to gab and I love it when other people gab.
Alan: I think I gab too much…
Nat: But you talked about looking up to him when you were young.
Alan: To Neil Young or to Rich?
Nat: I mean, we all look up to Neil…
Alan: Rich is a master. He knows a ton of songs. He can write like he can walk. The guy has found a way to get a lot of joy out of music. It’s enviable.
Nat: I think it’s really beautiful and exciting when you come from somewhere small like Duluth but have someone in your backyard who you can have that kind of relationship with and have this geographic home be also a site of that kind of that kind of collaboration and that kind of mentorship. Something that means a lot to me about working with Chairkickers’ Union [Alan’s Label] and with you is, it’s not as if you’re some big-town band that I just pestered enough to get your attention or something — we share this strange town. To have a mutual understanding of a place and hometown and culture inside this work, I think that’s really unique and I think a lot of people don’t get to have that.
Alan: I think it’s really a rare thing. I don’t know if it’s size. It’s probably size and geography. I was talking earlier about how we’re kind of out on the edge here. There’s a little bit of an underdog syndrome here. We’re going to have to make something here, I guess, because we’re too scared to move to Minneapolis.
Nat: And it’s a lot of being addicted to being a big fish in a small pond…
Alan: Right? But then it’s small enough, but then big enough to where there’s a bit of a scene. There’s going to be a hardcore show where everyone’s there. There’s going to be this and that at the theater. If you have an idea and you want to do something, you can find the people to do it and you can probably put a show on somewhere and get a few people to show up. It’s basically what Low did. We did a little show. There was this little scene going on and it was enough to feel like we had something and feel like what we’re doing should exist. And also, because it’s kind of an underdog town, the people that are there, they’re really into it.
Nat: Oh, man, it’s really easy to feel jaded about playing music here. But the people who come fucking listen.
Alan: Yeah, oh, they’re there.
Nat: Until there’s a bat flying around…
Alan: Yeah, until there’s a bat flying around. Even then, they stay. I’m surprised.
Nat: You had to give the crowd a bit of a talking to.
Alan: Yeah, I’m surprised that there wasn’t trampling that night, but it’s good. It’s a good town for that. It puts a little grit in your jaw.
(Photo Credit: Hosanna Irene)