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Sparklehorse
Courtesy of Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass

The sad and beautiful world of a songwriting genius

The directors of a documentary about the life of ghostly pop genius Sparklehorse talk music, addiction, mental health and the NHS

Mark Linkous, better known as Sparklehorse, exists in a chain of songwriters that links the likes of Nick Drake, Eliott Smith and Vic Chesnutt. Not simply because these musicians all had their lives ended prematurely, but because there is a thread of palpable intimacy and profound beauty that weaves through their work. The gleam of their personalities always shone brightly, often through a deep darkness.

Linkous died in 2010 at the age of 47, having taken his own life. He left behind a body of work that traversed the more interesting and boundary-pushing sides of indie rock or whispered alt-folk, creating his own unique brand of ghostly pop. He collaborated extensively and worked with a variety of artists including PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, David Lynch and Christian Fennesz.

The more glum aspects of Linkous’ life have often been discussed - drugs, alcohol and depression were reoccurring factors in his life and he was even left temporarily paralysed after an overdose in 1996 while on tour with Radiohead – but a documentary given a recent UK release, The Sad & Beautiful World of Sparklehorse, looks to squash some of the more sensationalist and glib portraits of the artist through a series of fond remembrances, discussions around his work and through the words of Linkous himself. The results are the presentation of a cherished artist with a status that warrants extension beyond being a cult musician. Here, the filmmakers Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass discuss the project and the music of Sparklehorse.

What was your relationship to Sparklehorse’s music leading up to this film and what compelled you to make it? 

Alex Crowton: Bobby introduced me to Sparklehorse. I think we just both got it, I think you kind of do or you don't with Mark’s music. In 2007 we pitched, self-funded and made a short video promo for the Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain tour. We instantly hit it off with Mark and captured a really wonderful and candid interview. Mark had real old world charm and was very genuine. Following his death the decision to make a film about his life and music was almost a given.

Bobby Dass: I think you feel music more intensely when you’re a teenager and certain bands and artists mean the world to you. Sparklehorse were one of those bands to me, somebody so special yet the wider world is largely oblivious to his talent. You become possessive and protective of an artist like Mark.

Did you have a mission statement of sorts? Anything you specifically wanted to achieve from the film or make sure you didn't do?

Alex Crowton: With an artist like Mark it would be very easy for somebody reflecting on his career to slide into tabloid clichés, we were always adamant that this is what the film should not be about. We also wanted to deliver Mark’s work to a new or wider audience; here was a guy who had made some of the finest music of a generation yet in some quarters was completely overlooked. That fact was a certain part of the mission statement that drove the production.

Bobby Dass: We not only wanted the content of the film to be about the music, but also the visual style of the film to reflect the lo-fi, scratchy aesthetic of the music too. If anybody asks why the film looks kinda weird, it’s like, ‘well have you heard Sparklehorse before?’ It can be pretty out there sometimes. Amongst the weirdness though, at heart, Sparklehorse made some of the best pop music ever released.   

How was the process of getting people on board to talk about Mark? Given his issues with mental health, substance abuse and his sad passing I can imagine it was a difficult thing for some people to talk about? 

Alex Crowton: Sadly we live in a world where despite progress over the past 15 years or so talking about mental health problems can still be a barrier or taboo. I think there is a deeply held consensus that Mark struggled in lots of ways, but the work he created countered and outweighed the difficulties and traumas he faced. I think that comes through in the reactions of the films contributors - there is a positivity pertaining to the music and a kind of sad regret when dealing with how Mark was coping mentally and with regard to substance abuse. People liked Mark, really liked him, I don’t think they found his mental health issues or any other problems he had as being at the forefront of his world, however there are lots of very insightful and quite moving reflections throughout the film. I think that many of the contributors found it hard to speak about his death, he is missed.

What was the most revealing thing you learnt about Mark, his life, his music etc through the process of making this film? 

Bobby Dass: Angela Faye Martin, who wrote and narrated the film, was Mark’s friend and collaborator. Mark produced Angela’s first album and they were neighbours of sorts, living a few mountains away from each other on the Appalachian mountain range in North Carolina. As we see in the film, Angela became our tour guide around Mark’s old homestead. I knew Mark lived a remote, almost hermit-like life up there, but to see how modest a life he was leading was an eye opener. There were no rock star trappings at all. He lived an extremely humble existence.

In many ways there's a subtext in the film about healthcare, in terms of the U.S vs UK. It seems Mark felt indebted to the NHS for saving his life after the overdose and his paralysis and the U.S system is accused of failing him towards the end of his life - is this something you personally picked up on too? 

Alex Crowton: Yes, that somehow got woven into the fabric of the narrative of the film and always resonates with us every time we watch it. I do think Mark felt indebted to the NHS nurses that saved his life and similarly people like David Lowry [Camper Van Beethoven] make a compelling case for how the U.S medical system failed Mark. When you live with a subject for as long as we have it seems the story starts to tell itself and I definitely feel that this subtext is something that unfolded as part of trying to make an honest film.

Bobby Dass: Is the NHS perfect? No. But the ideal of free healthcare for all is something worth fighting for. I feel strongly that Mark would still be with us today if he lived in the UK. I think the US medical system fails the people that need help the most. Healthcare shouldn’t just be for those who can afford it.

”I do think Mark felt indebted to the NHS nurses that saved his life and similarly people like David Lowry [Camper Van Beethoven] make a compelling case for how the U.S medical system failed Mark.” – Alex Crowton

Through your discoveries, do you know if there's any more Sparklehorse music likely to be released in the future? 

Alex Crowton: There is more Sparklehorse music, that’s for sure. Whether it will ever see the light of day, we are unsure. I guess that's down to the record companies and lawyers that broker these deals. Through our experience of making the film we know that there is the appetite for further releases. At the time of his death, Mark had very nearly completed the album he had been working on with Steve Albini and others - we’d love to hear it.

Bobby Dass: It would be a dream come true if, in some small way, interest in this film triggers some discussions about releasing the final, unfinished, Sparklehorse record. As far as we’re aware, the music was largely completed. He had recorded some scratch vocals. It’s definitely feasible that the album could be released at some point. When that happens is anybody’s guess.

What would you say - if there is one - is the greatest misconception about Mark? 

Alex Crowton: Musicians, particularly musicians born out of the 1990’s independent rock scene, seem to get rolled up into some late 20th century narrative of the rock star, a kind of snarling, drug fuelled tragic guitar hero figure. At first glance one might be taken by the rock ‘n’ roll clichés that fit this view, but below the surface Mark was much more complex and well read. He was extremely intelligent and highly self-educated with multiple references to classic English and American literature texts, he was incredibly hard working, organised and committed to his career as a recording artist and was a quiet and thoughtful man.

The Sad and Beautiful World of Sparklehorse is currently screening at various film festivals and events in the UK and overseas.