A shy man who prefers to record his vocals in his own studio because "I sing a lot better alone at home when no one's listening", Mark Linkous is an unlikely front man. But, despite his discomfort at the spotlight being levelled at him, Linkous has managed to produce three luminously brilliant Sparklehorse albums over the last six years.
Natural reticence has not been the only obstacle to his recorded output. After the release of 'Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot', Linkous toured England with Radiohead in 1996 and nearly died from ingesting a cocktail of prescription drugs that induced a heart attack and almost led to the amputation of his legs. After a prolonged stay in hospital and time spent in a wheelchair he released 'Good Morning Spider' in 1999. Two years later he's back with 'It's a Wonderful Life', mixing vintage textured electronica with vivid imagery, collaborating with an assortment of friends and fans and making something incredibly beautiful in the process.
After recording and producing the last two albums in his basement studio, Linkous decided that it was time for a change. "I didn't want to make this record alone at home. I had a very, very short list of producers and studios I wanted to work in. Dave [Fridmann] came very highly recommended by Jonathon from Mercury Rev and he was making some of the few American records that I liked."
As well as working in Fridmann's Tarbox Road Studios in the depths of the woods, Linkous also travelled to Barcelona and Brooklyn. Barcelona was where PJ Harvey recorded her vocals for 'Piano Fire' and 'Eyepennies' which meant that she didn't have to contend with Linkous' domestic problems: "I had big spiders in my studio. I couldn't get rid of this bad spider problem so I didn't want Polly to get bit by a spider or my dogs to be jumping all over her."
Nina Persson's involvement came about by accident: "I met her a year ago in Sweden. She was a fan and there was this kind of accident really – we were in Brooklyn and a girl who plays violin came in and said 'I just saw Nina. She says hello. Give her a call.' I called her on the cell phone and she was down in the studio an hour later singing. And then she came up to Tarbox and sang some more. I've always been a Cardigans fan and then Polly, I've always been a fan of hers."
Another musician that Linkous has a lot of respect for – Tom Waits – also sings on the record. "Oh God, yeah," says Linkous, awe-struck. "It still seems like a film. It was intimidating to work with him. I couldn't help it because Sparklehorse probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for his music and him being so inspirational. I just hated music at the time and his music just really turned me around and saved me."
Writing songs that are lyrically as well as musically dense, Linkous has the ability to put words on the obscure things that you were afraid of – but also secretly fascinated with - as a child. Skeletons and dead things, skinny wolves and bears populate his songs amidst a myriad of literary, cinematic and musical references. "I'm still scared by them," says Linkous. "That's why I erase some of my songs I don't like. I'm afraid a bear will kill me in the woods and then someone will come in and get all my mastertapes and do a retrospective of all my music. Then all my sh***y songs will be released for the world to hear."
As he starts to mutter about poisonous spiders and almost getting bitten by snakes the conversation takes a turn which seems quintessentially Sparklehorse: "Oh my God! There's a rattlesnake in my hotel room at this moment in London, England. Can you believe that? Or maybe it's a bear..." Maybe it is. Or maybe it's another product of the fertile imagination responsible for the most amazing album I've heard this year. Long may it continue – unless that bear gets him…