According to the band, songs hadn’t been written for Jump, Little Children in 14 years. Over the summer, cellist Ward Williams and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Matt Bivins arrived in Nashville to record the band’s first album since their early-2000s heyday. As the two exchanged real talk over tacos, the feeling of trepidation was palpable. “Are we going to be able to do this?” they wondered.
Williams describes the recording sessions that came next in a word: magical. “Everything seemed to fall into place so well,” he says. “I credit all of us, but I particularly credit Jay [Clifford, frontman and primary songwriter] and Josh [Kaler] and Owen [Biddle] — they were the three main producers and it was such an upbeat process and such a fun process. And we were like, ‘Wow, we’re still good at this even after such a huge hiatus.'”
The band decided to go for gold this year, with the operation of Jump, Little Children suddenly becoming a full-time job at various intervals. From the initial announcement and crowdfunding campaign in January, to the weeks of songwriting that followed, every step of creating the album has happened in 2018, and the year of Jump has been in full motion since the get-go. For weeks, band members — Williams, bassist Jonathan Gray, and brothers Matt and Evan (drummer) Bivins — would receive Friday afternoon emails from Clifford with Dropbox links to rough new songs. Once that process was complete, the guys convened as scheduled for a summer of recording in both Nashville (10 songs at EastSide Manor Studios) as well as Charleston (three songs at Rialto Row). With the album, Sparrow, dropping in September, the East Coast record-release tour is now underway, finishing up at the Charleston Music Hall this week.
At the time that the band promised its fanbase an album, only two songs (“White Buffalo” and “The Protagonist Moves On” and parts of another song, titular track, “Sparrow”) were done, with the former two getting a few test runs during last December’s string of reunion shows. In other words, the guys sure had their work cut out for them. Would they easily find the words and melodies this time around? What would a Jump song even look like in 2018?
One thing Jump knew for certain: they didn’t want to sound like a ’90s band.
“We wanted it to sound modern; we wanted it to sound relevant,” Williams says. “Having said that, I feel like there’s a lot of stuff in there that really harkens back to day one.”
Take for example the band’s lead single and climate change anthem, “Hand on My Heartache.” It’s updated Jump, to be sure, but their signature style remains, too — the kind that helped the band rise to popularity in the late-’90s, when they busked on downtown Charleston streets. “It is super modern but it is our original instrumentation: upright, cello, accordion, drums, acoustic guitar.” Williams says, “Like, we could go play that on Church and Market streets right now.”
The last time Jump put out an album, there was no Twitter. Facebook wasn’t a big thing yet, and Spotify was years away. Since 2005’s Between the Glow and the Light, Obama had come and gone, replaced with an administration so dismissive of issues like climate change, social awareness moved to the forefront of the minds of the members of Jump.
For Matt, who has always contributed spoken word to Jump songs, there’s a lot more to say after all this time. “So maybe that helps the maturity of wanting to put one word in front of another word that maybe you wouldn’t have even thought of or cared about 15 years ago,” he says.
Clifford is fascinated by the shifts that occurred in that 13-year gap, noting that culture maybe changed more then than in any other 13-year period. The internet and social media, he says, has made the world more self-aware, nervous, and anxious — all of which has driven a whirlwind of cultural change. “And to watch that happen when we were part of the culture by contributing to it artisically, and then a void essentially, then to get involved today — it’s fascinating,” he says. “What I wanted most was to put some kind of flag into the small thing we do, onto the larger canvas of what the culture is up to — to notice and see it there and see how things have changed. Because every record before that, there’s some effort, some success, some failure at achieving something that lasts. The songs within them have been able to survive a certain amount of time, and that’s all I wanted to do again. And what that gap has given us is the ability to go, ‘OK, we can put this here and watch it change again.’ It’s going to be interesting.”
Sparrow also speaks to the voyeuristic nature of social media (“Voyeuropa”), fatherhood (as seen on the very Sufjan Stevens-esque “Boyhood,”), and the inner battlefield, as is heard in “Cyclorama.”
“‘Cyclorama’ is about the allies and enemies within, the ways in which we all wake up with maybe some hope and maybe some shame at the same time, some optimism and some severe worry and anxious feeling, and how those feelings battle themselves out during the day,” Clifford says. “Because social media is this ultimate shaming device, that a single sentence that you utter into the void can be repeated incessantly, and then your reputation ends up in tatters. So that is a very different, precarious place to be. If YouTube had been around when we were 20, 21 years old, it would probably still haunt us. And so I can’t imagine what the developmental years are like [now] for young artists. It must be incredibly difficult.”
As for the title track, it holds multiple meanings, one being that it’s an environmental tale about a natural creature in an urban landscape. “Sparrow” also metaphorically represents some person or something you love, and it’s a little more absract. “But the original meaning of the song was — and I’ve sort of been hesitant to talk about this at times and I’m not exactly sure why — was the fear that the band would just evaporate,” Clifford says. “Because keeping that group of guys on the same page creatively — and with the same goal and function and all those things — was an extremely complex project. And to see it for that number of years and then to see it suddenly stop, on our own volition, was a pretty jarring experience and really woke me up, and I think these guys as well, to how tenuous and fragile a band actually is.”
Williams adds, “What we have is something other bands don’t have the ability to do, because they keep going. I think in a way our hiatus gave us a little bit of a space to look back on the 12 years we were together between ’94 and 2005 and look at what worked well, but didn’t work, or worked then, but won’t work today — we really knew the palette we had from those 12 years in a very skillful way. Josh and Jay really helped that.”
As to whether or not fans will have the chance to catch the band in its natural habitat — some hallowed hall in Charleston on New Year’s Eve — there’s talk of it. But nothing has been confirmed, Evan says. (Wink, wink.)