Darlingside Riding High on Waves of Harmony
Darlingside, the rapidly emerging indy folk band, is still “killing its darlings.” According to band member Dave Senft, that means jettisoning favorite lyrics and musical ideas in order to get better ones. And, it appears to be working. Winner of the Folk Alliance International 2016 Artist of the Year Award and featured in The New York Times and The New Yorker, Darlingside is clearly a band on the ascendency.
I recently saw them perform at The Camel in Richmond, VA, where they brought the house down with a hugely exciting set featuring their richly layered harmonies and creative mix of acoustic instrumentation. Joining them on this section of their Spring Tour, which will include the Cambridge Folk Festival in London, England, is The David Wax Museum, which made a combustible performance combination with Darlingside.
All the performers joined together at the end of the show, moving the performance off the stage and into an intimate sharing within the audience itself.
Darlingside consists of Senft on bass, Don Mitchell, guitar and banjo, Auyon Mukharji, classical violin and folk mandolin, and Harris Paseltiner, cello and guitar.
The band takes its name from the kill your darlings phrase often repeated in songwriting classes they all took from Bernice Lewis at Williams College, their collective alma mater in Western Massachusetts. At first they thought of using “darlingcide” as in genocide or fratricide, but that sounded too deadly, so they changed the “c” to “s” and became Darlingside.
“It was super important,” Senft said, “we’d all liked singing before, but this kick-started our musical careers. We all started writing songs and playing guitar at that time. It was addictive. We became passionate. We developed a band around this.”
It also led to the harmonies that would become their signature. Lewis started the class with an assignment to write a song about “home,” whatever that meant to each student. To this day, the band develops similar prompts and exercises to help them with their songwriting which they do as a collaboration of all four members.
They do the same in performance, with the recent development that they all now sing and play at the same mic.
Perhaps the most beautiful song on their new album Birds Say, “The God of Loss,” named one of NPR’s Favorite Songs of the Year, is different. “That’s a really special song to all of us,” Senft said, “it really helps when all of us connect to a song, don’t feel like it’s the others’ song.” That’s why they collaborate. However, “The God of Loss” came to the band almost fully formed by Auyon, even with a fiddle riff. They all related so deeply to it that it joined their repertoire “as is.” Since then, the band has produced a video of the song done entirely in woodcuts. Beautiful art in itself, it’s the work of Andrew Benincasa.
A song on their previous album Pilot Machine was, on the other hand, an example of their usual collaboration. In “Terrible Things,” Senft said, “we brought together ideas we related to and invented a story as a canvas for those ideas.”
All of the terrible things we have done.
Hell is a place where a horse cannot run.
I am the horse.
I am the one.
Who can’t run.
“It explores how,”u Dave said, “we tend to dwell on the terrible things we’ve done. That’s what tends to come back to us. You hold on to the bad things.”
Their intensive collaborative process was at its zenith during their early years as a group when they all lived,I ate, slept, and created together in the same house in western Massachusetts. Dave: “It was pretty great. I’d wake up to guitars playing. It was music all day and night.”
Now that two of them have married and the others have girlfriends, all that has changed. Even so, Senft said, they still live in proximity, now in Cambridge, MA and nearby Somerville, and often get together.
Their new album Birds Say signals other changes for them. “It represents some firsts for us,” Dave said, “it’s our first album really out to the world and related to most of what we’re doing now. It marks our change from being progressive rock to being indy folk. We see it as kind of being our debut album.”
On another recent album, Woodstock, the band collaborates with singer-songwriter Heather Maloney.This came about through Val Haller, who in her New York Times “Music Matches” imaginatively pairs contemporary performers with similar artists in the past and present. She matched Maloney with Joni Mitchell in the past and Darlingside with Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. She then made the contemporary pairing of Maloney (Mitchell) with Darlingside (CSNY). As a result, the artists decided to come together to produce Woodstock, an album featuring a lovely collaboration on the title song.
Moving up fast, the poetry in their lyrics is as precise as their melodies are tight.
Darlingside has a way of creating beautiful music that goes from dark to light as in the song “The Ancestor” from Birds Say:
Go on, bury me under stone or under sea.
Keep the fishes company.
There is little else for me now.
But I will find my way
Out of the darkness some day.
Into a crimson, yellow sun.