John Darnielle – Where the truth lies
Darnielle enjoys being a part of a similar goodwill mechanism with his fans. “I don’t believe in the Artist Who Must Create or whose only responsibility is to his own art,” he says. “The people who’ve been kind enough to respond to my songs are my life’s blood and I love them.
“Sometimes people who are going through the short dark spurts of earthly hell that everybody at some point goes through will run into my stuff and find it useful during those times, sure, but by the time I get to meet these people, they’ve usually come out on the other side of it all, and then I mostly feel honored to have been able to do for somebody else what music’s always done for me: held my hand when I was walking down dark alleys and couldn’t see my way out. I know that this must sound terribly corny, but it’s really how I feel, and it’s really why I write: for the people who might have some use for what I do.”
Darnielle’s earnest, romantic streak is probably what imbues his elegies for musicians with such power. His “Last Day Of Jimi Hendrix’s Life” (available on the 2002 strays compilation Ghana) stands among the Mountain Goats’ finest songs, and The Sunset Tree pours some on the curb for Kurt Cobain, classical pianist Dinu Lipatti, and reggae great Dennis Brown, whose body was ravaged by his appetite for cocaine.
“It’s just that always-shocking, never-new conflict between something beautiful and something horrible,” Darnielle explains. “Dennis Brown’s voice is one of the sweetest things I’ve ever heard. I really feel it in my soul when I hear it, and the naive part of my listening ear thinks: ‘What a lovely man, to sing like that!’ And while I’m sure he was a lovely guy in some ways, the end of his life was so awful and sad and terrifying.
“This isn’t news; artists aren’t their art, they’re just people. But the elevated beauty of what he did coupled with the understandable, simple horror of his decline — I don’t know, it reaches me somewhere. There’s probably a ‘there but for the grace’ kinda deal goin’ on, which sounds rather contrived maybe, but for me the best part about maturing is worrying less about whether something sounds contrived, and focusing more on whether what it says is true.”
In addition to writing so many songs, Darnielle is a widely published music reviewer. His paper zine Last Plane To Jakarta morphed into a regularly updated weblog. “What I do in terms of music writing is less criticism than exultation,” he says. “I don’t write reviews of things I don’t like — can’t be bothered to. What I do is try to express in some way what happens for me when I listen to music that I love or that excites me in some way.”
Darnielle defines the songwriters he admires as the following: “Really anybody who’s finding very specific aches and roping them into very small enclosures — into songs, I mean. That kind of mildly sadistic elegance.”
His list of preferred practitioners of that art includes his sometime bandmate Franklin Bruno, Kristin Hersh, Hank Williams, Sarah Dougher, Billy Joe Shaver, Merle Haggard, Lerner & Lowe, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, David Berman of the Silver Jews (“tremendous”), Tanya Donelly (“quite great”), Webb Pierce (“incredible…completely unbelievable”), Howlin’ Wolf (“terribly underrated”), and the team of Bob Crewe & Bob Gaudio: “They wrote Frankie Valli’s biggest hits including the unstoppable ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’.
“I will defend ‘songwriter’ as a term describing what [electronic artist] Barbara Morgenstern does over the rather nondescript term ‘techno,'” Darnielle continues. “Though now we’re into territory a little different from what most people — not me though — mean by ‘songs,’ I would add the work of Gustav Mahler and Franz Schubert.”
Though he relishes hip-hop, jazz and metal, he takes a lot of delight in artists whose work falls under the “Whatever That Is” radar of many a No Depression reader. Among his favorite recent albums are the latest efforts by Iron & Wine, South San Gabriel, and the Baptist Generals.
Darnielle is turned off by countrification that approaches caricature, but he understands that most modes of discourse involve degrees of performance. “I always have my ears pricked up for anything that sounds like an affected southern accent,” he acknowledges. “There’s a whole huge debate one can have about that — aren’t all our speech patterns just well-rehearsed affectations?”
His own songwriting somehow isn’t stifled by a self-consciousness or archness that comes from being a consumer of so much music, music press, music critique, and fun gossip about the contemporary scene.
“Writing for me is this sort of exciting physical space that’s not really at all like listening critically; I don’t think this is in any way inimical to writing songs,” Darnielle reasons. “The actual writing is a pretty straightforward process. All the brain-work happens away from the page: when I read, and when I think about what I read, and when I listen to other people’s music, and when I think or write about that.
“When I sit down to write a song, I focus on trying to clearly express the mood I think the song wants. I’m never willfully obscure; I write about what thrills me in some way, and I let the images and feelings I get from an image or a phrase play around on the page — or, usually, out loud.
“My songs begin as improvisations usually. I’ll sing a few lines until I come up with something that resonates for me, then write those down, then go back to singing and thinking of rejoinders. By the time I get to the second verse, I’ve got a framework within which to work, and then it’s straight writing.”
Somehow, that process yields songs such as the new album’s “Up The Wolves”, which moves breezily from an almost emo, self-helpy opening to a rousing, sociopathic finale, held together by the chorus’ Romulus-and-Remus metaphor. “The Sunset Tree was a pretty difficult record to make,” Darnielle admits. “I enjoyed that aspect of it. I like working hard.”
William Bowers lives and writes in Gainesville, Florida.