Interview : Darlingside’s Don Mitchell and David Senft on “Every Thing Is Alive”

Adapting how they make albums and how they tour post pandemic.

Darlingside have over five distinctive and fascinating albums become known for ubiquitous vocal harmonies and wonderfully elaborate lyrics, around superb melodies. Four like-minded multi-instrumentalists have created elegant compositions and a special unity of their combined voices. Garnering universal praise for their albums to date, the band approached their new release, ‘Everything Is Alive’, with a new mindset. The challenges of the pandemic gave them all change that was both personal and universal and they decided to approach the creation of this new release with a new and, for them, quite radical mindset. Americana UK’s Paul Russell caught up with band members Don Mitchell and David Senft from their homes in Boston, to discuss this new work ethic and how they also had to adapt their touring lineup to accommodate changes in their lives.

So when did you first all meet, can you remember when you first harmonised together and how well it worked?

Don Mitchell  (DM): It was a gradual process, I would say, because in the initial version of Darlingside, we were singing Coldplay covers and that kind of thing, and barbershop tunes, where we had heard each other’s voices, but never just the four of us. And the band was actually sort of formed through a singer-songwriter course. I was not in the first version of the band, so it was actually years later that probably for the first time, the four of us sang something together, but probably the first time we really focussed on the harmonies would have been in a rehearsal in 2009 or something

Dave Senft  (DS): I remember living together in Northampton, and I remember sending our pitch to Don, would you please join the band? He had written some amazing songs at college. We all took this songwriting course at different times and Don had taken it first, and so his songs were kind of legendary in our minds. We had sung with him in an a cappella group. And I kind of courted Don as a songwriting partner. And we wanted to see if we could we can make it official with him and have him come join our band. And so we had a day of song writing exercises and we just hung out and we wrote this song. That was the first song I think we officially put together in this new format – we sang it together and it was just magical and we loved it.

I imagine it must be really special.

DM:  So I think for me, one of the first moments where I was like – ‘oh, wow – this isn’t just like four people who all happen to be good singers’ – by then, we had sort of started to move towards singing more like one another. But I think when we did it and felt how the crowd responded to that energy of just singing – it really worked.

DS: We played a few weddings for a while, just because it’s a good side gig, and we knew a couple of songs from the a cappella group and we were four of us and we thought like, okay, you take a part, you take part. We know the four parts of these, like the traditional songs of our group. There’s ‘Parting Blessing’, the traditional Irish song; ‘How Deep Is the Ocean,’ which is an Irving Berlin song that we would sing; ‘Gulf War Song’ is a more modern tune by Moxy Fruvous. So there are a few songs we had in our repertoire from the a cappella group that we found some opportunities to do in the early days of the band, but it worked really well and people loved it.

How difficult is it adapting your live performance, which is really special,  in diverse and different venues?

DM:  We don’t have a ton of flexibility in it. We have moved in recent years. We have been using separate microphones. We’ve kind of gone back to that. And now that we’ve had so much practice, I think singing all four of us around the one mic, it’s easier to then split up and do it separately. So when we did that, it got a lot more bullet-proof, whereas in a bad venue, it won’t affect us nearly as much. Whereas, when we were singing into one microphone, usually the difference was just the show would be very quiet. If the acoustics were bad enough, we can only get this much level out of the microphone. And that was the main difference. But in that case, hopefully, people are ready to settle down and come to your level and everybody’s really quiet and it can be a lean-in show.

DS:  Early on, there were definitely a lot of nights where the sound situation was really hard and getting used to hearing yourself out of a monitor, as opposed to just hearing yourself in the room. The way we would practice was really stressful for me, especially for the first few years, and I developed some very severe performance anxiety around the uncertainty of whether we’d be able to hear ourselves on a given night. And it took a lot of time to get to a point where that bullet-proof feeling of like, ‘yeah’, and all the ups and downs and using one mic and then back to four mics. But it really can make or break a night, especially, just emotionally, how it feels at the end of the night if you couldn’t hear yourself.

So, all your albums so far have been written and created in a very specific way, but apparently, you very deliberately changed that style for this new album. Can you just give us a little bit of explanation as to what that change was and how it’s been?

DS: So, in some ways, it’s been a big monumental change. And in other ways, it’s almost a superficial change, because, at the core, we’re still writing all these songs together. You know, the main difference is that we’ve always, as Don said, we got really used to singing not just together in harmony, but often in unison – there was never a lead singer, or if there was, it was just for one song, and then the next song would have a different singer. But often, we would sing two of us in unison, and there just wasn’t usually one voice as the focus voice. So we very deliberately changed that on this album – there is one person singing the lead for the lion’s share of each song, and there are still harmonies. And as I said, the songs are still very much co-written, although in this case, in the final phase of writing for each song, we deliberately made it a little bit less democratic than what we would normally do. But it was like, you take a stab at finishing this one, you take a stab at finishing this one. But then when we came back together after that, we just loved what came from that process of each of us finishing the songs individually. And so we just embraced it – It was very moving and very different from what we normally do. And we just thought, let’s honour that and try to recreate it on the album.

Were there any unexpected outcomes from this new approach in how you make music?

DM: We had always been ferociously revisionist – where we would revise things over and over and over again. And when we were writing them, all four of us were in from closer to the beginning of the process, and the last stage of writing that song would usually involve one lyric, where two people strongly disagreed. And this one, we didn’t. We just said, “Let’s just accept that there will be things that will not be the way that everybody would have done it, you know?”. And I guess the biggest surprise for me was how easy it was to let go of that, as long as it was part of the premise that you’re just going to have to live with it. The surprise for me is that it was actually pretty easy and satisfying to let go of it and say, “I’m happy that Dave wrote that line differently”, than that if I had gotten my grubby paws in there.

DS:  Yeah. What we did was, we had a set of songs that were already written where that was the case, and we decided, ‘Let’s not touch these anymore’. We’re not going to get all revisionist on them and make sure everybody gets a say. We’re just going to leave them the way they are. But we already had the songs at the point we made the decision, which did make it a little bit easier.

Looking at the lyrics to this new album, there was a set that particularly struck me and it’s on my favourite track, ‘Lose The Keys’.
“Goddamn canonical me
A buoy in the ocean of eyes unclosed
Every headline is a footnote”
How important are these idiosyncratic style lyrics?

DM: I think we have definitely gravitated over the years, especially when we were writing together. And a lot of the time, it was like finding something that all four of us could connect with, which sometimes meant, “let’s go with something that leaves room for interpretation”. That was a technique we did a lot. And so I think we still do that, even when we’re writing separately, to some degree. And I think this album, if anything, has gone towards a little bit more specificity of experience and grounded language, just because there were fewer cooks in the kitchen, at stages. So, I’m so glad that you respond to that. I mean, some people look at that, I realise and it does not pass the sniff test where they’re like, okay, come on, this is a big joke. Like, this doesn’t mean anything, guys. And we have gotten that response for sure from some people. But, you know, we’re trying to make the music that feels real to us, in the moment. And sometimes that means that it’s really dreamy and does not follow a logic of the day to day waking world. Other times, we want to, you know, talk about the cracks in the paint on the wall and what we’re seeing in that.  So I think the example you pointed to from ‘Lose the Keys,‘ I think that’s an example of one that comes from kind of something a little more like our older writing process. I basically do a very free style of writing, not rhyming, not trying to make too much sense. Jumping one sentence – it might have nothing to do with what follows it. Just a jumble. Kind of a brainstorm. And I would then send that along. I sent that one along to Dave and he turned that into verse. So he tried to kind of pull out parts that fit together, maybe cut off some of the extraneous words, you know, you write a lot of filler. So kind of trying to distil it down to here’s the core sentiments and make a bunch of stanzas. Maybe it adds in rhyming at that point. Maybe it doesn’t.

DS:  So I had to take that and try to either find words that he had written that I could make into rhyming stanzas, once I decided it was going to run, or I to insert my own words into it, just to round out the stanza and get it to run. But that was one of my favourite rewrites too. To play with it was such a fun one. I love that song. But we try to all be involved with at some part of this of the cycle of every song, just because it’s so nice to each be invested in the song, as opposed to feeling like – ‘oh, he wrote that one’. And so that’s an example of how, even though it’s a Don song, we all have a hand in writing that and we all feel connected and invested in it.

One of my colleagues at Americana UK was saying that he was brought to tears listening to one of the tracks from the album. I assume you’re heartened by that?

DM: We love to make people cry or feel something, you know? Feel something that feels strong and real. I think that’s definitely what you want to hear. I love when I hear responses from people saying  ‘I heard it at this time in my life and here’s how it connected for me in some way’. The ways that people relate to it makes all the difference to knowing that you’re not just screaming into the void.

I always find it fascinating when you release your supplementary EPs. My second favourite Darlingside song of all time is on one of those, ‘Rodeo’. How do these EPs come about, are they secondary to your main albums?

DS: It’s definitely not the case that we don’t care about those songs as much. I think because we care about a song so much – our standards for finishing it and doing justice to the idea are higher. There’s a higher likelihood that it doesn’t get finished the right way in time to make the album. But then we all say, ‘but we really have to finish that song because we love that song’. That song I care deeply about – it’s an old song, or the idea was around for many years before we finished it and that was probably why it didn’t make the album. It’s just it had a long arc of us working on it and revising it and revising it again and revising it again.

You’re going to be having a slightly different live lineup for this next tour, aren’t you? Can you just explain a little bit about the sort of changes and how that might appear to fans?

DS: Yeah. So I will not be touring for the time being, which is absolutely necessary for me. I have a five year old son and I’m a big part of his life and I have a lot of dad duties at home that have made it too hard to be away for weeks at a time. And that was a very hard decision, because I also love being on the road and I love playing shows and all of that. But touring has always been hard for me. It was a hard, complicated decision. But, you know, musically, especially with this album, I’m still very much involved in the making of this music that we’re putting out right now.

DM: Yeah, I mean, it’s been about a year of Dave not touring.  We were still coming out of the pandemic and not touring as much, so that had less of an impact. So this will be the first time that we’re really touring. The transition was I think, pretty tough at first.  We had been pretty much a decade with the four of us, just always being there, pretty much as the thing and not adding people and not taking away people. So you get very used to how it all works musically and also as far as friendships. I think the silver lining was that we had already been collaborating with Ben Burns, the percussionist who played on ‘Fish Pond Fish‘ and on this album. I think our thought process was let’s tour with the drums again and make a go of that. And rather than trying to find a fourth voice that sounds as much like Dave as possible, we’ve been collaborating with a keyboard player and a female vocalist, Deni Hlavinka, who’s been wonderful to work with in the studio. And so this was an opportunity to kind of fold her in. Molly Parton is another singer-songwriter and we had toured with her a bit in 2019. And so we kind of have this little Rolodex of people that we know we like to sing with, because we’ve done it before, either live or on record, or in this case, both. Molly is picking up Dave’s bass parts on the road for most of this release tour.

It’s a really bittersweet thing, but it is fun also to kind of expand the family and the palette of sounds and have an excuse to push ourselves into the uncomfortable territory of collaborating more widely because we’ve always been a pretty insular unit that way, but we do have a lot of friends who we deeply love and love to make music with. So this forced us to really integrate more that way and hopefully, that’ll be a good model for the future so that if any one of us is not able to go on the road, it doesn’t mean that the music stops entirely.

Can we expect any UK live dates in the future?

DM  It’s a very realistic contemplation and I expect that maybe even by the time some of this is published, there may be concrete news that you can slot in.

Darlingside’s ‘Everything Is Alive. is released on Thirty Tigers on 28th July.

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