Those Darlins Find Balance in Baring More
Last July, Nashville’s music scene was a fiery pit of controversy – and local rock ‘n’ roll act Those Darlins were the arsonists.
I’m exaggerating a little. OK, a lot, actually. But they did offend a lot of locals when they teased their latest album with a banner above Grimey’s, a staple area record shop. The image, blown up to bigger than a King-size bed, was a strategically positioned shot of all four members in the buff from the waist down. It was later revealed to be the cover art for Blur the Line, their third LP. The brief explanatory statement (it wasn’t so much an apology) Those Darlins issued soon after put a name to the nudes, which I suppose meets some standard of marketing.
But unseen through the rain of fire and brimstone, unheard amongst the sound of jaws hitting the floor and countless liberals laughing, is the photo’s intended symbolism – which is actually pretty interesting. Founding member Nikki Kvarnes explains that the album title and its corresponding artwork are relating to balance: “Man and woman, dark and light, etc.,” she says.
“I think we kind of have jumped this hurdle, like, wow, we’re exposing ourselves a bit more. It’s kind of a reflection of us as women, just being confident, like, ‘Look at all my flaws, look at all my beauty, this is who the fuck I am, take it for what it is, or don’t. And also for other people to recognize themselves too. [It’s] not just directed toward women, but men too. Finding the female persona within themselves as well as us finding the more masculine side within ourselves,” she expounds.
One particularly significant hurdle Those Darlins have hopped over is losing an original member. When they released their debut in 2009, they operated as an all-girl trio – Kvarnes, Jessi Zazu and Kelley Anderson. They took on their live drummer, Linwood Regensburg, as a permanent fourth member before recording their 2011 sophomore effort Screws Get Loose. Nearly a year after its release, however, they announced Anderson’s departure.
“I can’t really say too much besides that we were growing apart musically, definitely,” Kvarnes says. “It was that she wanted to stay in this country vein, and there were lots of other things, but that was one of the factors.”
Maybe Screws Get Loose cuts like the title track, “Be Your Bro” and “Hives” were too raw and rambunctious for Anderson. Recorded at Atlanta’s Living Room studio with Ed Rawls, the album was more amped, more rock ‘n’ roll, than its country-minded predecessor. But they’ve always embraced the dirtier side of that down-home style, so the extra twitch in their twang sounded natural.
Whatever the case, when Anderson left, there was a void to fill. After some brainstorming, Kvarnes and Zazu called upon Adrian Barrera of the Barreracudas and Gentleman Jesse & His Men. The former Atlantan, who they’d met on tour years earlier, had recently moved to Nashville. He’s not typically a bassist, but he agreed to try it out with Those Darlins. So far, the setup shift has stuck. Kvarnes says they “love having Adrian in the band.”
Despite the changes, Blur the Line maintains Those Darlins’ tradition, albeit with a stronger emphasis on classic rock motifs. “In the Wilderness” is a brawny anthem for the untamable. “Baby Mae” is a swamp blues number squeezed into a pair of tight fittin’ Wranglers. Opening track “Oh God” glides around with a countrified riff, and both “Too Slow” and the (hidden bonus) title track sway drowsily like old-time ballads. And, as usual, neither Kvarnes nor Zazu tries to downplay her Southern drawl in the least.
Still, Those Darlins sound a little different on Blur the Line. As Kvarnes points out, they purposely got more personal. But why?
“[We were] kind of trying to expose ourselves a little bit more than we have [in the past],” Kvarnes says. “It’s interesting because, for a while, [people] had some idea of who we are, and we were [didn’t] feel like we’re representing ourselves as honestly as we want to. Some things were off in a weird way – like we weren’t representing ourselves as clear as we’d like to. But that’s also, with time and age, people get to recognize you a little bit clearer.”
It’s true that they’ve been pegged as a rambunctious bunch in the past. That’s not exactly a misconception, but it somewhat belies their excellent musicianship – or clouds it, at least. They weren’t trying to be wordsmiths by any stretch, either. Much of their debut LP was styled with country standards of content in mind: Drinking songs, heartbreak songs, even a tribute to Mama. And some of their catchiest tunes were borderline silly, like “The Whole Damn Thing” and “DUI or Die” (there’s your prison reference). They took a couple steps toward lyrical maturity on Screws Get Loose – see “Mystic Mind” and “Waste Away” – but backtracked with goofy jams like “Be Your Bro” and “BUMD.”
To facilitate their more intimate lyrical intentions, the creative process was altered. Kvarnes says she and Zazu opted to write individually instead of collaborating. Both are also artists, and employed the medium as a means of further exploration.
“Our days writing were alone. We didn’t write any of our lyrics together. We’d just work all day writing, like freestyle writing, then stopping and drawing a whole bunch,” Kvarnes explains. “There’s a lot of visual stuff in the songs that I think came out through other creative outlets.”
The ended up with about 30 potentials to pluck from – a bigger pool than ever before, Kvarnes notes. And because Linwood and Barrera weren’t at all privy to their writing sessions, Kvarnes and Zazu got firsthand accounts of how outsiders might interpret their work.
“I’m like more intrigued playing all these songs together as a group because they’re personal. When we were recording them, we didn’t really discuss what all the songs were necessarily about. And then I feel like sometimes…we would be discussing the vibe of the song and what the song is actually about and what [Linwood and Barrera’s] perceptions of it were. It was kind of more on point than the way we were describing them…which is interesting, because it’s how the audience would hear these songs, with fresh ears and not exactly knowing who these songs are about or what circumstance you were in,” Kvarnes says. “I thought that was really cool and it also brought musically, like, different vibes to all the songs. But me and Jessi, we usually kind of talk about what the songs are about with each other when we’re working on them.”
To this day, the Internet still holds that the original trio formed after meeting at the Murfreesboro Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp that Anderson founded. Kvarnes’ recollection of their union, however, doesn’t match that story entirely – and the clarification points to a stronger bond between Kvarnes and Zazu.
“When I met Jessi, I met her because my friend was teaching at the camp and he just showed me and brought me in, and Jessi was in the band that he was teaching. And then I met her later – I mean, I said hello to her and stuff. But I met her later, outside of that, and that’s when we became friends,” she recalls.
She mentioned to Zazu that she needed a roommate and, coincidentally, Zazu was trying to leave her current dwelling.
“So she just moved in with me, and we barely knew each other. We just sat on the porch and were just rattling off stuff about our lives and just found out how similar we grew up,” Kvarnes says. “It’s pretty far out and really weird how many bizarre similarities we had.”
The parallels are so well-aligned, in fact, they kind of seem like soul mates. Kvarnes grew up in Rappahannock County, Virginia, near the Blue Ridge mountains. Zazu’s stompin’ grounds are equally rural, though scattered between Kentucky, Indiana and Tennessee.
“We both grew up in the country [with] really poor artist parents doing weird stuff, just scraping by and all that bullshit,” Kvarnes says. “It’s interesting.”
The duo’s connection may have helped the shared goal of going visceral on Blur the Line. But a subliminal factor likely had a hand as well: They’d both recently read Patti Smith’s book Just Kids.
“It’s really beautiful,” Kvarnes says of Smith’s work. “Because it’s kind of like less about her story of becoming a famous rock star-artist-revolutionary, it’s more of a love story between her and Robert Mapplethorpe and her life. It’s really…like a story. It’s gorgeous. And I cried my eyes out. It’s definitely my favorite autobiography of all the musicians that I adore. I read Neil Young’s book and Keith Richards’ book and a few others, but there’s something very different about hers.”
It’s possible that Smith’s writing furthered their understanding of how literary devices – imagery in particular – can work in rock ‘n’ roll. The fleabag hotel scene Zazu shapes in “Oh God” is nearly palpable. The appropriate minutiae make the words materialize: It’s easy to picture a tour-weary Zazu, barefoot on coarse and crusty carpet, wearing the same ripped-up T-shirt she’s sported since departing Nashville.
“All of our songs are poems, you know. A lot of the songs that we were writing became poems afterwards, like, I like this, but this isn’t a song, this is an idea that doesn’t necessarily translate the same. So I don’t know, maybe it was like a subconscious thing that we started doing that. It wasn’t like, oh, the Patti Smith book, so I’m going to start writing poetry! I mean, I used to write a lot of poetry when I was younger but I think I was discouraged by really intellectual assholes who made me self-conscious of writing – just critical snobs,” she laughs.
With Those Darlins, Kvarnes might be enduring some flashbacks to that memory of being pushed aside. In Nashville, there’s a thriving underground scene, the bulk of it sprawling out of JEFF the Brotherhood’s Infinity Cat label. As a joint venture with their own Oh Wow Dang imprint, they released a split with Heavy Cream on IC last winter. But beyond that, they don’t feel as connected to the city’s central rock ‘n’ roll aggregate.
“I think that I feel, like, accepted as a band in Nashville, but I also feel like we haven’t made a clique…Maybe I shouldn’t be saying this,” she pauses. “There’s something… I feel like we’ve always been outsiders…It doesn’t really feel like we’re on the same page. And I don’t really know exactly why.”
Kvarnes continues to say their audience does overlap a little with that of bands like Natural Child, but “some kind of distance” prevails. In Those Darlins’ refreshed lineup, though, they have their own community, even if on a smaller scale. Kvarnes and Zazu even dropped the Darlin monikers they’d been using.
“When Kelley was in the band, when we started, it was just the three of us and it was kind of like a gang, like, this is us as a whole,” Kvarnes says. “But now I think everyone’s personalities…we kind of have our own identities, and now having Adrian too, for me and Jessi to be this gang is kind of weird.”
Shedding the Darlin tag is like eliminating emotional barriers in their songwriting. It’s all as result of an elevated sense of self, both individually and as a group. For Those Darlins, it looks like the emphasis on achieving stasis has been the foundation for their growth.
“We were trying to also looking for a balance,” Kvarnes adds. “It doesn’t have to be so spelled out. You can find our personalities and let them be there. We don’t have to put any label on it or identify ourselves as a group. We are. We’re a band. It’ll come across.”
Photo by Veta & Theo.