“Pesticide is used to kill pests. Fratricide is when you kill your brother,” explains Darlingside’s Dave Senft. “A former teacher of ours used to say ‘kill your darlings,’ which is to say, if you fall in love with something you’ve written you should cross it out. We like that idea and we thought a good name for it might be ‘darlingcide’, but we changed the ‘c’ to an ‘s’ because we’re not super into death.” The naming of the band reflects the arch humor, cryptic wordplay, and playful banter that the four close friends share on and off stage—but the music Darlingside plays is serious, cinematic, and deeply moving.
On Birds Say, the Massachusetts-based quartet’s wide-open arrangements are marked by the skillful vocal interplay of the four singers. When bassist Dave Senft, guitarist and banjo player Don Mitchell, classical violinist and folk mandolinist Auyon Mukharji, and cellist and guitar picker Harris Paseltiner gather around a single microphone and let their richly-textured voices loose, they splash their melodies with a sunny melancholy that brings their lyrics to vibrant life. Subtle musical shadings take cues from 60s folk, chamber pop, bluegrass, classical music, and modern indie rock, while aching harmonies are complemented by tones from the harmonium, frailing banjo, 12-string electric guitar, Wurlitzer, auto-chord organ, and grand piano. The result is a collection of quietly passionate songs that defy easy categorization.
“Each song and set of lyrics are created by all of us together, a sort of ‘group stream-of consciousness,’” Harris says. “So we moved away from a single lead vocalist and started gravitating towards singing in unison, passing the melody around, or harmonizing in four parts through an entire song.” Live and on record, they present a unified voice by clustering around a single condenser microphone and blending their voices in the room before they hit the mic.
Darlingside assembled the songs that make up Birds Say over the past three years in their kitchens and living rooms, on cabin retreats, and while visiting each other’s childhood homes. They recorded at Dimension Sound Studios in Boston with engineer and co-producer Dan Cardinal during the city’s snowiest month in history, the streets empty due to travel bans.
Sparse notes from banjo, acoustic guitar, violin and grand piano punctuate the solemn “White Horses,” in keeping with the song’s themes of haunting nostalgia and bleak winter inertia. “Looking for a trace of our orchard underground / Growing in the basements beneath a brand new town,” Harris sings delicately while the others support him with high, mournful harmonies. Auyon, Dave, and Harris sing in unison to begin “The God of Loss,” a song that laments the inevitable clash of the narrator’s familial, cultural, and romantic loyalties. Auyon’s somber fiddle and the unadorned arrangement recall the isolated wail of an old Appalachian folk song, transplanted into a bed of churning guitars. “Harrison Ford” rides lightheartedly on an echoing hand percussion loop, goosed along by Don’s chattering banjo as he sings a lyric full of complex internal rhymes in a style that’s part vocalese, part sideshow spiel. The ensemble supplies bursts of fractured harmonies that mirror the action of the swordfight the speaker is having with a man who may, or may not, be Harrison Ford.
The title track “Birds Say” is a vocal tour de force, with layered nylon-string guitars, violin, and cello underpinning 12 multi-tracked voices that fill the sonic space with rich overtones and intertwining harmonies as they muse on the mysteries of communication and interconnection. Brittle synthesizer-like sounds from Auyon’s mandolin seamlessly mesh with acoustic and 12- string Danelectro guitars for the folk rock groove of “Go Back.” The arresting a cappella intro features all four voices lifted in harmonies that recall CSNY (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young). The propulsive music shifts under the vocalists, fervent as they attempt to untie the knots that connect past and future.
“We wrote this record thinking about our childhoods, our transition into adulthood together, and the complexities of life that we all have to grapple with now,” Don says. Lyrically and musically, the band will follow a song wherever it takes them. “We don’t really think about genre,” Auyon observes. “We don’t see any limits except ‘no jazz,’ because none of us know how to play it.” And yet the band’s close harmonies and carefully crafted arrangements do occasionally spill into loose free-form outros, surreal dream spaces, and textural experimentation. “We started dipping into some psychedelic sounds with Dan,” says Harris, “re-amping our group vocals through a rotating organ speaker to give them a melting, wavering Doppler effect, or pushing an instrument through an Echoplex tape delay, which can make an acoustic guitar sound like a spaceship taking off.” Amid unexpected soundscapes, the songs remain familiar, looking backward and forward at the same time.
The members of Darlingside met at Williams College in western Massachusetts. “Auyon and I were paired as freshman year roommates,” Dave recalls. “We fought often, but we spent so much time together that we very quickly became like brothers.” They joined a singing group with Don, and Harris joined the same group two years later. From there, the four bonded over a shared interest in songwriting, despite a diversity of musical backgrounds and performance styles including chamber music, choral singing, Celtic session playing, and street busking. As soon as Harris, the youngest, graduated, the friends moved into a house on the Connecticut River in Hadley, MA. “We had ‘family dinners’ almost every night,” says Dave, “rotating cooking for one another, and we spent a lot of our free time out on a dilapidated houseboat that we called the ‘Shack Raft.’”
Darlingside first toured as a five-piece indie rock band with drums, but finding the right delicate balance of voices and instruments was a challenge early on. Then, in 2013, the band parted ways with their long-time friend and drummer. “In our first few shows without Sam, we felt naked,” says Auyon. Listening to the current quartet, you can hear fingers on strings, breathing in the singing, squeaks and pumps from a harmonium. The band now performs the songs the same way they practice and write them—seeing them live is like sitting in their living room. There are still vestiges of the rock format: electric guitar fuzz and ambient feedback creep into otherwise acoustic arrangements. But in the new format, voices and melody have shifted to the forefront—a shift that has become important to the band. Harris explains, “we try to write songs that exist out of the context we set them into, songs that can just be sung.”
After six years of playing together and a decade-plus of knowing each other, the band’s collaborative process has evolved side by side with their friendships. “We’ve become intimate with each other’s childhoods, families, fears, goals, insecurities and body odors,” Auyon notes. “That kind of closeness is typically limited to romantic relationships. It’s gotten to the point where we often mistake each other’s stories and memories for our own.” Birds Say is a patchwork of the artistic and personal visions of four equal songwriters—a mashup of their individual and collective experiences and dreams. “The process is so entangled,” Don says, “I sometimes can’t remember what I wrote, or what anyone else wrote. We don’t consider a song finished until we’re all satisfied with it. It may not be the fastest process, but we know that when we all agree on something, it’ll sound like us.”
PRAISE FOR BIRDS SAY
"the best harmonies in the business [...] inventive instrumentation and brilliant songwriting."
- PopDose, 12/20/2015
"Birds Say is a sonic gem to be envious of and is one of the great albums released this year"
- The Huffington Post, 9/18/15
"fresh, vital and organic [...] Darlingside balances retro and contemporary with discreet aplomb"
- American Songwriter, 9/18/15
"exquisitely-arranged, literary-minded, baroque folk-pop"
- NPR Music, 9/15/15
"locomotive folk-pop confections so richly executed it's hard to tell if it's one voice or 12"
- Rolling Stone, 9/15/15
"we couldn’t recommend listening to the [Birds Say] highly enough."
- Pop Matters, 9/14/15
DON MITCHELL's oldest memory (age 2) is of a colorful dragon kite that folded down into a can on his parents' sailboat 'Acacia.' More pertinently, he remembers growing up in rural Connecticut, where his musical training began as a boy alto in Chorus Angelicus and as a liberally-freckled cast member of such regional theater productions as "How to Eat Like a Child." Adolescence came and went in its unflattering way, leaving Don with a repository of skillz including guitar, juggling, and uncanny Dr. Claw impressions. At college, he studied songwriting, music theory, and animal tracking, each of which is indispensable to him now as his alter-ego Doug, the band's official Road Food Scout. Doug's greatest finds, which include a vegan/vegetarian buffet located inside a Hare Krishna Temple in Dallas and a toothsome kombucha bar-cum-sandwich shop in Richmond, are traditionally celebrated with hearty pats on the back and rousing cheers for "More Doug!"
A feeble child, young AUYON MUKHARJI's lack of athleticism and physical prowess prompted his parents to enroll him in music classes at the tender age of three in the hopes that he might one day be a well-rounded college applicant. He proceeded to play the violin at a mediocre level throughout his youth, drifting in and out of youth symphonies and orchestra summer camps. He began mixing with the wrong crowd in college, which inevitably led to a years-long stint of a cappella singing and frequent experimentation with the mandolin. Upon graduation, he traveled around the world for a year as a vagrant musician, studying folk music in Ireland, Brazil, and Turkey. Auyon has been referred to as "naïve, without financial wherewithal, and most probably very anxious to return home" in the LA Times, and as "an embarrassment and a hooligan" by his mother, Jyoti. He serves as the band's Director of Special Projects.
HARRIS PASELTINER has been playing cello classically since age 6. He has also played guitar self-taughtingly since sometime in high school. In his spare time, he enjoys playing Dave's bass, or the organ he discovered at the town dump, or his erhu, or Auyon's mandolin, or the organ that the band was given in Illinois, or perhaps Auyon's saz, or Don's banjo. As the old adage goes, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." Regarding music, Harris is like a horse that drinks substantial amounts of water whenever it is available. And regarding other things, Harris is often like a horse that is very thirsty and would you mind taking it back to the water, please? (Harris will also happily drink a pour-over, or scotch, or a nice pu-ehr if you were to lead him to one of those.)
As a child, DAVID SENFT would cry at the thought of going to college because he thought that singing was mandatory (his older cousins having all been in college singing groups). Young Dave preferred doodling in class, naming individual trees, and anything involving computers. His first website, at the age of 15, was devoted to the number 8. In college, Dave chose his extra-curricular activities based on which organizations seemed to need a new website, and wound up in a singing group after all. Soon after, he enrolled in a songwriting course with two friends, made a website for the class, and never looked back. Dave then spent two years after college as an itinerant street performer, and began learning bass when the band formed in 2009. If he’s not making music, or this website, he’s often found preparing breakfast, or looking for anything at all that might have been grass-fed.