Inspirational Songs : The Musical World of Chris Darby

Chris Darby is one of the good ones. He’s a singer/songwriter in the real sense. By in the real sense what I mean is that there’s no hiding behind big productions and accompaniment of a full band. When he’s out there playing it’s just him and an acoustic guitar a good portion of the time. His songs and performance of those songs are raw and as in-the-now as it gets. And the songs themselves are, to my ears, what folk music should be. It’s song, it’s voice, and it’s intimacy with the listener.

That’s Chris Darby.

Mr. Darby is a Chigago-based musician. He’s been writing for years, which led to his full-length debut Cabin Songs last year. A collection of intimately woven tracks that kept things low key, poignant, and close to the heart. He is now readying a new record called Instructional Songs For Quality Living. I’ve heard it, and it’s great. I asked Chris if he wanted to talk about his life, music, and the new record. He was happy to.

J. Hubner: Hi Chris. So where did you grow up?

Chris Darby: I grew up on a farm in southern Missouri.

J. Hubner: What was that like?

Chris Darby: I had two brothers. We were homeschooled, so I didn’t have many friends as a child. We also didn’t own a television, and this was before the Internet was really much of a thing, so i spent a lot of my time reading books and writing stories.

J. Hubner: Did you have an imaginary friend out on the Missouri farm? I ask because I had a pretty vivid imagination as a kid and I did have an imaginary friend. His name was Martin.

Chris Darby:  I don’t remember a particular imaginary friend, but I had a very vivid imagination. My older brother and I would often make up entire worlds to play in during our playtime in the woods near the house. Recently I came across a book of stories I wrote when I was 7, which had some pretty silly concepts in it, and I just had to laugh. One of my favorite stories in there was about a group of talking valentines who decide to create a new valentine out of dough.

J. Hubner: I actually wrote a play in the 4th grade. It was called ‘The Birthday Party’. Nick Cave wasn’t involved, sadly. True Story. But back to you. When did you first get an interest in music?

Chris Darby: There was always music around the house, but I didn’t become an active listener until I was in my early teens. I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, but I began listening to the radio more intently, gravitating at first towards the oldies stations, since that was what I was familiar with, and then expanding from there. By the time I was in my mid-teens, I was very much into metal. I didn’t have a whole lot of money, so I would choose to record songs off the radio instead of going out and buying them.

J. Hubner: So what was the first album you bought with your own money?

Chris Darby: When I was 17, I took part in a week long program with the local church to help repair some houses in the Bootheel region of southern Missouri. One of the other people on that trip played ‘Paranoid Android’ from Radiohead’s OK Computer album. I had never heard music like that before, and my musical worldview quickly expanded. OK Computer was the first new album I bought with my own money. And the second album? Ted Nugent’s Spirit Of The Wild(laughs).

J. Hubner: The first album I bought with my own money was Ratt Out of the Cellar. The second was Twisted Sister Stay Hungry. It was the 80s and I was 10. Anyways, so did the Motor City Madman influence you to make your own music? When did you decide you wanted to play and write?

Chris Darby: I was 14 when I bought my first guitar and amp. The guitar was an Stinger Stratocaster electric, and the amp was a little Peavey practice amp. I still have both of them today. I think the grand total was less than $100 for both. It took a while for me to actually learn the instrument though, and I didn’t start writing songs seriously until I was 19 or 20.

J. Hubner: What was the name of your first band? Mine was Houdini Trio when I was either 20 or 21.

Chris Darby: I was 20 when I formed my first band in college. We were called ‘Formation Issue’.

J. Hubner: So from Formation Issue to folk music? When did the jump from metal music and Radiohead to folk music happen?

Chris Darby: My parents always listened to folk music growing up, so I had heard many of the songs from a young age. Bob Dylan was the first folk artist who really moved me to start exploring that world more. The first time I heard ‘Desolation Row’, I had no idea what it was about, but I knew it was profound, and I started examining the lyrics intently. That was either my first or second year in college. From there, I got more into artists like Joni Mitchell, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. When I started hearing artists like Elliott Smith and Conor Oberst, I realized that folk music was much more versatile than I had previously imagined, and was inspired to begin writing in that vein.

J. Hubner: My first exposure to your music was early this year, and with the album Cabin Songs. It’s a very intimate and personal record from the sound of it. Can you talk about that record a bit?

Chris Darby: I wrote bits and pieces of most of the songs for that record in the period between 2009 and 2013. In the summer of 2013, I was coming off of over a year of travels around the country, and I needed somewhere to go for a while to finish all the things I had been working on. I choose to go live and work in a cabin in Missouri that I had helped my Dad build several years back. This proved to be the ideal setting to both finish all the songs, and record them as well. The finished record comprises only a quarter of all the songs that I recorded for the album. The original idea was to have a series of four individual records that made up one central idea. The more I got into the project, the less that seemed feasible, both financially and thematically. So I picked the ones that most revolved around a similar theme, which is what makes up the record you hear today.

J. Hubner: You seem to have a heavy heart while living and playing these songs. The isolation of the recording process comes through in the music and your voice. 

Chris Darby: As you know, that theme revolves around personal loss. A lot of major personal events happened in the years leading up to making that record, and the songs that made the final cut reflect those changes. It’s definitely the most personal record I have ever made. I’m not someone who normally writes about things that hit so close to home. There are a couple of songs on there that I find almost impossible to play live. You could probably guess which ones, just by listening to it.

J. Hubner: “Darkest Days” and “And I Missed You” stand out for sure. I can only imagine how reliving those experiences on stage in front of an audience could be challenging.

Let’s talk about your recent tour of the US. How did that go?

Chris Darby: In April and May, I took a trip to Colorado to shoot a music video, and I played a few shows to cover the expenses for that trip. I didn’t consider that a formal tour though. My last real tour was last fall, when I played 50 shows in support of Cabin Songs. It was my most inspiring tour yet, in terms of audience reception.

J. Hubner: Do you prefer playing solo or full band? Both seem to have their advantages and disadvantages.

Chris Darby: Playing solo and playing in a band are two completely different experiences, and both have their benefits and drawbacks. My primary project before going solo was a band called Them Damn Kids. We were together from 2002-2011, and did several tours. Playing out solo a lot since then has helped me develop confidence in my own musical ability, since I don’t have anyone to fall back on if I make a mistake.

J. Hubner: Do you ever miss the band experience?

Chris Darby: I definitely miss the feeling of camaraderie that comes with playing with others on a nightly basis. On the other hand, touring for weeks on end is generally much easier to do solo, since I only have myself to consider. So I guess there are a lot of variables. I’ve toured with a lot of different people, between acts I’ve opened for and musicians who play with me. I think it really just comes down to who my tourmates are, and how well we get along, as to how enjoyable it is to travel together.

J. Hubner: You are readying a new record called ‘Instructional Songs For Quality Living’. I’ve heard it and it’s a wonderful album. They are original songs that to my ears sound like traditional folk songs. Songs that have been around for years and years. Well worn tunes. Tell me about the writing and recording process for this new album. It came along rather quickly.

Chris Darby: I really appreciate that compliment John! I had wondered if it was just me, or if I had actually managed to write a few songs that give that experience. There are some songs out there which cause me to ponder what the world was like before they existed. They just feel like they have been around forever. It’s always been a goal of mine to be able to write at least one song like that, so I’m honored to hear that some of these songs come across that way to you.

J. Hubner: They most definitely do. What was the writing process like this time around?

Chris Darby: The writing process for this one actually came out of some of the songs that didn’t make the cut for ‘Cabin Songs’. As I mentioned earlier, there was a certain theme that developed for that record. The more that theme became prominent in the selection process, the less these songs seemed to fit with it. So as I decided against them, I put them in separate categories; ideas for future records. The most prominent secondary theme that developed was the one that makes up the new album. Once I had the template in place, the rest of the songs came along quickly. Before I even released Cabin Songs, I already had the next record written, which made it easy to go into the studio just a couple of months after I finished touring for the first record.

J. Hubner: That explains the quick turnaround between Cabin Songs and Instruction Songs For Quality Living. You didn’t go off to a cabin in the woods this time around, though. What was the record process like this time?

Chris Darby: The recording process took place over the course of a day. I met up with two friends to accompany me: Andru Bemis and Charles Murphy. Both are fantastic songwriters and performers in their own right. We did the whole thing live, without overdubs. I’ve never been 100% comfortable with the standard way of recording a song, where every track is recorded separately. There are so many advantages to doing it that way, chiefly for re-recording mistakes. But for me personally, I’ve never been able to capture the energy of my live performance by recording that way. Because this group of recordings felt so special to me, I wanted to make sure we got the recording right.

J. Hubner: This record almost feels like advice being given to someone dealing with the issues of the last record. ‘Cabin Songs’ was getting those heartaches off your chest, and ‘Instructional Songs’ is learning to move on and cope. I think the immediacy of live recording is a huge part of what makes these songs so special.

Chris Darby: These are inspirational songs, and I wanted to be able to communicate inspiration through them, which feels much more natural when everyone is playing together. So the three of us got together in Chicago, rehearsed our parts, and went into the studio. In fact, we were still figuring out certain structural ideas while the engineer was setting everything up at the beginning of the session! We didn’t do more than three takes for any of the songs, which made me a bit nervous. When I listened back to the songs though, I realized I had no cause for alarm.

J. Hubner: If I remember correctly, you were originally going to crowd fund this album but didn’t. What happened with that?

Chris Darby: It came down to two things. I didn’t have a good plan in place for a successful campaign, and I’m still not completely comfortable with the idea of crowdfunding. I love the old DIY model, where bands would work from the ground up, saving money from live shows in order to release their first record, and then saving money from that release in order to pay for the next one. And so on. It’s much harder to do things that way, but I do find a lot of value in it. I contribute to crowdfunding campaigns. My old band even did one when we were a little short on cash, in order to release our last record in a way we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. But in general, I’m just not sure how sustainable of a financial model it is.

J. Hubner: I see the value in it, but I tend to agree with you in regards to bands saving their earnings and pouring it into their next record. To me that has always been how you do it. I’m a home recording guy, so I’d just as soon invest in some equipment and do it myself. Though, I’m old and crusty.

Chris Darby: Time will tell, I suppose. For this record, I had started a campaign, but it was so poorly thought out and organized. I didn’t feel like I was putting a good first step forward, so I canceled it after a few days. I had several letters of protest after I did this, because some people had intended to donate but just not gotten to it yet. So I felt a little uneasy about that for a while. In the end, I feel that I made the right decision, and I stand by it.

J. Hubner: I think you made the right decision as well. The proof is in the album. Do you have a tour planned to promote the record?

Chris Darby: I will be touring for about a month around the Midwest and east coast in support of this album. At this point, it looks like I will have about 25 dates.

J. Hubner: Are there any spots you’d love to hit that you haven’t yet?

Chris Darby: I’ve played in 42 states so far, so I’ve covered most of the continental U.S. I would love to do some shows in Alaska or Mexico City. Or anywhere that I would have to fly to get to. Maybe a show on a remote island in the South Pacific? I could get into that.

J. Hubner: Remote island in the South Pacific? Now you’re talking. I’d be happy to carry your bags on that tour. So on this tour, what albums or books would you be taking with you? What have you heard or read recently that you’ve dug?

Chris Darby: The last release I bought was an EP from a band called Low Hill. It’s the new project of the frontman for the now defunct Honest Engines, who were my #1 favorite band in Chicago at one point. The last album I bought from a well known artist was the new Damien Rice album, which I completely fell in love with. I think it’s his best work to date. The last book I read was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. I read that in less than 24 hours. It was incredibly engaging and poetic. I’ve rarely read a book that I enjoyed as much as that one, which might sound odd, considering the devastating nature of the story. But all the same, it kept me enthralled for the entirety, which almost never happens when I read something, even though I enjoy reading a great deal.

J. Hubner: ‘The Road’ is some heavy stuff. Very poetic, but extremely hard at times. So what is planned for Chris Darby for the remainder of 2015?

Chris Darby: After the release tour, I think I’m going to head to California for a few weeks to spend some time with my Grandma. She’s turning 90 in October! As for the rest of the future, I’m sure there will be music and adventure in there somewhere, but I have no specific plans to share at this moment. I will just have to see where life takes me!

Life should take you, dear readers, over to Chris’ Bandcamp page right here so you can check out Mr. Darby’s wonderful musical world. Keep up with Chris and his musical happenings(and that tour he talked about) over at his website right here.

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