Darlingside’s Auyon Mukharji on process, performance and the magic of folk

Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 4:40pm

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Darlingside has always been a bright spot on the face of modern folk music. Starting out as a five-piece rock band out of Boston, Mass., the group narrowed down to four members and grew their sound into the stunning mix of influences and instrumentation that we hear today. Composed of multi-instrumentalists Auyon Mukharji, Don Mitchell, Dave Senft and Harris Paseltiner, the band has found a niche in the folk music scene, although their work covers a broad array of musical references and motifs. From their first studio record Pilot Machines, released in 2012, the group has never been easy to pin down, and this is the magic of their approach. They traverse sounds that stem from traditional folk to electronic experimentation with ease, building a colorful base from which they spin complex stories. Now touring their 2018 album Extralife and a recently-released EP, Darlingside has leaned into their multifaceted sound to create something new for the future.

Extralife itself is a magnum opus for the group, a response both to the times we live in and the realities of Trump-era America through an ornate lens. Yet, making a pseudo-protest album was not always the intention of Darlingside during the writing and recording process. I spoke to band member Auyon Mukharji about this process and much more in an interview this month, ahead of their performance this weekend at Ann Arbor’s historic folk venue The Ark. “We don’t do a lot of sort of like meta, big picture planning before we write a record,” Mukharji explained in a phone call with The Michigan Daily, “It’s more of a brain dump … for Extralife, at least, how we kind of evolved was to everyone getting in on ground level.”

“A person might come in with a lyric, or with a tune, and then everyone would have their favorite parts and work on them a little bit and then it would be all ripped apart as a group,” Mukharji elaborated, “It’s a very iterative process, so what we end up coming up with versus the end drafts of those lyrics is the result of our headspace.” On the origins of the album, the violinist explained that they came from many places, some harder to divine than others: “We come from a relatively similar place, we are very close friends and we’ve lived out a van for so many years together,” Mukharji said. “There are conversations we have, and concerns, and a lot of this was in the lead-up to the 2016 election, so we didn’t have a sort of overarching idea of what we wanted the record to be more than (the fact that) this is what came out of our heads.”

In addition to Extralife, Darlingside released a new EP in February titled Look Up and Fly Away,  a combination of songs leftover from the album’s writing process and some that had been around for a while. Either way, the collection of six songs has a significantly more uplifting tone than Extralife, serving as the yin to its yang in a complementary duo. “Our record-writing process, in the gross inefficiency of it, is that we start with 30 or so song ideas that we have to whittle down to 12,” Mukharji laughed. “Then we do a little bit of recording of all of them and then we’ll cut it down to 25,” he continued, “then they’re around half-finished, so we end up with bits and pieces of, kind of Frankensteined songs that are in different levels of disrepair.”

But this doesn’t mean that everything included on the EP was necessarily from Extralife, or that any song has a truly cemented beginning in time. “So the first song ideas, some of the freshest musical ideas, well some of the songs that made it on Extralife the album had been kicking around for about a decade, from a while back, some of them were ideas that came to us during the writing process,” Mukharji explained. “So the (songs on the) EP are from a similar variety, right, they’re a mix and match of different things that we ended up playing with.”

“In the wake of press stuff and Spotify, we need to have a steadier stream of music, and so not limiting ourselves to a full-length album is something that we’re (used to),” he continued. “We enjoyed that process with the last album we put out, after we released (our 2015 album) Birds Say, then we put out an EP called Whippoorwill, and it went great, so we thought we’d try the same trick!” This approach has worked well for Darlingside: In addition to providing more material for excited fans, they are able to integrate new music into their tour as they plan each performance. It’s a process that starts with the highly-produced music they create in the studio and boils down to a poignantly bare setup of the four around a microphone, weaving together their respective voices and instruments in a sea of sound.

Despite this stripped-down setup, the group is able to replicate some of the studio production with a synthesizer called a septovox, which can produce sounds all the way from “a sort of sweeping electric guitar sound,” Mukharji explained, to “Nintendo video game sounds, which is something that hit a very nostalgic spot.” This adds a modern edge to Darlingside’s folky sound, one that sets the group apart from many in their live performance. “There’s a lot of production on the album,” he continued, “so we do tour with the Septavox on stage, so you will hear those sounds happening, but definitely not all of them.”

The layered instrumentation Darlingside utilizes in their music can also pose a challenge when translating each song to a live setting. “We go, ‘well, how does this work?’ Like, well, we have Harris (Paseltiner) playing three things on this song, so we either need to get better at all of them or have him pick one, given that playing all of them is not an option because he’s limited by his two hands.” Instead, the group opts to pick and choose what is most important: “Maybe (we consider) this motif that was played on a trumpet, there’s a bunch of trumpet stuff on the record ― well, Dave (Senft) played the trumpet in eighth grade, but will he pick it up for a show? So, some of those lines I end up picking up on the violin,” Mukharji laughed.

The studio and live versions of each song serve a different purpose to the band, he explained. “The way we think about it is that the record is a piece of art that stands on its own, and those songs, the way we play those songs live are a different, evolving thing that might even change from the way we started to what we decided makes sense a year later,” he went on, “So they’re sort of complementary, as opposed to exact replicas, or at least that’s the philosophy that we’ve been espousing.”

The setting of folk shows also influence their approach to performance, as they create a more intimate space that is different from that of many other genres. “I guess,” Mukharji reflected, “there’s something very intimate about folk in terms of the live show … the amount of production that goes into our Americana folk record is immense, but when you come see the show, there are a couple microphone stands standing between us and the audience like a living room, and we really enjoy that tradition.” This offers an added power to their music, especially in light of its complex themes: “I think that that part of the folk tradition, the storytelling, living-room environment, is something that resonates with me and the other guys in a big way,” he continued, “I think there’s a human connection aspect to folk now that maybe makes it, especially with the live performance of it, that makes it unique in the music world, and it feels a little more like a conversation.”

As the group embarks on tour this year, they are already planning for the future of their creative process, specifically in relation to possible collaborations. In 2014, Darlingside collaborated with fellow folk songwriter Heather Maloney on a short EP, an experience that encouraged them to continue working with others. “One of my favorite ways to measure our career progress is to look at the people we’re getting to share the stage with … I don’t know what form it would take, whether it would be working on a song with another group, or getting some instrumental ideas, but yeah, collaboration is something that we’re into, trying to work that into the balance of work life and home life can be tricky sometimes, but it is definitely something we’re trying to do.”

Mukharji even let me in on plans for an upcoming collaboration for the band with musician Henry Jamison. “We’re huge fans of his stuff, so getting to do a little bit of work with him this summer, that’s something that we’re just penciling into the books,” he laughed, “if this makes it into the interview and it’s supposed to be a secret I’m excited to get in trouble with Henry, but we’ll see.” Whether the music with Jamison comes to fruition or not, Darlingside has established themselves as a force in the folk sphere, one that is not likely to stop growing anytime soon. Extralife is just one landmark in a series of ambitious releases, and audiences can only hope for more.

You can see Darlingside with Molly Parden at The Ark in Ann Arbor on April 14 at 7:30 p.m.