“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.”