"The fact that writing and recording songs is our job is still hard to believe" How we made... Extralife. By Darlingside
Hey guys, thanks so much for talking about your album. What started the process of making your new record?
We’d been stockpiling song ideas for a long time (generating new song ideas is the easy part for us and happens basically all the time), but touring on the previous album had been heavy enough that we hadn’t had a chance to really finish much of anything. Eventually we had to pin down some studio dates in spring 2017 and give ourselves a hard deadline and that’s when it felt like the album really started to take shape.
Where did you record the album? And why did you choose to record there?
The Birds Say recording sessions were our first at Dimension Sound (in Jamaica Plain, Boston, MA) and we felt like we’d really arrived at a good working process there just as we were wrapping up. So we’d had it in our minds during the intervening years that we wanted to get back in there for another go-around. Being able to dive right in knowing what was where, who did what, and how it all worked was pretty excellent.
What impact has that had on the finished album?
Working with Dan Cardinal and Ariel Bernstein is a very fluid dynamic and they helped us to realize all our ideas (no matter how ill-advised) and then figure out which ones were gonna stick and which weren’t. We recorded this one in summertime but we’d written many of the lyrics the previous winter. So maybe that explains how some of the dark, heavy topics we approached which were sometimes presented with a warm, airy sound.
How do you approach the studio process?
We usually start with an instrumental bed for the song. So we’ll hit the studio first thing in the morning, keeping it simple and making sure we get into the right headspace to lay out the groundwork for the rest of the tune to ride on. Then once we have a take or two we’re pretty confident about we’ll do “chance takes” which is, perhaps needless to say, where we take more chances! Then we go in and start singing and layer up from there as needed.
Do you have the songs written fully beforehand, or do you work on them in the studio?
This album was the furthest we’ve ever gone in the latter direction. We had written most of the songs (minus a few last-minute lyric decisions) but we didn’t fully know how to present any of them until we got to the studio and started doing it!
What’s your process for writing songs?
We throw everything at the wall and we never throw away ideas for good. So we have now an enormous bank of ideas that keep coming back in new forms hoping to find their way into the latest batch. And all four of us just keep adding to it year after year. That goes for lyrical ideas as well as melodic and chordal ones.
How do you construct your song? Do the lyrics or music come first?
We approach it both ways, but music-first is more common I’d say. Often we’ll find lyrics we start writing with one tune in mind become applicable to a totally different song though, so it’s all a bit of a jumble.
Do you write things down or use voice memos?
We typically use voice memos for the musical development, at every stage from humming the first whisper of the melody to spelling out a four-part harmony or string arrangement. We use shared text documents for the lyrics once we have a draft up and running (before that it’s usually classic pen on paper for the brainstorming phase).
How different was the process for Extralife compared to your normal approach?
Our four-way co-writing process keeps deepening and for this album we’d been on the road for so long that we pretty much had no finished songs a few months leading up to the recording dates we’d booked. So we had to start wrapping up lyrics while on tour for the first time, stealing moments before shows and setting long coffee shop dates on off-days. Because everything had to come together so quickly I think this one has a little more narrative arc than our previous works, in that all the songs came of age at the same time (and a tumultuous time it was, back home in the US and also abroad in the UK where we were doing most of our touring at the time).
How do you choose a producer?
We originally chose Dan having heard great things from a bunch of mutual friends in the Boston area. Second time around, we were just excited to squeeze in more studio days to get experimental with him!
What’s your process for choosing the final tracklist and order? And is the order important to you?
The order is definitely important to us, and we didn’t decide on exactly songs would be on the album until we started sequencing the tracks. From there, we had a couple of competing drafts that we sat with for a few days and this is just the one that felt like it flowed best and painted the right picture. We usually don’t talk about the sequence while we’re writing/recording and just focus on making each song what it needs to be on its own terms. There are definitely only certain songs that we feel can lead an album or close it out and I’m sure we all privately had our thoughts as the songs started to take shape.
When do you know what the first single (or song to radio) will be?
We decided on advance tracks maybe a month after wrapping up the record. We got some quick reactions from our team, our family and friends, and decided to put out a song that felt thematically at the center of the record and also hinted at some of the more forward-looking sounds we were using on the album (like that weird arpeggiating synth on 'Eschaton').
What’s the best thing about the whole process?
The fact that writing and recording songs is our job is still hard to believe. I think my favorite part is getting to tinker with sounds and phrases and then still being utterly surprised with where the final product ends up.
And the worst?
The worst part was when Auyon tried to make squid for dinner using a George Forman grill and our windowless studio smelled like that for a whole week (including at least one night when Harris and I worked so late we actually slept the night there). Also, the worst part is always when you have to cut songs that you’re excited about so that there’s enough time and love for the rest of them. We’ll get back to those ones someday, though!
What’s the biggest difference between your approach to this album and your debut?
On Birds Say we were exploring a kind of collective memory, looking back on our childhoods and generally everything leading up to that point in time. For Extralife the dramatic, polarizing elections and catastrophic weather and everything going on around us in the here-and-now really pulled the album into a more vexing, difficult forward-looking space. Our approach for the recording was to dive into that anxiety and discord by getting more spacey and experimental, embracing some edgier sounds, and also incorporating more spontaneous moments into the arrangements. We spent a whole lot of hours with the four of us singing improvised vocal textures around the mic (see especially 'Orion', 'Indian Orchard Road', and 'The Rabbit And The Pointed Gun'). I think there’s an immediacy to those vocal sounds that helped tie the soundscapes to the more forward-looking lyrics.
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Extralife is available to buy or stream now, our Tidal stream is below.