'In the past, we’ve written a large batch of songs, as many as 36, and whittled it down, often a stressful process with our energy spread thinly' How we made... Fish Pond Fish by Darlingside
Prolific indie-folkers Darlingside have released three albums in the last three years, bucking the usual two to three year album release cycle. We spoke to Harris Paseltiner about the making of Fish Pond Fish.
Hey guys, I hope you’re well.
Hello, and same to you. Thanks for chatting with us.
So, what started the process of making Fish Pond Fish?
Typically, we have a bunch of melodies kicking around between the four of us and we start to develop music first, lyrics second. But for this record, we decided to turn our usual process on its head, and spent a few months in Spring and Summer of 2019 writing lyrics together before pinning them down to song melodies. The four of us would meet around the dining room table at Dave’s house and free-write, give each other prompts, and pass around ideas like a game of telephone. At the end of each day, we’d dump all of the material into a shared Google document…a sort of shared-consciousness-archive, and eventually from this archive we began to develop songs.
How did you approach the studio process?
We planned to record in three two-week sessions at Tarquin Studios in Connecticut over the course of 6 months. In the past, we’ve written a large batch of songs (as many as 36 for the Extralife sessions) and whittled it down—often a stressful process with our energy spread thin across too many ideas. This time, we talked about “whittling up”: writing and focusing our full efforts on just a few songs, bringing those few songs into studio, recording them as close to completion as possible and mixing them for two weeks, and then moving on to the next batch. Think of it like recording three short EPs and then combining them into a full-length. However, the pandemic hit the week before we planned to go in for the third set of two weeks. We decided to complete the songs at home, each of us in separate houses on four separate home-studio setups as we quarantined. While this was challenging on a technical front, it led to some new bedroom-tracking experimentation…for instance, Auyon doubling the tapespeed and overdubbing many times over himself on violin and mandolin for a chirping effect on ‘Keep Coming Home’.
What roles do each of you take in the process, do you have a “leader”?
We work as a democracy of equal songwriters, so most tasks are incremental and shared from the start. Especially on this record, each of us needed to be technically proficient in recording and editing at home—both in the demo phase at the beginning, and also once the pandemic hit at the end. So all of us were writing songs, lyrics, arranging, performing, recording, editing, and involved closely in the mixing process (which took place over Zoom).
Do you have the songs written fully beforehand, or do you work on them in the studio?
It’s nice to go in with a roadmap but leave songs open to change. Sometimes the atmosphere of a song will shift dramatically because we fall in love with something quirky—a mellotron, or an old pump organ, or a new percussion idea that turns the feel around. For Fish Pond Fish, we began the songs as demos at home, then took the demos down to Tarquin Studios and filled them out there. Our producer Peter Katis had a binaural microphone head which could capture a stunningly accurate three-dimensional version of what we were playing. Many of the overdubs were experiments on the binaural head—for instance, playing a toy piano or a glockenspiel behind the head so that certain chimes and bells feel like they’re behind the listener in headphones.
Was that different this time round?
No, we generally like to go into studio with some basic playable arrangement of a song, even if it’s just a guitar, banjo, and vocal melody. But from there, leaving the door open for studio experimentation is an exciting part of the process for us…a song becomes a new collage of sounds discovered in a particular time, mood, and place.
What’s your process for writing songs?
This is constantly changing from song to song, since all four members write and arrange. Over the years, we’ve moved to sharing ideas with each other before they’re fully-formed…we have a pool of voice memos from members’ phones and a lyrics brainstorms archive. Sometimes it’s hard to tell who came up with what. All ideas become ‘public domain’ within the band. I’ve had to get comfortable with personal songs changing dramatically once refracted through three other people. A whole song might become a bridge for another song, or a whole lyrics draft might yield just one couplet in the final version.
Did you write things down or use voice memos?
We typically use voice memos and bedroom-tracked demos. A fun part of this album is that we built a lot of the studio recordings around home-recorded demos and memos. Rather than replay everything in studio, we kept the initial rough sketches we made intact, regardless of fidelity, if they felt right. On a song like ‘Keep Coming Home’, we fell in love with certain aspects of the voice memo which was taken in a green room in Albany…you can hear people talking in the background. In order to mimic this in the album-version of the track, Don walked around town with a portable binaural microphone pair to capture field recordings, including people talking, that we could mix behind the music.
How did you choose your producer?
We appreciated Peter’s ability to generate strong, propulsive mixes, even with acoustic instrumentation...a good example for me is The National’s ‘Boxer’. Peter’s palette is often heavier, darker than ours. Peter’s recording environment also felt comfortable to us: an old victorian house where we could live together while recording, cook in the kitchen, and record in the attic. I remember when we first visited the studio there was a sort of familiarity. We said it felt like we were back in a friend’s attic…like kids staying up playing Nintendo on a sleepover.
You must have done a bunch of interviews now, which song have you talked about least, and what do you want to tell us about it?
I haven’t talked much about ‘Mountain+Sea’, which is in the middle of Side B. We began recording this tune for our previous record, Extralife, and then shelved it for a while. When we came back to it, we were hunting for a good key to sing it in. Don picked up Dave’s son’s ukulele which was nearby, started plucking out the chords, and it sounded great. We then recorded a demo around this toy-like ukulele part and the song took off from there. It eventually changed into something entirely different when Auyon overdubbed (dozens of) violins…basically a small orchestra of Auyons gathered around a tiny ukulele.
What’s your process for choosing the final tracklist and order? And is the order important to you?
The sequence is definitely important to me, since I still prefer listening to full albums rather than playlists. The energy of the songs, tempos, and lyrical content take me on a journey when positioned in the correct order. For this album, we started dropping the songs into iTunes and playing around with the sequence a few weeks before mastering. Early on, we knew that ‘A Light On In The Dark’ would be a good closing track, both because it has a finality to it, and also because it felt slow and sluggish anywhere else. ‘February/Stars’ felt like a nice bright way to shift into Side B. ‘Woolgathering’ felt like a vignette that could welcome people into the album before the percussion of ‘Crystal Caving’. Usually, we don’t lock in on the sequence until the mastering deadline forces us to. In fact, the only way we ever get anything done is with an impending deadline…
What’s the best thing about the whole process?
It’s different for each album, but for this particular one, I think writing lyrics together for a few months before getting into arrangements was my favorite part. It felt open-ended, freeing…we weren’t trying to direct anything into a finished product. Just enjoying new ideas, sitting around the table together with coffee, talking about feelings and where we were in life. It was a breathing space after a few years of heavy touring…I look back on that time fondly.
And the worst?
For me, the most challenging part of the process is late in the mixing phase. This is a time when microscopic details start to mess with my mind, I can’t trust my ears anymore, and objectivity goes out the window. This is likely due to listening to the same song on repeat for hours and hours, often for weeks. I’ll become irrational and think everything sounds muffled and dark when really it’s bright and crisp, or vice versa. All the groove and rhythm is too loose…nope, now it’s all too tight. The brain-melt that can occur is very real, and it takes an emotional toll and can ripple into life outside of work. For this record, we were all in separate houses for mixing due to the pandemic and listening through different headphones…it made it much harder to get on the same page and to know when a song was ‘done’.
Which was the first song you wrote for the album?
The last song on the album, ‘A Light On In The Dark’, is the oldest idea that made it on. I have a voice memo dated July 26, 2016 when a small synthesizer, a Septavox (made by Critter & Guitari), arrived at my house. I pulled it out of the box and started to play around with arpeggiators, singing over them. Many of the electronic sounds from the Septavox eventually made it into arrangements on our previous record Extralife. ‘A Light On In The Dark’ was a melody snippet from that first day with the instrument. I’m glad it finally paired with lyrics from our writing sessions in 2019, including a certain line about ‘swimming with the fish pond fish’.