On the eve of her latest album release, we catch up with a country singer-songwriter who is chasing her dreams
One of the most memorable moments of our 2015 trip to Nashville was being able to see a show at the Grand Ole Opry. For the history, the spectacle of the room itself and the quality of music, there’s nothing quite like it. One of the standout performers that night was singer-songwriter Sarah Darling, and we’ve been following her career eagerly ever since.
Next month sees the release of Darling’s highly anticipated new album, Dream Country, and though the record has its roots firmly in Music City there is a distinctive sound to it which suggests that her influences come from much further afield. In December, during an unseasonably snowy Nashville morning, we caught up with Sarah to discuss this upcoming release…
Dream Country doesn’t strike us a typical Nashville album, there seem to be a lot of different influences and a French vibe on tracks like Montmartre?
“Absolutely, it’s an interesting story. I’ve been in music for a while here in Nashville and the last two albums that I released were more commercial country albums. I had always dreamed about making the record Dream Country, I’d always had this idea in my mind of what I wanted to do and how I wanted it to sound. That’s just a product of me being exactly me and experimenting and doing all the things that I love. A lot of the song subjects, including Montmartre, are not traditional country subjects for sure. I kind came up with the concept of Dream Country because it’s a world that I created and that I love to sing about. I come from country music and it’s just my version of the genre and it was fun to be able to do that.”
How much have your own l travels helped to shape that sound?
“I believe it had such a big importance. My husband is from England and even though he has moved to Nashville now, I’ve been over there many times and we’ve got to see places that I never thought I would. I think being able to travel and see more of the world does influence your songwriting. There’s also a common thread in that I talk about stars a lot and there’s definitely this aspect of chasing a dream. I think that’s universal and it’s the general subject of my album. It’s an album for anyone who wants to do something and is chasing their dream.”
Does it feel like a new beginning for you?
“It does, I’m the type of person who thinks that everything you do is part of your journey. I’ve learned so much over the last several years when releasing Home To Me and Little Umbrellas and the other songs that I’ve put out. It’s definitely a departure from that and I had this feeling that some people would say ‘this is very different for her.’ And you know what, they have, but they’ve also said they like it better and it feels like where I’ve always belonged, which is quite cool to hear because there’s so much of me in the music.”
Was it easy or nerve-wracking to have so much of yourself in there?
“It is quite nerve-wracking but at the same time, as a musician, there’s something so fulfilling about doing exactly what you want to do and it’s quite hard in the music business to be able to have that chance. I think there’s always a lot of people saying ‘you should do this,’ and ‘this works for radio.’ I just didn’t have any of that, which was a blessing in disguise. For example, I really wanted strings on the album and the album is filled with them.
“It’s been really exciting, I performed at Country To Country in the UK last March and it was such an amazing reception that I decided to book a tour with a friend of mine Jenn Bostic. What was interesting was that it didn’t feel like I was being different, it just felt like I was a country singer. The audience loved the music, that’s why I love coming to play the UK. The reception to the stories that I’m singing about is so great.”
The country scene has definitely exploded over here…
“I think here in the US, someone would hear my album and say it’s not super-traditional country but it doesn’t matter as much in the UK. It is country and there aren’t many lines, which I like. It’s a little bit more open and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
How many of the songs on the album did you write?
“I wrote seven of the ten tracks, which was really cool. There’s a couple of standouts for me, I love Halley’s Comet, that’s a song that I wrote that’s very much an autobiographical track and is actually going to be my first single. It’s just a really sweet song about remembering why you love something and the idea of chasing a dream and knowing that you’re going to find a place to shine. Where Cowboys Ride is quite close to my heart as well. I’ve got to travel many places but Wyoming is one of my all-time favourite places to go because it’s so beautiful. Where Cowboys Ride is written about that experience of going there and how it’s affected my life. Those are a couple of standout tracks for me.”
How do the songs that you didn’t write fit in with the album?
“I didn’t write Stargazer but there’s an amazing story behind it. I had actually finished the album and there were nine songs, Stargazer was not on there. We were at the very end of my album, I was just getting ready to master it and my producer, Larissa Maestro, sends me this song at two in the morning saying ‘you need to cut this song, it’s is made for you.’ A mutual friend of ours called Jesse Terry wrote it. I heard it and was like ‘yes, I have to record this,’ and so two days later we go and cut it live and it’s basically a one-pass vocal with guitar and it turned out like magic, so it was meant to be.”
Is there a story behind your decision to cover The Smiths’ Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want?
“I was in the UK the very first time I heard it and the words just got me emotionally. As a musician wanting this amazing career, which I do have, it just felt like we could all relate to that song and if I could do it in a way that was obviously different and complimented the original it would reach people. It totally relates to me and what I’m doing in my life and the words just struck me.
“I only got introduced to them a few years back, I didn’t get to grow up on them. What has been quite fun about being married to an Englishman is that he’s opened my mind to so many different musicians. I really love The Smiths, I love their stories and where they come from.”
How about artists that you’ve introduced him to?
“I’ve introduced him to Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton. In fact I just started pushing Sturgill Simpson on him this week. It’s fun to share with him. When I really started loving country music was when Shania Twain hit the airwaves. That was such a big time for women in country music and I was like, ‘that’s what I want to do, I want to be like Shania Twain!’”
How do you tend to approach your own writing?
“The seven tracks are all co-writes. The co-writing thing is a very Nashville thing. I love it because there’s just so much collaboration. I do like to write by myself but I find that I co-write more than I write by myself.”
The co-writing process is something we find quite fascinating…
“It’s so interesting, as a songwriter I tend to get song ideas at the most inopportune times, which is funny. It’s always that I’m in the car and something will occur to me or I’ll hear a song in my head. I’m more of a melodic person and a big idea person. I tend to write best with people who I’ve written with before. I find that if you’re writing with someone brand new it can be magic, or it might not be magic. It’s really down to the chemistry of the writers. I’ve worked with people where I’ll sit in a room with them and we’ll write something brilliant in two hours and it was so easy and so open. Other times, it can be really hard and painful if it’s not a good blend.
“I think there is some truth in writing partners. There are writers that always write together because they have this amazing chemistry and that’s a little bit like how I like to work as well. I’ve written most of the songs on my album with really good friends of mine, so it was just kind of fun to be so open and I think you write better songs that way.”
Who are some of the writers you’ve most enjoyed working with?
“I wrote the track Anchor that with Sam Palladio from the show Nashville and Tyler Flowers. It was kind of fun, we’ve been friends in Nashville since he started the show and we wrote Anchor together when he was missing Cornwall. I think that Montmartre is such a gorgeous song, I hope it makes it onto a movie one day and I wrote that with my best friend Jenn Bostic, she knows my love for Paris so being able to get that song out was incredible.”
Do you think having that trust between you makes the writing easier?
“It really does, but I’m completely open to writing with new people. In fact I’d say that it’s quite important, but it’s funny how you find the connections. It’s all about connecting.”
Have you ever walked away from a writing session without having come up with a song?
“Yes, absolutely. A half of a song sometimes, which is always tough.”
Do you have any dream co-writers?
“One dream situation I did get to have, but I want to write with him again, is Shane McAnally. I love writing with him. I have this dream of writing with Dolly Parton and I really want to write with Chris Martin from Coldplay. There’s a wide range, but those two are amazing.”
How much do you plan the steps your career follows?
“I think it’s organic. The next album after this will be a growth from Dream Country and I think that’s kind of fun. It’s been really exciting to plan the release of Dream Country and create a world. If you go on my social media you’ll see that it’s an experience. I think it’s going to be exciting to go out on tour, I’ll be coming to the UK in May.”
Which part of writing, recording and performing do you enjoy the most?
“I’m very much a seasonal person but because I’ve just made this project I love them all equally. I love writing, if I haven’t written in a while it feels quite wrong and songwriting is a big part of who I am, and performing is too. I love performing and connecting with people. I really do like all of the processes equally as much.”
Do you have any practical tips for an aspiring songwriter?
“Yes, my advice is to always be yourself. I see a lot of artists chasing whatever might be current, trying to write a song that sounds like something else. I think it’s cool when somebody writes something really unique which is straight from the heart. Those are the songs that connect and that’s always my biggest advice. It’s advice for myself too, a constant reminder to not be afraid to say how you feel. When you sing you want those words to go straight to somebody’s heart and you want to be able to tell that story truthfully.”
Dream Country feels like it is you doing just that…
“Exactly right and I always tell people that it was really therapeutic for me to write the album and to be able to put this out because a lot of these songs are written as little stories to myself, like Starry Eyes. Those songs are therapy for me but other people are going to hear them and hopefully say ‘I feel that way too.’
“Being able to release music in the UK has been a big part of my dream for the album. I want it to be more universal. I want the album to connect bigger and for people from all parts of the world to be able to relate to the stories, rather than just in Nashville. It all comes back to the universal idea of dreaming.”
Interview: Duncan Haskell
Sarah Darling’s single Halley’s Comet is coming out 27 January and the album Dream Country is released 10 February. For further information about the album and tour dates, check out sarahdarling.com