A few winters ago, I was just starting to get used to my new life in Troy after moving there from New York City. I’d spent almost 14 years down in the city (five years in Queens, nine in Brooklyn), and though I’d grown up in nearby Saratoga Springs, I didn’t really have any friends up here anymore, and prospects were looking pretty bleak (it’s hard making friends in your mid 30s). I was also five years into the hermetic lifestyle of a freelance writer, working all day out of my home office, hardly ever seeing the light of day. One cold, snowy evening, I was driving home from the gym or the supermarket or some other inane activity—I can’t remember the exact details—with 97.7 WEXT on the dial in my Honda Fit. Stopped at a red light just before the turnoff to my house, the station began playing this song, “White Horses,” by a band called Darlingside, and I was immediately enthralled (listen below). A huge Byrds, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel and José González fan, I was sucked in by the harmonies and sparse arrangements. Darlingside’s music fit snugly into my preferred catalog. As soon as I got home, I picked up my laptop, opened Spotify and went for a musical journey through their work. I’d just found my new favorite band.
As luck would have it, the band was performing at Albany’s The Egg in December 2017, and I bought two tickets—one for me, one for my wife (I love getting her into the bands I discover)—many months in advance. In the meantime, I had been obsessively listening to the band’s 2015 album, Birds Say. (I’m the type that gets hooked on a single album or song, and just listens to it a thousand times.) When I finally found myself in the audience of the show, my wife next to me, I was amazed to find that the band not only nailed the sound they’d produced in the studio on the record—but also that their set-up, four guys playing instruments and singing around one mic—really worked. How the hell had I missed this band that had been around since 2010?
For those unfamiliar with Darlingside, the band formed at Williams College, where the members—at that point, Harris Paseltiner (guitar/cello/vocals), David Senft (bass/vocals), Auyon Mukharji (mandolin/violin/vocals), Don Mitchell (guitar/banjo/vocals) and Sam Kapala (drums)—met in the campus a cappella group, the Williams Octet. Paseltiner tells me that he actually wasn’t a singer before coming to Williams, but freshman year, was sitting outside jamming on his guitar, when a group of guys walked by and invited him to join another session across the quad. “It turned out that pretty much all of those guys were in the a cappella group I ended up joining,” says Paseltiner. By the time the five had graduated in 2009, they had a lineup in place—and no exit strategy; they were in it for the long haul, with the full support of their families, says Paseltiner. The following year, they produced a six-song, untitled EP, followed by a self-released, full-length debut in 2012, Pilot Machines, which has the multipart, harmonic sensibility of an a cappella group within the context of folk-pop band. There’s even a hint of what was to come on there—an early version of “The Ancestor,” which turned up in a more stripped-down mode on 2015’s Birds Say, the band’s breakthrough album.
Kapala would leave the band in 2013—it was an amicable split; Paseltiner says he and his bandmates are still close with him—leaving a void in the skinsmanship department. But instead of finding a new drummer, the band just went on without one, putting more of an emphasis on their multi-instrumental capabilities and the ethereal blend of their four voices. (Senft’s, in particular, has a natural end-of-phrase vibrato to it that can’t be taught in any singing class or by any instructor; he’s also picked up the kick-drum, about as close to a drummer as the band has gotten since Kapala’s departure.) Darlingside’s current sound is like little you hear on the radio today: just four, almost whispery vocals that harmonize in a sonic latticework that evokes the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys. It’s the pop equivalent to a chamber orchestra accompanying a choir in a dusty, old cathedral. And somewhat unbelievably, the band of four writes all their songs together, democratically, each member bringing in song ideas and the rest of the band completing them. “As we moved more towards communal harmony and unison singing, it started to feel like each song should be more of a representation of each member of the band rather than one person’s viewpoint,” Paseltiner says of the band’s songwriting process. “When we sing the words, we all feel that the words apply to each of us individually.”
This year, Darlingside followed up Birds Say with a giant leap forward of an album, sonically. The futuristic-sounding Extralife includes Darlingside’s new honorary “fifth” member of the band: a mini, pitch-shifting keyboard, which Mitchell manipulates on songs such as “Eschaton” and “The Best of the Best of Times.” Paseltiner says the germ of the idea for the former song came from the dystopian, end-of-days game played on a tennis court by characters in the late David Foster Wallace’s tome, Infinite Jest (Wallace did a pair of residencies at Yaddo and famously played tennis there with fellow writer Jay McInerney). The lyrical content of the album also has a “science fictional” quality to it (to swipe a lyric from Darlingside’s “The Ancestor”), with songs talking of a post-mushroom-cloud world that’s “flattened out” (“Extralife”), humans that are walked by their dogs (“Futures”) and maybe the most upbeat song you’ll ever hear about how sh*tty life is right now (“Best of the Best of Times”). In terms of inspirations, Paseltiner says the band had been listening to a lot of The Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions at the time immediately prior to writing and recording Extralife. “What I particularly enjoy about Smile Sessions is that a lot of the songs, since they were unfinished, came across like vignettes, like these textural experiments that would shift one into the next,” he says. “It gave us the freedom to feel like we could try on a lot of different sounds.”
So when can you catch this incredible new band? On June 17, actually. Darlingside will be rolling into Saratoga for a pair of high-profile shows, one at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (via the Gazebo Stage series), which will be free, the other later that evening at Caffè Lena, which won’t be. As Paseltiner notes, the band has played Caffè Lena multiple times, referring to it a “great listening room” and supporter of young bands. The band also has more than just your average Saratoga and Capital Region connection: Senft’s parents, Dexter and Deborah, relocated to Saratoga several years ago, and are active in the arts scene. In fact, says Paseltiner, Darlingside has spent quite a bit of time writing up in Lake George, where the Senfts own property. “A lot of the songs that ended up on our record Birds Say were written in Lake George,” he says. Specifically, “White Horses” (the first song Darlingside song I ever heard) and “My Gal, My Guy” (another favorite track from the album).
After their pair of dates in Saratoga, the band will begin to appear on the summer festival circuit, including at the famed Newport Folk Festival (where Bob Dylan, who played Caffè Lena all those years ago, made a few big splashes of his own). Needless to say, do yourself a favor and start listening to Darlingside yesterday. Thank me later.