Tim Darcy: "Part of the purpose of this project was to feel my centre and have it be very attached to my name. It feels like my record and I'm really happy with that."
Tim Darcy is best known for being the fierce focal point of post-punk outfit Ought, but this week he’s releasing his debut solo album under his own name. Saturday Night sees Darcy expressing a more pensive and tender side of his intellect, rendered magnificently through additional instrumentation and studio wizardry.
We caught up with Darcy on a freezing January morning in Shoreditch, to have coffee and discuss the album. We talked about the emergence of these solo works and their evolution to the final product, as well as poetry, playing live, and the future with Ought.
Let's start with the obvious questions; where did this album come from, how did it come about?
Well it was around the same time that Ought was making Sun Coming Down, and I had two friends in Toronto who had put out an offer that if I ever wanted to do a track or something like that, they had access to the studio after hours. I didn't immediately jump on it, but I had been feeling this desire for a while to revisit some old songs of mine and combine them with some newer material. At first I was thinking about not doing it, just because the idea of switching headspaces seemed too significant at that moment, because we were full-on working on Sun Coming Down. They were just like "let's just go and have fun and put up some stuff," and they convinced me to go through with it on the first day. And then once we were in there everything was immediately feeling so good, and sounding great, so we decided to expand it and kept coming back five or six times over a six month period. And we ended up with a record.
It was done in blocks then, in a way. It doesn't feel like that, it feels like a smooth singular piece. What form were the old songs in before the studio?
I had so many little four-track recordings that I did just me and a guitar and some effects pedals; sometimes a drum machine. I had those as a kind of reference point. For example 'Saint Germain' is the oldest song that made it onto the record, and I had always had trouble recording that, doing a version of that that I was happy with, and we also had trouble re-recording it. In the end though that's one my favourites, and I'm proud of how we were able to re-do it.
What was the trouble with it?
I don't know I think it's something about having had strong experiences playing it live, but not quite seeing that reflected in the recording; like when you don't see yourself in a photograph of yourself - know what I mean?
Have you had that same trouble with other solo songs - or with Ought?
Less so with Ought because with Ought we write everything together and to differing degrees continue to construct the songs in the studio. Whereas with this song I had a strong idea of how good I thought it was, and then to listen to the recording and be like "OK is the song not good? Or did we just not get it?" Especially with a simple song, the spices have to be just right. By the end I was really happy with how it came out.
Who else plays on the album, or is it mostly you?
It is mostly me, but my friend Charlotte plays drums on the whole record and she plays piano on the last song - she's gonna be in the live band. That was a very kismet connection because I called her up just after I'd got confirmation from the people in Toronto that we were going to record, and I was like "Charlotte, I'm looking for somebody to drum on some solo songs of mine," and she's a very chilled person - if I had had this experience I'd have freaked out - she was like "man that's crazy, I was just saying to a friend of mine that I would love to drum on Tim's solo stuff." And I thought, well that's crazy.
Did she even know you were making solo stuff?
That's why I reached out to her, because she had been a supporter of the solo stuff I'd done back in Montreal, when she lived there. So we had a connection over that stuff and it just worked out perfectly. The band ended up being a very tight group of people to make a record with. Because Amy and Ross, who recorded and produced it, were very hands-on with explaining different textures and things like that. I had been in such a particular vain for the last two years and to be able to do it all in a very concise period, but also without limitations, it was really good for me. There was no end goal of getting it released or anything like that. We had time to try out all these different amps and guitar tones. It was just exactly what I needed at that moment creatively, and it also gives the record the charm that it has.
Let's talk about Saturday Night - what is special about Saturday night as a time of the week? It reminds me of your lyric from 'Beautiful Blue Sky' about "I am no longer afraid to dance tonight, because that is all that I have left" - it seems like a moment or time of freedom.
Yeah, I guess artistically I am just very attracted to that idea. I think it's about different types of freedom, and there like an almost hedonistic freedom that is, at its most pure, is more about just feeling that clean warmth of being around other people, whether it's at a concert or you're just next to a fire with some friends, or you're dancing. That is in the idea of 'Saturday Night' [the song] a little bit, but the atmosphere of that song in particular. That was the one that was totally done in studio - no prior composition - and they were words that I'd had. I had a poem called 'Saturday Night', and I kind of riffed off of that with these other words that didn't feel quite like they were part of the poem, and they just jumped out as something that could be tried to be sung. So that song felt very much like it was a product of those sessions, those nights and weekends when we would go in - it was a little spine tingly when it happened. Also, it's not like the heart of the record, but it's definitely like the act turn.
I was going to say, that is where the tone takes a dramatic shift on the record. I was going to ask you if there was a purposeful arc on the record, because it definitely feels like there is, with 'Saturday Night' as the turning point.
Yeah and I always envisioned it - this might be a bit hokey or whatever - but that at the start of the record you're at a party or something like that and then you kind of slowly start walking off into the woods, and then by the end it's a Saturday night where you're just alone in the middle of a field or something like that.
I definitely get that.
I was also surprised to hear your voice being distorted and echoing a lot on this album, considering you're possibly best known for your lyrics. You've got an instrumental track on here too. What was the thinking behind all that?
Part of it was experimentation with different tones. A lot of it was Ross and Amy trying different stuff out, and me just being into the overall vibe of how it sounded. I hope the lyrics aren't obscured. There is also - compared to Ought - a more poetic lyricism at work.
Can you separate your Ought lyrics and solo lyrics quite easily - is there a defining line between them?
I think I can define them now, just as a response. I have had interviews where people are like "this record is way more cryptic," and I was really blindsided by that because cryptic is such a strong word - I wouldn't go quite as far as to say it's cryptic. I do think that with these songs I wanted to have more of an emotional core rather than an idea core, and there can be a lot of overlap there - you get into a tricky place when you say it's one or the other.
Going back to the effects on your voice, I think that plays into the theme of being drowned out by all the noise and activity in the world. Is that something you intended?
Yeah! I like softness in music and I hope to achieve that through an aura of other effects or whatever happening from time to time, because it's really nice to be able to sink deeper into the music.
Is it unfair to say that this is a pessimistic album? The lyrics that stand out to me, like "someone other than you has tried" or "too many years left to plan," seem quite negative or world-weary. They strike a chord with me in the way I see the world sometimes.
No, it's definitely not pessimistic. There's obviously darkness on the record to be reconciled with, but it's more meant to be like catharsis. The first line that you mentioned, "someone other than you has tried" from 'You Felt Comfort', that song is very much about having people in your life who are going through severe depression, specifically about a friend of mine who tried to kill themselves, and that whole song is from the point of view of a narrator who's trying to navigate how to reach out to that person. Because it is such a complicated array of emotions you have to deal with when talking to somebody who's going through something like that. So, in that way it's melancholic, but it's not pessimistic, the song is really trying to lift somebody up, it's trying to get through to somebody who's in that place.
And "too many years left to plan," it's like an aside. It's a little bit of a lover's dig, you know? It's more like the singer needs to move on from someone because of the way that they think about life.
Do you consider the songs to be sung from different perspectives, as different characters?
With this record I consider it to be highly personal.
One of my favourite lyrics is "all that's left of me is what I know," which is both pessimistic and optimistic in a way...
Yeah, well it's "all that's left of me is what I know, and what I know is what's mine's not mine."
Yeah, that seems quite pessimistic to me.
I think it's more about surrender and learning to give up the ego a little bit.
There's quite a lot of Biblical imagery on this album.
Yeah, Biblical stuff is just something that comes up. I don't know what the root of that is exactly - I didn't go to church as a child. But it's in a lot of art and music that isn't necessarily religious. More than "well people are going to know what this is," these are more like archetypes that have entered the dream sleep of the Western mind kind of. Like even in 'Joan' I'm thinking of Joan of Arc, but 'Saint Germain' is more about an idea than a person.
What is it about Joan of Arc that interests you?
'Joan Pt 1, 2' is one of the newer songs, and there was a period where I was reading about saints and I think beyond her specific story - and it's an amazing story, perhaps undersung given how incredible it is - is this idea of people feeling moved to do things based on something that's completely incomprehensible. Like the fact that she heard voices and then went through all these things, and the fact that she was an actual person that went through with this stuff - it's incredible. I was attracted to the idea of people who go through changes - there's so much in that story to take out - but specifically the idea of following that inner current of making a move based on a feeling.
And then the ambient-ish 'Joan Pt. 3' ends the record - what was your decision to include that kind of resolution?
That was something we went back and forth on, and in the end I quite like it. At the end of this long instrumental piece there's like field sounds and stuff like that; you've really gone totally away from the world where the band was, and it's sort of like this little motif that comes back and it completes the loop. You might wanna turn the record back over and start again, rather than feeling like you've just been abandoned in a dewy field.
You mentioned poetry and I wanted to ask if you still write poetry separately, or do they always end up as lyrics?
I usually think of them as quite separate. Occasionally a poem will become a song, like in the case of 'Saint Germain', but it never goes the other way - I've never been able to make it go the other way. Usually when I start writing a poem it's very clear that this is just going to be a poem. It's really important to me as an art form, it's something I've been doing longer than music.
Any recommendations of what I should read?
Check out Philip Levine. Li-Young Lee's book Rose is amazing. Then there's a Polish author Wislawa Szymborska - she won the Nobel for her collected poems - those are amazing, they have this amazing existentialism but also this great sense of humour. That intersection of existentialism and humour – that’s my crosshair.
I was going to say, that sounds like your writing. What do you do with your poems?
I have two poems being published for the very first time in March. That is, first time outside of University, as I basically graduated and immediately started touring with Ought. I'm really excited!
What are your poems like?
I do like writing with this sort of playfulness and wryness - that's very much who I am. But also it has to work its way down and touch the bottom of the well.
Right now I'm reading this book by Hafiz, who's a Sufi poet, and I'm really enjoying it because it's very much in that vain. They're all expressly spiritual or romantic, obviously his romantic poems have a lot of crossover with the spiritual, but they're so funny! There's this sort of... "joke" isn't quite the right word; "playfulness" really is it. It's such an amazing combination to me, because that's how I feel the spirit should operate, in this vain of joie de vivre and kind of child-like expression of self and mentality and depth, and if you can come to that through a place of wisdom and observation in the world, I think that's incredible.
Do you find yourself reading poetry more than prose these days?
I'd say it's a good even split.
And do those things seep into your lyrics?
Of course. Nothing I can particularly point to as it all just gets blended up in there.
How do you feel about taking this album on tour?
I'm really looking forward to it. We’ve been practicing but I can’t wait to breathe some life into these songs live.
Have you figured out how to play things like 'Saturday Night'?
Yeah! I'm bringing a multi-instrumentalist friend of mine who plays viola, keys and bass - and so she's going to rotate through them. I think that will work really well because my bow control is not exactly precise - it's bowed guitar on 'Saturday Night'.
How did you end up with Jagjaguwar?
I was just chatting with one of the people who works there and asking about places I should send it to. They were really helpful and introduced me to people, so I had a lot of really great labels who were interested. And then later on in the process Jagjaguwar came forward and made an offer and I was immediately very excited about that because I think they're an awesome label and I like a lot of their artists.
Was there any inclination to go with Constellation, like the Ought records?
When I was shopping the record around I thought it would be a bigger deal that I was going for a different label than the band is on, but people just understood that this stuff happens. You want to work with different people for different projects, especially when it's a different sound. That's how I explained it to Constellation; working with different people was going to be important to make this record feel like it has a different aura.
And what's happening with Ought?
We're working on a new record. It's not been too difficult balancing it; Saturday Night has been done for a while – the oldest note on it was recorded almost two years ago. And with Ought it's not pulling from the same creative well as my solo stuff, since we all write it collaboratively.
How do you feel about performing live as a solo artist compared to performing with Ought?
It's a different type of exposure. With Ought so much of the songwriting is about building up enough steam to have it be this big ball of energy. These songs are a lot more pensive and soft for the most part. It's like wielding a different type of power. That’s why I’m really looking forward to it.
Did you ever think about releasing your solo stuff under an alias or moniker?
No, I used to do that when I made solo music before. Part of the purpose of this project was to feel my centre and have it be very attached to my name. It feels like my record and I'm really happy with that.
Tim Darcy's debut solo album, Saturday Night, is out now on Jagjaguwar.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 20th February 2017.