In many ways, Darlingside just created the Album of the Pandemic.
It’s not just that the songs on the indie rock/neo-folkies' latest, “Fish Pond Fish,” feel like pure soul-balm for anxiety-ridden quarantined nights — four-part harmonies to rival CSNY in their young and eager years — but the actual making of the album embodies this era.
Production was interrupted by the pandemic in March, sending the four bandmates to quarantine in their respective homes, layering harmonies via the ether.
Lyrics that might’ve been interpreted one way pre-pandemic now reflect our new world, as on “Green + Evergreen”: “Through the oak and poison ivy/As the lemon light was alkalining /I was growing, I was dying/Growing I was dying.” Those words evoke a certain sensibility now, as the pandemic pushes on toward winter.
“Fish Pond Fish” drops Friday. Of course, there won’t be a tour.
Bassist Dave Senft said “COVID recontextualized” the title. “Before the pandemic, we were thinking about the way it feels like there’s a trend towards people feeling more isolated. We were thinking of ‘fish pond fish’ as these little bubbles that you’re trapped in, of your own making. It was sort of a metaphorical isolation — and then, obviously, the pandemic made that much more literal,” says Senft, of Waltham.
“It was like, ‘Oh man, we really are trapped in these little fish ponds.’ You want to get back to the ocean where you can all swim together.”
Adds guitarist/banjoist Don Mitchell, “With this record, I won’t be able to listen to it and not think of the time in which it was created.”
As “we finished the final songs during quarantine, some of the lyrics started taking on a different edge, with the physical and emotional isolation that came with the pandemic,” says Mitchell, who also lives in Waltham.
Senft, Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji (violin, mandolin), and Harris Paseltiner (cello, guitar) began recording the album in late 2019 at Grammy Award-winning producer Peter Katis’s Tarquin Studios in Bridgeport, Conn.
They completed two of their three sessions. Then came March. The four were sent to their separate fish ponds, and everything became “minor chaos,” says Mitchell.
What you have to understand here is that what makes Darlingside Darlingside is four upper-register male voices singing in harmony around one microphone.
Founded in 2010, the quartet of Williams College alumni is a unique blend of coffeehouse folk, sparse poetry, ’70s-era harmonies, bluegrass strings, and dreamy ambience. They’ve been compared to Simon & Garfunkel, the Byrds, the Beach Boys.
It’s hard to imagine how any of those groups would sound if forced to record from separate locations.
“Figuring out how to transfer things between ProTools and Zoom and all these different remote collaboration apps was especially painstaking,” Mitchell says.
They managed to maintain their signature sonic blend throughout “Fish Pond Fish” — though Senft claims with a chuckle he can tell which songs “we had to pretend that we sang together.”
“We’ve been singing together for such a long time, we do have a process down. We can pull from the experience,” Senft says. “But it was tricky, for sure.”
Tricky and painstaking — but not necessarily negative.
Sometimes “you get something unexpected, notes that might not have been sung,” says Senft. “Your brain works differently when you’re by yourself versus in a group.”
“I really liked some of that process, of just accepting a certain spontaneity,” adds Mitchell.
With no touring for the foreseeable future, the band has, like every other band, taken to social media and live streaming, including their ongoing Distantly Social Sessions, and an album-release live stream that will remain online until Oct. 10 via darlingside.com/live.
Even their unique communal songwriting technique, developed pre-pandemic, is remote-work-ready as they go to work writing their new album next month.
Darlingside’s four-way writing process is something of a wonder. The first person might take a line from a book.
“And they do a brainstorm: What comes to your mind when you hear this line? What would the next line of the book be if you were writing it?” Mitchell explains. "And then they pass it to the next person.”
For example, Senft prompted the band with a line from “Red Mars,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. That turned into the song “Time Will Be.”
“Another fun one, we all gave each other movie titles and did brainstorms and verses and melodies based on that,” says Mitchell. “One was a movie called ‘Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead,’ and despite those words never appearing in the song, that became the kernel of the song called ‘Denver.’ ”
In another exercise called “Flora and Fauna,” the first person “had to begin with some type of plant, and then we were all supposed to write based on the plant name,” says Mitchell.
You have to ignore “the front of your brain that wants to edit everything — it’s just like, nope, sorry, you have to write about poison oak.”
“The spirit of some of these exercises is that [you’re] unfiltered,” says Mitchell. “We’re trying to find something essential by pouring out our subconsciousnesses together.”
Both said “Fish Pond Fish” would forever be tied to the pandemic.
“There’s lot of anxiety and fear that makes me want to turn inward and hide behind my walls and lock my front door and keep the world out,” says Senft. “At the same time, I feel this desperation to break that cycle and to turn back outward and connect and restore that sense of community that I feel I’m losing. That’s how I was relating to a lot of these songs.”