George Floyd’s murder. A pandemic sweeping through the world. Fires burning out of control. Sometimes it can feel hard to catch one’s breath amid so much chaos and pain. Singer-songwriter Dani Darling felt herself pushing against her own anxiety, searching for the words, the music that would help create a sense of calm in the storm.
“All Stars,” the second single from Dani’s forthcoming EP Mage (out November 11), takes the form of a meditative interlude. It’s a welcome bridge from her debut EP, 2019’s Nocturne., which explored her own unique mix of jazz, soul, and lo-fi chillwave. It’s a mix born from a life of synchronicity, random moments pieced together in the search for meaning amid chaos.
“I want people to feel more at peace, I want people to feel calm,” Darling tells Audiofemme. “I have anxiety really bad so at the end of the day, things that make me feel less shaky, or more calm, or at peace is what I was kinda trying to put out there, a consistent call to our inner subconscious that we are all important. That we all matter. That we all have our own inner magic and our own worth and our own destiny.”
Dani Darling’s childhood home in Ann Arbor, Michigan was surrounded by evergreen trees. Living in a quiet college town, growing up in a church that shunned things like kissing or listening to Radiohead, these moments shaped her. “I had kind of an extended youth because I didn’t grow up fast at all,” Darling says. She spent her youth singing in church with her two sisters Nicole and Jacquelyn. The three are triplets: two identical, one paternal… which one is which is up for debate. Each Sunday, the girls would don frilly dresses and practice harmonies in front of the parishioners.
“Ann Arbor’s very diverse, but our church was a Black church so we still got our kind of culture from church and being in gospel singing,” Darling recalls. “But then when we were in school, we really took to choral music, classical, opera, and music theatre, all that stuff. There were kind of dual musical lives because we’d do ‘Wade in the Water’ gospel stuff for church and then turn around and do like Motzart for school. Learning music from both of those angles really affected how my music is now.”
Darling has the musical chops to show for it. She played violin for 11 years, as well as cello, took voice lessons, and later taught herself guitar. It wasn’t until she took up guitar her sophomore year of college that she began to write her own music. She gravitated toward vocal jazz, leaning toward her idols Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. But it took her a while to get comfortable with the idea of being a stand-alone act, her sisters still looming close in the rear view mirror.
“In some ways maybe that’s why it took so long to become a solo artist, because I was so used to singing with my sisters that it took me a long time to see myself as an artist in my own right,” Darling admits. “And sometimes when I get on stage and they’re not next to me, I still get stage fright. It’s weird.”
In 2018, Darling had a baby girl named Eden, but she forged ahead with a music career simultaneously, choosing a stage name, building a band, and saying yes to everything for fear of missing out on opportunities. “I don’t have a lot of time, I’m behind,” Darling says with a laugh. “I’m up against all these 21 year old girls. I really wanted to get in there and just perform.”
Her first official single “2:22” received critical acclaim from Nylon Magazine, she was named one of Detroit Metro Times Bands to Watch, and 2020 was shaping up to be her breakout year, with main stage performances at various Michigan festivals. “Then bam, pandemic. My whole big year was just derailed. I was devastated,” Darling says. “I had all these shows, venues I hadn’t been able to get into, and then all this happened. I was in such grief because I was thinking, ‘This was my one chance. I was almost there.’ I was just gutted.”
Her priorities shifted from touring to writing a new album in quarantine. Darling started doing video covers on Facebook to try to make herself feel better – only the happy stuff, like Bill Withers, and songs from the ’70s that made her smile. She slowly began assembling her own home studio. “My response to the devastation was realizing that this wasn’t all coincidental, this wasn’t just a fluke that I made the list and that things were gonna happen that way,” Darling says. “So I had to trust that it’s my purpose to be a singer and it’s gonna happen anyway. And it ended up coming out in the songs. That’s kinda the theme: knowing your own magic and your own worth.”
In the midst of writing, she was also confronted with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. The importance and value of human life, the complicated feelings of race and belonging, these became even more important to her as a mother. “Having a little girl who is both black and white, some of this is very confusing for her and traumatic. So that really went into the project as well,” Darling says; she was horrified by the videos she saw friends sharing and worried about the communal PTSD they might all be suffering from.
“For me personally, I started to think about whether that was another form of emotional harassment. Another form of intimidation. Because after all that stuff happened, I find myself getting nervous if I see a white man coming at me really fast,” Darling says. “These kind of things, you just wonder on a spiritual level what it all means, but all I knew is that my take on it was a reminder that whatever’s going on, we have our own personal power to change our perspective and think about the power that we have and what we can do within ourselves to change our own world, even if it’s just our house cause we’re quarantined for weeks and months.”
“All Stars” is a welcome relief from the terror of scrolling past death and destruction. It is a tender squeeze on the arm during a time where no one can touch. Darling’s fingers gently pluck across her guitar’s strings while her voice floats along the backbone, creating pinpricks of sound in the air. It’s a delicate song, but Darling’s voice is purposeful in its restraint; as her voice trails upwards, you can almost see the tips of the evergreen trees framing the darkness above, starlight winking down on little Earth.
Dani is quick to laugh at life’s flipped cards, at the journey itself. Her hope is that with her music she can tackle fear in a way that gives listeners the space to breathe, to let it in without overwhelming or judging themselves harshly. “It’s this subconscious message that I’m infusing: give people more self-esteem, more self worth,” Darling says. It’s something she’s had to learn as the mother of a child who has undergone two cochlear implant surgeries in her short life and is now growing by leaps and bounds in her speech therapy. “It’s ironic that [with music] being the center of my life, that when I have a child she can’t hear,” Darling points out. But even in her daughter’s challenges, Dani sees starlight, admitting that all her years of vocal training and opera make her a great speech therapist.
“Eden is not the best singer but that has nothing to do with the fact she can’t hear,” Darling says with a laugh. “She got her dad’s pipes. He really kind of ruined it for her. The thing is, both of them they just sing all day every day with the worst vibrato you’ve ever heard, but they’re loud and proud. And I really just love that. She has pride in her bad singing because of him.”
The future seems lightyears away right now, with most of the world watching time move from behind their windowpanes, but Darling is already dreaming up a psychedelic soul album. She hears 15 minute epics, inspired in part by The Dark Side of the Moon, with a twinge of Khruangbin. In the meantime, she hopes listeners can find what they’re looking for by tuning in and digging deep: “Look in your heart because your heart is the portal to everything you need.”