In the summer of 2020, Dani Darling headed to Lake Michigan with her best friend. On the drive there, they listened to Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon, an album that Darling had previously heard in part, but had never listened to in its entirety. Listening to that classic album for the first time in the midst of a summer marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd had a profound impact on the Ann Arbor-based singer. Darling had a revelation. She wanted to make a psychedelic album.
When Darling won an Amplify Fellowship, an initiative from Grove Studios and Leon Speakers for Black artists in Washtenaw County, Michigan, she was able to make that idea a reality. “Usually, I’m more of a lo-fi, bedroom pop artist because of the financial aspect of it,” says Darling, who was previously featured in Audiofemme last fall for the release of her EP Mage. She says that it’s been easier to learn how to record and mix her own music than to bring a whole band into a studio. The fellowship, though, allowed her to do just that. “It was really the last little ingredient that I needed to put the whole project together.”
The resulting EP, The Future, is set for release on June 25. Like all of her music, she says, it began to take shape in her living room, where she jams, plays with her pedals, makes “little soundscapes” of ideas and starts devising lyrics. The first proper session, though, convened on December 21, 2020, the date of Winter Solstice as well as the Great Conjunctions between Jupiter and Saturn. Darling brought a folder with her that contained her ideas for the new material, but those quickly began to evolve as the group started to play.
“Everyone was talking about the Age of Aquarius,” she says. That led to the recording of “The Age” featured on the EP. “I just kept singing ‘the Age of Aquarius’ and it was totally different from the lyrics that I had down and it just stayed that way because of the vibe,” she says. They liked the results and decided to book another session, an hours-long New Year’s Eve session that Darling describes as “wildly ambitious.”
The hard part wasn’t spending the last night of 2020 in the studio, it was figuring out how to work with all the material that came out of the session. “We sat down and we had all these hours of music and I was like, how am I going to pull an album out of all this psychedelic craziness?” Darling recalls.
It was “hours and hours” of music recorded onto very large files. Darling sifted through it to figure out where the songs were. She estimates that there are probably another 20 songs that could be pulled out of that session, but she was looking for the ones that made the most sense with the vibe that she had been developing – a retro 1960s to 1970s sound that reflected her eclectic tastes; she’s into James Brown, loves Diana Ross and name-checks Jimi Hendrix’s album, Are You Experienced as one of her favorites.
The cohesiveness of the EP began to take shape when Darling brought in flautist James Russell to play on “The Down,” which is the lead single for The Future. “When I thought of the ‘60s, one of the things that I really love about the ‘60s is the flute sound that you hear,” Darling explains. “That’s very vintage to me.” After working on “The Down,” she asked Russell if he heard anything he could play on the other tracks and the flautist ended up playing on much much of the release. “If the whole album is a trip, then the narrator is the flute,” says Darling. “It’s like we’re taking people through these different doors and different realms, but you constantly hear that flute sound.”
For “The Down,” which is already getting radio play in Detroit, Darling thought about The Wizard of Oz and how she remembered hearing in college that The Dark Side of the Moon synced up with the movie.
“I also felt like, with the pandemic, a lot of the color had been drained out of life and out of me. I felt like life was very black and white, it was very static,” she says. “So when it came to the video for ‘The Down,’ I thought let’s try a Wizard of Oz in reverse. Let’s throw her in a black and white, pandemic world and have her trying to reach inside and find the color and find her tribe, the band.”
There’s a message in the video too. Says Darling, “When the color goes out in your world, you really have to look within and be mindful and try to find the light inside and bring that out and bring the color back into your world, through your own spirit.”