What happens in college a cappella doesn’t always stay in college a cappella.
Darlingside, an indie folk quartet from Boston, emerged on the scene at the turn of the 2010s, capturing audiences with their dreamy melodies, avant–garde instrumentals, and the kind of poetic lyrics that mystical woodland creatures might dance to in their free time. This week, they’re releasing their fourth LP, Everything is Alive. But before they were featured on the soundtrack of the hit NBC show This is Us, or captivated hearts with an acclaimed NPR Tiny Desk Concert performance, they were simply college students in the same a cappella group at Williams College.
“We got to be really good friends through singing together,” says Don Mitchell, one–fourth of Darlingside. The group's future members first encountered each other through a cappella, and overlapped again in a singer–songwriting class. They formed an informal group to back each other up on their compositions with some other friends, but as people went on to different postgrad pursuits, the band was short–lived. However, a few years after everyone had graduated, friends Don Mitchell, Auyon Mukharji, David Senft, and Harris Paseltiner began floating the idea of making music together again.
“[The idea] just happened to come when I was between jobs working as a biologist. I was kind of [like], ‘Yeah, I'll give that a shot for a year.’ If nothing else, it'll be like, you know, in my early twenties, I'll have had this phase where I was in the band for a year,” Mitchell says.
Little did Don know, Darlingside would go on to become a decades–long phase.
The group hit the ground running, planning to go all in for a year and treat the endeavor like a business. They used their college network to ask questions about the music industry, divided administrative roles amongst each other, and began to figure out their sound.
“I remember those discussions before we really started,” Don notes. “We talked a lot about, ‘We'll go really hard at it for a year’ and see where we're at and reassess.”
But as Darlingside kept working, the year deadline ended up passing.
“I don't think we ever had a conversation that was like, ‘Is this worth continuing beyond a year?’ A year was [just] not nearly enough time," Don says.
Still, the group recognizes that as young adults, living out their indie dreams was no easy feat. For college students jumping into the unstable waters of the music industry, having the freedom and savings to forgo a more stable income is a crucial position of privilege. In Darlingside's case, after a few years, reality began to set in as they considered the revenue they needed to generate to support themselves now that they were a few years out of college, as well as the logistics of touring out of state. During this period, the group’s drummer amicably left, realizing he needed to stay closer to home. The remaining four members recommitted and decided to lean further into music a full–time professional gig.
“There was a sense that there was something good worth holding on to,” Mitchell says. After the departure of their drummer, the group switched to a one–mic bluegrass setup and began experimenting with the wistful harmonies that Darlingside is known for today: one big voice from four.
In many ways, it is hard to isolate the united voice of Darlingside into the four individuals that comprise it. They've worked hard to separate themselves from a long history of bands torn apart by egoistic infighting and preeminent personalities. Songwriting is a communal exercise for Darlingside, each song a mosaic of the quartet's personal perspectives and thoughts.
“Someone might come in with a melody idea or a lyrical idea, but then it would turn into this group consciousness exercise where it wasn't any one person's confessional song,” Mitchell says. “It was more like, what did we all see in this original idea, and where does each of us take it?”
When asked about the song “Right Friend” on Everything is Alive—which could easily be interpreted as a homage to the band’s amazing friendship—Mitchell admits that he can't say exactly what it's about. While he may have thought about one person while coming up with the chorus melody, Mukharji might have arranged the piece with another person in mind. Each of the members brought their own stories to the song, so that it was no longer about a particular person, but rather about a shared experience—what it means to have a friend when you’re falling apart.
At the end of the day, friendship is what Darlingside is all about, with a band mascot aptly named “The Unicorn of Friendship.” For these four musicians, being there for each other comes before being a band, even when their individual lives draw them in different directions: Darlingside took a break from touring when Paseltiner started a family, and this year, Senft made the decision to step back from the album release tour to be closer to home.
Everything is Alive reflects the new transformation of Darlingside. It's a distinct departure from their past work, shedding the mystical and peaceful scenery of Fish Pond Fish and distant dystopian harmonies of Extralife. Instead, Everything is Alive is brutally intimate, showcasing solo voices on most of the tracks without the support of unified harmony.
Part of this shift was driven by the COVID–19 pandemic, which disrupted the group's communal songwriting process and forced them to create apart from one another for the first time in decades. As a result, many of the album's songs deal with individual and personal stories—a preview of “Baking Soda” takes you inside the ordeal of domestic frustration firsthand.
Where Darlingside once distanced itself from its stories with elusive poetry that focused more on the external rather than internal, Everything is Alive mirrors the pandemic it was born of, making its listeners and the band itself sit still and softly with what it means to exist on our own—to be alive as a single being. But while the group takes on a new face, the communal spirit of friendship still reigns supreme as they voice the pride they have in hearing their bandmates stand on their own. Darlingside never takes themselves too seriously—at the end of the day, this band is united by their friendship, even more than their music.
“It's a joyful thing to be able to still be singing with your friends,” Mitchell says. “People often leave that behind when they're out of school, but we've gotten to enjoy it … we're really grateful for that.”
It’s hard not to be changed by Darlingside’s music—their luscious melodies cause you to slow down and take inventory of the world around you; all the things you’ve overlooked. They transport you to an ethereal landscape, where life can be boiled down to beauty and poetry can be found in the mundane. This is their world: where breath can be found even in lead paint cracks, where work is making music with friends, where Everything Is Alive.
Darlingside will perform at The Ardmore Music Hall in Philadelphia on December 1, 2023.