Occasionally in doing the reviewing game you come across somebody whose work is striking enough that you become interested in finding out a little more about the person behind the music. Listening and reviewing The Magdalene Laundries piqued my interest to find out more about the quiet intense voice that could paint such vivid pictures with a few well chosen words.
Diana Darby had released two albums prior to this, appeared on Nothing Left To Lose – A Tribute To Kris Kristoferson, toured throughout the United States and Europe and contributed to the Eye of The Beholder V4 compilation disc. In spite of this prolific activity this disc marked my first encounter with her introspective and intelligent work.
After I had completed the review she had emailed to clarify a misconception that had been implied by critics, including me, about the songs on the disc The Magdalene Laundries. Brilliantly sensing an opportunity for an interview, even non-journalists like me strike it lucky occasionally; I suggested an interview so that she could talk about that issue and her work.
She very graciously agreed to submit herself to receiving the questions by e-mail and what you are going to read is pretty much her answers verbatim. The only change from our original correspondence has been the insertion of follow up questions and answers on a couple of occasions.
I’d like to thank Diana for taking the time in her schedule and doing this interview. For those who would like to fill out this sketch of this unique singer songwriter that I have provided you can check out her web site.
Typical boring first question, but how about a little bio, who and where the usual stuff.
I was born and raised in Houston, Tx. My upbringing was kind of a nightmare, which is why I write.
What made you decide that music was the means you wanted to use to express yourself?
I don’t think it was ever a decision. I just started making up little songs when I was a kid. It was actually only one way I used to express myself. My first love is poetry. But poets don’t make any money, (not that songwriters do either) so I chose song writing because it combines the best of both worlds for me… poetry and music. But I don’t consider myself just a songwriter. I think of myself as a writer first. I’m hoping to start writing my first novel this year. And sometimes I paint and draw too – although I have the least amount of confidence in my ability as a painter. Although people really liked the album covers I did for fantasia ball and Magdalene Laundries. So who knows?
Any influences of any sort, musical or otherwise?
Yes. Bob Dylan. Love. The Velvet Underground. Poets Anne Sexton, Sharon Olds, and Mary Oliver. And my dog. I write a lot of songs about my dog.
Is there anything in particular that attracted you to these people, and how do see their influence being expressed in your own material.
For me, Dylan is probably the greatest (pop) songwriter of all time. His use of language. His ability to change stylistically and how he has evolved over the years. He isn’t like a lot of acts who are basically putting on an oldies show. He has transformed himself and his music has gotten much deeper and more vulnerable over the years. I have always been a huge fan. I love the V.U.’s childlike quality in their music. Their fearlessness in subject matter. Mainly, I just love their sound. I guess I like people and artists who are bold. Who aren’t afraid to express things that usually aren’t expressed…Anne Sexton and Sharon Olds do that incredibly well. As Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. once said, “Anne sexton…domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop wild in the forest once more.” I feel that way. I go in to the woods with all my demons, face them and then come out. Hopefully I take some people in there with me that wouldn’t have gone on their own.
I think all of these people have influenced my work…whether it’s the freedom to explore topics like in “Maryanne” or the use of language in a song like “Sarah” (naked Time). Certainly, Mary Oliver has been pivotal in my observation of detail in nature and of my dog.
Aside from your dog Trouble, (do you know the song “Trouble”- Trouble you can’t fool me I see you behind that tree…) what else sparks your imagination to create?
No, I don’t know the song. I guess life sparks my imagination. Just being aware. Looking around. Seeing people. Watching them. Watching their faces. Listening in on their conversations. I’m an eavesdropper. I stop and take time to feel my feelings. If I’m lonely or sad or angry I sit down with my guitar and usually something comes.
You’re quoted as saying you like to create in the dark, any particular reasons for this? Was this a deliberate choice or did you discover it by accident?
I like the dark because no one can see me. I feel hidden. Safe. I think when I feel safe I feel freer to let whatever comes, come out of me. It’s also much more moody and introspective. There is a quiet in the dark, a stillness. Almost like a different presence where you can sit down and say “o.k, it’s just me and you now. What have you got?”
I don’t mean to obsess on the working in the dark alone thing, but I’m intrigued by your description of a presence where you can sit down and play. Can you elaborate on that in anyway? It almost sounds like your describing a meditative state, or is that reading too much into it?
It’s meditative and a bit of an exorcism. It really is about stepping (consciously) aside and letting your unconscious take over. I never know what’s going to come. And when I’m done, I’m very present in my body.
On The Magdalene Laundries you recorded at home on a four track, is this your normal way of working, or was this because of the nature of the project?
It’s become my normal way of working. I didn’t start out working on a four track; I’ve kind of de-evolved into it. I wanted to work with something that I could understand. I’ve never been into the whole digital thing and I didn’t have an 8 track reel to reel. So I bought a 4-track cassette. I used to work with a little hand held tape recorder that I’d put my ideas on when they came to me, but that didn’t leave me any room to do anything with them So now I try to sit down with the 4-track. I want to be able to grab it and its essence as quickly as possible. If I had to turn on a computer or equipment or something, by the time it was booted up I would have lost the whole thing. Now I can just his play/record.
It’s also recorded at very low levels, I had to listen to it on headphones in order to hear clearly and discern the lyrics. Was this deliberate, sort of an enforced intimacy to draw the listener in?
No. It’s my technical ineptitude. Well, that and I sing very quietly. Even in a real studio they sometimes have a hard time mich-ing me, so I don’t feel that bad about my recording engineering abilities. It’s kind of become a joke when I take my recordings to a studio. They look at the levels and shake their heads, but when I crank up the pre-amp I feel like I’m getting too much noise, so I turn it down — sometimes too low. As for intimacy, yes, I do want to draw the listener in and I think the sound that I get does that. But more importantly I think it’s the environment. It really is me alone in my room with the tape deck running and no one watching. It’s very lo-tech. Once I was playing live on a radio station in California and a caller called in to ask how I got that cool guitar sound… They thought I had some special device on it. I told them just strum an electric guitar without it being amplified. Sometimes less is more.
When I was listening to The Magdalene Laundries I found that I would form imagery in my head, and those images would trigger emotional responses. Is that the sort of reaction you hope for? What is your intent with a song or a whole disc even?
I never think about what kind of reaction I may or may not get. When I am writing I am lost in my words and in the music. I am reacting to and from my own emotions. It is my own exorcism. The images that come to me come from inside of me. I never try to force them. If you are writing from the emotion the images will come and hopefully when people listen my words and music will move them (emotionally).
The actual Magdalene Laundries was a home for wayward women in Ireland. By giving this cd the same name were you trying to create a theme? Should the songs be taken as literally being about conditions there or in a more abstract manor?
No, it should not be taken literally. The title is more of a homage to the place. Only one song “pretty flowers” was inspired by the Laundries. I had seen an interview on 60 minutes and was really devastated by it. I went in my room and started writing “Pretty Flowers.” When I finished the CD and was trying to come up with a title for it the idea of calling it “Magdalene laundries” came to me and I liked the idea because all of the songs on the album could be applied to the women living in the laundries and by titling the album that, it made the songs have a cohesion they might not have otherwise had. It’s like giving a poem or painting a title and then when you view it, or read it, it takes on a whole different meaning than if it had been titled something else. Thematically, much of the album deals with trying to free ourselves from whatever emotional/mental/physical prisons we are in.
Do you often work from a theme, or did something about this institution strike a chord and fire up the imagination?
No. I never work from a theme. I just have songs come to me and I write.
Let me rephrase that; you said that on The Magdalene Laundries that thematically much of the material deals with trying to free ourselves from emotional/mental/physical prisons we are in. Do you find that you may not consciously set out with a theme in mind, but in the end a theme develops?
I don’t have a clear answer on that. As I writer, I think themes surface in your work, that are in your subconscious, so if there are emotional things I’m working on and those songs were written within the same time period, there’s a good possibility that they would have similar themes. But I never sit down and say, “I’m going to do a record about abandonment.” As I said, it’s not a conscious mental choice. At least not for me.
Kris Kristoferson (who I have to tell you I’ve always really dug), if someone has only listened to The Magdalene Laundries like I have the idea of you appearing on a tribute album for him is at once difficult to imagine yet really appealing. What song did you sing on Nothing Left To Lose and were you familiar with Kris’s stuff before or did this just sort of pop out of the blue.
No, I knew Kristoferson’s work and always liked his music. My label (delmore) told me about the tribute album and asked if I wanted to do a song. And the funny thing is, I was going to do a completely different song than the one I ended up doing. Mark Spencer (who I recorded my first album Naked Time with) was coming to Nashville and I asked him if he could play on the tribute for me and he jokingly said, “what are you going to sing, “Jesus Was a Capricorn?” And he laughed about it and I said, “no.” But after I hung up with him, I got out a Kristoferson songbook and I turned to that song and I just started finger picking it. I had never heard Kris’s version, so I didn’t know how it was supposed to go. Kris performed it up-tempo, for laughs, but when I sang the song I immediately heard it as someone putting themselves up to be martyred like “Jesus”. I thought it was incredibly deep.
Any last comments you’d like to make about The Magdalene Laundries or anything else for that matter?
One last thing I want people to know about this album is that I played all of the parts and that it was made on a 4-track cassette. There are no “punch ins or outs”. Every thing is one complete take. So if I screwed up, I had to go back and do the entire part over again.