Sarah Darling: Two Discs and New Twists with ‘Angels and Devils’

By Bob Doerschuk

© 2011 CMA Close Up ® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

It’s often said that the landscape in music has shifted from album to singles format, thanks to the ease of downloading digital tracks and the explosion in use of mobile phones and other portable media players as the channel of choice for listening.

This transformation is still underway in Country, where albums continue to make strong impacts. But even in that genre all sorts of experiments have been undertaken, from abbreviated six-song packages to having fans select artwork and track lists to deluxe products with various bells and whistles. Basically, these changes reflect differing strategies for marketing albums to a new generation of consumers.

With Angels & Devils, her second album on Black River Entertainment, Sarah Darling tackles this question more from an artistic than a commercial perspective. It is, first of all, a double-disc release — essentially, a pair of EPs, featuring nine songs co-written by Darling. The one disc titled Devils, offers seven songs. These vary in mood from “Thank You,” written by Darling and Odie Blackmon, with a slamming, guitar-powered chorus, to the album’s first single and video, “Something to Do with Your Hands” (Darling and Jason Deere), with a catchy melodic motif cycling through the verse and chorus. There are more introspective pieces as well, including “The Boy Never Stays” (Darling, Josh Osborne and Brandy Clark), a wistful lament built on a litany of images of a lost love, and “Bad Habit” (Darling, Osborne and Shane McAnally), with duet partner Vince Gill. All are presented with a rhythm section, steel and other familiar elements.

In contrast, Angels offers five songs that center on Darling with piano accompaniment by producer Jimmy Nichols. (Adam Shoenfeld coproduced two of the tracks with Nichols.) Now and then another player contributes — Jonathan Yudkin on cello for “Waiting on You” (Darling, Will Doughty and Shaunna Bolton) and Paul Franklin on steel for a haunting cover of “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (Elton John and Bernie Taupin) — but these additions are almost felt more than heard.

The novelty of this approach is in its rejection of accepted formulas for sequencing. Most albums mingle ballads and up-tempo material while trying not to make the transitions too jarring. Angels & Devils takes an opposite approach by immersing listeners in two distinctive environments, each one deepening as one song gives way to the next.

“You’re getting an entire album but we wanted to give people two different sides,” Darling explained. “You can really catch different things in my style of singing if you don’t have me behind a band.” Nichols’ wife Tonya Ginnetti, who was then VP/Director of Artist Relations at the label, came up with the Angels & Devils concept. “One of the things I tried to do while over at Black River was to press the boundaries because I feel like the format has gotten a bit stale and predictable,” said Nichols, who was President of the label at the time.

“And I could see there is something unique about Sarah. I thought to pigeonhole her into a certain type of regimented sound would do her a great injustice because she’s a multi-level artist capable of doing totally exposed intimate songs and then elevating to another level with a band behind her. She’s very much a finesse singer, not a yeller.”

Impressed with her from their first meeting, Nichols committed to the two-disc idea one day when he and she were in the studio together. “We were just clowning around,” he remembered. “I was telling her, ‘I think it would be fun to cover an Elton John song as a Country thing.’” Specifically, Nichols suggested “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word.”

“I’m a big Elton John fan, but I wasn’t really familiar with that particular song,” Darling said. “But Jimmy said, ‘Let me play this song. Let’s just go in old-school. I’ll get on the piano, you get on the mic and we’ll cut it.’ I heard it literally two times when I recorded it. I didn’t have a chance to learn the way Elton sings it; I sing it the way I would sing it. It was a one pass take. And it turned out magical.”

She tackled a similar challenge with another well-known song, U2’s “With or Without You,” by Bono and The Edge, on the Devils disc. “It’s a huge song by one of the biggest bands in the world,” Darling said. “Bono sings it perfectly, which is why I didn’t want to copy it. To me, this song is sad. The way I interpret this song, this person is struggling. Vocally, I felt that struggle; I just made it more intimate so you’d feel it in a whole different way. That side of my voice, the airiness and the breathiness, needed to come through.”

Darling’s reading of that song is suited equally to the Angels EP, which is as much about producer/accompanist/artist relations as it is about her performance on its own. “Faith Hill once told me, ‘If you can work with a producer who’s musical, it can be really great,’” she said. “You also get vocal freedom when you’re just singing with a piano. You can speed up and slow down and get really creative. Jimmy plays with a lot of emotion and dynamics, and I’m a dynamic singer. I like getting really soft and I like really singing out. So this was a very musical experience.”

Musical, yes, but in terms of marketability, was it also a little risky? “We know the industry is going toward a single-driven format,” said John Alexander, VP, Strategic Marketing and Artist Management, Black River Entertainment. “But it’s refreshing to give the consumer 12 songs on two different discs, so they can pick the songs they really love. We’re getting individual songs downloaded equally from both sides. And with this side featuring acoustic songs, we’re getting three or four songs deeper in being featured in the Sirius XM Coffee House format, and that’s broadened Sarah’s audience base.”

The songs selected for Angels also offer insight into Darling’s artistry that might be harder to discern in a more traditional song sequence. The opener, “Stop the Bleeding,” which she wrote with Joe Perreault and Shaunna Bolton, was the song that won her a contract with Black River; it was included on her first album, Every Monday Morning, as a medium, up-tempo, dance-friendly song, contrasting dramatically with the new, more nuanced version. Also, both discs include “Something to Do with Your Hands,” with the acoustic arrangement done a cappella over a doo-wop vocal backup, finger snaps and a little mouth percussion.

“I wanted it on both sides because Jimmy came up with this idea that stemmed from when I wrote this song at a writer’s retreat,” she said. “Every night, we would show the songs we wrote for that day, and it just so happened that I sang this song on the night they had this doo-wop thing going. And now, whenever I play it out, I make everyone snap their fingers. You have to have those finger snaps!”

The creative reach of Angels & Devils owes much to Darling’s background. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, she expressed herself initially through poetry before venturing into songwriting. “Being an only child, I spent a lot of time listening to everything from the Eagles to Patsy Cline in my bedroom. I also listened to Mariah Carey, Sarah McLachlan — if you shake ’em all up in a bag, that’s me,” she said, with a laugh. “I grew up on folk music and pop music, but I loved Country Music. It runs deep, Country Music. I remember my grandpa driving with me; he would always play Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, and I just fell in love with it.

Then when I saw artists like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks crossing over, it inspired me because that was what I wanted to do.” Being open to other styles while staying rooted in Country explains much about the breadth and expressiveness of Darling’s writing and performance. “I would consider it a risk if you’re talking about what people always do,” Darling said. “People do have a formula and it works for a lot of them. Everybody wants to hear a great radio song, and I have some of them on this album. But I also want to show myself in a way that lets the fans see a different side of me. I’m hoping that every part of Angels & Devils will take somebody somewhere and make them feel some emotion. There’s a lot of up and down, happiness and sadness. That’s what this is: You play it when you want to feel something.”

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Sarah Darling; photo: courtesy of Black River Entertainment / Provided by Country Music Association

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