Can music be both dark and bright? I ask lead vocalist Kelly Barnes as we are setting up her photo shoot in the bathroom of one of my favorite bars. Darkbird’s deliciously dark music makes you face the cobwebs of your mind with both sarcasm and energy, but where did that name come from? “We were going back and forth with so many names,” she says, hitching herself up on the bathroom sink. “Some were funny, some were stupid, and for a minute we were calling the band “Shut up Kelly” – we also liked ‘This Party Sucks.” Their music is admittedly more serious than those names were conveying, so they didn’t stick. Then one day on a drive to San Antonio, Kelly saw an enormous group of black birds. “A huge flock flew over me on 35,” she says, “so I sent a message to Brian – Darkbird – that was it.”
Synth/guitar player Brian Cole takes a sip of his beer and Letitia asks him to tilt his frame towards her as she shoots them through the bathroom mirror. Through conversation during the photo shoot, we learn that while Kelly grew up in Las Vegas, her family is from Texas, and she spent summers here. She moved to Austin from Los Angeles about six years ago. Brian’s roots were Midwestern before making his way to Austin via Queens. While Austin is a well-known melting pot where good musicians come together to pursue their passions and to create, I grew curious about how these two dark birds met.
“We met through craigslist,” Kelly said, with a nod from Brian. “We were both looking for a new project. When you’ve gassed all your friends, that’s (craigslist) where you go. It’s 90% shit. It’s the worst. It’s funny when you weave through everyone’s responses. I was avoiding words that said ‘funky’ or ‘lets jam and see what happens’ – Brian had links to his music, and I liked what he was doing, so I reached out to him.” Kelly sent Brian some links to her previous Los Angeles based band Ragsy. Soon thereafter, they decided to form their band.
“If you’re an artist, it just chooses you,” says Kelly. “Who wants to be an artist? Unless you’re parents are already doing it… If you’re an artist – you just have to do it.” Brian adds: “If you do it (your art) you suffer, but if you don’t, you suffer too.”
If you’ve listened to Darkbird before, you might be in for a surprise with their newest sound. The thoughtful lyrics are coupled with a brighter shade of black. The artists remind me that their music will constantly be changing, as they seek different sources of expression and creativity within their craft. The band members pull inspiration from the Pixies, Liz Phair, Fleetwood Mac, early Smashing Pumpkins, and Dr. Dog. Their song Marching Ballad is perhaps the most striking song they’ve written. “We’ve written it 3 times,” says Kelly. “It’s the first song that Brian and I worked together to try things out in his studio. He played a song he arranged and I sang over it. We are just now releasing it – it’s moving, definitive of the band.”
I had a few more questions for Brian and Kelly before it was time to wrap the shoot and head back to Kitty Cohen’s for a venue meeting.
What is your song-writing process like?
Kelly: Brian and I get together, work out a skeleton of a song, and try to get a verse and a chorus with guitars and vocal melody. Then we introduce it to the band and go from there. It’s fast.
Brian: If it’s not just happening and working in the first 5-10 minutes, then we scrap it. If we don’t agree immediately, we move on.
Do you have advice for other musicians who are just starting out?
Kelly: Keep writing – the first stuff you do is not always the best stuff you’re going to do. Don’t try to talk your other band mates into your idea. Never accept mediocrity – if you don’t love the song, throw it away. A new idea will come. Don’t beat a dead horse. There is no room for mediocrity in the arts - we see plenty of it – if you want integrity. … in fact, that’s good advice for life in general..
Brian: I wish I had good advice for myself.
Come to the DarkBird show at Kitty Cohen’s and see the full band!
Kelly Barnes: vocals
Brian Cole: synth & guitar
Chris Spencer: bass
Damien Howard: guitar
Ethan Yeager: drums