Jason Darling has written scores of songs, made a few records and played in more bands than he can easily remember. Since his upstate childhood in Catskill, where he was bitten by the guitar bug, he has traveled the country and the world on the strength of his playing and singing. Currently playing guitar in NYC and elsewhere with James Maddock’s band and preparing to launch a new project in Germany, he agreed to talk to ROLL over lunch in the West Village near where, like many accomplished musicians nowadays, he works a day job.
How did you get started with music?
My mother had me late – I was unplanned. I have two older sisters and an older brother. They’re all two years apart, and the youngest of them was eight years older than me. So I kind of grew up with teenagers and I was exposed to a lot of music when I was real young. My parents roomed me with my brother, who was the oldest of the three of them. He had the nicest stereo I had ever seen in my life — giant speakers and hifi that I don’t know how any teenage kid could afford. But I had quite an early obsession with records. I fell in love with this one album, Foghat Live, and this song called “Slow Ride” that featured a lot of electric slide guitar (which I ended up getting into later in life.) I guess I was five or six and I was obsessed with the end of this double live record. Finally my brother got tired of putting it on for me and showed me how to work his turntable. So I would put it on all the time!
I saw my first concert when I was seven. I saw Foreigner on the Double Vision tour and I owned the album. I had records early. I didn’t really have any money except when I would get money for my birthday or something. I remember I got deeply obsessed with The Wall by Pink Floyd when I was like 9 years old and when I turned 10, I asked for that record as a gift. My mother and father were very religious so they were never really happy about any of it, but my mother bought me The Wall because she knew I wanted it so bad. I listened to The Wall obsessively and didn’t want to go to school after that. I would hide in the bathroom and it became a real problem. When my mother would ask what was wrong, I would say I don’t want to go to school, I don’t understand it. Obviously from the songs. Also, I saw that my older siblings were all leaving, they were graduating. And I thought, if I go to school, then I’ll have to leave. I eventually lost that battle and had to go to school. But there was an early music obsession.
What kind of music did you like listening to?
All my sibs had their own individual musical styles. My brother was into classic rock, what’s classic rock today but at the time it was pretty current. My middle sister would listen to progressive rock, like Yes and stuff like that. And my youngest sister liked the B-52s and Elvis Costello, kind of New Wave stuff. So I was hearing it all.
When did the guitar obsession begin?
I was pretty creative as a kid and when I was about seven years old, I built a Styrofoam guitar with markers and tape and sticks to play air guitar on. It was really quite nice. The two kids up the street would come and play with me and would always want to use this guitar. I would tell them if they got the materials they could make their own, but in a frustrated, failed attempt to take mine, we got into a fight and it broke. I was crying over it and my father said, do you want a guitar? And I said yeah, I’d love a guitar. My father plays French horn and trumpet, and he played guitar. When I was a baby he used to play for me all the time. He knew four chords and would make up songs for me. We went to a music store in Hudson NY across the river. I saw all these acoustic guitars and one I loved immediately. I showed my father which one and it was definitely too much money for us. So he talked me into this country-ish looking guitar that I didn’t like at the time. (Now I would love it.) He said why don’t you get this one, it’s a good guitar. So we put it on layaway. He put some money down and we were going to come back and get it the following week. By the following week, I was so excited about what I had in my mind as ‘my’ guitar. We showed up at the store and I ran inside and didn’t see the guitar. There was some confusion, my father was talking to the salesperson and seemed really annoyed. He came over to me and said, Jason, really act it up like you’re really sad. And I said, well, I am. He said the first guy had the flu and they sold my guitar by mistake. So the store manager came over and apologized and said since it’s your first guitar, pick out any one you want and we’ll give it to you for the same price. So I got the expensive one I originally wanted! So that was my first experience with a guitar and I looked on that as a good sign.
Did you have guitar teachers?
My childhood friend’s father was the high school music and choir director and a very great man. His name was Richard Churchill. I knew him well because both of my older sisters were singers. My older sister was the lead in all the plays in high school although she doesn’t sing anymore. At that time, Mr. Churchill was her conductor and he loved my sister. I spent every day with his son because he lived up the street. His house was a big old country home and there were guitars everywhere. So I would go over to his house to play with Brad but I ended up playing guitar and asking Mr. Churchill questions. I studied guitar with him as kind of a paid endeavor one summer. He taught me fingerpicking and everything and then his son, my friend’s older brother, went away to college and he got into playing guitar. His roommate at college, who I never met, was apparently a fantastic guitar player because when my friend’s older brother came home from college, he knew how to do these things I couldn’t believe. So I would run over as soon as he got home and spend hours with him. Finally he said, I’ll write the stuff out, like lessons. So every time he’d come home, he’d have a whole batch of lessons for me and I would learn them for the next few months while he was gone. Then he’d come back with more lessons and I just improved and improved. When I got into high school, I studied with Mr. Churchill as a teacher at Catskill for four years. We even did classes that he didn’t get paid for because we finally did everything the curriculum had to offer — he and I, and one or two other students who were that far into music theory. He would come up with his own curriculum for us on his own time and his own dime. He was a great, great man. So I got really far into music theory in high school. He was kind of a father figure to me so I was lucky.
Did you have a band?
In high school, I was in a bunch of bands but by the time I was a senior, I fronted my own band doing mostly guitar theatrics stuff with a drummer and a bass player.
Did you ever check out the Woodstock scene?
All of this was when I was young, all around the mid to late ‘80s. I graduated in 1989 and I didn’t have a bridge to that Woodstock scene. I knew it existed, but I didn’t get into that until a few years after I graduated high school, after I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston.
When I returned home from Berklee I was playing in a bunch of different local bands. A few of them played on Thursday Night Live at the Tinker Street Café, which was hosted by Nic Harcourt of KCRW fame. This was before he moved out West. A DJ named Dave Doud from WDST Radio Woodstock loved one of the bands called the Annese Band. The Annese Band was like funky rock and soul, a big band — keyboards, a couple singers, two guitars, and drums. I was lead guitar in that band. We would do Prince covers and stuff, it was danceable. I was also in bands that were playing punk rock and stuff like that. And I was also starting to do folk music. I got really into Bob Dylan but that didn’t really come out until I got to New York City, which was not long after this.
How did that come about?
My mother moved to be near my sister, so I moved to NYC and started to look for a job in recording studios. I had a list of 250-odd studios, a fax machine, and a resume that was a complete lie (like most resumes are) and I would call the studio and say I was looking for a job, they’d say send your resume and I’d just fax it. Electric Lady was like number 55 on the list. My cousin was going to NYU and I was in her dorm room one day and I said, ‘this is a big one, this would be like a dream.’ So I called and had a really good conversation with the receptionist, Sandy — she’s a friend of mine to this day – and she said there’s a couple positions and we’re looking for somebody. So I faxed my resume and had an interview. They called me later that day and I had the interview the following week. So I got a job at Electric Lady Studios.
Wow, Electric Lady, that’s major.
I didn’t know anyone in NYC at that time except for my cousin at NYU. Basically the Electric Lady Studios became like a home and a family. The first few days I was there, Sandy the receptionist asked me what I was doing in New York and I said, ‘I’m a guitar player and I want to play guitar for Joni Mitchell someday.’ She started laughing and said ‘you should talk to Gabe Gordon because he wants to do the same thing.’ So she called and put me on the phone with him and we didn’t know each other but we talked and talked on the phone about our love for Joni Mitchell. Gabe and I became fast friends. I’m indebted to Gabe, he introduced me to tons of people. I could go on and on with Electric lady stories.
I understand you connected him with Natalie Merchant and that you were up for the gig too.
Before I moved to New York City, I got to know some people who worked at Bearsville Studios and we became friends. I met Stefan Lessard, the bass player for the Dave Matthews Band. He bought a house there after recording one of Dave’s records up there. I used to go to his house and hang and play with him a bunch. Through Bearsville Studio I also met people from Natalie’s camp. Once in New York City, a great singer/songwriter named Freedy Johnston needed a guitar player so I auditioned. It was my first big audition in New York. So I went in and was very excited. I learned the stuff and it went well, but they hired this guy called Cameron Greider, a great guitar player who I eventually came to know. I watched him play tons and I learned a lot from him. But coming off this audition, I knew what I was up against in New York. I had been there and heard and met and seen what I was up against. And right after that, I got a call from people I knew in Woodstock who were working with Natalie Merchant. Those people called and said Natalie was looking for a guitar player and that I should audition. And I always thought I was going to play for Natalie. When Jen Turner, who I’m friends with now, played guitar on Natalie’s Tiger Lily record, everyone said ‘Jason, her guitar playing sounds just like you!’ That’s a compliment because I thought Jan’s playing was incredible on that record. So I thought it was going to happen but I just didn’t think I was ready. I said to my friend, ‘I’d like to do this audition but I gotta tell you I’m not sure that I’m ready for it but I know a guy who is perfect for this gig –Gabe Gordon, you should call him.’ Gabe got the gig and was doing Saturday Night Live the following week. He went in and got it and Natalie loves him. It’s going on like 15 years. I think to this day Natalie holds a warm place for me because I helped make that connection.
What were you doing while Gabe went off with Natalie?
I met a lot of people through Gabe so when he left, I ended up picking up his gigs, one of which was with Leona Naess. Not long after I joined Leona, she signed a record deal with Outpost Records, a subsidiary of Geffen, started by Scott Litt and Mark Williams. They signed three acts and she was one of them. I worked on her release, wrote with her, and did the arrangements. I quit my job at the studio and went to London for the record. I was there for over three months. When I had to leave for London, I didn’t have a bank account or even a suitcase. I was keeping my money in a cigar tin and it’s kind of embarrassing to say this but I threw a bunch of clothes into a laundry bag to travel with. So I showed up at this posh London estate with a laundry bag and guitar! I had no money, but then the record company gave me all my per diems up front. Suddenly I was rolling! We recorded the first half of that record at Rockfield studios in Wales. Famous place. “Bohemian Rhapsody” was done in the room we recorded in. Then the owner told me Rush loved our room and that Hemispheres was recorded there. I just felt like I had ‘made it.’(laughs)
How long did you stay with Leona?
So I stayed on for that whole record process and then Geffen got bought out and a lot of bands lost their deals. It took a year for management to find another home for her at MCA Records. In the interim, I got together with a bass player friend of mine, Jesse Murphy. I had huge admiration for Jesse, he’s a monster musician and his reputation preceded him. Before I saw him play jazz, I saw him play rock, singing too. So while I was waiting for that Leona thing to get off the ground, Jesse and I spent nearly every day together and we made a band called Bonnie Lundy. (She was a girl I went to grade school with.) It’s a punk record, with incredible jazz drummer Jochen Rueckert. He’s from Germany and has a bunch of projects and he writes books now. So Jesse and Jochen and I made this record and a year later, we had a record deal with a small indie label in LA. After the record came out, we were packing venues and we got a reputation downtown. Every time we played it was packed and the music was great…we worked hard on it. We actually mixed it at Electric Lady studio, which coming back as a client made it full circle for me. Right about the time we had to make a decision about the future of that band, Leona’s thing was about to take off for me. I was guaranteed to tour the world for at least two years and potentially be involved in what was set up to be a super successful record. At the same time, Jesse got offered the bass position for John Scofield. So we met and said ‘what are we going to do?’ And I said ‘you gotta take John Scofield, you’d be crazy not to take that gig.’ And I really always wanted to travel the world and get paid for playing guitar and this was my shot. The band was kind of heavy and punky and I wanted to play more folky, laid-back music. So we decided to stop the band.
What time frame was this?
1998 – 99 into 2000. Leona’s first record came out with $5 million behind it, tons of money and we toured all over the world. They tried everything –it was encased in Rolling Stone magazine, 50 thousand copies. We opened for Travis, which was a big band at that time, and we opened for them two or three tours. We went all over Europe multiple times, supporting David Gray in the states. There were all sorts of great opportunities, everything that a label could do. But certain things in music don’t always click. Radio jumped on it, the whole West Coast/San Francisco/San Diego/LA went nuts for it. But a film production company had an option to put “Charm Attack,” the single that the radio was playing, in the climactic scene in this movie that was coming out – Whatever It Takes. It was like a high school teenage movie. They were banking that the movie was going to be a big hit. They waited for the release of the movie to release the record, it was just a few months away. Radio was saying ‘we’re playing this record every day, where is it? It’s not in the stores.’ And they would say, ‘we gotta wait for the movie to come out.’ And radio got miffed about that. And then when the movie came out, it tanked.
All during this time I felt like I was doing ok, I was getting paid and I was playing guitar and that’s all I really wanted to do initially. But then it was getting strange too. I was seeing the intense business side of things and I felt there were a lot of opportunities where my life might be about to change…I might get rich, or not. So there was that up and down aspect. It put a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Leona went on to another record, which I did with her in London. I wrote a bunch of songs for it but after the recording of the record, I decided to leave rather than tour with them. I just wanted to go do my own thing at that point.
So what did that look like?
Before the second Leona record, I put out one record of my own. I went out to LA by myself and went into a studio called Lincoln Lounge with the owner, Steve Refling. He had an old Studer 88 tape machine. I played every instrument, laid down the drums and built all the tracks around them. That one is called Underground. After I left the Leona tour I went back out to LA and did another record with these musicians I met out there. I spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. At this point I just mostly wanted to play my own music so I wasn’t really looking for gigs to do. I don’t know how I was getting by, actually. In LA I met a guy named Jason Lader through Gabe. Gabe and I are very symbiotic in a lot of ways. Jason’s a successful producer and he had a studio and his friends were coming by, including Adam MacDougall, who plays with Chris Robinson Brotherhood and in the Black Crowes. Adam and I are still close. He played drums and keyboards on the record and Jason and I played a ton of instruments along with a bunch of other musicians, whoever was around at the time. Another guitar player named Joel Shearer, who played on Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, played some beautiful guitar parts. When I returned from LA with the record I met a gentleman named Eric Hodge who had a management company and they took me on. We did a bunch of showcases for all the major labels and ended up going with a company down in the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina called Yep Roc records.
Were you following some kind of plan?
Yes and no. I had an idea of what I wanted to be doing and some kind of understanding of what it took to get it. I had people behind me who believed in what I was doing musically and were trying to help me get out there, but in hindsight I think I just wasted a lot of time. The label wanted me to move to Baltimore, closer to them, and told them I wasn’t doing that. I just stayed around here and just like…I don’t think I always advanced on these opportunities. I didn’t want to move to Baltimore, but in hindsight I probably could have made it work. But music’s a tough thing. It was easier to stick around town and do a session here and session there, line up my dates and pop out of town once in a while. It’s different to really get in the car and get out there, live on the road for a few years. I mean, that WAS the plan but we couldn’t line up a booking agent and I think I used that as an excuse. Maybe I didn’t have the gall to live in my car going from town to town. To this day, I wonder if I’ll ever do it, still! But at that time I just basically focused on the records. It was harder to make records without a budget. It took months. It wasn’t like you went in for two weeks and everything was paid for. Musicians in New York and LA really lent their talents to my thing. I didn’t have big budgets for my records but people would hear the songs and were willing to contribute. I just feel fortunate that I know a lot of musicians and I get respect from them. I would see myself as a traveling troubadour but I was unable to risk it all. I also admire guys like Clark Gayton and Brian Mitchell – those guys are my heroes. They can be side guys and say ‘I just played in front of thousands of people’ but that’s not what it’s about for them…Clark will just play in a downtown bar the next night. I thought, ‘I’m going be like that!’
So how did you go about that?
Well, at that time I no longer wanted to play for other people. But my records weren’t really selling and I found myself in a dormant place, although I was always playing. I found this little cafe in the West Village when I played Bob Dylan for a Japanese television company. They offered $350 for someone who knew Dylan’s music and could play and sing. So I met the agent in a tiny little office plastered in headshots and he said, ‘Play me a Dylan song’. I played him two bars and he said, ‘That’s good, you got the gig, go to this place tomorrow morning.’ So I met this Japanese film crew and they took me around and I acted like Bob Dylan all day and it was really fun. I had the hat on and we went to all these places around the Village. Finally, we ended up on Jones Street in front of a place called Cafe Vivaldi. The cover photo on The Freewheeling Bob Dylan was shot on Jones St.
I played there in a residency for five or six years, really got my songwriting and performance together and I just started writing and writing. During that time I recorded a record in Brooklyn called Settling Dust. It featured Didi Gutman from Brazilian Girls on piano and Aaron Johnston, also from Brazilian Girls, on drums. We did it at my friend Chris Brown’s apartment studio in Brooklyn. My old friend Mike Tocci from Electric Lady came and engineered it. We did all the overdubs at his home studio and he mixed it as well as my record Night Like My Head. Truth be told, I think Settling Dust cost me like under $500 to make! I would love to hand Mike Tocci a sack of money one day and say thank you.
I should also mention that I switched management companies around this time and we got some funding to do a Fleetwood Mac type of band that assembled a few different songwriters/singers who all wrote and used harmonies. It was a songwriter I met from LA named Dan Zweben and a singer from NYC called Michelle Albano. We called it the Darlings and got a band together and we were playing the Living Room regularly. We made it as far as recording an EP but the band dissolved. When I saw Lady Antebellum I was like ‘damn, we were on the right track.’ My friend who was the manager still has the EP and he’ll play it and say ‘we had it’. When I hear it now I think he’s right. Very commercial stuff.
All this time I was living in the Chelsea and my whole life there came apart and I moved back to the East village. Basically started over. I ‘quit music’ at this time but basically I just made another record in my new apartment on Avenue A. Before I knew it, I was singing Jimmie Rodgers tunes at different bars with an upright bass player and a snare drum player. This eventually became a band called California. That was a four-piece harmony band with Gabe Gordon, Jesse Murphy, Aaron Johnston and myself. When Aaron wasn’t there, it was Shawn Pelton. Really the best musicians.
Where did you play in the East Village?
I kept a residency going for two years at a place called Supper, down the street. My girlfriend said you have to meet my friend, Wade St. Germain. He’s the bartender at Supper. So I went in one night after a gig. Jesse Murphy had his bass and I had my guitar and we stopped in there. In the waiting area, Wade asked us to play some songs, so Jesse and I just took them home. Within three minutes we had the whole place clapping along, it was magical. He pulled me aside afterwards and said ‘you’re here every Monday night.’ So basically we worked Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We played Monday night for about a year and then I went solo on Saturday nights. Then Bill Sims came in there, James Maddock started to come in also. David Hidalgo from Los Lobos was hanging there one night. I would go down there and look at Wade and just smile. I couldn’t believe what it grew into, we created a scene down there!
You talk like it’s not happening anymore?
Wade had some Canadian passport issues and he went home and they wouldn’t let him back in the country. He’s still not back to this day and that’s been about two and a half years ago. So when he left, I moved over to this bar my friend from Catskill owns called Dorian Gray’s. California was already playing Sunday afternoons there so it seemed like a logical move. That’s where I’ve been since and it’s going on two years.
How did you come to play guitar with James Maddock?
About a year and a half ago, I became friends with James. James ended up at one of my solo Supper gigs. He started to come regularly bringing his friends — like Willie Nile, David Immergluck and Teddy Kumpel — to see me. Every night he’d come in with these musicians and say ‘you gotta hear Jason Darling.’ Yeah, I love James. I made a comment that I was trying to get out there again a little bit and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and play for me, mate?’ I had seen a bunch of shows and I said ‘Man, I would kill to play that gig, that gig’s for me. Let me know when you rehearse and I’ll come by and play.’ He laughed and said ‘We never rehearse.’ I said, ‘This is going to be fun.’ So my first gig with him was at McLoone’s in Asbury Park. There were like 300 people and I had never played a lick with these guys. It was just count it off and go. But it went great. James has tapped into a nice group of people who really like what guys like he and I do and it’s brought some people to check out what I’ve been doing and James had let that happen. I’m just trying to keep a few balls in the air at this point.
Tell me about your day job.
Six years ago, the same time I ‘quit’ music, I decided that I wanted a job in an office with a steady paycheck. Freelancing and running around didn’t pay the bills. For me, it’s one of the greatest things I ever did. The freedom has enabled me to choose one or two gigs I really like and spend the rest of my time on my own thing. I do retouching for high-end beauty advertisements. We do the ads for Maybelline or L’Oreal and we take a model who’s already pretty much beautiful and make her look even better.
Oh, you’re one of those people who contribute to ordinary women’s poor self-image!
I want to state for the record that the art directors are the ones to blame and we just do what we’re told. So that’s what we do — it’s all photoshop and listening to music. There’s pressure but it’s fun, and it’s creative.
How did you get into that line of work?
During summers in high school, I went to FIT and took college credit courses. I was super artistic. But I didn’t want to go to a fashion school, I wanted to play guitar. So I have training, but no degree, in both fields. I always did art at the same time as I did music — drawing, sketching, stuff like that. I learned this and I did it.
What’s next in the music realm?
I just recorded about 34 versions of my songs, just solo acoustic and voice and guitar. Live, one take, 26 or 27 songs and multiple versions of a couple of them. I’m going to do a record with this company in Germany and I’m going to start touring over there regularly — Switzerland and Germany and other countries. This guy I met through a friend had been after me, I met him a few years ago and he loves my stuff. His boss loves the music and they’ve been waiting for a couple of years and I’m going to try to make that happen. I just sent them all the tracks and we’re picking them together. And then I have my personal shows going on here and the James stuff. I’ve also started playing for a great young singer from Nashville named Liz Longley.
That’s pretty much keeping me busy for now. And I’m always writing at the same time. In retrospect, I got in at a time when there was a lot of trickle down that I don’t think is there anymore. It’s a lot harder to get. It’s not like the old days when you could go from one gig to the next. When I think about it, I’ve been really lucky.
Featured Image by Josephine Bono
Kay Cordtz has been fascinated by music and musicians since elementary school when she ran home from school every day to watch American Bandstand. Since then, she has been a newspaper reporter, political spokeswoman, government science writer and freelance chronicler of local music scenes during a 30+-year career. She is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism