|New York has long been a hotbed for songwriters, from the Folk City-centered explosion of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, to the anti-folk uprising of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, to the vibrant current scene that supports the ten-year-old Brooklyn Folk Fest and a healthy open mic milieu that finds true believers like Stephen Karl and Joanie Leon Guerrero pouring their hearts and guts out every night of the week.
Once upon a time, three-chord buskers and punk-fueled sensitive singer/songwriters ruled New York’s song-oriented clubs. These days, a new melding of singer/songwriters and highly skilled post-conservatory musicians are harvesting elegant, noisy, impassioned, and timeless tunes, as exemplified by this split single by genre-pushing comrades-in-song Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals and Darlin Darlin.
“There’s definitely a scene in New York of people who are in their late 20s to early 40s who went through serious academic music training, from Julliard and Yale, and now they’re [returning to basics] as songwriters,” said Karl, whose resume includes a master’s degree in classical guitar performance, guitarist for Antony and The Johnsons, and the driving force behind the experimental instrumental ensemble Redhooker. “I missed words. I missed writing words, and a lot of these people found a similar trajectory as me, where I’m not honoring my musical heritage if I’m just practicing Bach all the time. My community is more people like that, which is outstanding because it means a lot of the players are high level and we can put a band together where everyone’s got the chops and the ears.”
“I think we’re all just trying to create a community,” said Guerrero, singer and co-guiding light (with romantic partner and multi-instrumentalist Brett Parnell) behind Darlin Darlin. “I grew up in Virginia, and I really got into music after I graduated from high school and moved to [Washington] D.C. right after. There’s such a strong community of musicians there. Everybody goes to everybody else’s shows, and people are really supportive there. I feel like New York is all about curating a vibe. D.C. is more like, ‘Here, you guys have a good thing going on, do it here.’”
Towards making a scene, the two Brooklyn-based bands have played gigs together and collaborated musically and communally. The marriage is made official with a four-song split single EP released today. Karl’s tunes, “Shelter” and “Cyndi,” are pretty slices of life that evoke his Dylan-Minnesota roots and highlighted by trippy Bowie-worthy pop vocals, while Darlin Darlin’s haunting “Easy” and “Katy, TX” suggest fellow New Yorkers Ollabelle and the Golden Palominos. Both bands bring a raw freshness to a time-honored tradition.
“Joanie likes to describe Darlin Darlin as ‘Dolly Parton meets Nick Cave,’” said Karl, of his friends’ dark lilt. “My heroes are Prince, Springsteen, Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt. A lot of these tunes that were written around this time deal with romantic relationship struggles: ‘Shelter’ is an honest story of a relationship that is failing, but it does it in an honest, compassionate, and not-too maudlin way by acknowledging what I’m experiencing, and what I love about the woman I’m losing, and how I basically do want the best for her. I felt like it was important to show that side, but I also wanted to present a fun story, and ‘Cyndi’ is that—about a night when I was 25 and got a kiss from Cyndi Lauper.”
For both Darlin Darlin and Stephen Karl & Handsome Animals, “what comes out” is beautiful. And from the sounds of things, this four-song EP is just the beginning.