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By Jeff Gage
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A fixture on the Twin Cities music scene for nearly a decade, Darren Jackson made an abrupt exit in the fall of 2010, returning to his tiny hometown of Bison, South Dakota, and reinventing himself as a K-12 music teacher. He left behind a failed marriage, a shuttered recording studio, and arguably the most impressive oeuvre of any Minnesota musician in the 2000s. A chameleonic performer and songwriter, Jackson had proved compelling as both a velvety crooner with an unerring ear for hot licks in power-pop Picked to Click winners the Hopefuls and a macabre master of unsettling yet oddly mesmerizing dirges in Kid Dakota.
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Never one to be coy in either his songs or interviews, Jackson offers a succinct and straight-shooting explanation for returning to Bison: "After I got divorced I went into treatment and decided that I wanted to broaden my horizons in terms of my career options, because I had been running the studio in my house for a long time. I got an opportunity teach music back in my hometown, even though I technically don't have a teaching degree, and I just decided to go for it."
Jackson's rocky recent past and current life on the prairie provide the primary inspiration for Kid Dakota's long-in-the-making fourth album, Listen to the Crows as They Take Flight. It's a harrowing and intensely personal album that finds Jackson's caustic lyrical eye focused on tattered relationships ("Dawn Did Us Part," "Torn in Two," "The Winter Without You"), and shaky hopes for new beginnings ("Jay's a Wreck," "Dreaming of the City"). The lyrics frequently feel like a hyper-confessional autobiography: "Almost out of here, no more wasting time watching the weather channel/No more reading the road maps, see I'm ready to travel/I've been on my best behavior/I'm putting puzzles together with my grandmas/I'm almost out of South Dakota."
"I guess I have been very candid in the past and I continue to be," offers Jackson. "I don't really feel the need to filter my work for any public audience. That never really crosses my mind. I've never had qualms about writing songs about traumatic times in my life."
Even as Jackson's lyrical world remains pitch-black—the "topical" songs include ruminations on wicked warlords ("War and Pieces") and the Heaven's Gate cult's mass suicide ("Extra Ordinary")—Kid Dakota's melodies are brighter and more varied. While there's still plenty of the loping minor-key magic that defined previous Kid classics like 2004's The West Is the Future, there are also highly rewarding detours into insidiously catchy indie-rock ("Jay's a Wreck") and slickly layered keyboard-coated pop ("Extra Ordinary"). With the Hopefuls now on ice, Jackson has been freed to finally unite the light and dark sides of his melodic mind on the same recording, and the result is the best album of his career.
Fans hoping for plentiful local gigs in support of it, however, had best not hold their breath. For now Jackson remains content teaching in South Dakota and periodically making the nearly 10-hour trek to perform in the Cities (he readily admits that his focus these days is rarely on songwriting and claims not to have written much material since starting teaching). After spending a decade actively chasing a music career—at one point he ran both a bustling home recording studio (Short Man) and record label (Speakerphone)—Jackson sounds at peace with his decision to step off the treadmill and re-engage with music on new terms.
"When I first started writing music in my 20s it was very exciting because I was so new to it and I was sort of slowly making my way while working a lot of crappy day jobs," Jackson reflects as our conversation winds down. "Then when I finally settled in Minneapolis and achieved some level of success, things changed. Unfortunately, I think at some point writing songs and working on music became less exciting and more of a job. I no longer loved doing it. Now that I've written a lot of songs and put out a lot of records my relationship with music has definitely changed. Right now my focus is just on improving as a musician rather than my own songwriting. With my teaching I spend a lot of time playing the piano and the drums, and that's been great. Just that process of rediscovering and learning new things about different instruments is what has me excited now. I've been playing jazz and classical piano a lot, even though I'm not very good at it. It's very challenging and it's forcing me to learn. I'm not so sure that was happening when I was writing songs anymore."
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