Sometimes ideas are too big for just one album.
While creating his two new releases under the name Darling Lily Gave, Taylor Donskey sought therapy through music, writing many of the tracks during sleepless nights. Cartograph and Lomograph are two halves of a whole, using unconventional instruments like a toy piano and camera, with ideas that are complex but simple, music that’s choppy but fully thought out, and lyrics both accessible and a hair beyond what you can imagine.
We caught up with the songwriter before his dual album release at Icehouse tonight to talk about his dark state of mind as he was writing and his unique recording style.
City Pages: There's a soft aesthetic to the pieces on this album. What was your state of mind when you were writing these pieces?
Darling Lily Gave: A very poor state of mind. Emotionally erratic. Incredible amounts of doubt, reactionary thinking, and sarcastic self-deprecation had been the M.O., so to speak, since being a teenager. Unfortunately, that's a self-perpetuating lifestyle, and it culminated in some dark moments. They were nothing new, and in the past there was always a wandering back to familiarity, but this time was different. Something changed, and frantically scribbling down arrangements, song forms, and lyrics became much more than a hobby. It began to hold everything together.
Making a record was now a real thing. It was going to happen. Writing little phrases or singing blips into my cellphone were suddenly therapy. Whole nights were spent arranging string parts on the computer, playing ukulele and singing so very quietly as to not wake up roommates. There was little fatigue. There was so much excitement for what was happening. Sort of a welling up in the chest. That excitement you get when you're front row, and the band you've been dying to see for years is stepping on stage. It's that feeling, but perpetuated each time work on the music started again.
The project felt like something entirely new. There was no perceivable end, and yet that wasn't paralyzing. Letting it breathe every once in a while didn't derail the train. All it had to do was be made and the urge to make it was there and palpable. It felt strange. It wouldn't go away. It was a bit worrisome at times, but in the end it was worth holding onto.
The “soft aesthetic” probably came from disordered sleep patterns. Whole days would, and still, go by without sleep. Sometimes it was better to keep awake than to get just an hour of sleep. When trying to sleep, it required the right kind of music. Film scores fit the bill, most notably The Arrival soundtrack by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. Lots of classical piano—Debussy, Liszt, and Chopin. Have a listen to “Un Sospiro” by Liszt if you've got the chance.
All the songs on Cartograph were originally written on ukulele, save “Off, Then On,” which were then arranged for the full ensemble. They each started out small, and it was in making them bigger that they became their own signature selves. That may be why they've taken on their soft aesthetic. Lomograph was reaction. So much whinging and whining about death and depression became a little unbearable. All of a sudden very abrasive and loud music began to pop in. Where Cartograph took a while, the material for Lomograph took a few weeks. It was so quick that it just melded into the work that was already being finished. Eventually both albums were recorded and mixed almost simultaneously.
CP: What's it like composing, arranging, and producing everything by yourself? Do you ever feel you need an outsider's point of view in a project?
DLG: Oh, wonderful! With the tools available, it's so very easy to hear back your own thoughts and melodies on a piece. It also allows songs to be pieced apart and back together again, which usually leads to something new. The original song is always there, but as you start adding a string part here or a melody there it begins to expand and contract. Things are all of a sudden irrelevant or misplaced. It's an audible puzzle with ever changing pieces, yet if you want it to be so, it will be. That's a great place to be, and a fun way to challenge yourself.
This project was so personal and so consuming. It was rare that anyone outside of it had a chance to listen to it before the final prints were made. That being said, working with [violist] Kirstin [McDuffie], [violinist] Mary Alice [Hutton], and [vibraphonist] Rosa [Thompson] has been awesome. They bring their experience working with larger string ensembles to the group. The trio is the center of the music and it is always worth seeing how they interpret what's on the page.
CP: You used a lot of unconventional instruments on this new album. Can you tell me how you came to choosing your instruments on Cartograph?
DLG: Oh, man, the vibraphone had such a clear and clean tone. So many influential tracks use it, but never enough of it. With many of the songs originating on ukulele, the four-mallet vibraphone sort of made sense. Four strings, four mallets. The string trio of violin-viola-cello was wonderful to arrange for. There's such subtlety with those three. They can arise out of nothing, pull your heart out then fade away imperceptibly. They are a joy to build a song with, as they cover everything in goodness.
The ukulele was the original instrument for composing and arranging, but it was only useful in the end as a texture. With how much the ukulele can overtly become its own “charm,” it felt necessary to use it as something to paint the background and have something stand apart from it.
The rest of the band—electric guitar, bass, drums, as traditional section—allowed for a certain control of the harmonic and dynamic shifts in the songs. When it needs to be big, it will get there. On Lomograph, it felt best to turn a few guitars and a bass up very, very loudly and do away with all this “dynamic” nonsense.
CP: You also recorded in a living room and a studio. How do you approach recording differently in these situations?
DLG: The living room recording was originally for some demos that ended up yielding some great tracks. I think “Off, Then On” from Cartograph and “Moving Duet” from Lomograph started there. Another few tunes that didn't make either of them also came out of that living room. On the whole, both Cartograph and Lomograph were recorded at Hideaway Studios. That place is magical, as most studios are. A few rooms dedicated to creating one thing. It's equal parts absurd and sensible.
The living room is so immediate. You're in someone's house and it feels like it. It’s friendly. That feeling sneaks its way into the song and gives it that subtle vibe. The studio is big, and completely wide open. It's devoted to the song. It can do nothing else really. It affords you so much freedom when you find yourself stuck, and it carries you along when everything is clicking. It's one of the best places to be. Please inter whatever is left of me in a recording studio.
CP: Can you tell me about the song "Straight Line Down"?
DLG: “Straight Line Down” has changed quite a bit. At first it was for someone who was far away and about the separation that made for a longing so intense. In the end, it was someone blindly fawning over something they can only see from afar. It was written very early on, perhaps a year before the project actually began.
Throughout the duration of the project, with all its undulations of self, it felt apparent to change things. It still retains many of its original lyrical elements, but with a few tweaks it now attempts to show someone the “held” part of themselves. A piece endemic to the whole but hidden away and neglected.
CP: Any other song that stands out to you on this album?
DLG: “Yours in Fare” was the first song that made the idea of putting an album together a reality. It was arranged on a single page of a notebook. Right next to the lyrics there's a series of frantic notes, instrument names, cues, and other assorted directions. It was the first song that received a string arrangement and the first tune to sound right when we began tracking. “She Was Born” has vocal tracks that never made it. As an opinion, “Off, Then On” is the simplest song that's ever had so many things put into it. “Stubborn Kind” is the most “ukulele” sounding tune—if it’s played on ukulele.
CP: How did you come to meeting Sister Species and sharing your album release show with them?
DLG: Connecting with Abby and Emily [Kastrul] happened a good long while ago through some musical friends, some of who play with them. We were all part of the same ether of friends, and it was inevitable that we finally meet.
As a film photographer it's been fun to capture their success both onstage and off, and Abby's confectionery and baked goods have routinely been enjoyed. Shoutout to Bakery Box—thanks for the birthday cake! Sister Species also sports a unique arrangement of instruments that will make for a rare evening.
Darling Lily Gave
With: Sister Species
When: 9 p.m Thursday, Feb. 22
Tickets: 21+; $8/$10; more info here