Everything in his little patch of Texas was blooming except for those high skinny weeds, and Darden Smith couldn't decide what to do about it. The Austin-based songwriter had had a plan for his back yard, once upon a time. The earth between his house and his home studio had been sown with wildflowers and prairie grass, and the idea was simple: Don't water it and see what happens.
It wasn't a matter of allowing the lawn to go to seed, you understand. It was about having faith in the letting go. And that was the sort of faith Smith had tried hard to cultivate for the past six years. A highly respected singer and writer with his roots in Texas folk, Smith had been recording and releasing albums since 1986, and he'd become all too familiar with the vagaries of the business.
His self-titled 1988 Epic debut had placed two songs, "Little Maggie" and "Talk to Me," on the national country charts, but Smith's aesthetic was more closely aligned with folk than country. Subsequent albums were well-received--particularly 1993's Little Victories--but Smith had opted to expand his palette on each, working with a succession of producers and in a variety of idioms. The talent and the strong songs were there consistently. But Smith never produced any singles on the order of his earliest two, and his contract was dropped.
Darden Smith with Doug Burr
Poor David's Pub
In the grand scheme of things, though, Smith believed he'd been successful. He'd managed to avoid getting pigeonholed despite early success in the country market, his muse was delivering and his songwriting talent was gaining him a faithful listening base. He released one more album, 1996's Deep Fantastic Blue, on indie label Plump.
And then the wheels came off. The phone stopped ringing. Worse, nobody called back. The law of diminishing returns, as the music industry interprets it, had finally taken effect. With everything around him in a state of uncertainty, Darden Smith found himself in the middle of a dry patch. 2000's Xtra, Xtra, consisting of previously released songs newly recorded, was the only album he put out during that six-year period.
Slowly, however, he began to write again. By the time spring 2001 rolled around, he'd collected a solid bunch of songs and felt his faith returning. Still, there were doubts. And standing in the back yard, looking at all the wildflowers seemingly in danger of being choked by Ethose mammoth spike-stemmed weeds, Smith had to wonder if he'd made a mistake in trusting the vegetation to take care of itself.
At last he decided to break his own promise and intervene. He'd just made the decision to pull those plug-ugly weeds, he reports, when a friend happened to stop by. Smith brought his visitor to the back yard--where, after a moment's survey, he got a revelatory shock.
"Those aren't weeds," his friend informed him flatly. "Those are sunflowers."
In a few weeks, they'd blossomed into the most beautiful things in Darden Smith's corner of the world.
To call Sunflower a creative rebirth smells of hype, and in any case Smith's songwriting talents never diminished. But there's no denying that the man performing on Sunflower sounds newly invigorated. In a way, his hiatus from the music business might have been all the blessing he needed.
"When I wrote those songs," he says, "I was as far removed from the business end of the music as you can get, really. I didn't have a label; I didn't have a manager. I was just out there, by myself. Nobody cared what I was doing. I couldn't get anyone to return my calls. In a way that was good, because I never had anybody listening to what I was writing and trying to get me to do it another way."
So far, so good. "But after I was done nobody was interested, either," he says, chuckling darkly. "But you know, after a certain point you just keep doing what you do. You just keep writing and recording and trusting whatever happens to be the right thing. You trust things to settle, eventually, in their proper place."
Elsewhere, Smith has made similar observations about trust and taking chances: "At a certain point you have to make the record that you hear in your head," he writes on his Web site (www.dardensmith.com). "There's no guarantee that it's going to sell anyway, so you might as well do what you want to do--much as anyone will let you. Fortunately, I'm at the stage where I have complete freedom. I think if you're not out there risking something, people aren't going to be as identified with what you have to say."
As it turned out, Smith took his best chance when he sent the tapes to Dualtone, whose principal owners he'd met in 1991. Dualtone was interested from the first conversation ("They answered the phone," he reports dryly), and Stewart Lerman signed on to produce. In a neat bit of synchronicity, Lerman had previously produced Loudon Wainwright III's stunning 2001 album Last Man on Earth--which, like Sunflowers, was released on an indie label after the majors shortsightedly passed.
"Loudon's the shit," Smith says. "And it's really illustrative of the trouble you can get into, because here's a guy you'd hope would never have trouble putting out a record, you know? But you'd be surprised, man."
As evidenced on Sunflower, Smith's brand of songwriting deals, like Wainwright's, with risk--and with the spaces that open between people as a result of it. The narrator on "Perfect Moment" observes that "flowers cover the land/They've been waiting patiently/For the right raindrop to set them free." That line, the one about the right raindrop, speaks volumes about Smith's subtle lyrical sense; luck, goes the old adage, is a combination of preparedness and opportunity.
By contrast, consider the protagonists of "Satellite," who can't seem to risk letting each other go despite being caught in a bad relationship: "You want me/To be caught in your gravity/You pull me in/Then you push away again." Smith's own notes on the song are worth quoting at length: "I've got a couple of friends who've been trying to leave each other for 12 years. They get scared at the last minute and hang in for another year. Neither one can make up their mind. It's so tiring and dramatic. I wrote this out of frustration at one of his silly moves. He once told me it was his favorite song of mine. I don't think he got the joke."
Smith's narrative and poetic sense on Sunflower runs the gamut from the sheer joy of "Perfect Moment" and "New Gospel" to the wry humor of "Satellite" and "After All This Time" ("Throw words like little knives/Treat love like it's a game/Baby we both know how to tell a lie"). The album's guitar-heavy arrangements largely rely on Smith's own consistent acoustic folk-rock sound. But Sunflower will be a surprise to listeners who expect the contemporary folk medium in which he's frequently worked. Shifting time signatures and occasional dabblings in ambient sound reflect Smith's expanding, eclectic musical diet--which, itself, might surprise his fans.
"When I started out, all I knew how to play was country folk, so that's what I wrote," he says plainly. "But over the years the music I listen to has spread out a lot. I began to hear music differently. Part of that process was conscious--I got bored with the stuff that I was doing. I'd hear great music and think, 'Wow, where'd that come from?' So I began to experiment and buy records.
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"And some of it came through people who take the time to introduce you to something new. When I was traveling and meeting people, that happened a lot. People can sometimes turn you on to a record you'd never hear otherwise, and it can lead you down a whole new road. That Coldplay record [2000's Parachutes] was unlike anything I'd heard. Radiohead struck me the same way. And lately I've been listening to that album by William Orbit, Pieces in a Modern Style. It's beautiful. So is Sade's new one."
So, for that matter, is Darden Smith's. Sunflower is being lauded widely as his best album since 1988's eponymous release; but whether or not Smith agrees, it's clear that the album is his testament to keeping the faith.
And those sunflowers in his back yard, the ones he thought were weeds? When the dry Texas heat came around, they were the only plants that didn't wilt.
"They seemed like a good talisman for this record," Smith muses in the album notes. "Songs are like weeds. You never know how they'll turn out. In a way, we're all like that, too. At a certain moment we're all a bunch of weeds, then we hit a good streak and it's blossom time."