Ann Arbor’s Dani Darling takes soulful intergalactic lo-fi to new heights

Bands to watch

Jan 22, 2020 at 1:00 am
Dani Darling.
Dani Darling. Noah Elliott Morrison

If you're lucky, Dani Darling just might give you a celestial nickname, or as she refers to it, a "dreamer" name.

"My band is almost like my own little collective of dreamers," she says. Darling, née Danielle Davis, jokes that assembling her band was a bit like a journey down The Wizard of Oz's yellow-brick road, gathering willing players along the way. "I like to give my dreamers astrological or celestial names," she says. "Noor, my bassist, is Noor Borealis, and Joel is J Retrograde. We have a stand-in drummer, Emily Equinox."

Before Darling could open her eyes, she and her sisters appeared on the front page of The Ann Arbor News in June of 1984 for no reason other than they were born triplets. The beautiful black-and-white photo, which can be found online, shows Darling's mother at the hospital with a serene smile on her face, her arms filled with the three newborns, each with a tiny bow in their hair. When Danielle and sisters Nicole and Jacquelyn attended their first day of kindergarten, they were on the front page again, this time in matching striped shirts, ruffled skirts, sneakers, braids, and checkerboard smiles. (You can find this photo online, too, and it's as adorable as it sounds.)

"I've always felt like a sideshow," she says. "And once people found out we could sing, it was, like, 'sing triplet, sing!' I always felt like I was part of a spectacle."

The spectacle Darling refers to started at a young age when she and her sisters began singing together. But as they grew older, went to college, and moved into their respective careers — Darling majored in literature while Nikki became a flight attendant for Delta and Jacqui pursued music therapy — their musical sights drifted, leaving Darling to carve her own distinct path.

"I didn't get started back in new music until much later, actually," she says. "I finished school, I tried to write a novel because that was what I wanted to do, but I found that every time I sat down to write my novel, I'd look over and my guitar would be sitting there, and I'd pick up the guitar. I'm like, OK, I'm totally cheating on my novel with this guitar. I might as well start trying to play guitar and make music, make it my main squeeze."

After a brief stint in a reggae band (which schooled Darling in stage presence) and some time spent collaborating with King Jazzy B, and, later, transforming into SoulGalaxyGirl for the hip-hop collective the Black Opera (a project spun from the Athletic Mic League), Darling found herself confronted with a batch of beats but no real desire to be a hip-hop artist.

"I was like, who am I? So I was trying to figure it out," she says. "I'm more of an acoustic artist, you know. I write with my guitar, I have a big background in, like, old movie musicals and jazz. My favorite vocalist is Ella Fitzgerald, and Thom Yorke is one of my biggest inspirations. And I was just listening to all these beats and I'm like, wow, I don't know if this is for me."

Thus, Dani Darling was born: a new name, a new direction, and a new sound that's somewhere between lo-fi, R&B, chillwave, and REM sleep, all of which came together on Darling's 2019 debut EP, Nocturne. Inspired by a dream sequence Darling had, Darling and her band lift listeners from slumber and into a secret world in just 13 minutes.

"Stranger" is the perfect confluence of Darling's earthly and celestial selves, sounding every bit like a glitched-out Disney princess longing for something beyond the castle walls, perhaps while also humming along to Lauryn Hill on her Walkman. Meanwhile, "Sentimental" evokes the romanticism of strolling along the Seine.

As Darling and her bandmates gear up for performances at Willis Show Bar on Thursday, Jan. 23 and during Hamtramck Music Fest on Feb. 29, they're already working on Nocturne's follow-up, and according to Darling, it's a little more soulful, a little less lo-fi, and a bit more along the lines of Radiohead's more stunning In Rainbows moments, "Nude" and "Weird Fishes."

This time around, though still dreaming, Darling has focused her sights on the big big picture, one song at a time.

"I would say the inspiration was getting more into, like, the meaning of life, where we all fit in, in the universe," she says of the new record. "I really like philosophical themes like love, empathy, color, creativity, and courage, because, you know, going from being in a trio to being by myself and having anxiety, courage is a really big part of why it took me so long to get out there."

From the 2020 bands to watch issue.

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