Those Darlins’ third album, Blur the Line, surfaced in late 2013 at the tail end of a trying two-year stretch for the Nashville country-punk crew.
In February 2012, founding member Kelley Anderson left the band, and early attempts at recording following her departure could be termed disastrous at best. The quartet initially booked studio time in the spring of 2012 hoping to knock out the bulk of a new album. Yet when sessions wrapped it had little to show for its efforts.
“We got to the end of the three weeks and … we didn’t have anything,” said Jessi Zazu, 24, reached at home in Nashville for an early February phone interview. “It was a tough year, and I can’t say there weren’t disheartening times, but I don’t think there was ever a time … anyone said, ‘I don’t know if this is going to work out.’ It was more like, ‘We have to figure out how we’re going to make this happen.’”
Taking a page from Louis C.K., who spoke of revealing more of his personality in a memorable 2010 speech — “When you’re done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs and you throw those away,” he said, “you can only dig deeper and start talking about your feelings and who you are” — Zazu responded to the challenge by entering an extended period of intense self-analysis. She’d often spend hours at a time staring at her own face as she sketched out an increasingly revealing series of self-portraits (these drawings formed the backbone of her solo art show “Spit,” which debuted earlier this year at Nashville’s Ovvio Arte). Her songwriting, in turn, started to follow a similarly naked path.
“The songs started becoming a lot more personal,” she said. “I was opening up a lot of scars and wounds that had been sealed for a while — bad memories and situations and intense feelings — and I realized I had to write about those things because they kept coming up in my mind. It was hard to face myself in a lot of situations, but I realized the best thing was to be a little more honest and show more of myself, because that’s all I had.”
One song, for instance, grew out of a codependent relationship anchored in a shared weakness for the bottle — an unsurprising development coming from a musician who once penned a tune about getting plastered and eating an entire chicken (“The Whole Damn Thing”).
“I was writing about … the pains of being in a relationship revolving around alcohol, and feeling like every time I was with that person it was a spiral where I couldn’t think of anything else,” Zazu said.
This more personal direction, which the singer attributes at least in part to the natural maturation process, is further reflected in the decision to drop the Darlin surname that once bonded the bandmates in Ramones-like fashion (Jessi Darlin, Nikki Darlin and so on).
“When we started the band I might have had a strong sense of identity for a 17-year-old, but I didn’t have any idea who the hell I was — I don’t really think any of us did — so our identity was our group identity. We were a band, and that’s who we were,” Zazu said. “Somewhere around [the time] we started writing these songs I started to feel more like I was putting on a mask [by using the Darlin name], and I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this.’
“I want to be a performer where people feel like they’re watching me and they’re listening to me and it’s not just an act or whatever. It’s like, ‘This is who I am.’”