Darrin Bradbury has made a career of finding revelations in the quotidian. His is a world of hard truths delivered with a satirist’s smirk, a place where the humor belies the inevitable loss and disappointment. But there is also a sense of deliverance. Yeah, we always lose in the end, but he demonstrates there’s power in communion, solace in storytelling. His first two records– Elmwood Park and Talking Dogs & Atom Bombs– are characterized by the conversational talkin’ blues of Bob Dylan and Todd Snider and his belief in full disclosure: to sing is to confess; to confess is to confront. And perhaps for a moment, we find a stay of execution, if not a brief victory.
Bradbury’s latest record, Artvertisment, is another sardonic embrace of life’s particulars. Tragic figures linger (“Mikey Shoulda Died” and “15 Shovels”), industry devastates a community (“Shiny Town”), and commerce threatens art (“Artvertisment”), but one finds relief in the simple life (“Pizza and Drugs”) and nostalgia (“Those Beautiful Days”). Yet Artvertisment differs from Bradbury’s other releases, surging with an intensity that hints at his punk roots and aligns him with kindred spirits like Bright Eye’s Conor Oberst and the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn.
Recently, Bradbury took a few moments to discuss his fall reading list, the importance of minutia, and life after the punk scene.
I saw a picture where you’re wearing a Bukowski shirt, and you’re next to framed Hemingway photo, so I have to ask, what have you been reading these days?
I just read Todd Snider’s book, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. I was on a bit of a Camus kick with The Stranger. I reread that a couple of months ago. And Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I reread a lot of books.
So you’re in Nashville these days, and I was wondering how you distinguish yourself up there. You’re not doing the typical country & western that many folks associate with that city. Is there a scene you fit into, or are you own your own?
There’s definitely a writer’s underground of people that are very much into the art of songwriting, and it’s not necessarily country or Americana. It’s more lyric-based artists, artists like Ryan Sobb and Jon Latham. It’s sort of the underground of the underground.
Your music has been described as satirical. Is that a label you’re comfortable with?
Yeah, I think that the joy in life comes from finding humor in the sadness. All my favorite authors did that.
What was your introduction to satire?
Early on it was Kurt Vonnegut, who is probably one of the heroes, or Mark Twain. Huckleberry Finn isn’t satire, but it’s in the line of taking an astute view at the American conundrum. Growing up, I was a huge fan of Richard Pryor, and I was an avid viewer of The Daily Show— John Stewart was my dude! Even going as far back as being fourteen years old and reading Catcher in the Rye, which isn’t necessarily satire. I turned to people with particular views that are rather pronounced about how they see the world.
Have you always looked to music when you want to tackle larger, more worldly concerns? Did music play that role when you were younger, or did that come with age?
That had to do with me not having very good handwriting or grammar. Songs were an easy outlet for someone who had pretty good linguistic skills, but not great motor skills. The songs and chords are very much like the page for me. At least that’s how I see them. I just see it as writing a book but without any paper.
You’re a creator of these mini-narratives that are full of details. What’s the source for your appreciation of details?
I think most things poetically are in arm’s length or whatever the last thing you said was. I don’t see a point in having to jump from point A to point Q. Usually, whatever you’re looking for to get your point across is right in the room with you. Then there’s how satire finds a relationship with the audience. It’s finding out where that deep chuckle is. It’s not like a “ha ha” funny. It’s a deep chuckle. That’s my favorite part of the job– laughing with the audience. There’s a pressure valve that’s released there.
The attention to detail is that for most people, life is pretty small. Not everybody gets to be Bob Dylan and speak to entire masses. My life is small– I go to the grocery store, I go to my local bar. Why would write about anything that wasn’t real to me? Randy Newman is a king of that. It’s very small details. I appreciate that kind of writing.
How much of your stuff is autobiographical and how much of it is stepping into a persona? Is it easy to step into that persona or write from the third-person perspective?
It’s all pretty autobiographical. The person who writes the songs is me, you know what I mean? And if you saw me in my day-to-day life, you would go, “Oh, that’s the guy who writes those songs.” But sometimes the songs come through with characters; sometimes they come through as myself. One thing I always try is that if there is a joke, I always try to make myself the butt of it because I think that most people see themselves as the butt of life’s joke.
Can I ask you about your roots as the creator? When did you write something and think, “This deserves my full attention. I’ve really got something going here?”
It had my full attention before I had anything worth saying. I was in elementary school when I started trying to write songs, and I probably didn’t write one worth a shit until I was twenty-five! But it had my full attention the entire time. I’ve been doing this since I was a little kid. I just wasn’t very good at it, or good at it in a way that related to other people until the last… Holy shit– ten years! I wrote a song called “True Love,” and that was the first time I felt I wrote a song that had value where anyone who heard it could get something from it. And it’s time-tested. Ten years, that song is still the opener of all my sets because it connects. The audience is the most fun part of this job, so if you’re not caring about how it’s coming out to them, then I think that you’re missing the point.
Was there a moment that changed your perception of professional music, a moment that democratized the experience for you, where you thought, “I belong on the stage as much as anyone else?”
When I was a kid in New Jersey– the South has always had traditional American music, but the North doesn’t– all we have is open mic night. I’m a product of open mic nights. I found them as a kid, and they were my church. I went to every single one of them in the tri-state area because there was nowhere else to play. Eventually, we started booking these coffee shops and these bars. One thing led to another, and we had these little scenes going, and then we started bands. The bands started playing these clubs. One show was this emo band called Shady View Terrace, a local legend band. They played at a VFW in Teaneck, New Jersey, and I remember being just like, “Wow! You can be that connected, you can be engulfed by the audience.” I miss that a little bit. Artvertisement is very much a tribute to my punk and indie roots, growing up to where everyone was standing in solidarity by standing in the front row and nodding along to your best friend’s band.
I was going to ask about the more aggressive, more intense sound of this record and what fueled the change. Was recording or playing the new material a cathartic experience?
The record still feels like an intimate experience. When I put it up against the other records that I’ve made, it still sounds like the same narrator to me. It still sounds like records you should be listening to with headphones, not blasting in your car. I’ve always imagined my music as pensive headphone music. But we did a live band show, and it was cathartic because that was how my youth was spent– making music that sounded like that. When I was younger, that’s the kind of music I made, so I wanted to make that music again, but I wanted it to be in the catalog of the music I make now.
Your songs are full of characters facing their own tragic circumstances. There are drugs, broken hearts, but there are also survivors. Do you see yourself as a survivor?
A lot of my family had drug problems, and in my younger years, I had drug problems. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was dealing with unchecked mental health issues by medicating with opioids. When I got help for the mental health issues, the drug issues sort of went away. My biological father was a junkie, and so was my brother. And the only reason I’m not is that I have the same gene, but I got addicted to making music and art.
I don’t know if I see myself as a survivor as much as I see myself as an observer. I think that I’m continuing to survive, so I guess I see myself turning into a survivor. But ultimately, I just knew at a very young age that it was my job to document life. That’s it. I like life, and I like even the parts of life the people are hesitant to look at in the eye. I’ve always had a hard time not stating the obvious, so it would be disingenuous for me to write about other things.