Singer-Songwriter Van Darien Mixes Vintage & Modern On Picturesque New LP ‘Levee’ (INTERVIEW)

Nashville via Texas singer-songwriter Van Darien has the unmistakable gift of gracing listeners with a sense of place and song by her enrapturing voice alone. This enchanting talent came from in the blue-collar industrial backyard that Darien grew up surrounded by, and as a result, that aesthetic has remained engrained in her music since relocating to Nashville in 2015.  

On April 10th, Van Darien will independently release her full-length debut titled Levee, an album that strings together personal experiences bound by water and steel. Produced by Steven Cooper and JD Tiner at East Nashville’s Glass Onion Studio, Levee serves as a 2020 must-hear record that showcases her poignant songwriting with contagious elements of pop and Americana. Darien’s full-length debut features contributions from Brandy Zdan, Owen Beverly (Indianola), Thayer Serrano (Cracker, Patterson Hood, Nicole Atkins), Mando Saenz, Joey Green, and Maren Morris, with Morris co-writing the tracks “Low Road” and “Twisted Metal.”

Recently Darien spoke with Glide about preparing to release an album during a time when touring is temporarily occurring virtually and how morning breakfasts with her father inspired a steel-woven thread for the music on Levee.

A few weeks ago you live-streamed a solo performance during a ‘Live Music from Quarantine’ session with Americana Highways.  How was that experience for you?  

The online shows have actually been really cool.  The first one that I did, I performed completely by myself at home in self-isolation.  It was on my birthday, a pretty weird birthday. These online shows are bringing people together while we’re supposed to be isolated.  It ended up being really fun. I went from having a terrible birthday, to really feel the love between my friends, my fans, and myself. 

I imagine not having the technology that we have now, and this happening, would have really been isolating.  I think it’s cool that it’s bringing us all together.

Have you seen the same trend embraced by other artist friends?  Do you find that the community you are in has taken hold of the live-streaming model?

Yes, absolutely.  My hometown radio station in Fort Worth, 95.9 The Ranch, has been hosting three shows each day for local artists that they normally play on their station.  It’s generating a new circle of fans. Like, if you like this, then you might like this to. Somebody that you normally wouldn’t pay money to go to see perform live you can now get a free sample from the comfort of your home.   

It seems what you’re describing, given that the barriers to seeing someone perform online are so low, is it’s providing an opportunity for people to invest more time into discovering new artists.

We’re all stuck at home, and we all feel a little unsure of the future.  It’s nice to know that we’re all unsure together, and the music is a nice distraction from what is going on.

Has this affected any timetables you had planned, outside of just touring?

I am still trying to figure out what my radio plan is currently.  A big part of the reason that you do a radio push is that you can tour in these cities.  I’m still questioning that. I think about whether it’s going to be as effective if I cannot go and play shows around the country.  As far as music things go, for me that’s really it: just the touring and a reliance on sales through online stores. So I’m trying to figure all of that out.

You grew up in Texas.  How has your upbringing been reflected in your music and how has it influenced you?

Yes, I grew up in Weatherford, Texas, which is a little bit out in the country.  My Dad has a machine shop on our land, and ever since I was a little girl I can remember running into the back pasture and climbing on the cars.  When I was 18 we would scrap metal together. We would load up a back of a truck with a bunch of scrap metal and take it to the scrap yard in the morning, and that would be our money for the day.  Then turn around, fill up another truck, and do that the next day. That’s a big part of the way my brain works. I’ve always been attracted to dingy old cars, that sort of thing, and the characters at the machine shop end up in a lot of my songs.

It’s been a few years since you released your first record, Silent Sparrow.  In what ways have you evolved between that period and now?

Silent Sparrow was a pretty dark time in my life.  I was really working through some angels from a past relationship, a very toxic relationship, and it came out in that EP.  There’s a lot of darkness, and you can tell by songs called, “Holding Me Down.” The term, “silent sparrow,” is actually the way a woman might go about killing a man.  I think that Levee still has some of that darkness, but it’s contrasted with some really beautiful, dreamy sounds, and light heartened stories: there’s some love songs in there too.

Last year you successfully launched a Kickstarter to help support the release of Levee.  What was that experience like for you?

It allowed me to do a lot more things, and get my music out to more people.  I was able to produce vinyl and hire a publicist for the record. I would never have been able to afford that on my own.  

The whole process of Kickstarter was a boost of morale for me because I was able to connect with people that I didn’t know actually listened to my music, or even cared about my music.  It was really nice to get that interaction on a daily basis. It also taught me a lot about making promises and meeting deadlines, because as a musician I don’t always push myself to do that.  At the time, I had a friend who was working very hard to help me raise that money. I would say an idea and she would make it better. I was fortunate to be working with somebody that was pretty well versed with fundraising.  

I think about a song on the album like “Cardboard Boxes,” and I get a sense that there’s a sense of moving on, but also a sense of reflecting and seeing what’s been left on the walls.  Is that something that was intentional?

“Cardboard Boxes” is actually the only track on the record that I didn’t have a hand in writing, or co-writing.  My partner, and producer, Steven Cooper, wrote that song when we first moved to Nashville. I just loved the song so much.  I didn’t want there to be any filler on the record. Steven doesn’t consider himself a singer, but he’s a great songwriter. So I said, “If you’re not going to record this, somebody should,” and I was very pleased when he agreed for me to put it on the record.

Can you talk about the production process of the album?  How did these songs come together over time?

The way that we recorded the album was in these tiny spurts of time, where I would accrue enough money for four days in the studio.  We would choose a song, and Steven would call whichever artists or friends of ours that we knew would be able to contribute to the sonic palette.  Steven’s really great at dreaming up sounds and making them happen. He plays guitar, bass, some drums, so for things like steel-pedal and technical drum patters we would call our friends and Steven would curate a certain flavor for each track.

I feel like that’s why the record never feels monotonous because each song has specific parts that were dreamed just for that.  None of it was out of convenience. We did in a very specific, take-like, tailor to each song.  

Did you always know that these songs were coming together for a full-length release?  Did you have this idea in mind throughout recording all of these songs independently?

Yes, I knew that we had more than ten songs, but we wanted ten for sure.  One of the songs that we recorded with a different producer ended up not fitting the rest of the sonic makeup of the record, so right at the end of production, we finished the record, thought it was done, and I wrote a new song and felt that it really suited the whole theme of the record.  It’s a song called, “The Sparrow and the Sea.”  

I knew that the record was going to be called Levee, and I was really bummed that the song was going to have wait another two years, to breathe life into it.  So we decided to scrap this song called, “Easy Tiger,” which made room for “Sparrow,” which bloomed into a duet.  

Then Steven asked how I would feel about our friend Owen Beverly on it.  Before we moved to Nashville, Steven and I were huge fans of Owen’s band called Inlaws.  I got to sing a duet with one of my heroes, who now happens to be a friend. I just think it’s cool that the record is very water and steel focused, and the fluidity of the songs changing really happens in a real natural way.

Can you describe the focus you have on ‘water’ and ‘steel’ as themes on the record?

Yes, every song either has “American Steel” or “Twisted Metal” in the name, and there are lots of mentions of water or baptism-like actions.  You find yourself with these repeating themes in your songs, and ask what is this attraction to all of this metal and industrial stuff and all of this water.  I was talking to a friend about this, and said I wanted to call the record something like, “When Steel and Water Collide.” It’s a lyric from a Highwaymen song that I always loved. When I was telling my friend, she was like, “Why don’t you just called it Levee, isn’t that like a dam made of out steel that holds water?”  When you name your record Levee, you start to hear all of the songs that put “levee” into their lyric.

Going back to “The Sparrow and the Sea” for a moment.  The song struck me as a song where the subjects know that they can’t achieve what they really desire, but they’re both working towards that.  What can you share about this song?

I had the idea for that song about a decade ago after a breakup. After every breakup, I would always come back to that song thinking that I really want to finish that and that I wished I could sing that to that person.  It kind of just evolved over the years.

I’ve been in a really happy relationship now for the past seven and a half years, and my partner is also a traveling musician.  Oftentimes, I feel that I can see my person who I just want to be with, but we’re always in these different places. I think the meaning has evolved in that, but it originally came from a perspective of two people that are in love, but maybe they’re too busy and for whatever reason and can’t find a way to be together and make it work.  

“Twisted Metal” is another track that has a lot of power in it, particularly the chorus that comes in and punches so quick.  What was the image that you had in mind when working on writing this song?

It does come in quick; the whole song is basically the chorus.  It’s a lot of chorus. That song was really fun because it was either the first or the second song that we recorded in the studio and we had our friend Markus Midkiff in the studio with us that day.  He had this little keyboard with all of these sounds, and I said that I wanted the song to have sounds resembling drills, or like you’re hitting an anvil, just this really industrial sound. I was like, I want it to sound like we’re in a blacksmith’s barn where anvils are being hit and we’re singing about this; like sparks flying everywhere.  I really love the guitar solo too. We had a lot of fun with that one. Maren Morris and I wrote that song in about forty-five minutes, right before watching Game of Thrones.

Lastly, I heard that you co-wrote the song “American Steel” from the record with your Dad.  Can you talk a little about how that song came together?

When I am in town in Texas with my parents, my Dad and I will go to breakfast a lot.  One day over breakfast, I told him I had an idea for a song called “American Steel,” and I was like, “You could give me so many ideas on this subject.”  The next morning over breakfast, he gave me this small yellow legal pad, it was probably three pages of left-handed scribble, and on the very first page ended up being what would become the first verse of “American Steel.”  

Then, one of the co-writers that I’ve been working with for about ten years now, Joey Green, and I were in Nashville.  I brought him this idea and we fleshed it out into this really beautiful thing that I co-wrote with my Dad. The song says, “All that we will build here will outlive all of us.”  I like the fact that I’m saying that in a song that I created with my Dad that will be around after he and I have gone. It’s kind of a gift.

Top Photo Credit: Curtis Wayne Millard

Second Photo Credit: Zach Weber


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