It's September in East Nashville, and Jessi and Nikki Darlin are drinking soda water at Ugly Mugs, coming down from their tour with Mumford & Sons.
"The whole time I was down there, I was like, 'Where are we again?' " says Jessi. "I couldn't remember which state we were in, because it's like they create their own little world. There was one stage, but it was Bonnaroo-size."
A little over four years after their debut album, Those Darlins continue their face time with the national press. They've been name-checked by the dean of music journalism himself, Robert Christgau, and plastered over commercials for the Kia Sorento. On a more local level, Helen Lovejoy types — whipped into a frenzy by WZTV-Fox 17 coverage — clutched pearl necklaces over the album cover for their most recent effort, Blur the Line. Cluttered with naked limbs sprawled together in a flesh heap, the album cover was draped over the Grimey's storefront, thus setting off a social-media shitstorm.
When asked about the Buttgate incident, Jessi shrugs. "I think it sheds a light on how conservative the South and Nashville can be."
Nikki pipes up. She's clearly tired of the media's fascination with naked bodies and conflict.
"I didn't think it was really negative," Nikki says. "I thought the argument was the most exciting thing about it. There are way more offensive billboards everywhere that are more graphic or insinuating sex."
"The attention can get to you, but that's part of the process," Jessi adds, nodding in agreement. "That's part of the reason why this album is really personal. To get away from that outside perspective, we had to go really far deep within ourselves."
In retrospect, Those Darlins' brush with the national press seems inevitable. Their sound parlays a mixture of sensitivity and toughness with plainspoken country poetry and gritty rock edges. The songwriting has assumed different shapes over the past albums, and yet distinctly remains rooted in Those Darlins' signature sound.
"It's because we are in constant growth with ourselves," says Nikki while shooing a fly away from Jessi's back. "That's why there is an evolution in the songwriting. But it's also because we don't write things that aren't ourselves. We are making music about the way that we are."
Blur the Line adds its share of other elements to the mix as well. For starters, Those Darlins teamed with noted local producer Roger Moutenot (Yo La Tengo, Sleater-Kinney, Lambchop). Moutenot definitely delivers here, too: The overall dynamics are broader, with mewling guitar lines and cow-punk balladry packed with genuine emotion. Jessi Darlin's vocal performance on opening track "Oh God" ranks among her finest work yet.
"Roger built up everything step by step," Jessi says. "He worked with us on the arrangements and making sure that every part had its spot. It wasn't like too much stuff on top of each other. Everything had space."
New blood is the overarching theme here. Founding Darlin Kelley Anderson parted ways with the group before the recording phase and was ultimately replaced by new bassist Adrian Barrera.
"We spent a lot of frustrating time just trying to make up for Kelley's missing part," Jessi says. "When we started practicing with Adrian, it was an immediate connection. He had good chemistry with us. He sort of fit in where we needed him to fit in."
Jessi and Nikki Darlin are the first to admit the chaotic circumstances around the recording of Blur the Line.
"But it's distinctly us," Nikki says. "We are just trying to be as natural with everything as possible."
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