As a whole, Melbourne’s local music scene is incredibly diverse and has often been described as Australia’s live music capital. I have no doubt, Melbourne still holds that title and amongst the incredible array of artists who sellout local venues, you will often find James O’Brien at the head of his band Darling James. O’Brien was the former frontman of The Boat People, where he shared with his colleagues an incredible adventure touring the world. After three equally incredible albums with this outfit, James moved on to other projects, which in turn eventually led James to give life to the songs he had written for Darling James debut EP Theory Of Mind. An EP rich with a wonderful collection of diverse sounds and influences with lyrics that have been described as ‘diary-like’.
As it turns out, I came across Darling James one lazy Thursday night a few months ago and was immediate struck by the intelligence of this incredibly talented individual. He certainly struck me as someone who was sincere and humble. Why not ask him for an interview, my inner self said. So I did. Here’s what we talked about.
There is so much about you that is interesting James, that honesty mate I don’t know where to begin. I will get to your prowess on the loop pedal soon enough, but how about you tell us something about your successful days as part of The Boat People. What are some of the best memories you have?
You’re too kind. Well I was touring with The Boat People for ten years so a lot of my memories involve travel. We did about seven trips to the U.S. which were all very memorable and eventful. On our final tour we opened a huge outdoor show for Crowded House which was a pretty amazing night given that their albums were so important to my beginnings as a song writer in my very early teens.
I am a big fan of Kate Miller-Heidke, and it came to me as a surprise to learn that you played bass on her acclaimed Night Flight album and spent some time on tour with her too. What was that experience like and what did you learn about our Kate?
I always really enjoyed playing with Kate. She has an amazing work ethic and is an incredibly focused person and I’ve always really admired her for that. However she balances that with an ability to enjoy herself and just joke around as well. I’ve always struggled with balance in my life and she’s very good at that.
You’ve turn to several different projects over the years, one of which was clearly a smart move with Darling James. Was bringing your experience to this project any easier from what you did previously?
Darling James has felt like the culmination of all the things I’ve done previously, which might seem obvious as it’s the latest thing, but it really does feel like that. There’s one important twist too – I’m on my own essentially, at least in terms of who I’m answerable to. That means that every decision is up to me. There’s no one to please, but there’s also no one to default to. I’ve got a great live band and that takes off some of the pressure but ultimately if things aren’t working it’s on me. I’ve never really had that before, and it’s both amazing and terrifying.
One of Darling James most interesting singles is Indonesian Cigarette, described by James himself as “the behemoth of the EP”. Check out the behind the scenes look at the video which was filmed in Jakarta here.
What was your first instrument? When/where did you start playing?
Keyboard and archaic sequencer! Our school had an Atari and a Roland keyboard and after some training we were allowed to use them on our own and make songs, which were usually instrumental ditties. I learned a lot about arranging from doing that.
In a series I am currently writing about my favourite bassists, I make mention how the bass is sometimes really obvious that its deep pulsating or throbbing sound truly makes a song. At other times the bass can be so subtle that it is almost lost teasing us with an array of atmospheric sounds. What draws you to the bass and can I ask you who is your all time favourite bass player?
I don’t think I was ever particularly drawn to the bass. Like a lot of people I started playing bass because there was a need for a bass player. I like contributing to songs, and I’m not particularly fussy about what role I take. I have spent a lot of time playing bass though so I have thought a lot about what that role should and can do when arranging a song. In terms of playing I don’t tend to focus on individual players heaps but I do really enjoyed the contributions from Nick Harmer from Death Cab for Cutie and also Herbie Flowers, who played on a lot of great records by Harry Nelson, Lou Reed etc..
What were some of the early experiences with music that made you want to be an artist and touring musician?
I think I’ve always been motivated by the enjoyment of new experiences that involve music. Travelling is a very clear way that that can play out. My first ever Australian tour was in 2001 but in 2000 I took a holiday with some other musicians (who ended up becoming The Boat People) and we played some shows in France. I probably got the bug from that. The next trip I took with music was to Adelaide, so, um not quite as exotic. But I always enjoy it wherever I go. In terms of being an ‘artist’ I do think this is an interesting question because I’ve never wanted to be a ‘player’, as in a working musician. Playing music is only interesting to me when it involves building something new. Just ‘playing’ isn’t something I find stimulating enough to motivate me to do the work you need to do to make things happen in the industry. I don’t get that gratifying buzz of playing fast or whatever that some musicians get. I have to be contributing to new work, new music.
A few months ago, I saw you play in an intimate setting in Melbourne’s inner north and it’s fair to say I was complete mesmerised by your ease at using a loop pedal. I read somewhere recently how Ed Sheeran was accused of not playing live, but to a backing track. You and I know that is a load of rubbish. I’ve seen it in use through your show. It’s an amazing device that allows you to record your guitar (and effects) before ‘looping’ it, so you can play with an array of sounds on your own. Have I explained it right? What else can you tell me about it as an art form?
I do sometimes loop material in my solo shows but I also trigger a lot of pre-made tracks and samples so I have to be careful that I don’t end up taking credit for doing more than I have been here! Looping is very ‘in’ right now and there are plenty of people who are far, far better at it than me. For some songs it works really well but you are tied to a ‘building’ style of arrangement and also key changes are difficult or impossible so for some songs I don’t loop at all. I’ve enjoyed exploring yet another way of making music though.
God’s Graffiti is probably my favourite track on your EP about the intrinsic nature of regret and redemption. Which is your favourite track on Theory of Mind and why?
Thank you. My favourites are usually based on what I’m not as sick of at that time!! But I really like ‘Ache and Bend’. It feels different to me. The structure is very simple but it works. And the recording features some wild sax playing from Scott McConnachie which has freaked out more than one reviewer.
As a musician and songwriter where do you find inspiration for the eclectic collection of songs you have released over the years?
I listen to a lot of non-western music and I studied jazz, so I think it’s music from outside the ‘popular music’ realm that pushes my buttons a lot of the time. Nothing within pop music ever seems that strange once you’ve been listening to girl cut sick on a Chinese Sheng for two hours.
What can we expect from Darling James in the future?
Lots of tunes, but not as many as I’d probably like!
Darling James debut EP, Theory of Mind is out now through iTunes and Spotify. You can also visit or contact Darling James via his Facebook page and twitter feed @DarlingJamez
Photo Credit: The press photo of Darling James is copyrighted Nick Manuell/supplied by Darling James. It cannot be used without their expressed permission. I am not the uplodaer of You Tube clips embedded here.
I love his music. And I’d almost kill to have a quiff like his!