Reputation is a fragile thing, and in the frantic and fickle world of “pop music,” it’s especially so. It can take years of hard graft, both in studios and on potentially soul-crushing tours, to build. And it can take mere minutes – about the length of your average pop song – to destroy. That risk can make the thought of taking a chance anathema for some artists, who’d prefer to beat the drum of past glories until the skin snaps into shreds.
Typically, those artists tend to be boring as hell. Thankfully, Thomas D’Arcy is not that sort of artist.
D’Arcy is known to many indie pop connoisseurs as the front man for Small Sins, a Toronto-based band with three critically acclaimed albums to its credit (2006’s self-titled debut, 2007’s Mood Swings, and 2010’s Pot Calls Kettle Black). Some may even recall his time as lead singer and bassist for indie rock quartet The Carnations. But now, with the release of his first album under his own name, What We Want (Thomas D’Arcy Music/MapleMusic Recordings), he’s stepping out from the relative comfort and gang mentality of the band dynamic, and into the brave new world of “solo artist.”
It’s not that the method of working has changed that much. As with Small Sins, he recorded the bulk of What We Want on his own. And it’s not as if his time with Small Sins ended in a spectacular, acrimonious flame-out that completely soured for him the idea of being in a band. While that might’ve made for a hell of a good story, the truth is rather less messy. As D’Arcy tells it, the move to making music under the name his parents gave him stems from his creative ambitions, married to a desire to be able to do what he wants, when he wants.
“One of the benefits of just going out as Thomas D’Arcy is that I can put my name on anything,” he explains. “If I want to produce someone else, it’s something I can promote as my own. I could make some sort of short art film. I could write a book. Whatever it is, it’s me.”
“Calling yourself by your own name is something you do when you’re 33, and not 24,” he continues, warming up to the idea of the freedom a solo career affords. “I don’t want it to be one record after another anymore. We have the Internet now. We can do lots of different things.”
Of course, D’Arcy has always done “lots of different things,” encompassing writing music for film, television and advertising; playing with various artists during Small Sins’ downtime; and now, producing other artists. One of those extracurricular activities (and also the first to be released under his own name) was a critically revered cover of the entire Bad Habits album from The Monks from start to finish featuring a who’s-who of Canadian indie rock. The endeavor served as inspiration both musically and philosophically.
“A lot of the Monks stuff was experimental, taking risks I wouldn’t normally take and learning how to be a better engineer, all while cleansing my musical palate from time to time,” he says. Thus, armed with a bolstered sense of self-confidence in the studio, D’Arcy ended a self-imposed ban on writing new material and began work on what would become What We Want.
“I worked really hard on making Pot Calls… really good and kind of exhausted myself,” he says of the period immediately following the release of what would be the last Small Sins album. “And while I was working on it, I made a promise to give myself a year off where I wouldn’t write anything.
As the proverb states, a change is as good as a rest, and in D’Arcy’s case, he was attacking his new music fresh from experiencing both. But while some artists might be intimidated by such newfound freedom, D’Arcy chose to play to his strengths as a composer, singer, and musician. As a result, the music that makes up What We Want won’t throw the fans that warmed to Small Sins’ winning mix of electronic music and organic melodicism. The qualities that made Small Sins’ music unique – a deft use of dynamics, melancholy lyrics welded to pulsating pop, D’Arcy’s penchant for big choruses – all find a home on the new album, but are tied to a sense of musical exploration and lyrical depth that reflect D’Arcy’s growth as a musician, and otherwise.
Sonically, D’Arcy is still fond of what he calls his “trademark elements” of songwriting and arrangement – slow but dramatic builds, hooky vocal melodies laden with scores of overdubs. But with these new songs, his feeling of ease towards taking “bigger risks” can be heard throughout – whether it’s the burst of feedback guitar that drones towards the end of the album’s moody opener, I Can’t Wait, the strings that sweetly drench Talking on the Phone, the reverb-soaked vocal that ups the spooky quotient in Love Will Bring Me Down, or the dub reggae vibe that bounces throughout When We Get Into It.
Still, those who hold such Small Sins ditties as Stay and Why Don’t You Believe Me close to their hearts will instantly thrill to such tunes as I Wake Up Every Day and Credit!, two shining examples of the propulsive pop that D’Arcy excels at. Of the former, D’Arcy says it might be the song on What We Want that best represents his approach to writing a classic pop single, while the latter is perhaps the most effervescent admonition to the Entitlement Generation you’re likely to hear.
“Each song has a very different identity, and hopefully they kind of make sense together,” he says. Indeed, with four mixers riding the faders on the album (John McEntire, Jeremy Darby, Alexander Bonenfant and D’Arcy himself) it’s to D’Arcy’s credit that while he flirts with assorted styles and sonic treatments, What We Want is a completely cohesive effort.
Lyrically, D’Arcy’s talent for drawing from introspection while not disappearing up his own ass is on fine display on What We Want, but even by the songwriter’s own admission, it’s some dark stuff he’s dealing with. Themes of mortality and alcoholism and what D’Arcy calls “a lot of parts about being uncomfortable in one’s own skin” all wind their way through these songs..
“At some point I’d love to write a love song for my lady, but I just can’t” he says with a laugh. “I never feel like writing a song when I’m happy. So Small Sins songs were always sad – and so are these ones – but this album has a new sort of implication. One of change, and of trying to grow as a person.”
Fitting, given that it’s the first collection of songs that the recording and performing veteran has chosen to release under his own name. And now, driven by the giddy rush of freedom that comes with striking out on one’s own, D’Arcy’s work ethic – already just a shade shy of hyper-prolific – has been given a fresh shot of adrenaline.
“There’s never an end game as an artist,” he concludes. “I’m never going to finish a record and think, ‘Great – I’m done with music!’ If I come back home from the studio and want to listen to the song I’ve already listened to 100 times that day while recording it, it’s a huge success. But as soon as I’m done writing one song, I’m already thinking about the next one. And it’ll never end.”
– Barry Walsh – November, 2012