We caught up with Jessi and Nikki of explosive southern rock quartet Those Darlins after they played the main stage at New York City’s 4Knots festival.
The two guitarists were one third of the band when it first got started back in 2006, and the coolest thing about interviewing bandmates who’ve known each other for so long is how they can finish each other’s sentences like kid sisters. You’ll see what I mean. Anyways, the band kicks off a quick tour with Diarrhea Planet starting in mid-August, so we got things rolling on that note.
She Shreds: What’s your favorite thing about tour?
Jessi: Playing shows [laughs] And it’s fun when you’re on tour with a friend’s band and you all get to hang out. You get bored of having the same old conversation [with your bandmates]. We all know everything about each other.
Nikki: I have a lot of friends in other cities, so I usually just meet up with somebody and have dinner with them. Or we’re like, “Lets just sleep for a little while.”
Jessie: Mhmm. Sleeping. Low-key stuff is really some of the best times on tour. When you have like a day and you just got a hotel room—
Nikki: —and you’re like, let’s just watch movies!
Jessie: Yeah, that’s the best.
You’ll be playing from Blur The Lines, which you released fall. What was that process like of writing that album?
Jessi: We wrote the skeletons of the songs separately but then as a band—
Nikki: —we get together and were like “What if you did this here, or maybe articulate this better”, and just kind of help each other build the songs together as a band—
Jessi: —and that’s where our band mate Linwood comes into it. He’s part of the arrangements, melody. Wherever he needs to fit in, he fits himself in, but we do the beginning for the most part.
Nikki: We’ve tried to write all together. That’s more difficult.
Jessi: Only a couple times, but it’s happened. And then we’ve done stuff where we paired off.
Nikki: I feel like if we did it more often we could figure out a new way to do it. I think it’s still like, “This is kind of an experiment; let’s see how crazy we can make ourselves.” It’s kind of fun, but it’s also frustrating. It just depends. Me and Jessi have gone and hung out at her mom’s house to write songs together, like camping, doing stuff like that; that was fun.
Jessi: We had an RV in the back and had a fire, and my little brother would come out—
Nikki: —and he’d be like, “Ooh! What about this!”
Jessi: He had ideas for songs [laughs]. It was so cute. We’d be like, “You really need to go to bed so we can write some real songs,” but then he did get one line in one of our songs.
Jessi: On Screws Get Loose. The song was “Fatty Needs a Fix.” I remember it was Beach Boys-influenced, cause he would listen to Beach Boys all the time, and he was like, “I got the traction, I’m not in the mood.” That was it! That was his contribution.
That’s really cute.
Nikki: And he didn’t know that we were talking about sex either. He’s 11 or 12.
Jessi: He thought we were talking about being hungry.
Nikki: We were like, “We’re talking about being hungry for sex.”
In your new album, there are these polarizing themes that come out: good vs. bad, male vs. female. Was that intentional or did it come out organically?
Nikki: I think it was natural and then upon reflection, we were like, “Ok, here’s this and here’s that. And this is what this album is kind of representing.” There are these two forces, there’s black and white, and the balance of the two. And kind of being like, will there ever be a balance? The battle of these dualities. We’re different. That’s the cohesive part. We’re the black and the white. We’re the yin and the yang. And it really fluctuates song to song. It’s interesting to be like, “How do you really approach something when you have two songwriters?”
Jessi: I just honestly feel like that time period of writing the album was, for me, just a lot of thinking. Just sitting alone and thinking about everything. And a lot of the songs are me trying to discover how I feel about, “I’m in the middle. I’m really confused.” It was like a check-in of where I was at that point
Let’s talk about being from the South, which is where y’all are from. I grew up in Texas but was recently told by a lady in Alabama that that doesn’t count as the real South.
Nikki: People from Alabama are assholes. There are certain people from certain parts of the South who are all like, “You’re not as Southern as me!” I’m from Virginia and they’ll be like, “That’s not the South,” and I’m like, “Yes, it is.” Everyone has weird rules about what the South is.
Jessi: I pretty much spent my entire life wanting to not be in the South. I just knew I didn’t want to be there. I knew there were plenty of other places to go.
Nikki: I mean, we had plenty of dumb rednecks and stuff, but we also had a good, healthy side of weird hippies who had transferred themselves from wherever in the North. So I was like, “I know this isn’t as country as it can get.”
So, Jessi, you’re saying you always wanted to escape, but it seems like now this is a huge part of your identity. Do you ever want to get out and live in a place like New York City, or is it important now to stay?
Jessi: It’s important to me.
Nikki: I just don’t want to move anywhere else. I like living in Nashville. I would love to go live somewhere else. But not for a very long time. I don’t think I’d be happy living in New York City. I like visiting, but it’s too much. It makes me crazy. I’m like, “Everyone get out of my way!” Walking around through this festival, I was like, “God! I could never live here. Everyone get out of my way!” I still love New York City. I don’t feel any Southern pride about it.
Y’all dealt with some big controversies in Nashville with the release of Blur The Line, especially when it came to your album cover. I hear there was quite the uproar when you hung up a huge banner of the album art. What was that like?
Nikki: I mean, we didn’t put a giant banner of ourselves naked to not get attention [laughs].
Jessi: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s true. Good way to put it.
Nikki: It was funny what the reactions were, but it was also cool because it was pretty 50/50. Some people were really offended and other people were like, “This is art and fuck off.” So, in a lot of ways it’s still the South, but it’s progressing.
Jessi: It was an interesting experiment to see where the South is at this point.
Nikki: The frustrating thing about it was turning on the television and seeing Miley Cyrus or some fucking dingbat doing what they do on dick floats or whatever it is they do, and I’m just like, “How is this on television? How are you allowed to do that? Your vagina is showing through whatever weird bikini thing you’re wearing on stage. And it’s so oversexed that it’s not sex anymore. It’s synthetic. And there’s nothing empowering or interesting or sexy about it. It’s just like, ew. So, in comparison to that, I was just like, “It’s weird that [what we’re doing] is so offensive when that is so acceptable.” Just how overblown sexuality has become where every single pop star is walking around practically nude, but they’re like bleached and tanned and waxed and buffed up with God knows how many chemicals and weird things. And that’s supposed to be sexy, but a nude picture of our pale, weird bodies embracing each other, not being sexual, is like pornography. When they put us on television, it was blurred out. And they said—
Jessi: “Warning! This may be a little risqué,” [laughs] or something on the Fox News report. We were laughing so hard.
There are some people who will take any opportunity to bible thump and complain. So is that something y’all want to continue doing, pushing boundaries with people to see how they’ll react?
Nikki: Yeah, but not the same reactions. It’s something that, just like with the band and everything we do, is always going to be evolving.
Jessi: I think that living in the South and having something to push back against is part of what has made us interesting. And I don’t even mean just as a band, but also as people. When you’re growing up and surrounded by narrow-mindedness. It’s hard to be the person who’s like, “I’m sticking to my guns. I’m gonna be who I am no matter what you guys say.” But it’s also kind of easy to be genuine when I find a lot of music that comes out of Nashville—and not just Nashville, but everywhere, a lot of modern music—is not really genuine. To me, there’s a letdown sometimes in what the message is. Not that their heart’s not in it, but it’s like, “What are you guys saying? You’re just singing about some bullshit thing.”
Yeah, you look at the lyrics to certain mainstream songs and they don’t even make sense.
Jessi: Yeah, like you just wrote lyrics for the sake of having lyrics in your song.
Nikki: And they’re just formulated because they know how to reach an audience that doesn’t want to be mentally stimulated. They’re like [pretends to dance], “This makes me want to do nothing!”
Jessi: And, you know, there’s a lot of guys in bands and they’re just writing these love songs [in silly accent] “cause life is all just about falling in love, and I’m gonna change your whole life.” And then these girls think, “Oh! My whole life is gonna be so much better as soon as I find a guy who sings songs like this to me.” It’s this fairy tale thing. And a lot of young women forget to invest in themselves as strong people and build their own character. Especially in the South, I think that’s happening a lot.
Nikki: Even with girls our age in the rock ‘n’ roll scene, it’s like even if you still rebel, you’re still like, “Well, I just want my boyfriend to be happy.”
Jessi: There’s more to being a woman than just trying to be—
Nikki: —in a relationship.
What a radical idea.
Jessi: Yeah! [Laughs]
Nikki: It’s a message that we don’t intentionally put out there, but we don’t write songs about boys.
Jessi: Or we do, but it’s more about being, like “What the fuck is up with this shit?”
Nikki: “I can’t break up with you. I’m gonna die without you.”
Jessi: It’s more like, “You make me wanna kill myself!” [Laughs]
Nikki: Your heart’s broken. Whatever. Get over it.
Have you heard from younger fans who appreciate that message? I don’t know exactly what age your fan base is, but—
Jessi: It’s a really wide range of people. We’ve got old guys, we’ve got young girls. We don’t have many middle-aged women fans. Late high school or college-aged to mid-thirties girls and guys, and then older guys.
Nikki: Old guys [laughs]
Old guys like your music!
Nikki: They’re like, “Oh! It’s kinda like rock ‘n’ roll! Remember those times? Joan Jett!”
Yeah, I saw some older guys rocking out pretty hard to your set.
Jessi: It’s weird, but it’s cool.
Nikki: But it’s also because they grew up in a different time. There weren’t a lot of female guitar players.
Jessi: And the ones they saw that were really good stuck in their heads, so they remember, and they just want more of it. And there hasn’t been a huge amount more compared to all the… male shredders [Laughs]
Nikki: It’s crazy how many times we get compared to Joan Jett. Like, we never even listened to Joan Jett. She’s not an influence to us. She’s the only one that people are like, “You guys are just like her!” Like, how? And they’re like, “It’s even better cause there’s two of you! You’re two Joan Jetts!”
Jessi: They’ll be like, “Has anybody… ever… told you… that you’re like Joan Jett?” And I’m like, “… No, of course not!” [Laughs]
Nikki: We’re like, “Have you heard of Patti Smith? Have you heard of Chrissie Hynde?”
Yeah, tell us about the music you’re actually into.
Nikki: Yeah, those two are big for me. Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde.
Jessi: Me, too.
Nikki: I also was first inspired by—well, it was Patti Smith and PJ Harvey when I was a teenage girl. And Courtney Love. But I don’t know how I feel about Courtney Love anymore. But it was good when I was 13, 14. I was like, “Those are the girls I look up to, and I think they’re really good musicians. I like their work, and it has depth.” Patti Smith is someone that I’m constantly learning more from.
Jessi: I didn’t know who they were when I was young, but one of the first female artists when I was young was—
Nikki: —Joan Osborne? [Laughs]
Jessi: [Laughs] Maybe a little bit. That was further back. But when I was in high school, when I started playing music with other people, I really liked the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O, she really inspired me. I was like, “You can be crazy!” I was like, “I can do that.” That was definitely inspiring. And, you know, she had big eyes and black hair, and I had big eyes and black hair. It felt like she was more like me than anyone else that I had seen, especially as far as being a new artist that was out at that time period.
Nikki: Jessi, Linwood, and I all very much love the Velvet Undeground and have been inspired by them. Neil Young, Rolling Stones. Keith Richards is my soulmate. It’s just sad that he’s so much older than me.
Jessi: And so much more famous. So hard to reach.
What new bands are you listening to right now?
Jessi: I’ve been in a musical funk. I haven’t had a record player for a year. I kind of stopped listening to music for a really long time. I got burned out. I only listened to classical and jazz for a really long time and just got a record player. But I’ve only bought one album, a Charles Mingus album. I think I got worn out by bands that just don’t do it for me. I got tired of sifting through.
Nikki: Yeah. You gotta do the break thing, and then you come back, and then you go to the old standbys. I’ve been listening to Television’s Marquee Moon constantly, because I’m trying to learn a bunch of those guitar parts. I’m like, “If I learn this album, I could be a really great guitar player.” So I’ve been listening to that a lot and getting inspired to write differently than I ever have, writing more parts than just strumming guitar. Also listening to a lot of Santo & Johnny, learning instrumental stuff. I want to start learning how to play slide guitar. Just going to different places, just trying out things that don’t feel safe to me.
What about you, Jessi? What do you do to push yourself musically?
Jessi: Honestly, I just got so burned out with everything that had to do with music. All of it. After a while, I was like, I don’t music to be something I have to do. I mean, I played shows and everything, but as far as doing it on my own, I took a break from trying to do anything. But what I’ve been doing naturally is playing the baritone ukulele or acoustic guitar, and I work on finger-picking a lot. I like to just sit around and play the same rhythm over and over until I have it down. I don’t even know what I’d use it for—actually, that Bob Dylan song that we covered today, I was finger picking on. It just came naturally. It wasn’t something where I was like, “Oh, this is something I should be finger-picking.” It was just easier, because I’d been practicing—
Nikki: —which is where I started. I was just playing ukulele and finger-picking, and that was just how I played. And then I was like, “I don’t want to play this anymore. I want to play guitar, play rock ‘n’ roll.”
Gear talk time. What are y’all playing? Are you gear heads, or do you not really care about that stuff?
Jessi: Yeah, I’m pretty minimal about it. I can have a short gear head talk, and then I get to a certain point and I’m like, “Alright, I’m done.” But I like people who are really into gear because they can teach me how to be better about my own gear, because that was one thing that was really frustrating when I was first starting. I really wanted to play, but I couldn’t get good tone, I couldn’t get the right amp.
Nikki: I feel like I’m still figuring that stuff out.
Jessie: Definitely still figuring it out. But I finally have my rig now. I have a Dr. Z amp, which is a boutique company in Cleveland. It’s a MAZ 18 Jr. It’s awesome. I love it.
How’d you hear about them?
Jessi: A bunch of people in Nashville play them. I borrowed an amp for the first five years I was in the band, from Linwood actually. And finally, we got to a point where—
Nikki: —our amp situation was bad—
Jessi: —and guitars! I borrowed guitars forever. I finally bought my own guitar and amp in the last three years. We had just recorded Screws Get Loose in Atlanta with this guy Ed Rawls, and he had [a Dr. Z amp] there. I liked it. And then I had this guy Jessi in Nashville who fixed amps, so I asked both Ed and Jessie in Nashville what amp… and they both said Dr. Z, definitely. So I wrote [to the company] and asked them if they would give me a deal. It was cool. And then I got my guitar. I don’t really give a shit about what year it’s from or all that stuff. Whatever, it’s all gonna be dirt some day anyways. It’s more about, does it feel good when you play it? And the guitar I have is a Fender Strat that I found in this record store in Nashville called Fanny’s House of Music. It’s run by all women. It’s really cool. This one was in there, and it was like 300 dollars, and some guy in town put the parts together from different years, and it’s all Mexican parts. That’s the only thing I know. I played it, and the neck was just incredible. I remember being like, “This is the best guitar I’ve ever played!” I couldn’t believe it was only 300 dollars. And then it ended up that the guy had modded the tone knobs out to where there’s a distortion modification built into the guitar. So one of my knobs, instead of a tone, is like a gain, and it makes it more gritty.
Jessi: It’s awesome. Like today, playing at 4Knots, normally if I would have had my other guitar, I couldn’t get the tone I wanted out of my amp because it didn’t have master volume. But I just turned this knob up, and it was like “GAINNNN.” It was cool. And I didn’t even know that was on there until I went in to get it set up, and the guy was like, “You know this knob here does this,” and I was like, “What? That’s so cool.” Oh, and my pedals. We both play Fulltone Fulldrive distortion pedals, and then I play an MXR Phaser and Electro-Harmonix Memory Boy Delay, and a Voodoo Treble something—I don’t remember what brand it is.
Nikki: Aquapuss is the delay pedal I use. I play through an AC-15 Vox amp. And my guitar’s a Telecaster with p90 pickups. I like it.