Nikki Darlin on growing up in Rappahannock, making music and shopping at the Flatwood Mall
Nikki Darlin on growing up in Rappahannock, making music and shopping at the Flatwood Mall
By Robert Fulton
In Rappahannock County, beneath the shadow of the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains, situated off U.S. Route 211 between county seat “Little” Washington and unincorporated village Sperryville, within spitting distance of Gadino Cellars, St. Peter’s Catholic Mission, an antique shop and a gun store, among some of the most beautiful countryside that the state of Virginia has to offer, humbly sits the Flatwood Mall.
Those in the know get the joke. The “Flatwood Mall” registers as a mall only by the loosest of definitions. A small cinder-block building approximately the width and twice the depth of a two-car garage, stuffed with clothing items, the Flatwood Mall sits on prime property on Flatwood Road within the borders of the Flatwood Refuse & Recycling Center.
Yep, the county dump.
Locals leave clothing they no longer want, but that is still in good shape, in a designated area; and they browse and take home items discarded by others.
That’s the Flatwood Mall.
That a reference to this act of freecyclenomics appears in a song by a rising Tennessee-based country/punk/rock band exemplifies the influence and impact that growing up in Rappahannock County had on a particularly creative, artistic, musically inclined young woman.
“I grew up in the country,” says Nikki Darlin, a member of Nashville band Those Darlins and Rappahannock County native. She takes a drink from her bottle of Yuengling, relaxing at the Black Cat in D.C. before a show in September. “You have to keep yourself really entertained.”
Dressed in a loose-fitting gray top, black shorts that don’t reach mid-thigh and yellow strapless flats, Nikki enjoys her beer, waiting for her vegetable-brown rice wrap. “Road food will rot your guts.”
Growing Up Rappahannock
Spending her childhood in quiet Rappahannock County influenced Nikki Darlin, real last name Kvarnes, to explore her artistic side, a journey that eventually brought her to music.
“I don’t think that I would be playing music as much” if she hadn’t grown up where she had, she says. “I don’t know, maybe I would. I feel like I spent a lot of time playing music and doing artwork and stuff like that.”
Nikki, 26, comes from a creative family—her mother, a painter; her biological father, a musician; and the father who raised her, a glassblower. She picked up a guitar at the age of 11, and learned Beatles songs before moving on to the likes of The Clash. She tried to form a band at the age of 12 or 13, and performed at local music festivals.
“I was definitely very encouraged to do art, and I loved it,” says Nikki, who has two sisters, adding that her parents were supportive of her artistic endeavors. “But I was also like, ‘Don’t teach me how to do this. I want to figure it out on my own.’ It’s something, most children [experience], their parents press their trade on them. I was never like, ‘That’s stupid.’ Artist or musician is like the coolest job ever. Someday I could possibly do that.”
Making a life as a musician didn’t take off until after a move to Murfreesboro, Tenn., outside of Nashville, at the age of 21 on the recommendation of a friend.
“I have to get out of Rappahannock,” Nikki says, recollecting her wanderlust. “It was great growing up here, and maybe when I’m older I can come back here, but I’m too anxious and crazy, and want to be out doing things. I’ve got to be around people. I can’t live out in the country. I’ll go nuts and kill myself.”
Those Darlins formed four years ago, the result of chance meetings through the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp in Murfreesboro. Kelley Darlin (Kelley Anderson) founded the camp, for girls ages 10 to 17; Jessi Darlin (Jessi Wariner) attended; and Nikki volunteered. The three hit it off, bonding over the likes of The Carter Family and other musical interests.
“It was just perfect,” says the band’s lead singer, Jessi, her twang betraying her southern roots. Before the September gig at Black Cat, Jessi reminisces about sitting out on the porch of their rented house across the street from a cemetery
in Murfreesboro, singing Carter Family songs. “As soon as we moved in together, we became best friends. We just get along … get the way each other works.”
The three of them—Nikki, Jessi and Kelley—eventually formed Those Darlins. The group didn’t come together as the result of some grand plan. Rather, after frequent jam sessions someone suggested the young women perform.
“It was never intentional that we started a band together,” says Nikki, who has since moved to Nashville. “We were just like, ‘Let’s get drunk, hang out on the porch, play music. Act like idiots. Shoot guns, whatever.’”
“We kind of learned together a whole lot,” she adds. “We all taught each other. We all grew as musicians.”
“She’s a wild card,” the bassist Kelley says of Nikki. “Nikki brings a party with her. That’s part of her aesthetic and personality. Definitely brings that edge to the show and our group.”
Before taking the stage at Black Cat, Nikki changes into a striking blood-red velvet dress. The transformation startles, from laidback T-shirt and shorts prior to the show to a stunning stage-dominating persona that is part seduction, all pure rock ‘n’ roll. She plans to entertain her many friends and family members who have come in for the show.
This evening, Nikki doesn’t play her typical guitar or baritone ukulele. Earlier in the summer, she broke her left arm after a fall. The injury resulted in two metal plates, 12 screws and a scar. More importantly, the May accident sidelined her from playing live, and performing on the band’s upcoming second album.
“It was the most depressing summer I’ve had in my entire life,” says Nikki, who broke out in hives from the stress, and wrote a song about it, titled, naturally, “Hives.” The arm’s X-ray also became the cover art for the band’s “Night Jogger” single last summer. “It was really upsetting. I tried to keep in good spirits the whole time.”
At the September show, Nikki makes up for the lack of playing an instrument with her singing. She possesses a guttural growl that reverberates across the room and a presence that commands attention.
Up on the stage, she appears as though she’s having the time of her life.
The continually evolving sound of Those Darlins presents a challenge to define for the uninitiated listener, as well as rock writers attempting to illustrate to a general audience. The first, self-titled 2009 album, is rock ‘n’ roll with obvious country influences. Songs tackle the predictable: drinking, partying, love, etc.
Country bona fides can be found in “Hung Up On Me” and “The Whole Damn Thing,” the latter about getting drunk and eating an entire chicken. (Drinking is plentiful on the first LP, including “Glass to You” and “DUI or Die”). “Wild One” is one of Nikki’s highlights on the album, only outdone by the throat-grabbing power of hearing her belt it out live.
In “Snaggle Tooth Mamma,” Nikki gives a shout out to Rappahannock County.
“Well, I get my clothes from the local dump/They call it the Flatwood Mall/Folks ‘round here don’t know the difference/between a dump and a hole in the wall.”
Those Darlins’ new album, “Screws Get Loose,” which came out in March, is again rock ‘n’ roll. But this time, think late ‘70s punk, or a slightly more countrified Runaways, with some surf guitar influences sprinkled here and there. Early Rolling Stones can be heard as well (“Let You Down)” and there’s even a psychedelic-type song (“Mystic Mind”).
Both albums move fast and boast related roots, but the contrast is also evident.
“It seems like right now is kind of a transition stage for us,” Nikki says. The new album is also the first full-length on the band’s own imprint label, Oh Wow Dang.
If there are two things that set off Nikki in attempting to describe Those Darlins, it’s nonsensical adjectives slapped together in an attempt to define the band’s sound—and calling them a girl group.
“I hate to be thrown into genres or these cliches, like people using terms like ‘They’re Southern-Fried Rock ‘n’ Roll Punk Girls,’” says Nikki. “And I’m just like, Oh God, if I heard that, I’d never listen to our band. That sounds terrible. I hate to be put into some sort of sub-genre. I would just say we’re a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Being referred to as a girl group is also not accurate for Those Darlins. Though started by the three young women, they’ve since added drummer Linwood Regensburg, who also taught at the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp and has a greater role in the new music (he sings lead on “Let You Down”). Aside from that, Nikki just doesn’t like being pegged.
“We’re a band,” she says simply. “I don’t think that gender should ever be brought up in describing a band. Who cares? It’s definitely a sound, and I think that should be addressed. I’m not totally terribly offended by it, but I think that it is stupid. When I think of girl band, I think of girl group, like The Shirelles or The Ronettes. That’s a girl group.”
Big things are happening for Nikki. In addition to the new album that came out in March and the band’s first overseas shows in Australia back in December, the band is currently touring in support of the new effort.
The group has long ago moved from dive bars to larger venues, and is confirmed, and rumored, for some summer festivals.
On a more personal level, Nikki became engaged to John McCauley, lead singer and songwriter for the Rhode Island-based band Deer Tick.
With both Deer Tick and Those Darlins touring so much, Nikki doesn’t get to see McCauley as much as she would like.
“It’s OK,” she says, adding no wedding date has been set. “We both expect it. We’re both doing things we love.”
“It’s definitely easier,” Nikki adds, about dating a fellow musician. “I don’t think I could have a relationship with someone who wasn’t doing the same thing as me. I actually probably see him more often than I see someone at home.”
As far as the future is concerned, Nikki doesn’t see letting up.
“We’re having a blast,” she says, adding she spends her time off watching movies or sleeping. “I just want to write good music and get people to dance to it. That’s what I want out of it. And maybe buy my mom a house someday. Take care of the people I love with whatever success, if any, happens. All of those things would be great.
“I don’t plan on stopping doing this until I physically can’t. It’s exactly what I want to be doing in life, all the time.”