Darrin Bradbury is in on the joke. That the wayward characters (and personified bodies of water) in the lyrics of his songs suggest their creator might be a quarter-bottle deep of Klonopin while writing them is a specious impression he can’t really avoid.
“Something about my personality that I think is misconstrued by those that are close to me is that I’m always lonesome and loathsome,” Bradbury says. “But to me, it’s always about the punchline of the story.”
Indeed, the songwriter isn’t as morose as people sometimes gather. In fact, for his forthcoming album, Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs, Bradbury is the object of humor. Slated for release September 20th via ANTI- Records it’s inspired more by his own experiences than those he might author for his characters.
“I wanted to give the new album an accurate depiction of what the life of a Madison, Tennessee songwriter living down the street from the dildo shop is,” Bradbury says. “I wanted to keep it very literal, and see if you could find meaning literal things.”
Talking Dogs arrives at the end of an intentionally under-the-radar summer for Bradbury. Rather than a busy summer of preparations for the release, Bradbury moved to Charlottesville, Virginia in May, where he previously lived seven years ago, and returned to his old job lifting furniture at an antique store. This kind of decampment is commonly dreamt up in wistful hypotheticals (“What if I dropped everything and became someone else?”), but in Bradbury’s case the move was prompted by a real life crisis.
“Pulmonary embolism,” Bradbury says. “A blood clot in the lung. It’s basically the thing that makes you go kaboom right away.”
Bradbury is not exaggerating — it’s not uncommon for the first symptom of a pulmonary embolism to be death. Bradbury was more fortunate; he noticed a blood clot on his ankle in May 2019 after a short stint on the road. Shortly after, one appeared on his lung. It’s hard not to catch the glaring irony in this health scare, which put his life on the line just as his career seemed poised for a leap forward. Faced with the possibility of death or proceeding full speed ahead on his career, he chose option three and moved back to Charlottesville to see if he could survive a summer of “complete normalcy.”
Such unexpected twists in the road are not new for Bradbury. He was born in New Jersey, where he grew up dreaming of life as a cartoonist. His mother, a circus clown, gave him advice about the entertainment industry which he carries with him to this day — don’t bring your offstage baggage onstage, be a professional while you’re up there. Whatever you’re dealing with in your psyche, you have to let go of it to perform well.
After moving to Music City in early 2014, at age 27, Bradbury lived out of his car in the Dickerson Pike Walmart parking lot, building a fan base at open mics and small gigs at venues like The Commodore and Café Coco.
“There was a culture at the time within the songwriting community that was so creatively competitive,” he says. “You were hearing art that inspired you, and then you in turn were challenging yourself.”
Several EPs, a live record, and a mixtape-style demo collection followed leading up to his 2016 LP Elmwood Park: A Slightly Melodic Audiobook. Hailed by Rolling Stone and American Songwriter for his clever, epigrammatic tunes, it seemed like his ten-odd years grinding away at the solo artist hustle had been worth it. People knew his name. He made connections which led to studio sessions in late 2017 for Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs with Milk Carton Kids’ Kenneth Pattengale producing. In December 2018 he signed a record deal with ANTI- Records and the album’s forthcoming release was officially announced in April, with the discovery of the blood clots just a few weeks later as the anticlimax.
Four months later, Bradbury is doing well. His summer of living a “normal life” along with proper treatment eliminated the clot from his lung. The one on his ankle is still present, marked by a small, visible lump but the prognosis looks good.
As for the new album, the same will, faith, or whatever it was that empowered him to work his prosaic furniture job while enduring blocked arteries, can be found in his music. As previously mentioned, the material on Talking Dogs is primarily drawn from Bradbury’s personal experiences. “The Trouble with Time,” which features vocals from Grammy-nominated singer Margo Price, reflects hopefully on the possibility of lives fatefully intertwining, and “This Too Shall Pass” encourages listeners, or a second-person, characterized version of listeners, to hang up their hang-ups.
This is not to say Talking Dogs is bereft of the colorful, John Prine-redolent lyrical style so present in Bradbury’s last album. But there does seem to be more resolution built-in to the stories he tells. Whether it’s intentional or not, the less character-driven, personalized songwriting seems to be at peace with his day-to-day acceptance of both good fortune and bad luck, an ability to face all situations without a fear of the unknown and find happiness no matter the circumstances.
“I wanted to see if I could just live life as it is,” Bradbury says of his summer in Charlottesville. “I wanted to see if that was enough. And it was. I was perfectly happy. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to [have a music career], or I don’t like doing this, but just the knowledge that I can [live a normal life] … is enough to keep going on and keep pursuing it.”