Van Darien Breaks into the Mainstream with “Levee”
Reflections on Needs and Desires for Connection
Vanessa Darien, writing and performing as Van Darien, is perched on the edge of greatness with her debut album, Levee, released on April 10. Born and raised in rural Texas, Nashville-based Van Darien brings a moving collection of songs combining personal stories and reflections of her journey and growth as a singer-songwriter.
Van Darien brings her unique style and lyricism to the forefront. Influenced by country-rock icons including Townes Van Zandt and Gary Clark as well as edgy rock and indie performers, Van Darien’s music reflects the blend of alt-country, rock, and folk commonly characterized under the genre of Americana.
At the heart of Van Darien’s music lies her intuitive songwriting, reflecting on the human soul and need for connection, whether healthy or not.
“American Steel” is a tribute to the men and women who helped build the nation as well as to her upbringing in rural Weatherford, Texas. Her father, a metal worker, and welder who contributed to the lyrics, ran a machine shop on the family property. Van Darien grew up among the rusted cars, machinery and scrap metal on the land, which left an indelible impression.
Co-written with Joey Green, the song highlights a metal worker with hands marked by the hard work to proudly produce enduring pieces.
The imagery of “American Steel” continues in “Twisted Metal,” an ode to the “disastrously, chaotic, sexiness of love.” Repeating beats within the song suggest the joining of metal through a forge or a pounding hammer on an anvil. Co-written with Nashville-based Maren Morris, Darien describes the song as equating the intensities of people crashing together “as cars at a demolition derby.”
“Ponderosa” opens the album. Described by Van Darien as her muse, the song reflects on the challenges of capturing fleeting moments of inspiration. The song features the singer’s soaring vocals, which intensify through the last chorus as the muse, and inspiration disappears.
The title track, “Levee,” is described by the singer as an anthem exploring the plight of the Great Depression and how to endure trying times. Written well before our current sheltering in place experiences, the song seems almost prophetic for many in this country and the world with its haunting lyrics, “Mouths to feed, hands to fill……Money’s become my enemy, I’ve been hanging on for far too long now……I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Low Road” brings a definite bluesy and playful feel to the album. With Van Darien’s edgy vocals sounding through a vintage mic, she reflects her preference of turning to the dark side of the low road. Featuring a honky-tonk piano and an up-and-down beat, the song evokes back alleys, dark bars, and speakeasies where dangers may lurk. The singer will play along but won’t fully succumb and become their prey.
On “Insanity”, Darien sweetly switches to a moody ballad about life-changing love. Launching into her chorus “You’ve got me feeling vulnerable, I’ve never been in love before,” she draws an instant comparison to the great, late Patsy Cline. Intense love may represent risk and insanity, but Van Darien wouldn’t trade it for a sad world of complacency.
Van Darien made the move from Texas to Nashville about 5 years ago, perhaps tentatively and uneasily at first, but then with the firm realization that the move was the best for her personal growth as a singer-songwriter.
This life transition comes out most clearly in “Cardboard Boxes,” written by co-producer and partner Steven Cooper, but which reflects Van Darien’s nostalgia about the past and the choices of what pieces to leave behind. Implicit within the song is a recognition that you can’t hold too much onto your past without forging ahead into a new life and new experiences.
The penultimate track is “The Sparrow & The Sea,” a touching duet featuring Owen Beverly. As reflected in the song, when something desired is unobtainable, it may become an obsession. “You are something I can only dream about. Something I must learn to live my life without.”
The album concludes with “What’s Killing Me,” an introspection on the highs and lows of life. Although no one is perfect, “I got a decent heart, I got a few bad habits. Usually, come down hard, but when I fly it’s magic.”
Levee was produced by Steven Cooper and JD Tiner at the Glass Onion Studio in East Nashville. The album includes contributions from Brandy Zdan, Owen Beverly (Indianola), Thayer Serrano (MGMT, Drive-by Truckers), Mando Saenz and Joey Green. The songs “Twisted Metal” and “Low Road” were co-written by Maren Morris.
With Levee, Van Darien firmly demonstrates her potential as a mainstream singer-songwriter deftly crossing genres to appeal to a broad audience. Levee evinces a maturity reflecting a lifetime of experience seemingly beyond Van Darien’s actual age.
For the foreseeable future, Van Darien’s touring is on pause. In the meantime, Levee is available for downloading and streaming through online music services such as the iTunes Store, Google Play and Spotify. Signed vinyl and CD versions of Levee are available on Van Darien’s website.
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Photo credits: Curtis Wayne Millard, Zach Weber, Chad Cochran, and Roger D’Water