REMEMBERING… Jessi Zazu, of Those Darlins

Songwriter, guitarist, singer, artist, a mentor, an inspiration—a spark.

BY FRED MILLS

Dynamic Nashville indie rockers Those Darlins broke up last year, but the garagey and totally rock ‘n’ roll outfit left behind a memorable decade-long legacy. Simply stated, and as we put it in a 2013 feature on the band, the group served up “tough, fully realized songs; muscular, rocking playing; smart arrangements; convincing singing—the whole package.”

So… this week brought the immensely sad news that one of Those Darlins’ two frontwomen, Jessi Zazu, has passed away from cervical cancer, leaving a huge hole in the collective heart of we here at BLURT, and no doubt in the hearts of fans across the globe. The Tennessean reported that she died Tuesday, September 12, at Nashville’s Centennial hospital. She had family members and friend with her at the time of her passing.

The gifted, witty musician was only 28, which makes the loss all the more poignant. She was raised a musical family (her uncle was country star Steve Wariner), telling us, in that 2013 interview, “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down. I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”

Zazu, fellow guitarist Nikki Kvarnes, and bassist Kelley Anderson formed the band in ’06, eventually drafting drummer Linwood Regensburg after the release of their 2009 self-titled debut, and with the release of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the critical floodgates—not to mention the public’s adoration—poured forth.  Early on, the word was that the almost-all-gal band was a distaff take on the venerable insurgent country ethos (as epitomized by the Bloodshot Recs stable of mavericks). Which was fair enough; twang ‘n’ drawl was certainly a large part of the band’s sound, abetted by telling covers of both A.P. Carter and Uncle Dave Macon, and it was also pretty hard to overlook their moniker and their record label name (the delightfully blue collar-sounding Oh Wow Dang Records) in terms of presuming some serious hillbilly action going on. But by the time of 2011’s Screws Get Loose the group’s garage-punk roots were also on clear display, with reverby electric guitars as prominent as strummed acoustics, and some serious ‘60s girl-group vocals creeping into the mix as well.

Though Anderson left the following year, to be replaced by Adrian Barrera (from Gentlemen Jesse & His Men), Those Darlins lost no momentum, leading to 2013’s Roger Moutenot-produced Blur the Line, which figured highly—and in many cases, topped—that year’s best-of lists from critics and fans. (Pick to click: The sexysaucycool, almost T.Rex-like “In the Wilderness,” accompanied by an even sexier and cooler video.) It was a bold, mature, genre-traversing album beholden to no single factor other than talent. Sadly, the group wouldn’t last to cut a fourth album although for Record Store Day 2015 they did appear on a split album with Diarrhea Planet, Live at Pickathon.

According to the Those Darlins Wikipedia entry:

“On December 9, 2015, the band announced, via its Facebook page, that it was going on hiatus. “We’re here to deliver some unfortunate news… Those Darlins will be taking an indefinite hiatus effective after our final tour in January. We’ve had a really great run together, but the time has come for us to move in different directions. We really appreciate all the love and support from our friends, fans, and family over the years.”

Zazu subsequently turned to working on her art; according to The Tennessean, she mounted a display in June at the Julia Martin Gallery that included works from her mother Kathy Wariner. And she also made public her battle with cancer, having been diagnosed in early 2016. She created a striking tee-shirt design reading “Ain’t Afraid” in order to raise funds for her chemotherapy, and as Those Darlins had been one of Nashville’s most popular indie rock groups, the fanbase responded accordingly. A recent John Prine tribute concert in Nashville even wound up being a Zazu fundraiser—those Darlins had previously appeared on a Prine tribute album—when the organizers announced they were donating the proceeds to her medical fund.

As of this writing no announcement had been made regarding a funeral or memorial.

NPR contributor Ann Powers, a personal friend of Zazu’s, penned an eloquent remembrance that read, in part,

“Zazu was a rock star in her hometown, but one completely free of attitude. She lifted up her peers and always welcomed newcomers. As an integral part of Southern Girls Rock Camp, she devoted herself to convincing girls that they could talk about anything, through music and also through visual art, her other medium. Small in stature, Jessi lived her message that creativity can make a person — especially a young woman — heroic, though she’d never use such a self-inflating term. Jessi was more playful and ever-curious, a 21st-century female version of Jack conquering the beanstalk — always climbing higher, killing giants, enlarging her worldview.

“More remarkably, she never stopped creating. In her last year, she produced enough drawings, ceramics and other artworks to stage two major exhibitions, recorded an as-yet unreleased album, and kept coming up with new projects… Fundamentally, she was a spark. She started things, connected people, lit the ignition in our sometimes tired minds and hearts. Her slogan was “Ain’t Afraid” — and she wasn’t, because there was no darkness that her brilliance couldn’t cut through, or at least make light enough to live in. The fiery particle that was the gift she gave us will never burn out.”

In the aforementioned 2013 interview, Zazu offered contributor Steven Wilson a number of memorable quotes regarding her roots and her approach to music. They bear repeating here. After that, check out some more of the band’s delightful videos as well as some choice live clips.

Jessi Zazu on…

…her childhood and path to music: “I was born in Nashville, and grew up in Kentucky and Indiana, pretty much been in the south and rural areas my whole life. There’s always been music I my life. I grew up in a family of musicians. My parents were artists. I was around creativity my whole life… I never considered many other options. I always knew that it would be a path I’d go down.  I was encouraged in my home to be creative and do what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me how to play guitar. I started taking lessons from him when I was nine.”

John Fogerty & Creedence: “I was a huge fan of John Fogerty when I was a little girl. I love his guitar playing. When I [first] heard Creedence on the radio I said, ‘Mom, who is this?’ I loved the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Creedence’s Chronicle. Those were the two first albums I got into. So much of that is still alive in my songwriting.”

…Neil Young: We listened to a lot of Neil Young. We read his book Waging Heavy Peace, and listened to Zuma—well, most of his albums actually!”

Patti Smith: “Nikki and I were listening to a lot of Patti Smith [before cutting Blur the Lines]… we had read her book Just Kids and sort of went on a Patti kick… [And the Velvet Underground] “was a connecting point.”

musical influences in general: “We do have a lot of influences from the past, not a lot of current influences [but] part of what I wanted to accomplish was to take our influences and make something meant for now.”

being based in Nashville, where relationships can often be adversarial: “Everybody’s played a million shows, everybody has the best gear, everybody’s better than you are.”

her philosophy of music-making: I want to be really honest in everything we’re doing, especially in the lyrics, because honesty is the only way to be original. [So] I have to check myself and I want to be as brutally honest as I can right now.  Part of the goal with this album was to be about now, not the past, not the future. The inability to be ‘in the now’ is the cause of the modern identity crisis we all have.  I get irritated when people say, ‘I wasn’t made for these times.’ You were made for these times because you were born in these times!”

Top photo credit: Via Wikipedia: by Tristan Lopez (San Diego 8-10-14

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