Darrin Bradbury on Mental Health and Making Room for Empathy in Humor

Photo by Danielle Holbert

When he wrote his last album, Elmwood Park: A Slightly Melodic Audiobook, singer-songwriter Darrin Bradbury was something of a Nashville nomad, living out of his car, touring constantly, and managing his career from a flip phone. Since then, he’s bought a house and signed to ANTI- Records, and that newfound stability has turned his songwriting to the more introspective. Where he previously told stories driven by characters from the road, he found himself focusing on his own mental health.

Even in 2019, pop culture and social media are rife with unhelpful cliches about depression and suicide–depictions that don’t gel with Bradbury’s own experiences. That provided much of the impetus for his latest record, Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs, a frank and funny take on the reality of depression through all its intersections with his domestic American life.

It’s a risky writing endeavor, but it helps to bring a few friends with out with you on a musical limb. With production by Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids, cowriting credits from Jeremy Ivey, and even a vocal feature from Margo Price, Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs draws on a deep pool of Nashville and ANTI- Records talent.

From the sardonic stream-of-conscious “Breakfast” to the historical surrealism of “Dallas 1963,” Bradbury brings striking quietude and humility to a chaotic, disjointed modern life, finding humor in sadness and empathy in the most unexpected storytelling avenues.

Before last week’s release and his upcoming fall tour of the U.K., Bradbury spoke to The All Scene Eye about learning to love record-making and embracing an ethos of entertainment.

Your last album, Elmwood Park, came out in 2016. When did you start working on the songs that would become Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs?

About a year and a half after Elmwood. I toured Elmwood pretty hard, and when I was done with that, I ended up buying a house in Madison, Tennessee. Settling down into a house was sort of the genesis of everything that became Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs.

Did having a place like that change the way you wrote?

Well, I just wasn’t sleeping in Walmart parking lots anymore. I feel like you have to write what’s accurate to your life, so the most accurate thing was, “A guy who’s been basically living out of his car for the last ten years finally has an office and a yard.” It’s about a still life of a still life, you know?

I’ve heard you use that phrase before: ”a still life of a still life.” What do you mean when you say that?

It’s the orange painting the orange on the kitchen counter. [laughs] That makes even less sense. How do I phrase this? My life went went from being very fast to being very still, and I wanted to capture that. I wanted the songs to read like a transcript of everyday and I wanted to be honest and accurate with myself and my own anxiety and depression. I wanted to paint them in an objective way and in a certain light that hits through my living room or kitchen at a certain time of the day.

If I’m mathing it out right, it’s been a minute since you put all these songs down on record. Has your relationship to this batch changed in that time?

Yes. That’s kind of indicative of the bonus track material because the way the record business works is you make this thing and it takes a year and a half for the thing to come out. Then you start making other things, other songs that you get way excited about, and you try to squeeze them into the bonus material that you’re offered in your contract. [laughs] 

I think you go through phases where you hate something you’ve made, then you love something you’ve made, then you hate something you’ve made, then you make peace with something you’ve made, and I’m definitely at the point of peace with the project. And that sort of criticism is always aimed at self, never at the people involved. They all did a fantastic job, but in terms of what’s going on in your own head, it’s–I’m at a very comfortable peace. When I look at Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs and Elmwood Park and I look at the times they represent in my life, they’re both accurate, and that’s always what I’m aiming for: an accurate representation of my life at said time, for better or worse. It’s not for me to judge whether it’s good or bad.

You worked with Kenneth Pattengale on the production of this album and you did some co-writing with Jeremy Ivey. What was it like working with those guys?

Very much like in the tone of the album, all of it started over coffee. Margo kind of blew up. Jeremy and I got really close–we would get coffee because he was off the road taking care of their kids in the beginning years before they had the bus and all that stuff. Jeremy and I would get lots of coffee together and we would share songs almost every day. He would send one to me in the morning, I’d send one to him in the morning–it wasn’t collaborative as much as it was co-conspirating. I call it a creative competition. It’s not about winning or losing as much as it’s about, you hear something Jeremy wrote, and you’re like, “Man, I want to raise my talents to the best of my ability to match that,” and vice versa. 

Kenneth and I, it was the same thing. We had been getting coffee for years; we were friends, we knew about each other’s lives, and he was–Kenneth is a very gracious person. One of the things I admire about Kenneth deeply is that he is a very brilliant artist with a great career, but when you talk to Kenneth, it’s all about you. It’s never about him. He would ask me about where I was at with my career, where things were going, and he helped mentor choices in those earlier years. That led to him being like, “Well, why don’t we all come in together on this and make a really great album?” It was very natural and organic, and Kenneth was the person who could steer the ship. He’s an extremely talented human being. Also, just to use the word co-conspirators, we were all co-conspirators on it. We all had a lot of vested interest in the album turning out well in the way we feel it has.

How did the trajectory of the album change once it had someone at the helm and a mission?

Kenneth and I agree on–I’m learning how to love making records. When I made Elmwood Park, I labored over that record for almost a year, and it was kind of like going to school. It was like learning how to make a real record with a lot of helpful mistakes. I love the way it turned out and I wouldn’t change a thing because I learned so much from it, and to me, the people who worked on it did a great job. Where I’m getting at with this album is that from that experience–I am under the staunch opinion that, at least for the type of music that I do, records should be reflective of exactly what they’re doing. They’re a record of something. They should be done quickly, prepared-for well, and capture a moment in time. Kenneth and I were on the same page with that.

The whole record process was fun. You know, [laughs] for how morose and sad the songs are,  we had a really great time. It was painless because we had done all the prep. We had, over coffee, talked about what we were trying to create. We just picked the players that were right and the studio that was right, we surrounded ourselves with like-minded folks, and we completed it in a joyous manner. There was no labor.

How much time did you spend recording Talking Dogs and Atom Bombs?

Like, two and a half days. It was tremendously fulfilling to go into a project, have a goal and an intention, and walk out the other end two and a half days later, like, “Well, hey, we captured this moment for better or worse. That’s the deal.”

There’s a similar ethos in the way the songs are written, in that you took this approach where the song is over when the thought is over. Was it difficult to make those calls?

No, because–well, in the beginning, like all songs, they were just word experiments. I was very heavily influenced by Dan Reeder. He’s on Prine’s label, and you wouldn’t hear it sonically, but I was so enamored with his ability to tell these very short vignettes. They’re even too short to be considered vignettes; they’re just snapshots. They’re sonic Polaroids. Anyway, I’m kind of digressing on that. It is to say that the writing wasn’t hard because–[laughs] it’s sort of a lazy approach, but as soon as you felt like you were trying too hard, that’s when you knew you needed to stop the song. I wanted to screw around with what the idea of a song is. Not that it’s some great experimental–you know, at the end of the day, they’re songs about breakfast and songs about dreaming about being Lee Harvey Oswald. Literal dreaming, not like, wanting to be. [laughs] I need to clarify that. 

It comes in batches, you know? You start one and then a bunch of them happen because none of them are ever what you want them to be. You get 15 or 16 of them, and 12 come close. I think what I was motivated by was I was cautious of rewriting Elmwood in the process. Before I really started on that batch, I found myself writing–I think I was trying to write a song called “Crack and Diane,” and it was like, “Man, you’ve already written this.” So I was like, “Well, I’d rather figure out how to write about my life right now instead of trying to recapture the ethos of Elmwood or write sequel songs.” There’s so much bullshit in songwriting. People are trying to sell you things, and I never want to sell you anything.

You referenced the album closer, “Dallas 1963.” Musically, something happens in the song when you learn it was a dream–there’s this upbeat turn, and then an abrupt turn back to the original progression. Why did you want to end the album that way?

That song to me–well, A, it connects it to Elmwood, which also has a song with JFK references. As a writer, I’m very cautious about what I’m serving you. For some reason, this Kennedy theme keeps coming up, and if it happens naturally, I always roll with it, and it’s always ended up being the song that I personally favor. I don’t know what it is about that song, but I chose it to be the closer because I liked how anticlimactic the album ends.

On the whole album, there’s only two real moments of emotive music. In the last part of “Motel Room,” the music really picks up–the band does more than just follow the story. So, that moment and then the Lee Harvey Oswald part of “Dallas.” Being that the album centers around depression, that’s what all those songs were to me–ways to express and try to contextualize, poke fun at, and make the depression kind of laugh itself away a little bit. In “Dallas 1963,” it puts up a fight, sonically. It’s like, “We’re going to move!” Then it sinks back into itself and just ends limply. Beautifully, but limply. The hardest part of the album was sequencing it, and that song was either the first or the last. I knew that, and that’s the best answer I can give.

In “This Too Shall Pass,” you say, “sadness don’t leave you ’til it’s ready.” Is that what’s happening in those last few lines of “Dallas 1963”?

I would agree with that sentiment, and maybe that last thing is sadness leaving. That song, it was based on a literal dream, and I wanted to see if I could write it. When I say literally, it was many montages of things, but it’s this feeling, and I loved the idea of trying to pull off the turnaround where all of a sudden, the character singing the song is the most hated character in that scenario. All of a sudden,  you’re in that character’s shoes, and I think that character is metaphoric toward aspects of guilt and shame and self-loathing. It’s something often looked-over in depression. When you see advertisements for depression meds or whatever, it’s this idea that the world has done you wrong. That’s part of people’s depression, but also, depression is about maybe the way you’ve interacted with the world–the hangups we have and the mistakes that we make being human. That was an important aspect of my own depression, and I felt the best way to address it was through making myself an unrelatable character. I’m not citing anything too personal; it’s more like it’s a song about self-loathing and the actions of self-loathing.

I often ask people what their goal for a project is, and you’ve already answered that: it’s this way of confronting and trying to make depression laugh. When that’s your goal in a project, how do you gauge the success of it?

You don’t, and that’s okay. I don’t think you’re supposed to be happy with something. That’s why, to kind of state back to it, when I listen back to that project that I’ve made, I don’t ask myself whether I think this is good or bad. I ask myself if I think this is accurate. When you listen to Elmwood and you listen to “The Roadkill Song,” that’s actually an exit off of 81 where that song happened, so I look at that song, and I go, “That was a thing that was real.” The elements of that album were real things in my life. Of course you’re proud of it, and of course you’re like, “Man, this sounds great,” but whether or not it’s actually worth a damn is to be decided by those who listen to it. There was sort of a silent duet partner on this album, and that’s my long-time partner, Carrie. She’ll tell you, because she lives in the house and she was there, that the songs absolutely are accurate to the life that I lived.

I don’t have a gauge of success because I’m not really after success. I don’t think that my lot in life is to be a wildly successful artist. [laughs] I think my lot in life and my prerogative is to accurately portray my experience being an American human being alive in the 21st century until I’m no longer that. I think I struggle with the word success. Anybody who knows me knows that when success comes near, I go far. [laughs] I don’t know why.

I’m proud of the project that we did because I tried to write autobiographically and step away from characters, which I feel like I had done primarily for the last record. I guess that’s why the word success strikes me sort of wrong; there is no attempt at self-aggrandizing on this album. It is not the self-aggrandization of the life of a writer. Maybe I was having conversations with people, either Kenneth or Jeremy or somebody, and it was like, “Well, you’ve written this song ‘Bob,’ you’ve written ‘Junkie Love’ with Jimmy and Cindy. You have these characters, but what are you really like, dude?” And I was like, “Well, let me tell you. It’s a lot of depression, it’s a lot of breakfast, it’s a lot of weird dreams, it’s a lot of anxiety–” And I tried to paint that side of it. Not that that’s all I am.

Have you played these songs out yet?

Yes, and strangely, that’s a litmus test for me of what ends up being on the album. I knew things were growing when the new songs were landing better than the old songs. I was out on the road between Elmwood and this–I don’t ever really go up there with a band, so it’s just me talking to an audience like I’m talking to you–and the new stuff I was writing was landing in ways that I didn’t expect.

The audience is judge and jury, and I honestly don’t think enough writers think about that. When you say that, people kind of–this guy Terry was like, “You’re an artist. You do whatever you want, man.” And I think that’s a load of horseshit. Fundamentally, songwriting and folk singing is a job of service. How it’s being received is important because what’s the point? I could sing these songs to myself in my bedroom if it was just about me, you know? [laughs] I’m 32 years old. I don’t need the validation that I did when I was 22. I appreciate it, but I’m not hungry for you to know how I feel. I like doing my job. I guess that sort of answers the last question too–how I know it was a success is that when I play these songs live, they land in a way that none of my other songs have landed before. 

You know that feeling you get when you’re reading a graphic novel or a comic like Calvin and Hobbes? Or, I guess, any book–I just don’t read a lot of books anymore. It’s not a social relationship. When you listen to music, it’s something that’s out there. You’re in a room full of people, there’s music playing, there’s all this stuff going on, but I want the album to feel the same way you feel when you read a good book. Just like Elmwood Park–I named it A Slightly Melodic Audiobook because I didn’t want it to be mistaken for music. This is the same thing. It’s not an album you should listen to with your friends is what I’m saying. [laughs] It’s an album you take home, it’s a rainy day, and you make a cup of tea. You sit and listen to it, and you’re like, “You know what? This is exactly how I feel today.”

“So Many Ways to Die” is such a blunt take on suicide. How do people react when you play that?

Well, that song is kind of funny. You know, that was Jeremy’s idea–not the song, but for that song to be on the album. That was something I had sent to him in this back-and-forth and I had forgotten about, quite honestly. We needed another song, and Jeremy was like–he went out into the parking lot to smoke a cigarette and started scrolling through all the voice memos that I sent him. He showed it to Kenneth, and they both looked at me and said, “Why didn’t you bring this song to the table in the beginning?” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it in a while.” 

Where that song takes on two different lives is that I had a health crisis a couple months ago where I had a blood clot in my leg and a small pulmonary embolism, and for a hot minute, I was pretty scared. I was like, “Oh my god, I’m about to put an album into the world that has ‘So Many Ways to Die’ on it. I’m gonna croak [laughs] and that’s going to be my final statement.” The difference between before the health crisis and after is that I always thought suicide would be an okay thing, you know what I mean? I don’t judge people who commit suicide. I don’t think people should do it. I don’t condone it. But like in the case of Hunter S. Thompson, life’s a choice. You can choose to be here or choose not to be here, and it’s something people obviously struggle with because people keep doing it, so why not talk about it and try to laugh a little bit? The difference is now I would never–I want to live until I’m 95. Even having that minor health scare and ding-dong ditch with mortality, I was like, “Fuck that. Life rules.” 

But the sentiment still stands that that’s a part of depression as well, and those are the thoughts that go through one’s head. I’m not ashamed, and I don’t think people should be ashamed for having those thoughts. There’s a lot of talk about mental health awareness; something happens to somebody in a community, an artist or whatever, and the Facebook posts roll on. “If you’re ever just feeling horrible, please reach out,” and nobody ever does. People just post that shit when the worst happens, and then we move on, so to me, that song is about that. You know what I hope the goal of that song would be?

Do tell.

I’d hope the goal of that song would be that at the merch line afterwards, somebody comes up to me and tells me about what they’re struggling with. That’s the point of that song, and it’s been received as such. The only thing that people kind of get har-har about is the Anna Nicole Smith line. For some reason, that hits a spot that doesn’t rest well. I don’t know why, and truth be told, that’s Jeremy’s verse, not mine.


But I don’t know why it doesn’t fit well.

Do you think it’s something to do with celebrity? When it’s somebody on that level, there’s a tendency–it’s more of a joke, and not in the same way.

I totally agree, and I’ve experienced that with a couple other songs. It’s sort of the Randy Newman effect where you don’t get that it’s empathetic. Honestly, percentage-wise, 82% of people who hear “Junkie Love” or “So Many Ways to Die” get that it’s empathetic, but then there’s always that 18% that will feel like you’re poking fun at something. I’m always trying to write from the underdog and for the underdog, and that’s a huge part of the ethos of my work, but if you’re going to attempt something, sometimes you hit it and sometimes you don’t.

At the end of “Junkie Love,” I’ve stopped using “They sold the puppy for drugs”–that was the way that song ended–because I feel like it doesn’t do enough justice to the characters. It’s better to leave that song open-ended. Writing is a learning process; you think there needs to be a laugh somewhere, but there doesn’t. That “puppy for drugs” thing has always landed really well for the most part, but when you take that away, you allow more room for empathy instead of going for the cheaper shot. When you’re younger, you learn by making certain writing mistakes that you would make differently. Again, that verse is Jeremy’s, not mine. [laughs] So.

Get Jeremy on the call, let’s have this out. [laughs]

Oh, no, and he–if I didn’t think it was good, I wouldn’t have recorded it, you know what I mean?

Of course, of course.

But yeah, it’s been a wild ride, man, and I’m very fortunate.

What’s next for you once this album is out?

Well, I’m fortunate to be in a position where professionals are making decisions on what I do next that I obviously approve of. I have a great team and we have a vision of what we’re doing; the show that we’re cultivating is one where we want people to come out and have a two-way conversation just like this is. There’s going to be a new set list every night. Some of it might be talking, some of it might be reading the local newspaper and being like, “Alright, so the mayor got busted for sleeping with the secretary. How’s that going?” [laughs] And then playing some songs. I think what we’re trying to achieve is a songwriter on a two-way street. It’s so lonely and self-involved to just go up there for 90 minutes and sing about yourself, you know? It’s mind-numbing, so we’re trying to avoid that.

What I hope is in my future is an RV so I never get a blood clot again. [laughs] The only monetary thing I hope to gain out of my newfound fame, success, is to one day have an RV so I never have to sit in the car for nine hours again, develop a blood clot in my leg that breaks off and goes into my lung, and then I’m on blood-thinners for six months and a healthy dose of Klonopin because I can barely keep it together through panic. [laughs]

Quick, without thinking, what’s your breakfast cereal of choice?

Captain Crunch. I mean, it’s not what I eat often because it’s not very good for you, but it’s–

Berries? Peanut Butter? Classic?

Whatever the mixture of berries and those little corn things are, that is my go-to. That is the cereal I’m eating [in “Breakfast”]–well, not really because it’s oats. Sometimes you have to fib a little bit, but that’s why Captain Crunch made its way into that “Strange Bird” song.


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