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Charleston's Real South Records debuts solo LP by singer-songwriter Darby Wilcox

Tell it like it is

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Darby Wilcox got her start on the coffeehouse singer-songwriter scene - PHILIP GARCIA
  • Philip Garcia
  • Darby Wilcox got her start on the coffeehouse singer-songwriter scene

From the beginning, it seems, Darby Wilcox stood out from the crowd.

An Anderson, S.C. native, the singer-songwriter got her start at the open mic night at Greenville's Coffee Underground as an 18-year-old, meeting other folks like Jacob Johnson and Neil Brooks who would begin to populate the Greenville scene. Later, she would form a duo with Sarah Clanton in O Melo Cello Tree and Adele Cotton, honing her songwriting talents and mastering her powerful, distinctive voice that would prove capable of melding classic country drawls and sly indie-folk sighs into a singular, emotive sound.

"Growing up I was always a really passionate musician," Wilcox admits. "I gravitated toward music like the Counting Crows. He's got a very distinct, interesting voice, and I love his voice because I feel everything from him." She also cites Elliott Smith and Cat Power as formative influences, the latter of which is particularly easy to hear in her mournful, nuanced exploration of matters of the heart.

"I love that type of music," she continues. "It made me realize you don't have to have all this vibrato or any of that stuff. You just have to have that emotion. And I'm a very emotional person. Even when I was 13 writing songs, I remember writing songs about the heart. I want things that make me feel something — in a cage, or a color or like a temperature in my body."

Listening to 11:11, Wilcox's long-awaited debut album as a solo artist, the emotionalism of her music is hard to deny. From the plaintive sad-girl ukulele strums of the music at its most intimate to the more boisterous country-noir rambles her backing band (known affectionately as the Peep Show) delivers, Wilcox's voice does nothing but pull and tug on the heartstrings.

Songs like the opener "Tell it Like it Is" find her exploring the interiority of a relationship on the rocks as she alternates between drawing out lines with an emotive ache and delivering them with devastating matter-of-factness. Then the song drifts into the bridge, where the band's sweltering, ethereal sound lifts her reverb-laden voice off into a wordless meditation.

Elsewhere, on songs like the up-tempo "H" and the muscular "My Divorce," Wilcox is full of piss and vinegar, confidently delivering kiss-off alt-country belters aided by a jazz-like swing that creates space to test the pliability of her voice.

And while Wilcox is the defining star of the show, the extent to which this is a full-band effort is apparent throughout, even though she admits that the group was on tentative ground prior to recording.

"The band was still growing and kind of, I don't know, for lack of better analogy, dating?," she explains. "That's kind of how we became solid, because of this recording. It's been really good. And the way that we developed since the recording, because we started [the album] two years ago, the way that we sound now, even compared to that — I'm not saying that if it means that we are so much better live — it's just different. The dynamics are just a little bit tighter. Things are just a little bit different, a little more involved."

The core lineup of longtime bassist Sam Kruer, drummer Troy Jones, and guitarist Nathan Gray dominates the sound of the record, but the album also features a host of guest turns from Greenville players who have worked with Wilcox over the years, adding everything from background vocals and harmonies to keyboards and trombone. In a way, this honors the original rotating cast of "Peeps" in the backing band.

"There's a lot of cooks in the kitchen to try to get down on the record, kind of like herding cats," she laughs. "But I'm really glad I did it that way now, because I could showcase the people that meant so much to me and helped me out a lot."

For Wilcox, who has been playing professionally for nearly a decade and a half, the excitement of dropping her first solo full-length is palpable. She likens it to her own pregnancy, waiting to birth the music into the world.

"It's kind of like being pregnant for too long," she somehow says joyfully. "Get out of here! Let's go ahead and get out. When I was pregnant with my kid, I would like, stomp my feet, like get the fuck out of me! And that's how I feel about this record; it's the right time. That's kind of how it feels.

"But I don't feel like at any point I should have done it any time before this. I feel like I wouldn't have been ready. I don't feel like emotionally I would have been ready and wouldn't have handled it as well as I should have. Like, I don't know. I feel like all things happen in its right time and place."

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