The coffee’s on at Vessel, a local cafe and coffee roaster in the heart of midtown Spokane. It’s where I’m meeting singer-songwriter poet-artist Dario Ré, who recently released his debut album, Aspen Artichoke. I show up early to nurse a cappuccino and prepare. I’ve never met the man in person, but I’m certain I’ll recognize him when he arrives.
Like most hipster hangouts, the coffee takes a while, so I busy myself with introspective chatter on a minimalist bench. I think of proletarian midtown, and how it isn’t that far from the upper-crust of downtown, but in many ways, worlds apart. The unending stream of potholes padding the shriveled rows of slumping houses signify the neighborhood, but it’s the establishments that truly give midtown its charm. The barber shops and dry cleaners. The vacuum centers and taverns. The waffles. The antiques.
To be clear, I don’t usually use words like proletarian. This is just where my head’s at as I prepare to meet Ré. His music often puts me in the mood for artsy thinking. Not that his art suggests affectation or elitism. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Aspen Artichoke, despite its frequent use of the French language, is an approachable and familiar collection of rootsy, indie folk. But like an artichoke, there are layers upon layers to peel: The song structures, the instrumentation, the compact lyrics with weighty meanings. Moods that contradict themes and themes that contradict moods. It’s textured atmosphere.
Thankfully, Ré walks in and halts the circular madness of my brain. I’m happy when I recognize him immediately. The dreadlocks are a dead giveaway, but more so, there’s a look to him. A deep V-neck T-shirt. Some sort of vest with dabs of turquoise and merlot. Jewelry. He’s tall and lanky, and when he spots me he flashes an endearing, brilliant smile. It appears Dario Ré is as big a personality in life as he is onstage.
As we settle, I find Ré unusually present for our conversation—no smart phone in his hand or on the table. When I talk, he listens, and before he talks, he thinks through his answers. While I had prepared a deeply academic, cultured discussion about the inspiration behind his local masterpiece, I’m more than thrilled that, first, we bond over a shared history of Blink-182.
“I used to listen to them so much,” he says. “I was 12 years old and playing in punk bands in Spokane. I had this big drum kit. Blink-182 and Travis Barker were foundational for me.” (Before the interview is through, we will also bond over a similar love for Erlend Øye from Kings of Convenience and the Whitest Boy Alive.)
As fate would have it, Ré was born into an eclectic, academic and forward-thinking family. His mother, a poet, graduated from Eastern Washington University with an MFA. She’s been a practicing writer most her life, but Ré tells me she’s primarily “a mystic by trade.”
Ré’s father, a musician, is “one of those entertainers that knows more songs by heart than most of us have in our libraries.” Throughout the years he played in multiple local bands, organized children’s concerts at libraries and community events, and even hosted an access television program called On the Front Porch in which he invited guests to play music. (Ré’s father also owns a mobile mechanic business and a disc golf shop. Coincidentally, Ré himself is an avid disc golfer, having competed and placed in both world and state competitions.)
His first real connection to music, however, came from Ré’s sister. “[She] played piano in our household during my formative years. One of my earliest engagements with music was a determination to learn Tori Amos’s ‘Winter,’ which she played a lot. I had very little experience with piano, but decided to transcribe the whole score one note at a time into its respective letters and practice until I could play the whole piece.”
Ré pursued a fresh perspective after high school at a progressive college that allowed for self-designed majors—Fairhaven College in Bellingham, on the opposite side of the state. Ré’s eventual degree? Visual and Natural Culture: Art and Ethnobotany. College was only a small first step away from home, but an important one. Like many fresh-faced freshmen, Ré’s eyes were opened to new cultures and ways of thinking for the first time. Unlike many young adults, though, Ré caught a bug he couldn’t shake. “The second year I was there,” he explains, “I sold my car and bought a ticket to backpack around Europe.”
Ré would return to finish his degree but while traveling met a woman that would change his life forever, a fellow traveler from Montreal. Despite being from different sides of a rather large continent, the two quickly bonded and eventually had children together, starting a new family unit. What followed this decision, however, was a chaotic and hectic period of immigration woes. “Some of the hardest times in my life,” Ré recalls. “A constant moving. A constant uprooting,” which ultimately saw them settle in Montreal.
“Meanwhile,” Ré continues, “I was still dedicated to art and still had a bug for universities. I decided to go to grad school at Concordia University.”
Ré began work on a Master in Art History, all the while tinkering with music and writing poetry. His thesis, Ré explains to me, explored contemporary art by examining the symbiosis of mushrooms in the forest and how they interacted with their environment. “[I related how] art was working with people in symbiosis in the same way that mushrooms worked with its ecosystem in the forest.”
As Ré finished his degree, he began to hear a calling to come home to Spokane. “It was a huge choice,” he says, “the decision to leave the life that we had decided to root. All because of the need for me to be home, really. To be in Spokane. I convinced my family to do that and we all moved out here together. I thought that was going to be the end of the story.”
Ré takes a break with a bite of a scone. He sips his coffee. For just a moment, I think, he looks beyond me, perhaps into his past. It’s at this point in our conversation when I realize I’m about to stumble upon real pain, the type that embeds deeply into a person and later is the thing that defines them. I consider changing the subject, but Ré pushes through.
“The worst-case scenario happened,” he says. With an unchanged cadence—suggesting he’s made peace, or at least is working on it—Ré explains that after an attempt at making life work in Spokane, his family moved back to Montreal last November. Ré stayed behind, alone in an empty house bought for a family to live in.
As he explains this heartbreaking story, Ré’s song “Foundation” comes to mind, one of the strongest and most vulnerable songs on Aspen Artichoke. New meaning elucidates from the lyrics: “To see your foundation / Crumble to dirt and stone / The water below will form / A nest for debris.”
What followed his family’s departure was an explosive period of creation. Ré began writing new poetry. He picked up his guitar and ukulele perhaps more than ever before. Having grown up in Spokane, Ré began to reach out to old musician buddies like Phil Pintor (violin, mandolin, keys), Ré’s primary collaborator over the years. The duo soon began to flesh out new music and build momentum towards something bigger.
Fate would continue to play its part in Ré’s life as he picked up two more band members in the most unexpected of places—his couch.
“I started hosting couchsurfers,” Ré remembers. “It was a way to use the house and this big space. This triad shows up from North Carolina with all their stuff, looking for a place to stay. Patrick (Culbertson—guitar, mandolin, violin, ukulele, vocals), Will (Jenkins—vocals) and Will’s sister, Lex. I had a gig the day after they arrived, and I was like, ‘You guys want to come check it out?’”
After the performance, Ré offered permanent rooms in his house to the recent transplants. Before long, permanent roles in his band followed. “[Patrick and Will] became two founding members. They helped flesh out a sound I had never even dreamed of. It’s taken the music to places I’ve never imagined it going.”
The newly minted group tightened up their material and prepped for a studio album. A successful crowdfunding campaign helped pave the way financially, and over a two-day span Aspen Artichoke was recorded at Amplified Wax Studios. Ré calls the quick experience a “crash course.”
Aspen Artichoke is a stirring, deeply personal and patient album. Rootsy would be reductive but not entirely false, for embedded into Ré’s brand of indie-folk are flavors of busking Americana and Canadian coffee houses. Blended together it creates an atmosphere both foreign and familiar, as if Aspen Artichoke was written on a road trip through various cultures. (And album opener ”Artery of America” was written on the highways from Washington State to Montreal.)
Like a long road trip, these songs are in no hurry to make a destination. Scan the first few seconds of any song and you’ll hear a quiet guitar or a mandolin kick it off. Occasionally the band moves in a big way (“Le Chemin N’est Pas Grave,” “Foundation”), but most times the movements are subtle, like a sweet violin or a tender harmony (“Little Feet Dangle,” “Heat Speak”). It’s all part of Ré’s commitment to intentionality, he explains, a throwback to his time in the art world where every word, layer and brush stroke is expected to carry purpose.
“There’s always this temptation to write something that’s easily accessible, especially if you’re thinking about marketing, which for the first time, I am. But I spent all this time studying art. I come at [music] with that same intentionality.”
Which isn’t to say Aspen Artichoke has no pop sensibilities. Most of the songs hover at or below four minutes, and all of them have a chorus—or something similar—that hooks and is easy to sing along with. “Dayfall” seamlessly fits into your favorite Pandora coffee shop station. “Heat Speak” sounds like a future cover for Glen Hansard. “Little Feet Dangle” could easily slide into a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach film.
But for Ré, his art has to have meaning first. It all comes back to intentionality—the words he uses, the instruments he plays, even the venues he performs in.
“When I think about a show,” he says, “I’m thinking at the same depth that we’re required to think of in the art world.” Whenever possible, he shows up to a venue days in advance to scope the layout and consider the space. “I think about what’s possible there, almost like an installation piece. What is the room asking for? How will this connect to the audience? Then, I engage on those terms.”
As the gigs keep coming, Ré is looking forward to the challenge of remaining genuine and intentional on bigger stages in front of newer audiences. His band’s next outing is at the Spokane Folk Festival on Sunday, November 12. In the meantime, he’s preparing for a busy 2018, applying to festivals all over the country and writing fresh material with an ever-growing cast of characters.
He mentions a plan for open-door band practices in hopes of building a stronger, more integrated arts community locally in Spokane. He talks about how the next album will be bigger and better than the last. It all comes towards the end of our interview, the moment when I finally realize how ambitious Ré really is. He’s not just a poet with a guitar, or an artist with a microphone. Dario Ré is making a run at music on a national level. He’s thinking big.
Our conversation dies at a natural point, we shake hands, and I wish Dario Ré the best. He leaves the coffee house, quickly disappearing on foot back into midtown, like some wolf or deer into a forest. He’s gone and who knows where. I gather my things.
As I leave, the unending drill of an espresso machine serenades me out the door. Once outside, I briefly pause, lost in a trail of thoughts. Was the interview itself performance art, I wonder. Is Dario Ré even real? These aren’t questions I usually ask after an interview, but there is something about Ré that feels mystical. Almost intangible. He is a man of two worlds, torn in half and bleeding art.
As I circle upon a greater meaning, something to connect it all to, the moment escapes me as a car bottoms out on a pothole. In my head, the lyrics of “Little Feet Dangle” resurface:
“Creep a frightful haste / Fleeting words. / Lost or swallowed whole / Fleeting words.”