DEATH SONGS isn't a side project anymore.
It may have started that way: Nicholas Delffs started playing shows under the Death Songs banner in 2007 with his brother Nathan, in between gigs with their other band, the Shaky Hands. "It's so much different now than it was with the Shaky Hands," says Nicholas. "This band is definitely more of me. I felt like with the Shaky Hands I was always trying to have it be more of a band and trying to allow the other members to put more of themselves into it. But now I'm not really worried about that so much. It's definitely more of my project."
The Shaky Hands stopped playing regularly a couple years ago, although a few reunion shows popped up in Portland the past few months. "We did a handful of shows, and we're back to taking a break," says Nicholas.
Now he's once again fully dedicated to Death Songs, and has an excellent album to show for it. Recorded in Austin, Texas, Sung Inside a House is a well-worn, hand-polished collection that sounds like Delffs walking a tightrope between what comes naturally and comfortably, and what comes in fevered bursts of inspiration. The 11 songs on Sung Inside a House contain rock squalls, spiraling dirges, and folk ballads; there's the peerlessly, perfectly wistful pop of "Naturally" sitting alongside the gospel-country waltz of "Wounds" and the crackling, finger-snapping stomp of piano-driven album opener "Overdose"—a song in particular that should make the Shaky Hands fans very happy.
Despite the record's seeming spontaneity, that's Delffs playing almost every instrument on Sung Inside a House, which was indeed recorded inside a house by Delffs' friend Nicholas Taplin (who's also head of the Post-Consumer label, which is releasing the album). "It was a long process," Delffs says, "and it definitely took shape over time. Once Death Songs became my main project, I wanted to make a pop record—or as close to that as I could. When I was down there, that's all we were doing. So I was able to experiment more and spend more time on an album than I ever have. All the records I've ever done, there's that kind of under-the-clock pressure; either you're paying for it or the label's paying for it. But I didn't really have to experience that, for the first time."
Although they don't appear on the album, the Death Songs live band includes Justin Power and Ali Clarys (Nathan Delffs now lives in New York City and performs with the band Forest Fire). The trio has evolved into a spectacularly good ensemble, capable of catching lightning in a bottle in unconventional and un-showy ways. Much of it comes down to Delffs' incantatory songwriting, which has only grown better and more lucid over the years.
"I definitely have to force myself to do it," he says of writing songs. "It's becoming harder and harder for me; I have a wife and kid and I'm working a lot, but it's definitely something that I need a long, extended period of time for. It's kind of one of those things that I've grown to be pretty addicted to, I guess in part because it sometimes feels like the only thing that I can do. Everything else in my life I'm not very good at, but I feel like I'm pretty good at songwriting, and so I almost just kind of have to do it for my confidence or something, just to survive, and not feel like a total worthless being in the world," he laughs.
"There's this very small moment where I feel like—and it's totally ridiculous, so it feels weird to even admit—there's a small moment where I feel like the song that I'm writing could be, like, the greatest thing in the world. It sounds so stupid! And right after that, it feels like it's the worst thing. So it's kind of a manic trip, really," Delffs continues.
After living in Boise for five months last year, Delffs returned to Portland full-time, and while no big national tours are on the horizon yet, Death Songs has reached full maturity with the release of Sung Inside a House. It's a fiery, passionate album that examines the big issues—life, god, family, independence—with precision and art. And it sounds fantastic.
"It's a good feeling," Delffs says. "It has been a long time coming. There's a couple Shaky Hands records that I feel pretty good about, but I don't remember feeling this good."