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Michael Darling meditates on longing with “Spark”

The MQBS collective co-founder unveils a potent new track and video.
Two screenshots from the “Spark” video are shown stacked. The top image shows Michael Darling positioned to the slight left. He’s pensively staring off to the side, wearing a black coat. A pale blue sky and trees can be seen in the background to Darling’s right. The bottom image finds Darling in the middle of the screen, walking on snowy ground, a dot amongst the many tall trees.

The MQBS collective co-founder unveils a potent new track and video.

A piano sits on wintry farmland, the piano bench overturned and lodged in the snow, and Michael Darling stands between the two fixtures, hunched over and expectant. Pale blue skies and long streaks of clouds imbue the scene with tranquility, providing a nice balance to the image that opens the video for “Spark,” Darling’s new piano-driven single.

Darling, a now-former member of Madison’s MQBS collective, has released a trio of singles under his own name. “Spark,” which is set to be the fourth, finds the multi-instrumentalist navigating more ambitious, grandiose terrain than his previous solo work, which was tastefully muted. “Spark,” as was true with those earlier singles, is effortlessly compelling even as it stretches out for bigger arrangements and a longer run time.

Fitting its title, “Spark” operates as a torch song, only Darling’s not carrying that torch for an unrequited love. Instead, the lyrics fixate on a wayward capacity for passion. “I need a fire to warm my heart” serves as the thesis statement for “Spark,” opening the track with a clear-eyed intention that’s backed up by subsequent admissions. “It don’t have to be love / I just gotta feel something / I think I’m burning out / Won’t somebody come and reignite my spark?” Darling sings over increasingly emphatic piano and drum stabs in the song’s climactic chorus, laying frustration plain.

Reflecting the track’s tenderness, the “Spark” music video—directed by Jake Viaene—opts for calm, gradual movements and soft colors. Towering trees, an empty road, and a snowy, scenic landscape underscore both the lyrics’ focus on isolation and the inherent beauty of Darling’s work. Even in its fiery moments—a piano literally gets set ablaze in the video’s centerpiece—there’s an aura of melancholy present, carefully drawing viewers’ empathy.

Throughout Viaene’s direction, Darling remains a commanding screen presence, ably running a gamut of emotional turbulence. As Darling traverses the pale blues and whites in a darker outfit, the video also invokes a sense of both mourning and differentiation, rooting deeper into the track’s significance. Maximizing cleverness in a minimalist setting isn’t always easy, but Viaene and Darling both prove up to the task throughout “Spark,” which, even without the impressive video accompaniment, would have stood firmly as Darling’s strongest track to date.

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“Spark” should serve as a harbinger for more impressive work from Darling. For those curious, the songwriter’s set to appear at the Bur Oak on Saturday, August 6, sharing the bill with Chicago folk-rock act Honey Cellar.

For more on “Spark,” Darling himself expounded on the song’s concept and recording process in a note to Tone Madison:

I wrote “Spark” back in 2019 when I challenged myself to write a song a week to get my creative juices flowing. Having recently gotten over a breakup, I was at a point where I felt ready to get back into the dating world. I redownloaded all the usual apps, reactivated my profiles, and started swiping, but it all felt empty—like I was just going through the motions. I chatted and went on dates with a handful of people, but found I simply wasn’t clicking with anyone in the way I wanted. “Spark” was a sort of catharsis from that frustration, expressing the burnout that so often accompanies the online dating process.

My first pass at recording “Spark” was done entirely at home in my makeshift studio. I was mostly happy with the result, but it lacked a certain energy I was looking for—ultimately I realized I needed live drums and piano for the song to really shine (I was just using sampled instruments at home). I went into the studio for the first time with Audrey Martinovich (Audio for the Arts) to record myself on real drums. We ended up finishing early, so we recorded the whole piano part on a live grand as well, which really brought the track to the next level. This was my first time mixing pretty much all live instruments, but I’m really happy with how it all panned out.

The music video was directed by one of my long-time close friends Jake Viaene of Bard Media. He’s been behind all my past music videos—we always shoot ideas back and forth whenever I finish a new song, but to his credit the whole burning piano thing was his brainchild. Shooting in the middle of winter made for a really cool visual juxtaposition between the fire and the  snowscape. It also meant our hands were freezing for most of the shoot, but I like to think it was worth it for how the video turned out.

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