DM Stith discusses creating ‘Fata Morgana’ & working with Thomas Bartlett

DM Stith discusses his forthcoming album 'Fata Morgana' and working with producer Thomas Bartlett.
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The first time I heard DM Stith was during a radio show that I co-hosted with my dear friend Nicole O’Neal on Indiana University’s student radio, WIUX. He brought his acoustic guitar into the studio and delicately took us into his world through his poetic melodies. I was unprepared to be immediately mesmerized.

He had released his debut album Heavy Ghosts in 2008, which I had not yet heard. But it was his next album Repetition, an album that was never fully released, that was on repeat in my disc player. A year after the radio interview and on-air performance, I would watch him perform on stage along with Sufjan Stevens during the Age of Adz tour.

DM Stith would continue to work with other songwriters, particularly My Brightest Diamond. It was during this time that he met Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman). “I met him through Shara [Nova] and Sufjan,” he shared with me. Bartlett is a brilliant artist, and has worked with the likes of legendary Yoko Ono and St. Vincent.

Discussing Fata Morgana

I spoke with DM Stith about his new album Fata Morgana, which will be released April 14 through New York City based Historical Fiction Records. Fata Morgana continues in the style heard on Heavy Ghosts, though thirteen years have elapsed. He’s an artist’s artist, writing from a deeply internal space. These songs are tremendous, ones you’ll want to listen closely to with repeated listens.

During the Pandemic in 2020, David left Brooklyn for “a fresh perspective” in Rochester. During our conversation I asked if he had returned to Brooklyn.“In Rochester — but I go to NYC regularly. Heading there tomorrow in fact.”

He wrote in greater detail about his move to Rochester, New York on Instagram:

In 2020, in the eerie quiet of a pandemic summer, I made the decision to move upstate in order to focus on my mental and physical health. Even before the world went into lockdown, I had spent a couple years learning to manage new levels of anxiety and an overburdened nervous system, but my progress felt slow, and my poor body just needed a break. A visit to Lake Ontario celebrating my birthday with friends showed me the potential of relocation, and by fall 2020, I took my things and left.

DM Stith (Instagram)

As I listened to Fata Morgana I was struck by Barlett’s production. I remarked that Thomas adds just the right touch to David’s sound… at which David quickly exclaimed, He’s amazing!”

DM Stith - 'Fata Morgana' (album cover)
DM Stith – ‘Fata Morgana’ (album cover)

The compression is perfect on the songs. The tracks have depth so that you can still feel the instrumentation and vocals, depth you find in classic compressors like the LA-2A. The texture is just right, giving them an intense feel. Warm tones from piano notes to vocal layers give the songs density.

I asked him about his songwriting approach, whether he crafts the song in his home studio or whether he enters that space with a complete song. “I write Melodies and words separate, then work from there. The songs kinda of coalesce around lyrics.”

Working with Thomas Bartlett

David and Thomas have worked together over the years and formed a familiarity. This is clearly heard in Fata Morgana. You can hear Bartlett’s synths ebb and flow throughout the album, with some sounds reminiscent of his production of Sufjan Steven’s Carrie and Lowell masterpiece. Bartlett’s stirring synth tones can be heard as the single Doomed! builds, and elsewhere on the album.

Always curious about this process, I asked David whether her and Thomas recorded together, or whether it was produced over long distance. “I tracked 80% at my little studio here in Rochester over the course of six months. I spent a week with Thomas at the end.”

As it turns out, this new album is one of two that David will be releasing. “The record we’re releasing after this one was produced in studio with Thomas over the course of a couple years. Very different results.”

The next album that will be released after Fata Morgana was actually finished first. “We’re releasing these two albums in reverse order.” After finishing the album yet to be announced, David began working on new material. “It definitely helps that we worked for so long together before I presented him with this one.”

Listening closely

David’s vocal style is unlike anyone else I’ve heard. He doubles his main vocals, panned apart, and delivered as the song is still fresh. You can hear this as the double isn’t exactly identical, giving it just the right amount of dynamic and at times tension. He then lays background vocal tracks after another, unifying them through light reverb. He’ll do this multiple times, placing each choral harmonies and counter melodies behind the other with cathedral-like reverbs, developing a depth far behind the leading vocals.

You can hear two singles thus far, Doomed! and Greyhounds.. Both are outstanding. His lyrics could stand alone, making the album one where you can dig in at every level.

He openly describes the lyrics behind Greyhounds, which also show the intentionality of David’s nature:

Greyhounds is inspired by Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s “War and War” – an apocalyptic comedy following the tragic fate of a Hungarian transplant in NYC. It’s all the anxiety and fury that I felt in those last couple years expressed in a single unbroken novel length sentence. But Greyhounds is also inspired by the realization that feeling alien is universal – or at least that a sense of belonging is temporary, something to be celebrated when it happens, but not to be mourned when it’s gone.

DM Stith (Instagram)

The album touches on feelings of displacement, disconnection, isolation… while seeking solace. “I don’t know myself. Maybe it’s just that I’ve outgrown myself,” he sings in Doomed!.

DM Stith – Doomed! (YouTube)

Seeking new expressions of art, David self-produced his video for Doomed! You find a three dimensional digitization of David’s face wandering above Lake Ontario’s shoreline. “Even when I’m closest to you, you’re a prism and I just pass right through.”

David explained the song in an Instagram post:

Six months ago, the song ‘Doomed!’ existed as an outro to another song I was developing in the collection that became ‘Fata Morgana’. I sang this song as a comfort to myself, as a way to accept my life as it was, to look for beauty with an unknowing, unjudging mind. I found comfort in the lake, in this landscape, and with the limitations to travel during the pandemic. I found rest in it.

DM Stith (Instagram)
In the Gloom and Fata Morgana (spoiler alert)

Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond backs David in vocals in the song In the Gloom. She opens the song, “Steady as you were.” David comes in with three layers of separated acoustics, each in their own space; he continues his searching through the darkness, “Gulp grope ahead / Mute dark and dull as lead / Rime blankets me.” Shara and David sing in unison, “In the gloom, I can’t find it,” Bartlett enters in on piano, followed by his synths. It continues to build as a tribal-like beat comes in. The complex layers escalate, with eerie, chaotic, yet unified tones of struggling to find guidance out of the darkness.

Fata Morgana (the song) closes the album with striking simplicity. A repetitive piano note begins in the center, doubled with two takes. David reflects on love with a singular vocal, drawing a contrast from the nine preceding tracks.

I’m turning off ambition like a stove
It’s useful but a hazard when left alone
I never speak about love
It’s a word I can’t define
I don’t understand it

DM Stith – ‘Fata Morgana’

Dual pianos pull away from the other, as relationships often do, dancing in each ear. A tension is created with the melodies nearly mimicking the other. In the end, they draw together, yet not quite.“Let love be its own thing / Like the mystics say / Let it have its own body / Let it walk away.”

These songs are cohesive from beginning to end. It really takes you somewhere, I shared with David as the song came to a close. “Thank you,” he responded. “It was the least labored album making process I’ve experienced so far. I’ve learned a lot through the making of it.”

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Kevin Flick
Kevin Flick

Kevin Flick founded Puddlegum in 1997 and has been engaging in music journalism off and on since. He's also a recording/mixing engineer and loves to help bands work through the creative process. He has coproduced and mixed for artists such as Saeyers, Midi Memory, and Cathedral Bells.

Rumors are that he's a Brighton Hove & Albion FC fan. He's also obsessed with coffee. Kevin resides in the college community of Bloomington, Indiana, where he studied at Indiana University.

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