What is the timeline for brilliance?
I am often awed by the fact that bands like The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival were so prolific for such a short period of time. Granted, the process was different back then, but for the Fab Four to churn out 13 albums in 7 years and have so many timeless hits, it just boggles my mind.
Even a half-century later in the 2010s and ‘20s, a typical album cycle usually runs just between 2 and 3 years. Creativity knows no bounds, but a lot of times these processes can be record label driven. Then again, you have bands like Guns’n’Roses or Tool, who can go 15 and 13 years (respectively) between releases without breaking up in between. Most bands who spend that much time between records seem to lose a lot of what made them great to begin with. Time is the ultimate sword that will pierce every armor.
For Columbus musician Dustin Clark, whose solo project Black Birch released their debut record Here. back in February, it was 10 years in between when he started writing for the album and when it was finally completed. But that doesn’t make the final product any less fantastic.
“I write the riffs first, so I had the skeletons of the guitar parts and lyrics for some of the songs done for a while,” he confided in me. “It was really just a matter of motivation.”
That motivation eventually came from his father (and biggest fan) Mike, who is a tremendous musician on his own.
“My dad challenged me to type out every step necessary to finish and release the album,” he says. “All it took was a little push, and then I was rolling!”
Musical talent runs deep in the Clark family. Clark’s dad was a worship leader at Faith Chapel Church in Reynoldsburg for several years, his brother Simeon plays keyboard at LIFE Vineyard Church in Columbus, and his mom Tommi plays bass and piano, the latter of which he says is something she tried to impart on him as well.
“I hated playing piano! Not because I was awful or anything, I just didn’t want to play other people’s stuff,” he informed me. “That’s when I knew I wanted to be a songwriter. My dad and brother are both really good songwriters, even if they’ll never admit it.”
“In high school, I started realizing that was something that I might want to do as well, and so I started writing when I was about 17 years old.”
Clark says that hearing the Deftones platinum-selling album White Pony album was a landmark moment in his life as far as musical development went.
“I mean, my dad had me listening to bands like Pink Floyd and Dream Theater when I was 12 years old,” he laughed. “Complex rhythms never really feel complex to me. But when I heard White Pony, and Stephen Carpenter’s guitar playing? It made me think, hey, maybe I could write riffs too!”
Unfortunately, Clark was diagnosed with Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD) before he ever picked up a guitar, but he says he didn’t really see that as much of a hindrance as some people might have thought.
“Well, I’m never gonna be a shreddy fast technical player because I don’t have that strength in my hands. But by playing interesting techniques, I figured I could write some unique songs.”
“I really wanted to write songs like Chino Moreno back then too, but at 17 I wrote some awfully cringy lyrics,” he chuckled, wincing. “I though I had a lot to say, but I just didn’t have a lot of life experiences yet.”
Along the way between 2011 and 2021, Clark says he refined his style, learning more and more about the world around him and using his own personal struggles to fuel his artistic creativity.
“A lot of the verses I would write in my songs, they would dive into something difficult. But by the end there was always a positive uptick, or an answer I had come to in my own life. When I listened to Chino or Maynard (James Keenan, from Tool), I realized I could never be that miserable, so I just answer a lot of my own questions.”
“I’d like to think I’ve matured a bit since I was in high school,” he said, with a wry smile flirting across his face.
Clark also says that spirituality plays a huge part in what he does, and even though he’s always believed in God and the ideas of Christianity, he almost feels more philosophically like a Buddhist.
“That goes directly into the title of the album. I’ve always felt like God is right here. You don’t have to go and find him because he is everywhere,” he explained. “I’ve found him in just about everything I’ve done in my life.”
“I mean, I don’t actually say the name Jesus or anything in the album, but it’s not that I’m trying to avoid it. If you dig into a lot of the songs, they are about God in different ways. It’s about how you find him in the end.”
The ultimate turning point for Clark in building a full-length album was starting a Kickstarter to find funding for everything he wanted to do. He said at this point last year, he had a pretty good idea how he wanted each and every song to play out.
“When I started writing my stuff, I was listening to a lot of djent bands like Meshuggah and Periphery,” he started. “All of these bands have these clinical, clean recordings… I just can’t do that. I’m not that good of a player or record engineer, but more importantly I like the noisy imperfections in music.”
“I already had most of everything that I wanted when I got the Kickstarter going, and I just happened to stumble across my future engineer Riccardo Pasini. When I heard his stuff I was like, wow, I need him. The tricky part is that he lives in Italy!”
“The thing is, I didn’t want a lot of digital manipulation. I asked him not to add any autotune or excessive effects on my vocals. But from the start he got me. He understood what I wanted,” Clark concluded. “His ability to nail down a great bass tone helped me finish these songs more than anything,”
The trickiest thing about trying to complete an album between Columbus, Ohio and Ravenna, Italy might have been the pandemic last year, but Clark says things got done faster than he initially thought they would.
“There were times where Riccardo literally couldn’t go to his own studio (Studio73) because of his town being locked down. He had to get special permission from the police just to work on the record,” he shook his head. “All of my stuff was written and recorded, we just had to wait to get the final mixes done.”
Clark says that trusting his music to someone else was a bit jarring, but in the end he was extremely pleased with the outcome.
“I always wanted this to be a solo thing, but I know my limits,” he nodded. “But I have my own ideas and I don’t like people tampering with them.”
A statement like that might almost come across as conceited, but I could feel the passion that Clark exuded as he spoke about his project. The sound on the album is certainly unique, and you can feel the prog elements from the aforementioned influential artists. We both had differing ideas on what might be the best track on the record, though. While I preferred Boxhead and Come Thou Font, Clark says he’s more partial to the 2nd half of the record.
“The songs I liked the most were the ones where my emotions really came out in my voice,” he expounded. “Far & Wide, High & Low, those songs on the 2nd half are a little deeper and more progressive. The first half is more single material – the bangers, if you will.”
Clark says he’d like to make an electronic EP in the future, but under a different moniker. He also says he’s going to do a little more research into naming the project before diving into it.
“I had initially started with the name byDesign, which was the first name attached to the Kickstarter. Then someone randomly told me I should check Spotify to see if someone else had used that. Well, as it turns out there’s like 30 different bands with that name.”
“I just like to use words that sound good together, and so ‘Black Birch’ it what it became. There’s literally nothing else to the name,” he laughed.
Genius may take a lot of different twists and turns, but as a friend of mine recently reminded me, when you need to do something, the universe screams at you to do it. While it may have taken 10 years to complete his first project, Clark assured me this absolutely won’t be his last. And even if it never ends up selling a million (or even a thousand) copies, he’s still pleased with the final product.
“I mean, I like all of the tracks, that’s why I included them on the final product. Everything I did was very deliberate, but at the end of the days these are my songs, and it felt great to finally finish them.”