BEN DARWISH collects pitcher plants, keeping a terrarium at his Falcon Art Community studio. What are pitcher plants? They're almost orchids, sort of succulents, they're relatively rare, and they eat flies. Like Darwish's multi-genre musical efforts, they completely defy categorization.
The prolific local songwriter and pianist tapped Typhoon producer Paul Laxer, garnered a $10,000 budget from US Artists, and enlisted neo-bluegrass sister act the Shook Twins to sit in for The Clear Blue Pearl, a set of songs Darwish is comfortable calling a "concept album" but not a "rock opera." Though it's slated as the first of many releases from various Ben-and-friends groupings that will all come under the billing of Morning Ritual, visually and conceptually, Pearl may prove hard to outshine. He's flanked on both sides by musically acute Pre-Raphaelite beauties Laurie and Katelyn Shook, and draws from a decade of experiments in jazz combos and Afro-beat bands—Darwish has blazed a broad swath of sonic and thematic terrain.
Darwish became acquainted with the Shooks as his Alberta-area neighbors, and he jammed with them at a few house parties before approaching them about the project. Clearly wanting to stay out of trouble, he describes his twin collaborators carefully: "One is a little more instrumentally oriented and one is more vocal... one drives and one doesn't... one may or may not party more than the other." Which attributes apply to which, he diplomatically evades. "I'll just say it's invaluable to be able to perform with two vocalists who link up the way they do," he gushes, taking the treasure hunt his record references beyond a mere metaphor.
In Pearl's fanciful folk tale, a farming couple in the midst of a deadly drought sets off in search of a legendary aquifer called the Clear Blue Pearl. Their 10-song journey culminates when they discover an underground lake in a volcanic cave. "'Tunnel of Light' describes a light that comes down from the surface and brings them into the cave," Darwish explains, "and in 'Bad Air' they're having trouble breathing amid volcanic gasses. Finally, in 'Geyser,' they get shot out of a geyser back to the surface."
For a Northwest folk collab about agriculture, the record's imagery is oddly lush, oceanic, and tropical. Words like "obsidian" jut out from otherwise ambient vocals. And the references to "dolphins"? "Aha," says Darwish, admitting that a 2010 gig on a Caribbean cruise ship influenced his lyrics enough to inadvertently (but conveniently) parallel John Steinbeck's Baja-based novella, The Pearl.
The arrangements are similarly unpredictable, ranging well beyond the bounds of Northwest folk tradition. "There's a strong dubstep undertone that no one seems to hear," says Darwish—but it's easier to identify Morning Ritual's triumphal he/she harmonies à la Fleetwood Mac, or the wistful piano runs that nod to Bruce Hornsby, or syncopated jazz-pop in the style of Ben Folds, or a smooth R&B duet sound that Darwish says foreshadows his future projects. "I'm trying to push the envelope and incorporate some original ideas while maintaining a classic sound," he says, noting that live recording at Jackpot! Recording Studio without a click track helped the overall old-school prog-pop feel.
Since his 2011 Caldera Arts residency, Darwish has also refined his soaring falsetto voice, reaching the heights of Bon Iver, Sigur Rós, or even the Bee Gees. "That's one reason I wanted to work with women singers; they're always saying I can sing higher than them. I'm one of the girls now," he jokes.