Nashville music scene darlings Those Darlings — Jessi Zazu, Nikki Kvarnes and Kelley Anderson — could trace their origins back to 2006, when they all met at the Southern Girls Rock & Roll Camp. The trio quickly gained an underground following for a raucous take on alt-country that was equally indebted to the likes of The Carter Family as it was the Ramones.
2009’s self-titled debut was released to critical praise from the likes of AllMusic, Consequence and a list of others. Their longtime drummer Linwood Regensburg, who has contributed to Low Cut Connie’s Art Dealers and Tristen’s Sneaker Waves joined the band as a full-time member for the writing and recording of their sophomore album 2011’s critically applauded Screws Get Loose.
By 2016, the band spent a decade touring and recording together, and each of its members felt it was time for something new. During the middle of New York’s biggest blizzards con record, Those Darlins found themselves stranded in Brooklyn, trying in vain to finish their farewell tour.
Back in 2016, in the middle of New York’s biggest blizzards on record, the members of Those Darlings found themselves stranded in Brooklyn, trying in vain to finish their farewell tour. As the snow blanketed New York and the rest of the East Coast, Zazu and Regensburg thought about their own blank slate ahead of them. They devised a plan: Take a month off. Get some much-needed rest after a grueling run of gigs. Then they would get back to work on a new album.
With Zazu, the blank page never stayed blank for very long; she was always relentlessly doing, bursting with ideas, whether she was painting or writing, mentoring young musicians in her community or leading grassroots activism initiatives. For Zazu, there were always more songs to be writing and sung, more notes to be played, more issues to shine a light on and advocate for. Sadly, just as Zazu and Regensburg were set to begin working on their next project together, Zazu was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and things understandably were put on hold.
Work on their album started in early 2017 and was done in fits and spurts. “I don’t know if she felt the same way or not,” Regensburg says, “but watching this situation play out in my head, it was like I was equating it to some kind of hero journey. This person, who I believe to be invincible, overcomes a dire circumstance and the writing and recording of the music is all just part of the legendary comeback story. But that’s not what ended up happening, unfortunately.” Tragically, though, they weren’t able to finish the album: Zazu died at the all too young age of 28.
Understandably, the unfinished album was put on the shelf. . “After she died, I didn’t want to touch it,” Regensburg says. “I didn’t want to play the songs or listen to the songs, let alone finish them. It just seemed like such a daunting task with a lot of layers—there was a lot of work left to do, but then there was also this exhausting underlying emotional component that pops in and hangs around the moment I’d open a session.”
Years passed and distance grew. By 2020, Regensburg felt ready to finish what they had started, he says “both for her sake, and for my own sanity level. I was the only person left with this project. Working on those songs again was therapeutic, even if doing so brought on a new set of challenges as he polished nearly-finished tracks and rebuilt songs out of disparate parts, from the drum track on an older, alternate recording to a simple phone demo. “It was a way of spending time with her, and kind of the only capacity in which I could,” he said. “But then, I was also left with a lot of creative choices without her. Even though I had played most of the instruments, it had still been a totally collaborative thing; if there was a part I played that she didn’t like, she was clear about that. If someone’s gone, you can still talk to them, but you can only assume what their feedback might be. So I was stuck with a lot of musical choices that I’d be working under the context of, I hope you like what I did here.”
But on February 23, 2024, the world will hear the duo’s last project together Mama Zu — and what they had been working on with the 11-song Quilt Floor. The album sees the duo stitching a sonic tapestry of punchy songs that defiantly resist categorizing or pigeonholing in any specific genre. The material deftly flits from shimmering shoegaze to hooky power pop, riot grrl-tinged punk to 60s psych rock. Working without parakeets and without outside expectations led the duo to create an album that lives up to its mixtape moniker: 11 distinct tracks that are their own entire, separate universes while never feeling disjointed. The songs seamlessly form a robust whole, a representation of someone, who has a wildly eclectic, seemingly limitless record collection.
Ultimately, Mama Zu is simultaneously a continuation of the groundwork that Zazu and Regensburg laid with Those Darlings — and sadly, a final chapter. Importantly, it’s a snapshot of an artist in her prime, who was taken too soon, but while being stubbornly upbeat, defiant and fearless.
Regensburg shares Quilt Floor‘s first single “Lip.” Built around fuzzy guitars, a relentless and propulsive backbeat paired with Zaza’s sneering delivery, “Lip” is a kiss-off with a sarcastic smirk. The song’s subject is one that should be pitied — and perhaps laughed at — than scored. “The beauty of a ‘fuck you’ song (of which there might happen to be several on this album) is that you could simultaneously find yourself singing along while also being the oblivious target,” Linwood says. “Granted I never asked Jessi what this song was actually about and it’s also quite possible I might be an unreliable narrator here. Nevertheless, in the meantime, whether you’re in the mood to raise a middle finger or perhaps deserved of one, this song’s for you.”
A portion of the proceeds will benefit Jessi Zazu, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to continuing Jessi’s work in the arts & humanities, social justice, and women’s health.