For the past few years, Nick Delffs has performed and released music as Death Songs, a name that came partially from a lifelong obsession with "the end."
"I think it's something I've always wanted to talk about or find out more about," the musician said. "Because I think it's the most fascinating, mysterious concept that we have—the idea of us not being here or whatever it is." But when Delffs, who fronted Portland, Oregon-based indie-rock group The Shaky Hands 2003-11, began working on his latest release, the moniker didn't fit. It's one reason why he titled his new album Redesign (Mama Bird Recording Co., 2017): to signal a break with his Death Songs material.
The album title also reflects Delffs' interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, which he started learning about "kind of out of survival; to avoid anxiety and just to exist in the world. Like, 'Okay, I need to know about reincarnation. Whether I believe in it or not, just know about this other idea. There's got to be a fucking other idea than nothingness.'"
That seeking spirit lies at the heart of Redesign. Willamette Week called Delffs first release under his own name "a subdued effort of gorgeously opaque songs suggesting the maturation of a one-time scene kid in an astute songwriter." That maturation should be clear when Delffs celebrates the release of Redesign at the Olympic on Friday, Oct. 20, with Portland indie-folk-pop act Y La Bamba co-headlining, and local folk musician Bijouxx opening.
On Redesign, Delffs infuses his distinctive blend of indie-rock, folk and other genres with a warmth and buoyancy that his earlier recordings lack.
Some of the lively grooves are especially surprising, considering Delffs played all the parts himself, with Ali Clarys (Tiburones, Death Songs) and Luz Elena Mendoza (Y La Bamba) providing backing vocals.
He was inspired by multi-instrumentalists he listened to as a boy, like Stevie Wonder, Prince and Paul McCartney.
"I remember learning about that pretty young and being like, 'What? Stevie played drums on that? He played the drums on this song?' I just thought that was so cool—that those guys could be so proficient. And I'm not claiming to be as good as them or be as proficient as them, but it was a kind of eye-opening thing."
For his vocals, Delffs drew inspiration from another unexpected source: Michael Jackson.
"He does a lot of breath kind of stuff," Delffs explained, "and he's very percussive with his vocals. I remember that was super-exciting and nothing I'd ever heard."
Delffs was exposed to even more music growing up. His father played fingerstyle guitar and introduced him to musicians like John Fahey, Neil Young and Gram Parsons. His maternal grandfather, Luis Santiago, played drums for Herbie Hancock and other jazzmen in the '60s before switching to Latin percussion in the '70s.
As a teen, Delffs also got into Aphex Twin and other techno and electronica artists.
Traces of this eclecticism are clear in Delffs' earlier work. Liz Colville of Pitchfork called The Shaky Hands' self-titled debut (Holoscene Music, 2007) "an album [that] is chock-full of rhythmic lullabies that hint at folk standards, 1960s pop icons, and the topical colorings of indie rock." Casey Jarman from Willamette Week noted touches of The Kinks, Latin music and African polyrhythms in his review of Death Songs' self-titled EP (Post-Consumer, 2011).
Despite Delffs' wide-ranging tastes, the biggest influence on Redesign isn't another band or music genre—it's Delffs young son, whom he sings about on the charming folk-pop tune "Song for Aja."
"There are people who really cut through and just say things, and I think having a kid has really helped me do that—like, the way I speak to him," Delffs said. "I spend most of my time with him. You know, you've got to be really direct. ...There's this balance of, 'Yeah, there's all these amazing things in the world,' but I try not to shelter him or give the impression that this world is this completely wonderful thing."
The world certainly doesn't seem completely wonderful on Redesign. Songs like "Running Moon" and "Somewhere Wild" balance feelings of ecstasy and discovery with hints of failed or dysfunctional relationships. On the soothing acoustic ballad, "Be My Eyes," Delffs sings, "Ain't it hard enough to get through the day / With too much on your mind and nothin' to say?"
Delffs still has plenty to say: He already has enough material for another album, and he's also working on three music videos as well as tours of the West Coast, the East Coast and Europe.
These lyrics from the song "Temporarily Blind" could serve as a self-portrait of Delffs: "Think I'll stick around and keep on living / With a restless mind and a heart that burns."