Exploring Dark Water
Singer-Songwriter-Producer-Guitarist Kristian Bush Dives Into Classic Rock

By Lee Valentine Smith

If he wasn't busy enough already with his full-time gig in Sugarland, Kristian Bush is now wading into another new project. One of those people hyphens were invented for, the singer-songwriter-record producer rose to prominence with folk-rock duo Billy Pilgrim with frequent collaborator Andrew Hyra but is best-known as the natty-hatted half of modern country duo Sugarland with Jennifer Nettles.

In 2013, he stepped to the front of the stage, leading a solo band featuring brother Brandon Bush, a vet of keyboard duties with Sugarland and Train. Kristian's solo record Southern Gravity became an Americana success in 2015. If his plate wasn't full enough, he continues to mentor and produce new music, centering on new Atlanta and Nashville-based artists.

But wait there's more. Bush is currently at work on songs for his third theatrical production, calling the work-in-progress a combination of Hadestown and The Color Purple. Of course, he has even more up his sleeve with his latest endeavor, a rootsy rock outfit called Dark Water. Formed from the challenge of a writing session in Atlanta - with Brandon on keys and vocals and inventive guitarist Benji Shanks, the new group isn't your standard Eddie's Attic-type affair. It's a full-on rock outfit that's decidedly more San Francisco jam than Decatur strum. The day after a recent City Winery show, the enthusiastic Bush spoke with INsite before meeting with Governor Kemp about music-industry tax credits.

How did this come about? Obviously you and Brandon have worked together for years but this is a whole new project.

It's been in the making for a little while but you know recipes don't get perfected by doing them once. You have to do it over and over again. Sometimes you get lucky by putting some new things in the gumbo every once in a while. That's kinda what happened. Me and my brother have been playing music together ever since we could play music. Since we were about five or six. But musically we had this unique experience in our lives. Around middle school age we were sent off to different schools and we didn't see each other much really until after college.

That's a very formative time for musical tastes and you both developed your own style in separate ways.

Right and whenever we would see each other, we'd make music and that was it. We'd see each other for about a month out of the year so music was how we communicated. It was our other language. Fast forward we were both in rock bands and then I was in a country band and he popped into my country band. In the past ten years we've both been working on opportunities that have been generated by the work we've done in the world. Mostly based out of the studio here in Atlanta.

Did your solo band change the dynamic?

Yeah because I had a little bit of success, suddenly I had to staff a band. In Sugarland we tried to use the same musicians as possible but when we started playing out [separately], we knew we couldn't both have the same guitar player. The way we see music is still shared but I needed to form a band for my stuff.

So that's where Benji Shanks came in?

Brandon came in and told me about this amazing guitar player he'd played a gig with. 'You gotta meet him.' I was like, 'Well ok, I guess.' Benji came in and literally within seconds, I was like, 'Wow this guy is good.' He became a fixture in our studio work. I was producing a lot of records at the time. He'd come in and play on some of the records I was working on and we had him come in on my solo shows. That's really how this all began. Of course I'll write with anybody who's near me at the time. If you're around, you'll become one of my co-writers.

What's this about a Grateful Dead connection?

Well Brandon was exploring the TV and film opportunities around here. As you know, it's just exploding. He was working on the legal side of it and he met a bunch of people who wanted music for projects. We started to get local bands some placements in these things being shot around here. He'd get the briefs on what they were looking for. One day he comes in and goes we need to stay creative and abandon all reason and come up with a crazy idea. Then every two or three months, let's show up at the studio and try something completely new. The first thing was like Celtic Death Metal, seriously. He'd just been working on something for the Alliance, a Shakespeare something. Then we started a Sugarland tour and one day he comes in and says, 'Ok the Celtic thing didn't work but how about this?' Someone needed five songs that would have been on the Grateful Dead's American Beauty record.

With "would have been" but wasn't actually on the record being the key.

Crazy right? He said he'd done some research and it turns out that record was made as a panic record, so let's do something fast like that. I knew probably fifteen Dead songs total but the ones I knew, I liked. I'd just finished doing the songs for the Alliance musical Troubadour.

I know you like to immerse yourself in the period when you write for a specific time frame.

Exactly. For Troubadour, it was 1935 to 1957. I had to figure out not only what it would sound like but what they were listening to, in order to create that music. That's the way it works for me. If I'm listening to a Jonelle Monet song, it'll change the way I write a country song. So I had to go put myself in that space for the Dead. It was an odd request, but I read up and crammed. Then Brandon said I couldn't write any of the actual music because it would sound like country because it's so ingrained in me. He said he and Benji would write the music and it was my job to just put melody and lyrics to the songs.

That's an incredible challenge.

We were literally in the middle of doing a single with Taylor Swift so that was even more of a stylistic shift to try to pull off. But I got excited about it, did a rough mix and put it in my pocket. Then a few people heard it. Of course we missed the deadline for the project but people around us started saying they thought there was something really good going on with it. We spent a year with it and finished it all within ten months or so.

What do you call the style?

We didn't know exactly. It was like, is this a rock band? Is it a jam band? It's certainly not country. Benji was always saying we gotta be careful with this, because the jam band people are really good. They are connoisseurs of the style. Then we started playing out last fall.

It was a sort of an under-the-radar project at first.

Yeah [the Dark Water debut] came out on Black Friday and only a certain number of stores got it. Still I think really nobody in the country music space has any idea of what's happening with it. So it's completely outside of the country music machinery.

As well it should be because it's definitely not a country project.

That's what I love about it. There are people picking up on it who don't listen to Sugarland, my solo stuff or even country radio, so it feels good. There's a reverence we have for this music and we are treating it that way. I think it's in a very ritualistic space. With these guys, you are dealing with two of the most accomplished musicians in the southeast. They're so good at feel and I've forced them to the front of the stage, to say this is not about me this about these guys.

Instead of some guys backing you, Dark Water is a full-on democratic band.

It's a band! The way it's supposed to be. At City Winery, Kodac Harrison came out to see the show. I can always tell a lot from him. He's at the point in his life where he's not going to lie to you. He comes up and says, 'You should keep this going.' And I think I will! But that's what Dark Water is. It's not about us, it's about who hears it. My son is 17 and heard some of it when we were working on it. He actually liked it, said it was cool and wanted me to send him a copy. I about fell out of my chair. I said, 'I haven't been cool to you since you were about five.' So I think we're on to something here.

Dark Water plan more shows this spring and fall and a series of interactive internet broadcasts via social media. Visit darkwaterband.com for more info and live broadcast links.

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