While Auyon Mukharji was growing up in Kansas City, music was a duty and a commitment, but not one he warmed up to.
“My eldest brother had a modest learning disability,” Mukharji told The Star recently. “My mom read that getting involved in music at a young age can help someone overcome such a disability. So he started playing music, and she followed suit with me and my younger brother. I started violin when I was 3.”
He was a member of several youth symphonies starting in middle school and into high school. But his devotion to it was lukewarm at best.
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“I was a begrudgingly mediocre classical-violin student in Kansas City,” he said. “If you’d told me at that point that I would one day be holding a violin in a professional capacity, I’d have slapped you and called you a liar.”
The truth is, he is part of a touring band that seems to be on the cusp of a breakthrough.
This week, Mukharji will return to Kansas City with his band, Darlingside, to perform at the Folk Alliance International Conference, where they are a nominee in the artist of the year category at the alliance’s awards show.
“When I was growing up, I never imagined that there could be a cross between what I did with a violin and what I heard on the radio,” said Mukharji, a graduate of Pembroke Hill School. “It’s funny how things worked out.”
After graduation, he attended Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., which is where the band formed.
“I’d started singing toward the end of high school, and when I got to college I joined an a cappella group,” Mukharji said. “That’s sort of how we all met, through the music scene.”
About that time, he picked up the mandolin for the first time.
“It has the same strings as a violin, which is a very convenient thing if you want to play something by strumming it,” he said. “That whole family of instruments is great, mandolin, mandola, mandocello.”
His senior year at Williams, he started collaborating with friends he’d met at a songwriting class.
“That evolved into Darlingside,” he said. “In 2009, after the youngest guy in the group graduated from college, we all moved into a house in Hadley, Massachusetts.”
Initially, they were a five-piece indie-rock band. They toured hard regionally and ventured out on some national tours occasionally, including a stop or two in Kansas City.
In 2013, their drummer, Sam Kapala, decided the touring lifestyle did not agree with him, so he left amicably. That turn of events led to Darlingside’s current sound.
“About that time, we had grown more interested in writing and performing in a room with no microphone and singing together with acoustic instruments, maybe an electric instrument turned down low so we could hear ourselves sing together,” Mukharji said.
“So after Sam left, we had a few practice shows as a quartet. At first it felt very naked performing with no drummer and all of us singing into one microphone, but it was also re-invigorating.”
Their stage setup is spare, providing plenty of space for the band’s eminent virtue: the harmonies.
“We’ve started to play around with a very small monitor mix or sometimes have bass coming back at us, otherwise we mix voices before they hit the mic and that’s all we are responding to, that’s coming back at us. That’s how we practice. It’s just us in a room singing to each other.”
The presentation also provides room for another facet of the live shows: the rapport among all four members.
“When you have several mic stands onstage, it can set up a small wall between us and the audience,” he said. “With one mic, it feels more like a place for conversation.
“We talk between songs. Part of our identity as a band is we’ve all been great friends since college and we want to stay great friends, which can involve not talking to each other while we’re in the band.
“So we try to make sure everyone is happy. Onstage, it’s like we’re a family that takes care of one another and enjoys each other’s company. Sometimes that can turn into playfully cruel and/or sardonic comments onstage. It’s part of our identity.”
In September 2015, Darlingside released “Birds Say,” its second full-length but its first as a quartet and a departure from its indie-rock predecessor.
Songs are arranged with a variety of instruments: cello, violin, acoustic and electric guitars and bass. But it’s the impeccable harmonies that stand out, like heyday Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Milk Carton Kids times two.
“Birds Say” has received stellar reviews. Rolling Stone admired its “locomotive folk-pop confections so richly executed it’s hard to tell if it’s one voice or 12.” NPR Music called it “exquisitely arranged, literary-minded, baroque folk-pop.” PopDose heralded “the best harmonies in the business.”
Word is getting out about Darlingside’s live shows. Last year, the band was chosen to open for Patty Griffin.
“That tour was a real treat,” Mukharji said, “playing sold-out theaters, like the Ryman Auditorium.”
After the Folk Alliance International Conference, Darlingside will tour in earnest, a 39-show itinerary that starts in early March and ends in late May.
For Mukharji, it’s a blessing to indulge in a rewarding profession with some of his favorite people on earth, especially since it seemed so unlikely and improbable back when music was something that felt imposed upon him.
▪ Darlingside performs at 8:45 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, at the Century C Ballroom at the Westin Hotel in Crown Center. Tickets to each day of the conference start at $25. Thursday is officially sold out.
Folk Alliance International Conference
Many events and performances at the Folk Alliance International Conference are open to the public, including the awards show, dozens of official showcases, the music camp (which requires pre-registration) and the Kansas City Folk Festival. The $110 showcase package includes admission to the awards show, three nights of showcases and the folk festival (a $20 savings).
The Folk Alliance Awards Gala: 6 p.m. Wednesday. The event is officially sold out. It includes awards presentations and musical performances.
Official showcases: 8:15 to 11:15 p.m. Wednesday; and 6:15 to 10:45 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $25 a day; Thursday is officially sold out.
Music camp: World-class musicians will give lessons to musicians of all levels of ability and expertise. Pre-registration is required. Price is $60 per day or $150 for a three-day pass. Sessions start at 10 a.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Kansas City Folk Festival: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Westin Crown Center. Admission is $30. Discounts available for seniors, students and children. The all-day festival is a mix of music, dance, art and artisan booths. Musical performances include Alison Brown, Peter Case, Robbie Fulks, Eric Andersen and a closing concert by Los Texmaniacs, It will also include a square dance and a gospel session.