The first time I saw Darby Patterson sing was four years ago this month, when she wowed audiences from the first note with her performance of “All That Jazz,” the opening number in the MVRHS performance of the Broadway musical “Chicago.” Patterson, then a high school senior, embodied the role of sultry vaudeville singer (and murderer) Velma Kelly with a confidence and richness that belied her 18 years. It wasn’t her first performance, of course — she’d been singing and acting in front of an audience since she was 5 years old.
“Kindergarten, she started performing on the stage,” recalls Darby’s mother, Margaret Mirko. “There was a little school play, and I bought her this little outfit in Chinatown, and she went onstage — and then she was a 60-year-old Chinese grandmother, like that. She just flipped from being a 5-year-old.”
Patterson, now 22, is a senior at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and has been singing with Island party and wedding band the Vine Shakers, led by Joanne Cassidy, for the past two years. She also performs fairly often with Cottage City Collective, which features a different singer every week, backed by Phil daRosa, Delanie Pickering, Kevin Medeiros, and Mike Benjamin. In January, during her winter break from school, Darby sat in at Second Sunday Jazz at the West Tisbury library with jazz trio Jeremy Berlin, Taurus Biskis, and Eric Johnson.
“When I was little, I would go to work with my dad, and he would always just drive around, and he played a lot of Steve Winwood, and I’d be singing along with them,” Darby recalls. “And then I’d start … singing the harmony part, and he’d turn around and be like, hmm.” Darby’s father is local musician Geoff Patterson. “So he was always playing me, like, Steely Dan, Steve Winwood, just all of those fellas, and I really liked it. And then once we started talking more about it, and I did some little kindergarten plays and stuff, he was like, ‘All right, this chick has something.’ So he sent me to Joanne.”
Joanne Cassidy recalls Geoff, whom she’d played music with, saying the same thing to her when he brought his 7-year-old daughter to her first voice lesson: I think she’s got something. “She was my first voice student,” Cassidy says. The pair saw each other once a week for the duration of each school year until Darby went to college, and now they sing together professionally.
“Darby’s an interesting character in my life,” says Cassidy. “In some ways, I feel like she’s my child, and then in other ways, she’s become one of my best friends. It’s the best. And now that she’s getting older, I’m stepping back more from being the teacher and more just being the peer — you know, bouncing ideas off of each other and stuff.”
Starting with weekly Music Together classes that her mom took her to when she was a toddler, Darby has been studying music and theater pretty much her entire life. She started doing school musicals in sixth grade, and attended theater camps at Summer Stars and Island Theater Workshop. She continued doing musical theater until she transferred to Berklee from her first college, the Boston Conservatory. In addition to Velma Kelly, Darby has played the Witch in “Into the Woods,” and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” among other roles.
“I was really into it,” Darby says of musical theater. “I started going to college for it, and it was really fun [to] get even more in depth, and learn about more techniques, and more ways to study a show, and study a script, and study music.” The conservatory wasn’t the right fit for her, though.
“The conservatory kind of made this box around it for me,” she says. Coming from the music and theater community on Martha’s Vineyard, “It was a different mentality,” she says. “You’re constantly being told, You’re not, you’re not, you don’t do this. You can’t, you’re unable to. I was told that my voice was too fat.” She was told she needed to lose weight. She felt that she couldn’t sing like herself.
“There’s only one way of singing in musical theater, one type,” says Mirko, recalling her daughter’s decision to transfer to Berklee (which happens to also be Cassidy’s alma mater). “She wanted to do all the types.”
“The unspoken language between the two schools is so different,” says Patterson. “Boston Conservatory is, You won’t succeed if you don’t … Berklee is, You can do this. Just try it this way.”
In addition to not feeling comfortable in the restricting and competitive environment of the conservatory, Darby says, she came to a point where she didn’t want to be a character onstage anymore. “I wanted to be myself,” she says. “It took me a while to get to that point, but when I did, I was like, I don’t want to say someone else’s words.”
At Berklee, her private instruction teacher has her singing rock, blues, classical, country, and R&B. “I sing everything,” she says. “It’s so fun.” She’s in a recording ensemble class, which has helped her to work through some anxiety she had about recording. She’s interested in songwriting, and has taken classes in theory and lyric writing. “I do a lot of songwriting on the side,” she says. “My dad, if we have nothing going on, he’ll send me a song he wrote and made, and I’ll put lyrics to it.”
She’s also found her sweet spot, in school and in the Martha’s Vineyard and Boston music scenes. “I feel way happier in a band setting than in a theater setting,” she says. In addition to gigs on the Vineyard, she’s played with friends at the Lizard Lounge, the Plough and Stars, and Toad in Boston.
At the Chilmark Potluck Jam, and also with Cottage City Collective, Darby’s been able to share the stage with her dad, which they both love. “[It’s] every dad’s dream,” she says. “Like, ‘I’m playing with my daughter tonight …’ That’s the musicians’ dream, to play with the kids.”
Cassidy invited Darby to join the Vine Shakers, the band she started with longtime musical collaborator Ryan Claunch, two summers ago. “The first time she came and sat in, she was very green,” Cassidy says. “I knew her really well, and it was convincing the other guys, this girl is really something, you know?” She needn’t have worried. “Everybody [said], She’s great, she adds so much.”
“[Darby’s] a workhorse,” says Cassidy. “How can I help with gear? Who can I pick up at the boat? What can I do? What songs do I need to learn? Give me pointers on what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong.”
Mirko agrees. She recalls meeting Darby’s off-Island bandmates at the Vine Shakers’ New Year’s Eve show with Mike Benjamin, and how talented and professional they told her Darby is. “I mean, Berklee College of Music will do that to you, make you a professional,” Mirko says, “but she was professional before. She would take things seriously, more than I did.”
In the summer, when she’s not playing gigs, Darby works as a landscaper, another job she loves, which she’s been doing since just after high school.
“My awkward period ended really late,” she says. “And partly it was because of landscaping. I was never, like, a twig. I had curves. I had legs going on. When you’re not a twiggy little teenager, you’re like, ‘What am I doing wrong? Why am I here? What am I capable of? I’m not little, what’s wrong with me?’ But then I got hired by a team with all women, and suddenly we’re digging ditches. We’re hauling, just, bags of dirt. And we’re picking up bushes by ourselves. And I realized that’s what I was made for, and … I came to accept my body because I could see what I could do, what it was capable of.”
When she comes home on breaks from school, playing music and landscaping are the first things Darby wants to do. “Every time I get home, it’s either go to the Ritz and sit in, or go dig a hole somewhere and plant a tree … like, the amount of times I’ve gone to a gig with dirt under my fingernails, I’m pretty sure it’s a staple now. It’s my look.”
Darby admires the women she gardens with, as well as the many talented women in the music community. “They’ve helped me grow so much, and they’ve just showed me that it’s our responsibility — like, looking at all these amazing women headers on the Island — Joanne Cassidy, Sabrina [Luening], Ellen [Biskis], Rose Guerin — it’s all of our responsibility as women to lift each other up, and invite each other onstage, and share that spotlight and encourage one another, rather than get caught up in all this catty business that’s going on everywhere else. You have to create the climate you want to live in.”
As for the future, Patterson says her “huge dream” is to be a backup singer with a touring band, which her mom thinks may have been inspired by sitting in for a set with Jill Zadeh, who was on tour as a backup singer with Janet Jackson at the time. “I think she talked to Jill, and she loved what Jill did,” Mirko says.
“I love backup singing,” says Patterson. “The parts are so fun. [And] in so many of the best songs ever, they wouldn’t be nearly as great if they didn’t have the backup vocals or the harmonies.”
“She’s wise beyond her years,” Cassidy says of Darby. “With every year that passes, she learns herself more and more. And [she] knows, like, I want to make music. I want to be surrounded by talented people that will help me grow, but … I don’t need the recognition. She’s gonna get it because of all that.”
Patterson is downright ebullient with gratitude for players in the Vineyard music scene who have embraced her. “All of these amazing players have taken me under their wing,” she says. “It’s just been really cool to learn from all these amazing players in a really, really fun way.” The biggest thing she’s learned, she says, is that you have to connect with the people that you’re playing with. “You can blow a song, or you can forget all the lyrics, or you could be pitchy — it won’t matter as long as you are playing with the people.”
“When they invite me to sit in,” she says, “it’s like, Thank you for having me! You know, it’s two songs to them, but it’s a whole evening to me. When someone wants to play with you, my God, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s the biggest compliment I could ever get. Because I don’t care if I’m pretty. But I care if people want to play with me.”
“Whatever she wants to do, she can do,” Mirko says. “Going to other places and bringing your music — it’s always welcome, if people want to see it. You can bring it wherever you want to go.”