Living through Pure Reality with Dark Blue’s John Sharkey III
It’s Wednesday night in the first week of September and John Sharkey III is in his Kensington screen-printing studio. He’s working on tote bags for local punk band, No Other. But he’s never printed tote bags before.
The next day, Sharkey leaves for Ireland, where his wife is originally from, for some family obligations for about two weeks. When he returns, he’ll release Pure Reality, the first full-length album from his newest project Dark Blue.
It’s an eight-song haul in the shoes of a blue-collar man raising his second child, relocating his entire family across continents and returning to an old, yet new home. The album started coming to Sharkey, Dark Blue’s singer and guitarist, when he was working the graveyard shift as a nightwatchman at a university in Canberra, Australia, during his most recent stretch living down under from 2012 to 2013. The job was monotonous, but he says he found it a bit comforting. Maybe that’s because it gave him a lot of time to reflect.
“It was really hard to find work at the time because I wasn’t a citizen and I just got my permanent residency at the time,” Sharkey says about getting his eligibility to work in Australia. “So I took this job on the graveyard shift. I spent most of time doing patrols and writing these songs in my head. I guess you can say it was a time of introspection.”
He and his wife were aware it was a temporary move – they felt Australia had better care options for new mothers than the U.S. After their daughter was born, Sharkey and his family returned to Philadelphia, where Pure Reality started taking shape more quickly. It was the jarring change of leaving Canberra, a capital city with a population of less than 400,000 people, for Kensington, that gave him something to write about.
“The record is basically the contrast between the security of the isolation I felt while I was in Australia,” he says, “and the sort of precarious situation that is moving a family with two small children and a foreign wife, to what has always been known – at least when I was growing up – as a fucking shitty neighborhood.”
That’s coming from someone who now lives only blocks down the same street that his mother grew up on. And that contrast is reflected on Pure Reality quite clearly as Sharkey sings, “Strange times in Kensington,” on the album’s closer, “Always Ready to Leave.” But the opposition happens much earlier. The opening line of the bright and seemingly triumphant, “Here on My Street,” when Sharkey directly mentions, “Walking around in Canberra town / Wasting all my time.” Then Sharkey takes a corner, reminding everyone that on his street, “There’s a different story / Nothing’s good,” through the chorus.
The way Sharkey’s chest voice combats his guitar’s ultra-high-end registry is likely the most noticeable contrast of the album. At times, his guitar playing is evocative of a wire being pulled from opposite ends, quivering until near breaking point. Even Andy Nelson’s bass playing isn’t entirely low and thunderous, but floats somewhere just about it, meeting the wide open hi-hats Mike Sneeringer plows into throughout the album.
But it’s all intentional and thought-out by Sharkey. He says that he put a lot of effort specifically into writing Pure Reality’s lyrics – moreso than in his past projects, like the cult favorite Philly act Clockcleaner – since that’s always been “secondary to melody” for him.
“The subject matter on this record is much stronger than any other record I’ve done before,” he says confidently. “I’ve become better at using words. Until now, lyrics were an after-thought.”
Now that Sharkey’s returned to Philadelphia and is, in a way, seeing it in a different way: through the eyes of a man a bit older and with a very different take on what his city has become. He’s never been the type of songwriter that sits down and, in his words, “contemplates the stars. It just comes to me.”
He’s now seeing gentrification creep into his neighborhood first hand, and on an album that’s Sharkey’s most personal, he still finds a way to voice his opinion on the new kids on the block.
“‘Sounds like Hell on Earth’ is like an old man’s hatred of the young man’s world,” Sharkey says about the album’s fourth song. “It’s these shitheads that get to wake up late, go to brunch and just piss their life away.”
But, really, it’s not just catharsis for Sharkey; he insists that there’s more to him than that. That he isn’t just snarling teeth and an always-aggressive nature. Pure Reality is more of a testament to what’s underneath John Sharkey III and what actually concerns him the most.
“It’s about having a family, and that’s stressful; life is stressful too,” he says, talking about getting a release from writing. “I mean, every day is like a curveball and you either have to get out of the way or take it head on.”
Maybe Pure Reality is Sharkey’s effort of showing who he really is; maybe this is him setting it straight.
“I’ve been labeled a provocateur and an offensive asshole and stuff,” Sharkey says. “But there’s more to me than that. I’m deeper that. I mean, who gives a shit who I am? Just appreciate what I do. As long as you aren’t raping villages or a Dallas Cowboys fan, I don’t care who you are. What you make is who you are.”
Dark Blue releases Pure Reality Saturday, September 27 at Boot & Saddle. Get more info here.