To his students, David Stith, also known as DM Stith, likely looks like the average hip young grad student in Graphic Design. Walking through the School of Fine Arts at Indiana University, he’s tall and bespeckled, blonde hair cut neat, portfolio slung around his shoulder.
But the recent transplant to Bloomington is also a buzzed-about musician, labelmates with some of indie rock’s biggest names, and fresh off of opening up for songstress Bat For Lashes at a sold-out 4,000-seat venue in London.
“I told students I wouldn’t talk about music during the school year, but after our final a couple of students came up and asked me to sign their CDs,” said Stith. “It was really cute.”
When Stith isn’t composing music or teaching undergrads in the ways of Adobe Illustrator, he’s working on album artwork, advertisements, and merchandise for his fellow artists on record label Asthmatic Kitty.
“I think that the way I work with both mediums is very similar,” said Stith. “It’s almost like a collage. I deal with texture first, so I create these groups of textures, and then I deal with them as like an image or as a song. And narrative is sort of the last thing I worry about.”
The Buffalo-native was raised in a musical household, to say the least. Virtually all of his family played music, but Stith preferred writing and the visual arts as a creative outlet. Even when he did begin writing music, he never imagined that many people would get to hear it.
“I’ve always been really shy, so I always imagined that I would just be a musician but more with a writer’s temperament,” said Stith. “Like, I would do my thing in the studio and then we’d release it. And then maybe once in a while I’d do a performance.”
During Stith’s time living in New York, he befriended and began to collaborate with musicians Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond, and Sufjan Stevens.
Stith was inspired to begin writing music, and things moved quickly from there. Worden and Stevens’ label, Asthmatic Kitty heard two songs by Stith and signed him on the spot, a first for the indie tastemaker.
They then encouraged him to share his songs with the masses.
“One of the owners said ‘you should at least try performing, we’re going to book you a show. And don’t worry about it if it doesn’t go well, just do what you can’. So my first show was in Barcelona about a year ago. I was sick for about three months before performing it. I just hated the thought of it. But it went well.”
Stith has now played his compositions live a couple of dozen times, in venues all over the world. His first full-length album, Heavy Ghost, was one of the strongest debuts for Asthmatic Kitty. It garnered especially heavy praise in the UK, in magazines such as Mojo, NME, and London Weekly.
Stith has been stopped in the street for autographs in Europe, but reaction to the records in the US has been a little more measured.
“In the U.S., the critics loved it, but it doesn’t feel like a critically-acclaimed album here,” said Stith. “People are still kind of confused by it. The majority of reviews that I’ve read in the U.S. have used the word ‘weird’ or ‘strange’, just kind of like, ‘it’s very different’. As if that’s a category, as if that’s a critically astute observation.”
Some American reviews that did get it right called Heavy Ghost “nothing short of a masterpiece of mood and texture”, containing “phenomenal melodies”, a “post-modern tribal folk” release.
“There’s a lot of tension within me between my creative life, which is a very private thing, and also trying to be involved in some kind of community,” said Stith. “And I haven’t figured out how to feel like I’m satisfying both at the same time.”
Since moving to Bloomington, Stith has started to corral a backing band of local musicians – some players in local rock bands, some classically trained in the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.
It makes for an intriguing mix, especially during band practice.
“Running (the songs) through rehearsal sessions and through the instruments that we have and can perform with, they change and they turn into something really different,” he said. “But I really like what they change into.”
And while Stith enjoys the still-new thrill of collaborating with other musicians, he admits that nothing feels quite the same as working in solitude – writing, drawing, and recording his singular perception of the world.
“I’m a pretty sensitive person,” he said. “And I say sensitive not like I’m a weepy, frail person, but like that I’m just very impressionable. Like, I’ve just always been recording my thoughts on paper or in drawings or whatever.”