Once upon a time, a little country girl with big eyes and bigger dreams wanted to reach for the stars in the clear Iowa skies and share those desires with the world through her songs and one beautiful voice.
Some of those aspirations were realized after she decided to leave behind her teenage years -- and tiny hometown of Mitchellville, Iowa -- 14 years ago to pursue those dreams as a country music artist in Nashville.
In the form of an animated video that premieres today (Jan. 26) exclusively at The Huffington Post, "Halley's Comet" arrives as another in a series of bright, shining moments for the humble but talented singer-songwriter.
The song, one of seven she wrote or cowrote among the 10 tracks that appear on Dream Country (out Feb. 10), is "just a really personal story" about a dreamer and that key figure in one's life who "encourages you to do what you love," Darling said on the phone from her Nashville home on an unusually warm January afternoon.
The video "was very thoughtfully created from the ground up," she added about the six-month process that involved turning her ideas into a sweet animated work of art by Magnetic Dreams, an award-winning production company in Nashville.
"I said I wanted it to be wide open spaces. It reminds me of being home back in Iowa and, of course, there's a ton of stars," Darling said. "The star theme is something I quite love. So I put that in there. I think it's one of those videos that I hope when people see it, it will relate to kids but adults, too. It's sort of for everyone."
Check out the video for ""Halley's Comet" here, then continue to read the rest of Sarah Darling's story.
Making the grade
As Darling as the video is, it represents a tale of further exploration for the inspirational performer who was in the first class of 10 "Next Women of Country" handpicked by CMT in 2013.
Also among the members on that impressive list were Ashley Monroe, Jana Kramer, Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Lauren Alaina, and Darling feels honored ("It's kind of hard to believe, you know," she said, laughing) to be part of that "supportive" group. Put together by CMT executive Leslie Fram, the recent additions to the 2016 class include Courtney Cole, one of Darling's close friends.
"I feel like they're one of the most forward-thinking companies right now, helping ... artists within the country genre I feel like they let videos on that are maybe a little outside of the box," Darling said of CMT.
A progressive thinker herself, Darling certainly is able to bring a modern touch to classic country, and that's one major reason why she will make her 83rd appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on Friday (Jan. 27).
"I love country music," Darling said without hesitation. "I want to be part of the Opry and all of the friends and partners I've had over the years."
Darling remembered with glee her Opry debut in 2012, another "dream ever since I was little." Asked by Pete Fisher, then the Opry's general manager, to sing a song she had written called "Bad Habit," she also was introduced to the stage by Vince Gill, then sang his ballad "Go Rest High on That Mountain" with him, calling that night an "out-of-body experience."
With her whole family in the crowd, Darling not only considers it a career highlight that "changed my life" but also a precious moment because her Nashville-loving grandfather got to be there before he died.
"I remember him telling me, 'You only get your first time; you'll remember this forever.' And it's true," she said.
Born on Oct. 4, 1982 in Des Moines, Iowa, Darling grew up in Mitchellville, where her parents still live. She talked about Nashville all the time with her grandpa.
"Even from a very young age, I wanted to move to Nashville," she said. "I really did. Gosh, I was like 12 and 13, ready to move to Nashville. I wanted to be pursuing music, even during high school. ... I just wanted to be singing on a stage somewhere. It was very broad dreaming. I think about everything, a huge dreamer all the time."
Though she said with a laugh that her "incredibly supportive" parents were "quite frightened," they agreed to help their only child move to the Music City after she graduated six months early from Southeast Polk High School in Runnells, Iowa, about 10 miles south of Mitchellville.
"I had come to Nashville for CMA Fest during my junior year of high school, thought, 'This place is amazing,' and my parents moved me. ... I think I worked and saved up a little bit of money so I could move and buy furniture. But I was out of my small town (thinking), 'I'm out and gonna go see the world.'
"I think I was 19, working a server job in Nashville, playing writer nights and just sort of getting to know people. I was quite young, so I was trying to figure out who I was as well. And, of course, falling in love with people I shouldn't. ... I had a life to live."
Living alone in a highly competitive market, Darling did receive some professional guidance from Joe Carter, who managed RCA artist Tracy Byrd at the time. Otherwise, it was up to her to succeed or fail.
"I feel like my first few years in Nashville were like going to college," Darling said. "Like learning what it's like to be on your own for the first time and to start a career with knowing nobody, really. Growing up in a small town and never exploring what was out in the world, I think it was a good move."
Nashville singer-songwriter Sarah Darling will release Dream Country, her third full-length album, on Feb. 10.
Reboot or rebirth?
As connected as Darling hopes to stay with Nashville's country community, Dream Country is a remarkable change of pace. But the genre's proud representative sees the scene opening up while accepting artists she admires such as Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.
The "cinematic, dreamy album with strings on it" that Darling describes might surprise many country fans, but it shouldn't for anyone who has heard her gorgeous takes on songs by the Beatles' ("Blackbird"), Fleetwood Mac ("Landslide") and U2 ("With or Without You").
"It's funny because we always think of everything in genres these days," she said. "And I don't. I don't even know if it is a genre."
If someone needs to attach a label to it, Darling is proud to say it's different than anything she has done in the past, adding, "And different is good, I think."
Fearlessly produced by Nashville multi-instrumentalist-composer-arranger Larissa Maestro, the star-themed album spans a number of musical styles from cool jazz ("You Take Me All the Way") to pure pop heaven ("Starry Eyes") to rooted rock ("Tell That Devil"). There's even a risk-taking cover of the Smiths' "Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want" that Darling elegantly nails with strings attached, the sophisticated orchestration arranged by Maestro, who played cello and acoustic guitar on the album. Other key players include Darling's guitarist Cheyenne Medders, Evan Hutchings (drums), Eleonore Denig (violin) and vocalists Jessica Campbell, Sam Palladio and Charlie Worsham.
Regarding her career, which has included an appearance on Conan's TBS talk show and an early departure from ABC's failed singing competition series Rising Star hosted by Josh Groban, Darling chose her words carefully to describe this latest Nashville twist. She finally classified Dream Country as a "redefining album, maybe."
Taking a break from recording since the release of two EPs (including a Christmas record) in 2013, Darling got married to British graphic designer James Muriel that year and began a business (Sweet Darling Patisserie) to showcase her cooking skills.
"It was just meant for me to like dive into something I love, which I love cooking," said Darling, who has appeared on various Crock-Star Confessions videos. "And I started making French macarons. ... And it really was helpful, very therapeutic to bake and do all of that. And it really helped me get through a transition to my life, which is so funny, but I just tell people to bake when they're going through something."
That transition involved an "amicable" parting of the ways in 2013 with her label Black River Entertainment, which released her debut album Every Monday Morning in 2009. That breakup wasn't a letdown, though, allowing an artist ready to spread her wings an opportunity to do "something musically fulfilling that I hadn't done yet," Darling said. "... I was coming into this age where I wanted to do what was in my heart."
Experiencing some freedom again, a fiercely independent Darling said branching out was, "Very much a conscious effort because I think it's a crazy business. You know, being in the music business is tough. You want to set yourself apart. You don't want to be like anybody else. And I think I had to come to this place where I wasn't ... I didn't want to be where I was before. I didn't even have a desire to go back and do what I was doing before. And that was an interesting place to be.
"And I was thinking, 'Well, maybe I've grown, I'm changing who I am as an artist and the things that I love to write and sing about. It's funny. As I've done this, doors have opened in places that I never thought I would like the U.K.," where Darling plans to tour this year in addition to the U.S. "You kind of go where you feel like you're supposed to be going. And I think I'm relying a lot on intuition, which is always my advice for anyone who's doing music."
On her own again, Darling began a PledgeMusic campaign in May 2015 to crowdfund her album and successfully surpassed her goal.
"I would highly recommend it" to other musicians, offered Darling, who fulfilled incentives such as making her French macarons and singing "Home to Me" at a bride's wedding in Nebraska. "I think letting everyone be a part of it was really a cool way to do it. And it made me way more attached to the project and even the little things down to the details of the design and kind of letting people be a part of the whole process of picking album covers and letting them hear tracks ahead of time."
The stellar artwork designed by her husband is part of some very attractive CD packaging that includes an astronomical backdrop with Darling summarizing her thoughts for each song, including "Montmartre," about her "unending love affair" with Paris, which she and her husband visited when they were dating, and "Where Cowboys Ride," her "love letter to Wyoming."
"I think there's a sense of light that I've never got to put out through music," Darling said. "And an innocence. The adventurous part of my spirit; I love to travel and I think that even comes through on the music side."
Still, Darling admits she yearns for the wide open spaces of Iowa, and continues to visit her family two or three times a year.
"The thing that I always miss about being at home -- it's just not the same in Nashville -- is on a perfect night you can see all the stars in Iowa," she said, later adding: "It's so funny. Now that I find myself writing about being in the middle of nowhere and reflecting, those are the things that I miss the most about being home. And it's wonderful to be able to go back there."
Even for a dream girl seeing the world with a twinkle in her eye, there's no reason to quit thanking your lucky stars.
Publicity photos by Kelly Christine Photography.