A Hazy Shade of Loved: Dust Red Skies
Dust Red Skies is the passion project of LA-based vocalist extraordinaire Angie Donkin and San Francisco’s electronic downtempo mastermind, Nonagon. Their beautiful debut album is the culmination of two years’ work—shelved and almost forgotten—now finally available to the public in its completed form. Mastered by Amon Tobin’s famed sound genius Shawn “Twerk” Hatfield (AudibleOddities) and independently released on their own label, Dust Red Skies takes the listener on a carefully guided tour through sensual moments on a long walk into headspace. At once organic and electronic, the combination of Nonagon’s expert machine-programming skills combine perfectly with Ms. Donkin’s masterful vocal prowess to present lush velvety aural landscapes that will at once feel familiar and intriguingly new.
Hello and Welcome!
The duo are in the midst of planning a tour and recording videos for tracks with acclaimed motion graphics artists Colin Evoy Sebestyen and Justin Metros (CSTNG-SHDWS), but took a moment to sit down and discuss about how this all came to light:
You both have your hands in a few other amazing projects, what prompted putting the album together at this particular moment?
Nonagon— It’s definitely been a long time coming: most of the songs on the album were originally written back in 2009/10. After a couple of live shows in 2010/11 I set the almost-finished project files aside with the intention of revisiting them with fresh ears… and then life happened, and they ended up sitting untouched on my hard drive for more than to two years.
Angie— I think we have always wanted to finish the work we started on and the idea of [performing] at Burning Man might have pushed it along. I bought my ticket last January and had really hoped that I could bring some art to share to the playa.
Nonagon— Cut to earlier this year, when I went through a really intense period of reflection about life, love, and my relationship to music. During that time I realized just how intensely my many years of unfinished work were weighing me down creatively—I felt stuck in the past, stuck in a “I should really finish that” mentality that made sitting down to write feel like a burden instead of a joy. So in that moment of realization I committed to going through my old projects and either finishing them or archiving them once and for all.
Angie— When Nonagon said he was on board in releasing the album out at Burning Man, it gave us more of a deadline which helped in the completion.
Nonagon— The four or five songs that comprise the core of the album had always felt good to me, so they were the first targets of my march towards the present. I floated the idea to Angie of releasing five songs as an EP, and the rest is history. Reviving the old tracks really lit something up in both of us, and we hit a creative stride that led to a total of ten songs.
Given the band name, it does seem appropriate for your grand release party to be held at Burning Man. Was this a conscious connection?
Angie—Interestingly the band name came about when I was listening to Drunk Heart one day and the lyrics “Let Dust Red Skies follow us home…” rang out and I thought, “hey dust red skies would be a cool band name.” I asked if he liked the idea and so we went with it. I have to admit that at the time I didn’t really notice the connection to the playa dust until later. The fact that the sky actually was dust red due to all the nearby fires this year was kind of an erie coincidence as well.
Any must-visit places when listening to the record?
Angie— I have had a lot of people say that the album is really sexy and enjoy lovemaking to this music. I personally enjoy it best on long scenic drive.
Nonagon— I do my best music listening at night, and these tracks are no exception. For the best effect I’d suggest a moonlit walk somewhere largely devoid of people.
The album has a few interesting choices for cover songs included. How did you decide which songs to include/remake?
Angie—“Vanilla cake” goes way back to our Vibrasol (iTunes) days. We performed it in that band and it was always a favorite. My brother and his friend Nathan wrote it and during the time of Vibrasol I was using a couple of songs written by both of my brothers. I think at a hang out one time Adam and JB got to talking about having Nonagon remix the original tracks from Adam’s recording and when Nonagon did, that in turn became the foundation for our Album cut.
Somewhere in that period the concepts of motion, atmosphere, solitude, and music became intertwined in my psyche, and I think those attributes still shape most of my aesthetic.
Nonagon— Exactly this. I loved the original Crazy Eye recording of “Iron Foot” (which we covered as “Vanilla Cake”), and during one of our vocal recording sessions I expressed interest to Adam in remixing it. He sent me stems, and my resulting rework became the instrumental for the Dust Red Skies version you can hear on the album.
Angie—“Rescue me” came out of the blue really on a whim. I have been going through a rough break up for quite a long time and was confiding in a friend over the phone one night about my feelings on the break up and told him that I felt like I had been forgotten on an island and wanted to be rescued, I said it several times. “I just want someone to rescue me.” The original Fontella Bass song popped into my mind and after hanging up the phone the song continued to run through my head. In my sorrow the original sounded too upbeat and happy to me at the time, I thought how cool would it be to do a really slow emotional ballad version of “rescue me” …the next night after a party I came home and began to work on Dust Red Skies material. I had been re-working and re-working lyrics to a sketch called subversive that Nonagon had sent me. I realized that the chord structure of the sketch could work with rescue me so I played with it a little and really liked the way it sounded, I sent an iPhone sketch [over] and he loved it too, hence our version “Rescue Me” was born.
Crafting The Sound
Sounds like there is a lot of passion and emotion infused into all of the tracks. Listening through the record, also I hear snippets of Massive Attack and a strong hint of William Orbit’s production-style (especially his work with Madonna and Caroline Lavelle’s “Spirit”). Was this intentional? Were you going for a particular sound?
Nonagon— I’ve never tried to create a particular sound with the music I produce, but my aesthetics were heavily influenced by bands like Massive Attack, William Orbit, Boards of Canada, and all the other greats from that era, so left to my own devices I tend to create work in that vein.
Angie—Whenever Nonagon and I work together it has a particular sound which I think comes from both our influences and the fact we share a really similar vision of what we want the music to sound like and the kind of music that we enjoy making. The style flows really naturally and we never really talk about it, it just comes out sounding this way.
Nonagon— Lately I’ve been getting more intentional about crafting a particular vibe instead of just writing from my gut; I’ve also been reconnecting with a lot of the more aggressive music I love (Nine Inch Nails, Tool, Noisia, etc), and I’m looking forward to bringing that influence into our work moving forward.
Let’s talk about musical backgrounds for a bit: musical inspirations, education, passions?
Nonagon— A lot of my inspiration comes from the ambiance of physical spaces, both real and imagined. I have a strong desire to evoke an environment in the music I produce, to create the impression of a particular time and place. Film soundtracks are particularly adept in that regard, and I take a lot of cues from the work of soundtrack composers like Bernard Hermann, Clint Mansell, Cliff Martinez, and Hans Zimmer.
All brilliant composers. But let’s take it back a bit further…
Angie— I started singing as a toddler and never stopped. My parents were musicians, my mother a singer and my father a guitarist. They heavily influenced me and my brothers growing up with classic rock, and folk music. I took piano, drums, guitar, and dance lessons as a child but singing was always my focus. It wasn’t until I was about 20 that I really started playing piano, drums and guitar.
Nonagon— I learned alto saxophone and guitar back in jr. high school, and played in all the school music groups through the end of high school: jazz band, concert band, marching band, and a couple of jazz combos. Then in the mid/late 1990’s I discovered a free MS-DOS application called “Impulse Tracker” (a basic but powerful multi-track sampler/sequencer) that started me down the road of electronic music production. I haven’t turned a corner since.
Angie— Attending the Los Angeles Music Academy (and graduating as a vocal major), I remember feeling like the other music departments didn’t look at the singers as real musicians and it inspired me to become proficient in piano and drums and learn music theory so that I could communicate as well as compose music with other instrumentalists. I wanted to be a great front woman and bandleader so speaking the language and being able to pick up an instrument and show someone what I wanted them to do was really important to me. As I began to learn these other instruments better, my songwriting got a lot better too. I’ve always know that I would be a singer my whole life and have never strayed away from my passion. I have spent many years and many hours practicing voice. I’m really versatile and enjoy singing in all genres. However the style [on this record] is definitely my favorite style of vocals to sing.
How did you two meet?
Angie—My friend and former flautist in Vibrasol, Pam, was engaged to one of [his] best friends. In Vibrasol I always told the band that I felt like we were missing an electronica element and I really wanted that. I at least wanted to find someone who could open the shows for us that had an atmospheric sound. Pam knew of Nonagon’s music and put me in contact with him to open for one of our productions. I feel like it was love at first sight; or hearing actually. I loved his sound and I think he really liked my vocals too so we brought him in and I’ve always really loved collaborating.
Nonagon— It’s the truth!
But you both started on opposite sides of California (LA and San Francisco) and then switched places. Have your separate city experiences enriched your input into this release and your musical partnership?
Angie— Interesting question. I think I never really wanted to stay in LA. My goal has always been to travel with music. but I came to LA to go to school in 1999 after I graduated LAMA I stayed because it seemed like there was more opportunity for me to get work here. It can be a really lonely place and overwhelmingly big but I feel like the challenges inspire my songwriting. I still plan to leave one day, should a project take me somewhere better but until then Los Angeles has become my home base.
Nonagon— Growing up in Los Angeles meant spending much of my formative years in automobiles. Long drives (every drive is a long drive in LA) have always been something of a meditative experience for me. I have distinct memories of being in the car with my dad on our way home from dinner or a movie or some such nighttime activity and really zoning in to whatever tunes we happened to be listening to. Later, when I was old enough to drive myself around, I got hooked on KCRW’s “Metropolis”, a radio program hosted by Jason Bentley that focused on cutting-edge electronic music. This was before the internet was king in the world of music discovery, so I spent many late-night hours on empty highways absorbing the best aural art the world had to offer. Somewhere in that period the concepts of motion, atmosphere, solitude, and music became intertwined in my psyche, and I think those attributes still shape most of my aesthetic.
Spanning Geographic Differences
How does Dust Red Skies fit in with your other work.
Angie— I think that what’s great about this project is that it’s just the two of us and so it makes traveling easy and scheduling easy. That is one of the hardest parts about being in a band. So I think that this project allows for a lot of freedom outside of the band for other projects or commitments to be possible.
Nonagon— Given that our aesthetic senses are so in line with one another, writing Dust Red Skies material feels natural and not particularly different from my solo work. It is nice to know that if something I write feels too “out there” for this project there’s another outlet I can funnel it to, but right now I feel really committed to building off the momentum we’ve captured and taking our collaboration into some uncharted sonic territories. I know that I’ll continue to release work as Nonagon, but the determination of which project new material should “belong” to is an unknown for me… and I’m not too concerned about it.
And I hear through the grapevine, there may already be tracks for the next album?
Nonagon— Angie’s been on a creative tear with the tracks from “Verdigris“!
Angie—Yes, he recorded a great album of songs called Verdigris. I pulled it up recently and fell in love with all the tracks, vocals and ideas were flowing out and I literally haven’t been able to record them all fast enough.
Nonagon— We ended up finishing two songs based on cuts from that album during the final stages of production on the eight “Dust Red Skies” album tracks, and ended up getting all ten tracks mastered together. We released these two as a separate EP “The Verdigris Sessions” that’s only available on the flash drive version of the album—a little extra incentive for folks that really support us.
I’ve always thought that the intersection of delicacy and danger is a powerful place, and I’m looking forward to figuring out what that place might sound like.
Angie—Excitingly we have 5 new songs for our 2nd album almost finished and hope to finish the entire Verdigris album in the next few months.
Nonagon— Looking forward, I honestly feel a lot of hesitance about spending more time reworking the rest of the tracks from Verdigris. I’m feeling very “done” with the past and ready to step into new sounds and styles with this project. Angie and I have talked about it, and she’s sympathetic to my feelings on the matter. My desire would be to take the vocal parts she’s written and write entirely new instrumentals for them. I’m definitely in a really open, experimental place with my production right now, and I’m excited to discover what this new stuff will sound like!
Any touring plans?
Angie—Absolutely! We need to discuss more about where and when but I would love to tour with this music! We have a lot of idea’s for live productions that we’ve ben talking about for several years. I would really like to see some of those concepts realized.
Nonagon— Angie and I have always been a good creative match in the way that our priorities complement one another: I tend to want to hole up in the studio, while her drive has always been to get the material in front of an audience as soon as possible. I’d absolutely love to tour with this music, it’s just a matter of working out the logistics.
So, what’s next?
Angie— Right now promoting [the] album and getting it out. Then, finish our second album, shoot some videos, do more shows locally and plan a tour!
Nonagon— I’m excited to start exploring a more aggressive sound as we move forward with generating new work. I’ve always thought that the intersection of delicacy and danger is a powerful place, and I’m looking forward to figuring out what that place might sound like.
Sounds spectacular. I look forward to hearing what you come up with and getting to see you perform live again—your shows have such a wonderful quality of performance and clarity. Highly recommended to all our readers.
Thanks for speaking with us today and good luck with everything!
Check your local listings for tour dates, or visit DustRedSkies.com to find out more about the band. The self-titled album is available starting today (October 9, 2013) in all the usual online channels: iTunes, Amazon, Beatport, Bandcamp, as well as via the band’s own online web store.
Special thanks goes out to Kara Platoni for the expert advice, and to Celeste Lindahl for the amazing band photos. Feature photograph and logo treatment designed by Exkclamation Studio.