Photographed by Caitlin G. Dennis
When Angelo De Augustine opened his mailbox on December 20, 2017, he had no idea he was about to spend the next five days with his guitar in a state of lovelorn malaise. It all began with a letter, instigating a break-up that would inevitably lead to a period of catharsis. “I don’t remember that day very well,” he says over email from his home in Thousand Oaks, California. “All I recall is that I started writing these songs and didn’t really stop or sleep until the album was complete.”
By Christmas Day he had sketched out twelve songs. Two months later he flew to New York and recorded them at a studio in Midtown Manhattan with his friend Thomas Bartlett (known professionally as Doveman). The songs became Tomb, De Augustine’s third full-length album and second for Sufjan Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty. They capture the height of his heartbreak; each one is an intimate portrait of fallen tears and contained rage that spill, seethe and attempt to resolve not only his immediate loss, but other forms of disappointment throughout his life. While writing Tomb De Augustine realized that his immediate feelings reflected those of his past, and so he decided to expand the theme to incorporate other instances of unresolved anguish. That included his relationship with his father, who left the family when he was five years old, and any negative feelings he still had towards his mother, who worked as a musician and was often absent when he needed her most.
The finished album has no narrative arch — De Augustine says the track listing was “based on what key the songs were in and finding the right cohesive group of songs” — but it begins with him referencing the emotions he felt after finding the letter. “Been searching for someone of my own kind / played it back and forth preferred to rewind,”he sings softly, with a touch of reverb added to his voice to give it a ghostlike quality. “I walked into your life at the wrong time / never quite been perceptive of real life / it was not your fault or a fault of mine,” he continues. The words could quite easily have been lifted directly from the break-up note, but they are just as powerful when understood from his perspective.
De Augustine, who initially agreed to only speak via email, was hesitant to go into more detail about the album’s self-reflective motif, but when we reconnected by phone he was more forthcoming. “The songs are not all just all from my perspective,” he explains, “they’re from other perspectives as well. I was trying to inhabit another person, to see what it was like to be them, and to understand them.” While instances of these shifting perspectives are hard to define — De Augustine himself says “I’d have to go back and listen because I haven’t listened to it for a very long time” — they’re often the moments on Tomb that stick with you.
Though the catalyst for Tomb was having his heart broken, much of De Augustine’s career has been defined by change. In fact, it was a life-altering sports injury that led him to playing music. Growing up, he had no interest in it. Music was something his parents did for work — his father was a drummer and his mother a singer whose big break came performing alongside Patrick Swayze on the hit single “She’s Like The Wind” from the movie Dirty Dancing (1987). He addresses this relationship on the song “Kaitlin,” which opens with the lines, “Mother left you in the night / My father faded into the same light.” He later references the movie that shaped his mother’s career, singing, “Sometimes you’re like the wind / Like my mother sang in 1987.”
“I sustained an injury and couldn’t do the thing that I loved to do anymore. So I tried to find something else to do and discovered writing songs,” he says of how he ended up becoming a musician. “I had my heart set on one day being a professional soccer player and I always viewed music as something that took my parents away from me and something that my parents did. So it didn’t interest me very much.”
Despite his complicated relationship with the music industry, he admits it was witnessing his mother’s achievements as a songwriter that ultimately drew him to music after he sustained the injury. “I saw her do it, so I thought that it was commonplace to play music,” he says. But he still maintained some distance. Instead of following his parents’ path into the studio, he adopted a DIY approach and purchased an analog reel-to-reel tape machine and a mixer from the 1970s, and turned his bathroom into a home recording studio. His first two albums, 2014’s Spirals of Silence and 2017’s Swim Inside the Moon were recorded using the bathtub as a kind of echo chamber, to capture the sound of his guitar and vocals as they reverberated around the tiny room. “I would angle the microphone at the bathtub, not at me, so that it would pick up my guitar and my voice,” he explains. “But you could hear the sound of the room as well.” It added an alien quality to the recordings that critics have described as “otherworldly” and “atmospheric,” while drawing comparisons to Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Devendra Banhart.
In contrast, Tomb was recorded at Reservoir Studios on W 37th St in Manhattan. It’s where David Byrne recorded American Utopia and where, in the 1980s, when it was known as Skyline Studios, Bob Dylan recorded Knocked Out Loaded and Mariah Carey recorded her debut album. Unlike the bathroom setup, which affected his voice and added an uncontrolled amount of reverb, the studio had the tools to give clarity where it was needed the most. As a result, the recording gives you uncompromised access to De Augustine’s heartbreak, his healing process, and the threads that tie each song together. Every emotion is captured exactly as it was intended.
It also gives the experimental songs on Tomb more gravity. The most enterprising moment is a song titled “Somewhere Far Away From Home,” which sees De Augustine put down his guitar and sing over a layer of warm electronics. It’s a rare break from the melancholy that coats the rest of the album, and recalls the soulful beauty of alternative R&B artists like FKA Twigs and Kelela. Occasionally labelled a folk artist due to his use of acoustic instruments and hushed vocals, De Augustine prefers the term ‘pop.’ He balks when his work is classified as folk music, stating the style is “unadventurous in terms of chordal structure, relying more heavily on verses and the repetition of the chorus without much defining musical discernment between the two.”
“I wouldn’t say that I make folk music,” he says. “My song structure is based more in the tradition of popular song. There is a general consensus that if the instrument that you play is acoustic, that you are playing folk music, but this is inaccurate.”
On Tomb, his music draws him ever closer to that of Grammy and Academy award-nominated composer Sufjan Stevens, whose label Asthmatic Kitty released the record earlier this month. Both have a knack for adventurous storytelling and for animating their songs with an array of gorgeous melodies. De Augustine still prefers a more minimal approach, but songs like “Wanderer,” which mixes the sound of a bandurria with a Mellotron and piano, and the aforementioned “Somewhere Far Away From Home” justify the comparison. A video of the pair performing De Augustine’s song “Time” at Reservoir Studios is available on YouTube. In the video they appear to have a natural chemistry, but when asked to describe their relationship De Augustine simply says “I can’t really talk about it, unfortunately. But thanks for asking.” It’s perhaps evidence that he still feels a little uncomfortable talking about his music in broader terms, away from his bathroom where he once spent hours in solitude working on infectious pop melodies.
Tomb is out now via Asthmatic Kitty Records.