Seattle electronic music producer, Chong the Nomad, creates layered sounds that resemble both a single butterfly landing on a blade of grass and the cacophonous thunder in the big sky that shakes the creature from its perch. She is also one of the fastest rising songwriters in the city. The musician, whose given name is Alda Agustiano, has a new series of singles she’s set to release monthly for the next four months, leading up to what will likely be a slammed summer of shows for the DJ-performer. And KEXP is proud to release exclusively the first song in the set, “Two Colors,” a track about a new, important romantic relationship. To celebrate the release, we caught up with Agustiano to ask about how she started in music, what it’s like grappling with writer's block and how she feels about the idea of "story."
KEXP: When did you start singing?
Chong the Nomad: Oh, wow! I guess I’ve been singing all my life. But I was never really confident with my voice. My younger sister was always the singer of the family. But I always sat by my mom during church and she is a very, very gifted singer. So, I kind of learned from her. Using my own vocals for my own music didn’t really start until I wrote "Love Memo." I had a melody in my head and there was no one else who I wanted to sing it besides me. So, I’ve been singing forever but on my music only since late 2017.
What was the first programming technique you learned that made you feel proud or impressed with yourself?
I feel like it was my ability to create harmonies by ear that sound good. A lot of people when they hear me sing, I don’t get compliments on my singing voice. But when I show them tracks that I’ve layered my voice — there will be, like, five-to-eight tracks in one song - they’ll be like, “Oh, who did you pick to sing for this?” And then I say, “Me!” I can confidently say that I can hold my own when it comes to creating vocal lines and harmonies.
When did you first hear music in the noises of the ramen kitchen where you worked?
Always. From the moment I started working there, there was always — even in past line cook jobs. I was with my family’s food truck for a little bit and I had a stint at Buffalo Wild Wings. But I could always just hear certain sounds. The peculiar thing about hearing sounds like that is that it’s not, “Oh, that’s a musical sound!” It’s more like I hear a sound and say, “Oh, I will make that a musical sound. I will mold it and do something to it that will make it something no one’s ever heard before.”
How much do you spend tinkering with a raw sound before it becomes your own?
It really depends on the sound itself. For that ramen video, I would bang a spoon on a tin bowl and that itself works perfectly, it’s almost like a high-hat but more clingier, for lack of a better word. But for sounds, like one of my employees hitting a tub, I took that and in the sequencer had it — I don’t know the technical term for it — but I basically turned that into a fuzzy synth. So, it really depends on the clarity and timbre of the sound. But I think I go into a piece with something in my head and whatever sounds I have, I mold and puzzle-piece my way.
How did the lyric, “Ghosts in the shower,” come to you?
It was a couple of days after I performed at Sasquatch, I DJ’d at Sasquatch. And I had a long shift at my last ramen job and I came home, took a shower. I was very out of it. And, I swear to god, it was probably someone in the hallways, but I started singing to myself and I heard a girl’s voice, swear to god, sing back to me. I said, that’s a funny theme for a song, a duet with a ghost in your bathroom. So, I sang, “Ghosts in the shower!” And that whole thing came up in that bath. And I started and finished writing that song immediately.
What was the inspiration for your new single, “Two Colors,” a song that also has two distinct sections?
Well, I was going through a lot of transitions in my life and I — how do I put this? — I was intimidated and scared about all the decisions I was making with my career, with my personal life, and that song is kind of representative of how I went through making those decisions, if that makes sense….
Ah, fuck it, I’m going to be specific. It’s about my girlfriend. We started dating last year and I was really scared about going all-in in a relationship again. The next couple of singles are very relationship-based, my personal experiences. And “Two Colors” song is basically just about deciding whether or not to fall in love and going with it and falling blindly into it because you just don’t care anymore. And one of her eyes has two colors in it. So, yeah, that’s it! When [my manager] Austin asked me to come up with a paragraph about the song, I made it very vague. But now it’s just, like, “No, I’m gay.”
Is that what was scary to you, to talk about that you’re gay?
Yeah, yeah. But, like, at this point I’m very comfortable talking about it. The song is about me falling in love and making decisions on how to proceed with that. The title is about an eye color. That’s truly what the song is about. I actually wrote it a year ago but didn’t have the time to finish it or I didn’t know if I wanted to finish it, or how. But I’m glad it came together.
You had a career year in 2018. Do you have a favorite memory, big or small, from the past 12 months?
I was just talking about this and it’s so hard to choose. I think if I had to pin down one — they were all so good — I think I would have to go with the most monumental moment: Capitol Hill Block Party. That was the only festival where I kind of felt on my own. It was not a huge trip where I took my sister and my girlfriend out, it was home. My girlfriend had to work, some of my friends couldn’t make it. I was alone backstage, too. My sister went off elsewhere. And I threw up before my set. I finalized most of the material that week because I was not happy with what I was making throughout that month and I was having a lot of anxiety over that and it just built up to this moment, 10 minutes before my set and I just upchucked in the bushes. But I do remember this moment when Austin [Santiago, her manager] was right next to me and he gives me a hug. And I took off my shoes, which is something that I didn’t really do until then. And I just gave it my all and that night I had that Stranger article released about me. It was a very life-changing moment, like, “Oh what I just did was good!” It was the first time I did a set with my remixes. It was the first time where it was a DJ-live hybrid set. It was something I always wanted to do and I did it my way and people liked it. It started with, like, 20 people watching me and finished with 100 or more piling in. It was great.
To me, your production involves strong narratives. Do you read a lot?
I used to, man. I feel like in high school and middle school I used to read a lot. I’m trying to get into reading more. But I am in love with narrative arts. I’m really into watching film and stuff like that. I do feel like powerful art comes through stories and storytelling. One of my first conversations with my girlfriend was about how important and vital storytelling is to mankind. So, I think that trying to do that through my music is just my way to contribute my little puzzle piece to this whole art thing.
As long as I’m grooving to it, no matter what color, feels, theme, how it sounds, as long as it’s made in my own personal space and I’m moving to it and my body has that reaction to it, no matter if it’s a slow jam or house tune, I’m doing the thing I’ve always wanted to do.
Your music also has this mysterious show-don’t-show sensibility. When you compose, what scenes, traditions or colors run through your head?
I do like being subtle with my music. I am very transparent but I do like to have a hint of subtlety and not giving it all the way. It really depends. My first EP, Love Memo, was a record about heartbreak and not being able to confess your feelings to someone and be up front because you’re scared. So it was all moody. I had my friends record interludes saying things they’ve always wanted to say to someone they were in love with but never got to. But there are singles like “Ghosts In The Shower” where I’m just geeking on production and having a blast. All of my music I put under my own made-up genre, “Bedroom Groove,” because it’s made in my bedroom and makes my body move. As long as I’m grooving to it, no matter what color, feels, theme, how it sounds, as long as it’s made in my own personal space and I’m moving to it and my body has that reaction to it, no matter if it’s a slow jam or house tune, I’m doing the thing I’ve always wanted to do.
Does creativity ever feel like a violent act, like you’re fighting with something?
I think when you’re trying to get it out of you, to force it, it feels like an uphill battle, definitely. Writer’s block is the worst thing ever. The creative cycle, which I’ve been talking about a lot with a lot of my friends, is the most infuriating thing. Because you don’t want to have those moments where you just can’t come up with anything or you hate everything you make. So, yeah, it definitely feels like a fight. But when there’s a zone, you get into some sort of feeling, like, “Okay, I know what to do. I’m going to keep doing this, I love this,” it kind of feels like crack. And it doesn’t feel like a battle at all. It doesn’t feel like I’m fighting anything. It feels like the most effortless thing you can do.
Locals have many opportunities to see Chong the Nomad live coming up: this Saturday, April 6th at the Crystal Mountain Resort in Enumclaw, WA (part of the Mountain Music Series); Wednesday, April 24th at Barboza; Friday, May 17th at the Fisherman's Village Music Festival; Saturday, May 18th at the Civic Stadium in Bellingham, WA; and Thursday, July 11th at Timber Outdoor Music Fest.
Martin Douglas' Treefort coverage continues with an astounding set by the Seattle producer.
Two of Seattle’s premiere DJs and producers chat about their process ahead of their S’women/Love Memo split vinyl release on Crane City Music.