Angelo De Augustine is a singer-songwriter living in Thousand Oaks, California, the Los Angeles suburb where he grew up. His parents were both musicians, and as a teenager he dreamed of being a professional soccer player before an injury left him unable to play. He took to songwriting after receiving a guitar from a family friend, learning to record at home using an analog reel-to-reel machine he set up in his bathroom. He self-released his debut record, Spirals of Silence, in 2014, and its hushed, emotionally raw songwriting caught the attention of Sufjan Stevens, who signed De Augustine to his Asthmatic Kitty label. Another home-recorded album, Swim Inside the Moon, followed in 2017, while 2019’s Tomb saw him recording in a proper studio for the first time, working with producer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) at New York City’s Reservoir Studios. In 2021, De Augustine and Stevens collaborated on A Beginner’s Mind, a gorgeously affecting collection of songs loosely based on different movies.
This Friday, De Augustine will release his fourth album, Toil and Trouble, which he wrote, recorded, and mixed entirely by himself. Even as he returns to this solitary approach, the music is delicately detailed and carefully arranged, featuring 27 different instruments, many of which he’d never previously worked with. The homespun intimacy of his earlier material feels, as a result, both elevated and otherworldly, especially as his lyrics interweave deep introspection and a vast, cosmic yearning, mythical characters with tragic real-world events. “If I created my own world/ Minds would be open and unfurled/ The galaxy would be a guide for love,” he sings on ‘Another Universe’. The way De Augustine paints it, though, so tightly are those worlds strung together that if hope can be found in that reality, it must be possible for it to crawl out of this one.
We caught up with Angelo De Augustine for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about the making of Toil and Trouble, the intentionality of his process, the album’s cover art, and more.
A Beginner’s Mind came out in September 2021. Where were you with the making of Toil and Trouble at the time?
I’d been working on it while we were making that record. When I would take time off of Toil and Trouble, we would be making that, so I’d fly up there to the East Coast. I pretty much started this record right after Tomb came out in 2019, and then it took me a long time to find the right songs. I don’t really know how to explain that to you, when it’s right, but it’s an instinctual feeling, when songs feel like these are the ones I want to put out and these are the ones that go together. I tried to make sure every single song was the best I could do at that time, so that took a long time. I wrote a lot of songs, and I scrapped a lot of them. There’s probably albums of other songs that I don’t know if they’ll ever be released.
And then it took a really long time to figure out how to record them, because I didn’t have much experience in recording. But I didn’t have much experience playing other instruments either, so I started buying instruments and I started buying all the equipment. I figured, I’m just gonna buy everything that these other recording studios have and I’ll just build my own recording studio, and then I’d I have as much time as I need to be able to make the album I want to make. That’s what I did. I would say that that took me much longer than it would have taken me with somebody else, because I’m a total beginner at it. I think I played like 27 instruments on this record, many of which I’ve never played before. Even though I’m not that proficient on the instrument, I kind of worked out my own little way of doing things, and as a result, I don’t think that I could have made this record with somebody else. Then I mixed it, and that was really hard. This record, to be honest with you – I don’t like listening to it. I worked so hard on it that it started to feel like it was going to kill me. I definitely took on more than I thought that I could handle, but I was able to finish it somehow.
Playing all these different instruments, did that come from a pure need to experiment with sound, or was it more to do with fixating on a song until you reach that indescribable feeling that it’s right?
I think it’s more the latter. You can arrange a song a bunch of different ways and it’ll feel different. But I do think that if the song isn’t there, if it isn’t completely realized in the song form, it’s never gonna feel right. I feel that has to come first. If that’s there, you can kind of put anything on it, really, and it’s going to work. But I wanted to take that a step further and make something that hopefully enhanced the song instead of just supporting it, gave it just that little bit more of a lift.
You explained why you wanted to work on this project by yourself, but were there aspects of the solitary nature of the process that surprised you?
The only thing that surprised me was that I could actually do it, because I really wasn’t sure if I could do it. I didn’t have much confidence in the beginning that I’d be able to do it, so the fact that I finished it was a big surprise to me.
When did that realization come, that it could done?
It kind of happened in the mixing process. That was the thing that really was stumping me, because it’s this whole other thing that’s kind of creative and it’s also kind of technical. And I don’t really have that naturally, I don’t really have that technical mind. So when I was able to see the way through that and really trust my ears – basically when I just said to myself, “Just do what you want to do, Angelo. You don’t have to do anything other than what you want to do.” And if it sounds weird or whatever, that’s fine. It’s all really subjective, all this stuff, so it doesn’t really matter. When I said that to myself, I was able to just take off some of the pressure of making it sound “good,” the mix. You hear a lot of, “This is the way you have to do things.” It’s kind of all not true.
In terms of songwriting, especially since you worked on this collaborative project that drew from different movies, did your approach to inspiration shift at all?
To be honest with you, I don’t know where inspiration comes from. It’s less of this thing that you think about and more of a thing that just happens to you. It hits you when you least expect it, I guess. There were obviously things going on in my mind that I’m sure informed a lot of this stuff, but the actual inspiration it feels like it’s hard to pin down, because when you want it, you can’t get it. Like when you want to pet a cat or something, it’s not going to come to you. You have to let it come to you. And that’s what it feels like with real inspiration, when you’re actually inspired. You kind of lose your – sometimes you forget what even happened, and then you have a song or whatever you’re making.
But I was certainly thinking about things. I was really overwhelmed by everything going on just around me and in the world. I sort of used a counter-world in the writing, a place to write from, but also to live inside, because it’s just too overwhelming. I think it was at times a reflection of real life with the album, but it’s also an escape. You have these two juxtaposed things that are clashing, but they’re also kind of making this new world that hopefully, I don’t know, ends in some kind of understanding or solace about things. I do think that if you look through history, we can notice periods of enlightenment and times of darkness, and it seems to be all cyclical. So there’s some hope in that, and the the album draws upon that, too. There’s a lot of darkness, there’s also moments of levity on the album, and it does feel cyclical to me in a way.
You mentioned escape – it was interesting to discover that a big breakthrough in terms of completing the record was receiving the cover art by Ghanaian artist Daniel Anum Jasper. You said you “knew the way out” when you saw it. First off, can you describe what you saw in it?
I think at that point I maybe was just so stuck that I thought, I’ll just put out one of these songs, so I think I was gonna put out ‘Toil and Trouble’. I asked him to do a cover for it and I gave them all the things I wanted on the cover, and he made it. When I got it, it just really felt like an album cover to me. When I saw it, and I don’t know how to put this into word for you so well, but I was able to connect the dots of which song should be on it. It was just based on a feeling of seeing the cover and having an emotional response to the cover, and then being able to say, “Okay, this is actually the album. All this stuff you’re you’re fretting on, all this other stuff is just noise. But this is the record right here.” It helped point me in the right direction. But I don’t think that was necessarily Daniel’s intention. It was just to make a cover for me that I asked for, but unknowingly he actually was helpful in me figuring out what songs should be on the record, and that it should be a record, because at first I didn’t really know if it could be a record.
This search for escape feels like a key difference compared to your previous albums, which maybe come from a similar place emotionally but seem to be looking more for a way into the feelings. Is that a distinction that resonates with you?
Yeah, I think so. There’s a lot of songs on this record that touch on certain moments in history or certain characters from literature, but you’re right, there is that element of wanting to get away. I experienced a couple of really strange things while making this record. When you experience something so awful like that, you do want to get away and escape. Sometimes life is too much, you know. People go through a lot in life. Lots of people go through so much. And I think there is a time and place for that, too. There comes a time where a person can only take so much, and they protect themselves by escaping. It’s a defense mechanism that sometimes actually can be probably helpful when things are too much.
It can take a long time to know when or for whom it becomes helpful. Sometimes you just have to find ways to protect yourself and keep some record of it, even if you’re not sure why it’s important in the moment.
Yeah, because sometimes it’s not helpful to talk about certain things. It’s interesting, there’s some things that are helpful to talk about, and then there’s certain things that just make it worse, so it’s difficult to know where that line is. It may be that down the line it is helpful, or it’s helpful to somebody, or it’s helpful but in the moment sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
It’s that noise that you have to filter out, right? Is it easier to see now what was necessary or helpful about it?
I just felt like I had to make it. I had to make this. And I’m really glad that that I was able to finish it and be here to see it come out, because I really didn’t know if I was going to be here. I think down the line I’ll be able to see it more, but it’s hard to see right now. I can’t really listen to it. It brings back things that are hard to live in. Obviously, being able to put it out is a great accomplishment, just the fact that I get to put it out. And if it’s helpful to somebody else, that’s really wonderful.
We were talking about the musical arrangements, but I feel like you bring the same amount of intentionality to the lyrics. One thing that struck me is the contrast you draw on the opener, ‘Home Town’, between a desire that’s heartless and a burning heart. It seems like something that carries a lot of weight, because you also play with that language around desire on tracks like ‘Song of the Siren’ and ‘Blood Red Thorn’. Is that something you can get into?
With all these songs, there is a lot of intentionality on every aspect, whether it’s the lyrics, the melody, the chords, the instruments. I hadn’t really noticed the through line between those songs of that, but in terms of the actual writing of each song, I really do care about every word, every syllable – I care a little too much, probably, about these things that are really small. But I will say that when that care and attention is tended to those things – not always, it’s really weird because sometimes the song comes to you really, really quick – but it’s important to me to care about all these little tiny details, because ultimately, I think it usually results in something that’s stronger just on a structural, bare-bones level in terms of the actual song, like what we were talking about before. I feel like that’s really what I go for, more than anything, more than the production, is really just the song.
There are certain songs I really labored on over in terms of the lyrics. I can’t really recall which ones on this record, but I can tell you which ones came to me really fast. A song called ‘The Painter’ – I probably wrote that in like 10 minutes. That song was just a gift, and I think that’s probably one of my best songs I’ve ever written. I don’t know how you say best, but it’s just maybe it’s one of the songs I feel I was the most connected to that creative force, whatever that is. Because it came so effortlessly, but it also wasn’t lacking in any sort of way. For me, I feel like that’s a completely realized song, just reflecting on what it feels like to be an artist, or taking a character that is an artist and reflecting on what that feels like. So yes, all these things are very intentional, but sometimes you get the good grace of being handed something that feels more special than what you normally get, and that’s always a real thrill.
There’s a line in that song that me think about the symbolism of water and fire that’s prevalent on the album in a new way. You write about about the ocean finding its home, but it’s hard to think of a similar metaphor for fire, which we think as way more destructive and sort of placeless, even though it’s also an elemental and life-giving force.
I haven’t thought much about that, it’s interesting that you bring that up. This is the amazing thing about music, is that everybody can find these things within it and expand it. But I think what you said is pretty interesting, that it’s a life-giving force, but it’s also destructive. That makes a lot of sense with this record. There’s a lot of destruction on this record, and then there’s a lot of life-giving and hope on the record, too. And they’re kind of one and the same, right?
Even the structure of the record – you sing “There’s no hope” on the first track, but then you start to untangle that.
It does seem, to me anyway, the more I learn, the more questions I have about everything – especially about hope and about these things that we’re talking about. It does seem like the more you know, the less you know. But it’s a starting place to finding something.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.