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Headlights Chapter One: A Clean Slate

If I remember correctly, it was early 2020 when I stared at a blank page in my journal, pen in my hand, trying to ask myself a question. It was the fourth journal I was working through. The other three were torn up and littered with notes, lyrics, ideas, lists and more since I was a freshman in high school. I bought all four of those journals at the same time many years ago, and to be nearing the end of the last journal felt sort of sad to me. I always relied on another one being there whenever I filled one up.

I looked at the page and finally formulated the question: “What does Alex D’Ambrosio’s music sound like?” I see now that the question was on the outskirts of my mind for years. It was in the feeling I chased regarding my music, but never a phrase I confronted head on. To question the very work and understand of music I had established for myself, dating back to high school.

I was in high school between the years 2011-2015. Nostalgia for the 1980s became a huge thing. Music in the mainstream began to pull from the synthetic tones the decade are recognized for. I first noticed it with Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. “Get Lucky” reminded everyone of 70s Funk and Disco inspired instrumentals (70s tones sort of went along with the 80s vibe people kept putting out). Around the same time, Lorde came out with her album “Pure Heroine”. She took Kanye West's 2000s production style and sprinkled some indie aesthetic on it, largely giving birth to the style usually dubbed "bedroom pop". I remember thinking “Royals” and “Team” sounded different at the time, and in retrospect I respect that album for laying down the framework for 2010s pop.

When Taylor Swift came out with “1989” I remember thinking “Oh, she just wants to sound like Lorde.” I read an interview she did around that time where she discussed how inspired she was by Madonna’s Like a Prayer. She loved how in the mid 80s they were moving away from rock music and embracing dance and electronic music more as the main foundation instead. She wanted to channel that in her music and she succeeded. Every now and then, an album by a big name in music comes along and functions as a zeitgeist for what people are into on a larger scale. Wielding nostalgic tones and modern pop sensibilities, 1989 operates as one of the centerpieces in pop in the last decade. The neon upbeat optimism of mainstream 80s felt like it was everywhere. That’s still the case now, it’s been like that for a while.

At large, the 80s synth aesthetic never sat with me well. Nor did the music that wanted to echo it when I was in high school. I did admire seeing different genres and styles get mainstream exposure. There was the dialog for years up to that point that rock music “died”, and quite frankly I’m glad rock music “died” and lost the mainstream footing it used to wield. It needed to happen. The times changed. People wanted to hear something else from someone else. But even so, most of what was going on at the time went by me. I’d poke my head out occasionally just to feel somewhat in tune, but I remained apathetic at large. Listening back now to where music was in my high school years, it was a very kitschy time. The music I was passionate about was still widely known, but had fallen out of fashion years prior. My engagement with music felt more private.

I picked up the guitar when I was in 3rd grade. I took lessons, but I hated them. Upon discovering tablature and just listening to my favorite music, I quickly absorbed an ability for playing. At the same time, I sang in choirs in school. I was known as the pretty sounding choir boy growing up. By high school, I didn’t really care for choir by then but I knew I could sing. I cared more about the more creative places my favorite music came from.

It always came down to albums for me. It was about loading my favorites onto my old iPod Touch and listening through from start to finish. It was the experience, getting the whole picture from an artist. Here’s a list of favorite albums from when I was a teen:

- Nirvana – In Utero (1993)

- Portishead – Dummy (1994)

- Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (1994)

- Queens of the Stone Age - Self Titled (1998)

- Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley (1995)

- Madonna - Ray of Light (1998)

- The Smashing Pumpkins – Adore (1998)

- Bjork - Vespertine (2001)

- Dinosaur Jr. - You’re Living All Over Me (1987)

- Justin Timberlake – The 20/20 Experience (2013)

- Boards of Canada – Geogaddi (2002)

- A Tribe Called Quest - The Low End Theory (1991)

- Deftones – White Pony (2000)

- Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album (1996)

- Radiohead - Kid A (2000)

- Peter Gabriel - So (1986)

- Massive Attack - Mezzanine (1998)

- Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)

- Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy X Original Soundtrack (2001)

Listening to the albums from start to finish was so important to me. I would vault between alternative rock, industrial rock, desert rock to trip hop, IDM, electronica and big beat. Alternative hip hop found a place in my rotation too. Ultimately, I felt at home in the heavier rock the 90s offered. I found myself in rock music. I was drawn to how real it felt.

The sound of what was dubbed “grunge” had this loose vigor to its nature. It had a viscosity in how it flowed that resonated with me. Producers didn’t know how to capture that very well in the late 80s and early 90s. The thick distortion and use of open playing and alternate tunings brought a charisma. Feedback and general noise would poke its way through. Drummers wielded looser grooves that had a sway to them. The emotional spectrum would range from angst to sarcasm, rage to anguish, sorrow to romance; all providing a heavy dose of catharsis. The music feels natural.

The songwriting would pull from the groovy melodies of The Beatles and Cream, but retain the intensity of 80s underground punk like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys. 80s alternative, groups like REM, The Smiths and The Cure, laid the framework for the stuff I enjoyed later on. It was in the uncalculated blend of these influences all blasted at a high velocity that the magic would happen in my favorite music. It was accessible, it retained integrity and spoke in its own dialect. It was about how things were said, and it was said with subtlety.

Once the production caught up with the sound, the results were great. Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” being produced by Michael Beinhorn and mixed by Brendan O’Brien captures the rough, noisy approach of Soundgarden’s technical roar. Yet, the album retains a sheen that feels clear and full. 90s records were dry sounding: if any reverbs or delays were used, it was for effect most of the time. Soundgarden’s previous record, “Badmotorfinger”, had a very different feel indebted to the production on top of the band being in a more visceral place in their songwriting. To me, “Superunknown” is the best blend of great songwriting, technicality, artistic direction and production from the era. It showcases what I always loved about the rock genre all in one place.

Elsewhere, I remember discovering the video game Final Fantasy VII around my Freshman year of high school. In my friend group in college, I was the Final Fantasy guy since I love those games so much. Playing through the main entries in the franchise had an impact on my artistic sensibilities as a teen. For those unfamiliar, Final Fantasy is a video game franchise that has over a dozen installments. Each entry has its own stand alone story. The games are highlighted by distinct anime art styles with rich storytelling and melodic music by composer Nobuo Uematsu. The “magnum opus” is considered to be 7, with games 8, 9, and 10 also being heralded as the “golden age” for the franchise and for the game developer, Squaresoft. Final Fantasy 6 and a separate titled named “Chrono Trigger” are also lumped into that batch as well.

The soundtracks had a massive impact on me. I listened to those on their own a lot. The melodies were so simple and angular. They have a very acute sound to them that’s a very love or hate thing. The MIDI synths they were played on had such a charm that was irreplaceable (again, a very love or hate thing). Those MIDI synths were used because of technological limitations at the time; older consoles couldn’t quite handle CD quality music yet. But being a fan of electronic music, I loved how they sounded even if it wasn’t intended to be enjoyed in that way. There was a unique color to the sound. But the important thing was the compositions. A lot of the music I grew up listening to never had distinct melodic content like what I heard in those soundtracks. It didn't evoke the tone orchestral soundtracks usually sound like either. It felt like electronic music that wanted to sound orchestral. To me, it landed very nuanced.

Final Fantasy VII had a very industrial tone to its soundtrack and story in general. It has always been a favorite of mine. Those games and their music quickly became influences. There were plenty of other games with phenomenal soundtracks and sound design. Half-Life, Fallout 3, Quake and plenty of others really nailed what they did in terms of creative direction. The stories told, the way they were told and experienced, were inspiring in of themselves. A lot of those video game soundtracks ended up being very influential on me.

Music became a big part of my personality. I won an award in high school for being “niche”, which was intended as a positive thing but I side eyed it a bit. I was self-aware that with my taste I did stick out but ultimately remained unaffected by it. I knew what I liked. And yet, my own identity as an artist and songwriter was ambiguous. What my sound was, along with the natural inclination to create music, was being conceived out of my influences.

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