Alda Agustiano was about to step onto the biggest stage of her career.
But as fans were filing into Bellingham’s Civic Stadium for ODESZA and Death Cab for Cutie’s Double Major blowout on May 18, Agustiano — better known as up-and-coming beatsmith Chong the Nomad — and her manager huddled around her laptop with crimped necks and looks of consternation.
During the weeks leading up to the roughly 12,000-capacity stadium gig — “the pipe dream that I never had,” as she describes it — Agustiano was “the most terrified I ever was in my entire life.” The 23-year-old Seattle producer and multi-instrumentalist was already prone to preshow anxiety. Then, minutes before her set, a glitch in her DJ software flared up, forcing her to beat-match by ear, something she’d never rehearsed.
“I was freaking out,” Agustiano says. “I got really mad backstage, but I had a moment where I just calmed down, rushed onto the stage and took the mic. Two songs in, the program started working fine [laughs]. Thank gaaaawd.”
Despite the near meltdown, her crowd-riling performance was a hit with the sea of fans. When not working the laptop, Agustiano was singing, barking at the crowd, rocking a ukulele and her now-signature harmonica beatboxing routine, not to mention headbanging harder than a front-row Metallica fan. It was the largest spotlight of her nascent career and Agustiano practically moonwalked into it with an energy and dynamism rare among her bedroom beatmaking peers. It’s one of the reasons she’s impressed local critics and the likes of Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard, who had kind words for Agustiano before and after her set (Agustiano had recently remixed the band’s song “When We Drive”).
“He not only complimented me, but he sang back my favorite part to me, which was also his favorite part,” she says. “I geeked out.”
Agustiano, who plays Timber! Outdoor Music Festival on Thursday, July 11, saw her stock rise last year on the strength of those live shows and her moody “love memo” EP — a diaristic set of “mopey beats” shaped during a lonely winter. The spacious and cerebral project landed in the top five of our local albums of the year critics’ poll, and a subsequent run of crafty, more up-tempo singles saw the former high-school house head flashing her range.
“It comes in waves,” she says of her vibe-shifting creative spurts, “and depending on how big the wave, a project will come out of it.”
Her best-known track, the buoyant, squelching “Ghosts in the Shower,” is emblematic of her work’s eclecticism and artistic freedom. While it could rock a festival dance tent, the infectiously quirky track is far more left-field than the EDM hitmakers who informed her teenage years. “I spent a lot of my time trying to copy other artists,” Agustiano says. “It was the second when I tried to sound like me when things started to click.”
Agustiano has kept the momentum going this summer with a handful of out-of-town dates, that official Death Cab remix and an earwormy collaboration with Detroit indie-pop artist Flint Eastwood built around a melody Agustiano came up with while goofing around at church with her sisters. She’s also had talks with Sub Pop about a possible publishing deal. “I’m not signing on to any label yet, but they’re going to help out with some releases, hopefully, in the near future,” she says.
In the short term, Agustiano’s goals are simple: make more music, play more shows. Despite those head-turning live sets, she says figuring out how to translate her homespun beats to a live setting has been the biggest challenge. A self-described EDM DJ at heart, Agustiano began incorporating more live instrumentation into her shows during the 2018 Capitol Hill Block Party, where her preshow jitters had her puking behind a bush before going on stage. Without the resources or technical know-how for a more elaborate live setup like bigger-name electronic artists might deploy, Agustiano fell back on the ukulele and harmonica, instruments she picked up in high school (she won her school talent show with her harmonica chops).
“It’s funny, you hear this advice all the time — it’s really cliché — but sticking to what you know, it was both a lifesaver and it’s what I would say made me stand out,” Agustiano says.
Based on her crowds’ reactions, Agustiano doesn’t have trouble standing out these days.
Timber! Outdoor Music Festival. July 11-13, Tolt-MacDonald Park, 31020 N.E. 40th St., Carnation; $45-$55 single day, $125 weekend pass, kids 12 and under free, $20 parking, summer.timbermusicfest.com