We sat down with singer songwriter Dustin Illingworth of the Costa Mesa-based band Tide Pools to talk about Grief is a Wilderness, the album he considers the best thing he's ever done.
Grief is a Wilderness is a musical tribute to Illingworth's long-time girlfriend, Amy Cole, whom he tragically lost in 2010 when she accidentally drowned in the bathtub. Illingworth and the couple's roommate found Cole, who struggled with alcoholism and depression, the day after Independence Day. Illingworth describes Cole as a “wildly talented” artist who was pursuing a master's degree at San Diego State University.
You can feel the admiration in Illingworth's voice when he speaks of his muse:
“I think she was just starting to realize [how talented she was] and then we lost her,” Illingworth said during our interview. “I can just imagine what she would be capable of given more time and that confidence.”
Illingworth's own talent was tested after the tragedy, during a time when the musician felt he was in “very dark and claustrophobic place” and had no desire to play music, but he knew he wanted to make something to honor Cole as a tribute to her life and their relationship.
“My desire to create something great for her was my motivation to pick up my guitar and start playing again,” he said.
Illingworth began the album in 2010, hand-picking songs from a large amount of material until he felt every song was his best. He then gathered musicians who he played with previously and had known Cole.
“I really wanted [the musicians] to have a personal sort of connection to the music, so they could know where I was coming from,” Illingworth said.
The creation of the album became his grieving process which Illingworth feels allowed him to communicate with Cole, and helped sort his thoughts, feelings and regret. In some tracks, Illingworth felt as if he were putting words in Cole's mouth, to reassure himself that she is still with him in some way.
Despite drawing inspiration from loss, Grief is a Wilderness is not a melancholy album. The vibe of the album is mellow and peaceful. Those who enjoy Neutral Milk Hotel, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young will also enjoy Tide Pools.
Unlike Illingworth's past albums with local bands he's previously fronted (Kite Flying Society and Gray Ghosts), the recording, processing and mixing of Grief is a Wilderness took three years, a time frame which Illingworth feels was necessary to process and piece together his understanding of the loss.
"I consider wilderness to be something that you go into either willingly or unwillingly, but there's also eventually a way out of it,” Illingworth said. "When Amy died, I felt like I was thrust inside of one… But eventually I felt like if I followed a path, I could make my way out of it, and she was helping build that path out of this darkness.”
Although the album contains very personal and, at times, heart-wrenching lyrics, Illingworth notes that chord transitions and chord progressions are what fuel his work. The lyrics develop in his head while playing guitar, not from writing down his experiences.
"What I hope people get out of [Grief is a Wilderness] is if you honor your grief enough and if you honor your memory and love of the person enough, you can keep going and keep living meaningfully without repressing all thoughts and ideas and all of your old love for that person because of the pain.” Illingworth said. “You can still find meaning and hope in your life with that person gone.”
Initially, Illingworth found the songs were emotionally difficult to perform, but now he views them as a proud memory. The album is also helping others cope with Cole's death. Cole's mother and two sisters told Illingworth that listening to the album and watching Illingworth perform the songs “makes Amy seem very present.”
“They felt [Amy's[Amy's presence]where during the release show and that makes me feel great because that's what I wanted to give them,” Illingworth said.
Six pieces of Cole's artwork were displayed during Tide Pool's album release show at Luce Loft in downtown San Diego last week. Cole's watercolors were an inspiration to Illingworth, who was usually present while she was painting them. Now the paintings serve as intimate memories and a reminder of why the couple's love was so strong.
“I haven't really ever found someone before or since who I felt understands that [artis[artistic]of me–that obsessive need to create things–and she always told me the same thing.” Illingworth says of the couple's shared creativity.
“I'm not sure if it's always important to have a muse, but I do know that once you have one, it grasps ahold of you and it's unlike creating something else.”
Tide Pools expect to be performing a handful shows in the San Diego this summer. You can listen to the title track from Grief is a Wilderness on Soundcloud and find more information about the band on their Facebook page. The album is for sale on iTunes.