While working as a line cook at the ramen restaurant Kizuki, the 22-year-old Seattle producer/DJ named Chong the Nomad had a brilliant idea. She decided to record mundane kitchen sounds—ladles hitting vats, chopsticks hitting bowls, door knocks, coworker grunts—and then use the raw samples to make music. The track was intended to promote an upcoming gig. But the result—an astounding, frolicking, distorted-bass-heavy dance track she released last month on Twitter—revealed her unique resourcefulness. This was no mere collection of odd recorded sounds. It was a magical sonic transformation.
It reminded me of the brilliant set she performed at Capitol Hill Block Party a few months earlier. As anyone lucky enough to see that performance remembers, Chong the Nomad (aka Alda Agustiano) came off like a hyperactive Janet Jackson on that hot July evening. In between bursts of dancing and jumping, she micromanaged a laptop into producing a hybrid of R&B, trap, and wonkily funky EDM. But it was when she started strumming a ukulele, and then simultaneously played harmonica and beatboxed—all while wearing an orange T-shirt emblazoned with the blunt phrase I FEEL GOOD—that Agustiano really overturned expectations. Against the bad news of the world at large, she radiated an almost militant will to exuberance.
It allowed the crowd to forget everything else for a while. Any new artist who can get 90 percent of a festival crowd dancing in 82-degree weather deserves devotion. After her performance, Agustiano took a crowd selfie and the Block Party attendees whooped as if she were Ms. Jackson.
Despite her commanding feats at the Block Party, Agustiano says she gets horrible stage fright. Adding live production to her DJing has been "kind of terrifying," but she plans to make her show bigger with each date.
"The beatbox/harmonica shtick was something I've done since high school. I picked up beatboxing around middle school," she says. "I got made fun of a lot. I mean, you're a 12-year-old kid making fart noises out of your mouth, so you're going to be made fun of." Agustiano got the last laugh, though, when she won her school's talent show doing exactly that routine.
A queer woman of Indonesian descent, Agustiano grew up in a musical family, surrounded by the music of Billie Holiday, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, and Prince. "I always tell people, my mom taught me how to sing and my dad taught me how to listen."
We're in her sparsely appointed Capitol Hill studio apartment, the same place she makes her music, when she says this. A set of golf clubs stands in the corner; Agustiano has been playing since she was 5.
She spent the first 10 years of her life in Kent before her family moved to several places on the East Coast. They returned to the Seattle area when she was 16. Around then, Agustiano and some friends downloaded and began messing around with FL Studio, the music-production software. Then she got into DJing at Kentlake High School for its breakdance club. That's also when she began to lose interest in playing piano for her school jazz band and to love dance music.
Coinciding with Agustiano's embracing of dance music was her Tumblr, which bore the URL chongthenomad, named after "a minor character that was supposed to be the stoner, hippie dude" from the series Avatar: The Last Airbender. "He held a lute and sang these silly songs to them all day, bugging them. I was like, 'Oh, that's kind of me.'" So Agustiano took the handle for her musical persona. She was also enamored of Legend of Korra, and would sample some of the voices and catchphrases uttered by the characters and remix them—what she calls "weird, nerdy edits and covers of certain nerdy music." She posted one, and overnight it inspired 4,000 notes. "I was like, 'Oh, I could do this.'"
After high school, Agustiano studied classical and contemporary music and film composition at Cornish College of the Arts, gaining particular inspiration from professors Janice Giteck and Jarrad Powell, who also heads the Gamelan Pacifica ensemble. She credits them and other instructors for inspiring her to look "outside of the box" and turning her on to unconventional musicians/composers such as Iannis Xenakis, Brian Eno, Frank Zappa, Steve Reich, and Sofia Gubaidulina. "When I listen to crazy art, it triggers something in me to move or to think or to write. If I can do that, thumbs-up to me."
Agustiano harbored hopes of moving into the film industry, but about midway through her studies, she realized that electronic-music production had become an all-consuming passion, so she's back-burnered movie scoring for now.
Her Cornish experience "opened a lot of doors to me and what I can do," Agustiano says. "I wrote a string quartet that's still stuck with me to this day as probably one of the craziest things I've written, and I wouldn't have had that if I didn't go to Cornish."
While Giteck expanded and expedited Agustiano's compositional processes ("She opened this side of me that I never thought could ever be shown"), Powell imbued in her his prodigious knowledge of gamelan and electronic music. In her senior year, she began to take beat making much more seriously, and after graduating in 2017, she began hitting the live/DJ circuit in earnest.
Agustiano admits she's "harder on myself than I need to be." She's always been a hungry self-starter who's compared herself to others. But when she got to Cornish, she suddenly "wasn't the one laptop music geek anymore."
In the spring of 2017, Agustiano was preparing for her senior recital when she saw an ad for the BeatMatch beat-making competition at Vera Project, which was judged by Sango and Macklemore's right-hand man, Ryan Lewis. She entered after seeing the winner would earn a slot at Upstream Festival—her dream gig. Working on her final academic project while readying for the competition resulted in perhaps Agustiano's most intense week ever. "I was just on panic mode the entirety of that last semester, but I like to think of that time as one of the best of my life."
Agustiano had some doubts she'd get into the competition, but she made the cut—the only woman among 16 combatants. She lost in the second round to prominent Seattle producer Jamie Blake, whom she respects, so she wasn't too distraught.
While that loss was a letdown, the event had a bright side: BuildStrong Music Group's Austin Santiago witnessed her performance and loved it. "I knew that she had something special: the rhythm, the melodies, her vibe onstage," Santiago says. "She's an artist, not just a beat maker." He not only placed her on BuildStrong's stage at Upstream, he became her manager.
Another prominent Chong the Nomad champion has been Gary Campbell, head of the crucial Seattle record label Crane City Music. He noticed a dearth of attention to non-male hiphop artists and started to spotlight them on his Instagram account, in addition to his label. The first time he heard Chong's Love Memo EP on SoundCloud, Campbell says his "jaw was on the floor." He immediately contacted Agustiano and Santiago and told them, "I loved every second of your project and I want to put it out on vinyl."
He decided to release a split album with Chong the Nomad and Stas THEE Boss.
Campbell continues: "It's the mission of Crane City Music to promote distinctive new voices that are underrepresented in mainstream hiphop, and so this vinyl, featuring the perspectives of two queer women of color who are making beats and writing introspective songs about heartbreak, is a perfect fit for the label. Neither Love Memo nor Stas THEE Boss's S'WOMEN had ever been professionally mixed and mastered, so this release gave everyone the opportunity to properly release their music with the production they'd always intended.
"Alda is a talent where you want to get behind everything she releases. While working on the vinyl, she released the single 'Pompelmo' as a one-off track, and it sounded so fresh, I proposed squeezing it onto the vinyl as a bonus track—which we did. In August, when she dropped 'Ghosts in the Shower' as another single, I strongly had to resist the temptation to throw manufacturing into disarray to get this track on there, too. I can't wait to hear what she puts out next."
Love Memo is slightly more subdued than the Chong the Nomad live experience, but it's still a varied, funky groovefest, redolent in poignant melodies and disorienting atmospheres. Hybridity in music often leads to innovation, and that ethos drives Agustiano's process. Still, these are more low-lit joints for intimate encounters than raucous club bangers. With track titles like "Lip Bite," "Docile," "Chest Pain," and "Enchant Me," as well as spoken-word interludes detailing personal confessions, Love Memo has a bedroom-auteur emo quality rare for the local hiphop/EDM scenes.
For that record, Agustiano asked close friends, all queer people of color, "'What is the one thing you've always wanted to say to someone but never had the chance to?' I was going through [relationship troubles], but I was too scared. I wanted to let all the new things that I learned that year and where I was at musically and emotionally to portray my words and just let other people fill in the blanks. Which they did.
"I was listening to a lot of Norah Jones. 'Chest Pain' has a Norah Jones sample. It was just me being single for the first time during a pretty shitty winter. I had a lot of time alone to reflect, and it all came colliding together on Love Memo." Jones's coffeehouse soul-pop is an unlikely inspiration for Chong the Nomad, but it's a tribute to Agustiano that she morphs the snippet into a grippingly eerie motif.
Agustiano says that the solitude and heartache she experienced helped her to produce that record, leading to one of her most fecund creative sprees. In conversation, I wonder aloud if she has to go through those tribulations every time she wants to make a record, and she laughs and says she hopes not.
"Love Memo was just this chaos in me that I had to purge, and I saw things a lot more clearly after. It was good."
Deviating from its predecessor, the single that followed Love Memo, "Ghosts in the Shower," sounds like it's geared for club DJs, albeit very adventurous ones. Was Agustiano in a totally different mind state when she made "Ghosts"?
"Oh, god yeah, like a flip-of-the-switch type of thing. I wrote that right after Sasquatch!, and I was exhausted after my day job, and I was in my bathroom just zoning out."
Exuding ambition, she wants to release three singles by next spring, and "try to build off that momentum into festival season, and get some gigs out of state." That also involves working with Seattle diva Parisalexa and a R&B singer from Detroit whom Agustiano prefers not to name until details are solidified.
Judging by her output so far, she's shown the ability to delve into dark and strange electronic territory while also flaunting the requisite rhythmic buoyancy and tonal radiance to rock parties for hiphop heads and EDM aficionados. With her deep academic background and film-composing studies, Agustiano has the potential to spring into many directions. It wouldn't be surprising to see her lace up some beats for Nicki Minaj or soundtrack a horror flick.
Agustiano's other goal is to make people dance and feel. "I always feel liberated when I go out, when I dance with friends. I want to contribute to that. It's such a blessing to dance and listen to music and lose your fucking mind. I don't think there are many chances in life that you can do that. That's what I want to do with my music right now."