I'm seated at the Royal American's empty back bar in the afternoon with Dylan Dawkins, the musician behind Persona La Ave who just released ambient album Themes from a Window in January, which settles on you like a weighted blanket. When I asked Dawkins about his lengthy Spotify discography with 31,708 monthly streams he just told me "I don't really even remember the names of my songs," and sipped his beer.
He was more than happy to point out that his writing partner Baraka, a.k.a. Geoffrey Dean, is moving to Charleston soon, and that the two plan to triple their output. Persona La Ave is a wide expanse of ambience and experimental funk, and of the nine Personal La Ave albums available, Baraka has co-written four.
The thing about Dawkins is he would rather detail how collaborations with people and places have shaped his walk as an artist more than solidify his own individuality. "I think location has a lot to do with what you make and who you choose to be around," Dawkins said. Knoxville, Tenn. renewed his focus on music back in 2010, and with his relocation there from Florence, S.C. came a lesson in being creative. "You start to grow up in a place and the place kind of takes over," he said. Reflecting on his recent replanting in Charleston last year, he said, "I don't know that I'll be developed any time soon as an artist." (Says the guy that plays bass for She Returns From War and keys for Invisible Low End Power.)
Sparked by yet another location — the Charleston home he shares on Isabella Street downtown with Brian Roberts along with Blake Ratliff and Daniel Truncelitto of indie rock duo Youngster — Dawkins plans to drop synth pop album Isabella this summer with the guys as a foursome under Persona La Ave. "There will be ambient textures, but it's straight-up verse, chorus, verse. And there's even rapping on it," he said. "It's fun and accessible and open and easy." It will have the danceability of his older songs like 2014's "Going Deaf," but with one big difference — lyrics. "There's lot of humor in the tone," he said, contrasting it to the muddier Themes from a Window that gives and pulls from dark to light.
It's about people and places even down to the moniker on his art, Persona La Ave. "I used to make music with my friend who passed away in senior year of high school. We called ourselves Person and The Bird. I don't even know where we came up with that. We were really into Animal Collective at the time," Dawkins said.
Dawkins described his pre-Charleston zig zag from Florence, to Knoxville, and back to Florence matter-of-factly. "Shit went down in Knoxville. I tried to kill myself. That's something that would make you want to move back home pretty immediately." Without skipping a beat, he distilled how it all led up to Themes from a Window. "This ambient stuff was a place of deep reflection," he said. "It was a complete return."
Through his atmospheric compositions on Themes from a Window, Dawkins brings our attention back to the simple act of pressing record for homemade loops. He composed the album with field recordings he made from his travels that he later dropped into a digital arrangement.
The majority of the sounds were gathered, but you also hear some rudimentary keyboard, which he re-sampled and fed back into a tape player before it ended up on the tracks. "I wanted it to sound organic," he said of the album that is also available on cassette through Florida-based label Illuminated Paths. "I want you to get goosebumps a little listening to it. I made it small and concise," he said of the 30-minute album. "But it feels like a marathon. It stretches. There is no reference point like a chorus. It's just a warped, long road trip of a song."
As for the upcoming Isabella, Dawkins said it's almost like his roommates all joined a boy band together with each sharing lead vocals and singing back-up for each other on the ’80s-inspired songs that make for an airy album that you don't have to take too seriously.
Persona La Ave will play along with Animal Years at the Royal American on April 10 with Youngster, who just released their first full-length album Rosa Cantina.
For Dawkins, Charleston itself is the musical project. "I want it to be a very vibrant, thriving, and sustainable community of artists that all help each other and raise each other up and keep each other accountable," he said. "I've never felt more socially responsible as an artist."