NPR Music’s Bob Boilen described Makeunder’s 2015 EP Great Headless Blank as “one of the most outstanding and challenging new bits of music I’ve heard this year.” That year, he’d also end up arranging the strings for country artist Cam’s 2015 platinum / Grammy-nominated single “Burning House”. It’s since led to Hamilton collaborating with producers out of Nashville and Los Angeles as a string arranger. These successes, however, would not come without a host of informative personal tragedies.
In December 2010, Hamilton’s brother got into a horrific motorcycle accident, and just a few months later, his maternal grandfather died. At the memorial, Hamilton discovered his father had lung cancer. Soon after, his paternal grandfather died, and his own father passed away months later.
It was during that period that he penned Makeunder’s debut EP, Radiate Satellite: an eclectic, orchestral project comprised of stories he heard about his late grandfather at his memorial. The EP was recorded on a laptop microphone with instruments he had inherited from his grandfather while cleaning out his parents’ house while his dad was recovering from cancer. Radiate, Satellite illustrated his approach of processing trauma by making music, which wasn’t something Hamilton had initially set out to do. In 2015, he released the Great Headless Blank EP, a project full of tragedy, recounting the lead-up and aftermath of Hamilton’s father dying.
On his forthcoming LP, Pale Cicada, Hamilton tells the story of his family’s move from Humboldt County, California, a haven for hippies that were escaping San Francisco in the 1970s, to San Antonio, Texas. Transitioning from a wooded, rural, alternative community in Humboldt, to a loud, humid, conservative working-class city like San Antonio was a culture shock. Hamilton’s family never quite fit in – his father in particular, an eccentric and emotionally closed-off artist, struggled to find his way in the world, even to his death.
Something happens when you lose a parent when you’re not a full person – you have these major life moments and this person isn’t there for you. It’s difficult,” he says of the experience. On Pale Cicada, he tries to answer some of those questions through his own inference, channeling how he imagines his father struggled and felt. While the theatrical, funk-tinged “In Between My Dead-End Jobs” pays homage to both Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” and other big clav funk tunes, it sets the tone for the record, recalling the feelings of Hamilton’s years as a teen watching his parents struggle to make ends meet. “In between my dead-end jobs/What do I do/If I lose every reason/And I can’t make it through,” Hamilton sings in a dizzying chorus with a sharp Stevie Wonder lilt.
Hamilton also recounts one of the more bizarre moments he had with his dad before his passing. A month before he died, in a morphine-addled haze, his father dug deep and confessed something out of nowhere: that he once had sex in the woods with a total stranger. Hamilton evolved that conversation into “Promethean Heat,” a rich sonic landscape of anxious claps and horns coupled with a recorded bassline from Tune-Yards’ Nate Brenner. As the most stripped-down track on the record, “Another Ruse” compartmentalizes the angst of knowing how his father, a lifelong smoker, would probably die before his time. “I always knew he’d die young, and it would feel really unresolved for me,” he says.
On a writing retreat with Cam, Hamilton penned “I’m Still Living Wrongly,” conjuring the country ethos of Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell. After hearing a gamut of country songs written by Cam and her team, Hamilton was inspired to write one of his own. The song reflects on an aspect of his father’s longing for California, meditating on the idea of leaving a place you love, moving far away and wondering if you’re ever going to return.
Although he spends a fair amount of time recalling the past, Hamilton takes time to commemorate his present on Pale Cicada. “Ringing Chord” highlights Hamilton’s smoldering vocals and an eerie gospel-chorus.The avant-garde ballad was inspired by a an elderly Jewish woman at her granddaughter’s wedding dancing the hora with wedding guests while The B-52’s “Love Shack” played in the background. Despite the seemingly joyous sentiment of the song, it relates back to the album’s overall theme of alienation and wanting to belong: “Maybe I haven’t found / My people yet / Ayahuasca in / The desert with a stranger I just met.”
While Pale Cicada is ultimately about growing up in a place where you don’t belong, struggling through it, and ultimately surviving, Hamilton has come to see that struggle through a broader political lens. It’s really why he wrote “In Between My Dead-End Jobs” in the first place: he began to see his stories reflected as a larger narrative in the U.S. “I want to give people an escape from the anxiety and grind of their daily lives – at least for a little bit,” he says. And with a project like Makeunder that’s too big and too loud to ignore: Hamilton has done just that, crafting his own alternative to the routine of day-to-day life.