March 5 2013 07:00 PM

Scene vet channels his grief into a gorgeous folk-pop tribute

Dustin Illingworth used to play in Kite Flying Society and Gray Ghosts.
Photo by Kelly Davis

Dustin Illingworth has always been a scrupulous songwriter. He has an innate, some would say God-given talent for pop hooks and composition, but it doesn't always come easy to him. You can hear it in the two local bands he's fronted, Kite Flying Society and Gray Ghosts: His unsettled, insecure lyrics, the meticulousness of their folksy pop. As the bands gained local and national buzz in the í00s, bloggers and critics fawned over what seemed like a perfect balance of catchy melodies and Illingworth's melancholy lyrics and voice.

For those who happened to catch one of those bands' shows, there was often another mainstay aside from the music: a tall, pretty, young woman with short blonde hair dancing near the stage. That was Amy Cole, Illingworth's girlfriend of four-and-a-half years. 

"We met the first time Kite Flying Society played The Casbah," Illingworth recalls. "I saw her in the crowd and thought she was beautiful. We were introduced, and she and her friends ended up following us to Imperial House. We were both really shy and introverted, but we talked about music and how she made her own outfits and we just ended up making out for, like, 30 minutes. It was an instant connection." 

Illingworth and Cole were practically inseparable. Though they had their ups and downs, as most couples do, they'd bring out the best in each other—her with his music, him with her painting and design aspirations. When Kite Flying Society broke up in 2008 and Gray Ghosts imploded, Cole remained Illingworth's muse, inspiring him to continue with music.

"I could feel passion just radiating out of her. She had an eye for the exceptional that I didn't have," Illingworth says. "I used her as a litmus test, and if she liked a song that I wrote, I felt especially good about it."

At the time, Cole was working on art and pursuing a master's degree at SDSU with a focus on special education. But she struggled with alcoholism and depression. She checked into a rehabilitation facility for a few months, and Illingworth says she did well after getting out.

However, the day after Independence Day, 2010, Cole had too much to drink and accidentally drowned in the bathtub. Illingworth and the couple's roommate found her.

Devastated, Illingworth didn't pick up a guitar for more than a month. He got laid off from his job and eventually moved back to Orange County, where his family is originally from (he now splits his time between there and San Diego). Music didn't come easy at first. 

But, over the years, a new project took shape: Tide Pools. With help from former bandmates, he recorded an album, Grief is a Wilderness, which serves as a tribute to Cole. 

"The process of writing the songs was very difficult just from an emotional standpoint," Illingworth says. "The descriptions in the songs was particularly difficult, because my memories of that day are very vivid."

Illingworth's family worried that the process of making the album would be too intense, but he says he never had a moment where he wanted to quit. The process itself became cathartic, as if it were part of grieving. Working on the songs would pick him up when he was overwhelmed with other things. The project became an escape, and something he had to do.

One of the first songs that came to him was "Tambourine," a jangly folk ditty that, while full of emotional weight, could be about any relationship. Subsequent songs become more descriptive. In "Faultlines," he recounts touching Cole's face at the funeral and breaking down. In "Porch Lights," he describes her "yellow hair in water like wind through trees." In "Grief is a Wilderness," he sings: "Closing her eyelids I lost her / leaving me as cold as the water." 

The album's closing track, "The Color of Gardens," came flowing out of Illingworth after he had a dream about Cole—dressed like an angel, walking him through a garden, singing the song he'd end up writing after he woke up.

Grief isn't an album about tragedy, or even death. It's about love, and like with most great pop records, love and loss often go hand in hand. But while Illingworth believes the album could help others whoíve endured similar loss—he says it's "a personal statement that has universal applications"—he didnít necessarily create it for listeners. He created it for her.

"I wanted to make it meaningful for her—that more than anything," he says. "I wanted it to be so where, if she heard it, she'd get a big smile and say, 'Sugar, youíve done it.'"

Email or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.