Planted inside Flux Studio in the East Village in New York, Don DiLego is pondering the past year, one predominantly spent at his Velvet Elk Studios in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, when writing wasn’t the main agenda. Mostly removed from music, DiLego spent his days gardening, building, chopping firewood, and occasionally flying the friendly skies in a Cessna.
“I live in a recording studio,” says DiLego, who also co-founded Velvet Elk Records. “When COVID hit, it was the first time in 25 years that I stopped moving. I wanted to make a garden. I wanted to mow my lawn. I wanted to start building things around the house. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to stop. I just wanted a break.”
Prior to the pandemic, and just days before the lockdown in 2020, DiLego was on tour in the UK, which was eventually cut short before the lockdown, with NYC musical stalwart and longtime collaborator Jesse Malin. Nearly one year later, DiLego, who released Magnificent Ram B Sessions in 2018, found himself reunited with Malin, piecing together his latest single “Dim Red Light (Make It Shine).”
“I haven’t had someone produce me in 20 years,” DiLego tells American Songwriter. “But Jesse heard the song was so supportive, and wanted to produce it.”
Written prior to the UK tour in January of 2020, and around DiLego’s side project Fantastic Cat, featuring Mike Montali of Hollis Brown, and singer-songwriters Anthony D’Amato and Brian Dunne, “Dim Red Light” didn’t click during one of the group’s initial recording sessions. “We tried it, and it didn’t take for whatever reason, so I abandoned it,” says DiLego. “Then I did the show with Jesse, where I did a Wilco cover, ‘Jesus, Etc.’ and brought out ‘Dim Red Light,’ and he loved the song and wanted to do something with it.”
Malin, who has worked with DiLego—mostly on the receiving end of his production throughout the years, including DiLego helming his 2015 release Outsiders—knew he wanted to work on “Dim Red Light” from the moment DiLego performed it as a guest on one of his livestream shows, which ran throughout the summer of 2020. Set at Bowery Electric, a venue Malin co-founded, the socially distanced performance sessions featured guests like Fred Armisten, Tommy Stinson, Jim Jarmusch, Debbie Harry, Lucinda Williams, and The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn.
“When I heard him play ‘Make it Shine’ for the first time as a guest on our ‘Fine Art of Self Distancing’ show, I was so blown away that I asked him If I could produce it,” says Malin. “It’s one of those driving songs that is full of heart, hope and hooks that dig in and become part of you.”
Singing this world’s on fire but I’m not afraid of dying… I’m in love with everything, with the smoke, and the wind, and the struggle therewithin / I’m in love with the signs that burn light neon in my mind / They give me hope… “Dim Red Light” offers illumination in darker moments. It soars above something more universal.
“At the end of the day, we’re in charge of our own destinies,” says DiLego, “or at least our own possibilities.”
Tapping into more charged up songs, DiLego wanted to fuse more energy into “Dim Red Light.” “I can’t tell you how many times I hear ‘Check Your Head’ by the Beastie Boys and say ‘that is what I want to do,’ which thank God I’ve never tried,” he says. “I just wanted to write something hyper fast but not punk-y, just an energy.”
Back inside Flux, something is still not clicking. “It needs more chucka chucka,” says Malin, working with guitarist Derek Cruz on an electric riff, later suggesting he move it down to the eighth fret. Along with in-house engineer Geoff Sanoff and keyboardist Michael Hess, DiLego is in the home stretch with “Dim Red Light” once vocals are finalized, including those featured by Cruz and Hess, and the acoustic tracks.
“Don blasted it out in three takes and we had it right there, right away,” says Malin of the production. “We didn’t even need a drink—just add water.”
Slowly piecing together a new album and concentrated on Fantastic Cat, DiLego is always writing, but still has files of untouched ideas. There’s a difference between the genesis of an idea, and the completion of a thought,” he says. “It’s a giant leap, because we can all come up with ideas.”
“Dim Red Light” is one of those songs that reminds Malin why he’s always been a fan of DiLego—long before they ever met.
“I saw him play in NY and was instantly taken in by the warmth of his songs and the honesty of his voice,” reveals Malin. “I have loved all his records and gotten to know the man in the flannel shirt and truckers cap a lot more over the years. Some artists’ best work is often behind them and you tolerate the new songs to get to your favorites that you know and love. ‘Dim Red Light’ feels like a first single on a first album from a new artist… beautiful and new .”