Dave Preston on Ambient Music, Justin Timberlake and In These Storms

Multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Dave Preston recently released his first ambient album in five years. The luminously evocative In These Storms is Preston's third ambient release, following 2008's Be and 2010's Soundtrack for Motion. Rather than the synth or beat-driven sounds often associated with the ambient style, Preston's music features organic sounds played and mixed in a way that can suggest otherwise while still imbued with a refreshing immediacy. Think Cocteau Twins or Harold Budd rather than Aphex Twin or Klara Lewis.

Born Dave Amidei, Preston grew up in the Denver area and got into playing live music in 2001 at sixteen with his first band, The Echo. The act included his older brother Michael on bass and Chris Durant on drums. Preston describes it as more of a rock band than some of what he's done since — but that early band experience led to a key realization when he was just eighteen that many lifelong musicians never attain. 

“My first month of doing music full-time, I figured out that in order to make a living, you can't just play out as yourself every night,” Preston says. “You have to do other things, so I played guitar for other people.”

And so Preston threw himself into a variety of experiences: open mikes, jazz gigs, sitting in with singer-songwriters, playing assorted sessions and generally getting as much and as varied a spate of experiences as possible. That led to Preston's performing with Rob Drabkin, Britt Rodemich, Xiren, Katy Laurel and the Samples, and even at a private event as a member of Kelly Clarkson's band. In turn, all of that led him back to pursuing more minimal music in ambient. “I would take one note and find out how far that note would take me,” says Preston.

Inspired in part by the soundscapes of ambient-music pioneers Steve Roch and Robert Rich, in 2008 Preston wrote the album Be. Not long after, he spent two months in Africa living at an orphanage and hoping to take in African music and rhythms; he ended up with both a new respect for the depth and power of indigenous African music as well as an appreciation for the fact that he was very much a product of his own environment. Upon returning home and getting back into playing all types of music, Preston began experimenting with sound-healing music, resulting in his 2010 ambient record Soundtrack for Motion. But before that release, in January 2010 Preston discovered that he had a fan he met by chance through his session work with songwriter Matt Morris, an artist signed to Justin Timberlake's label, Tennman.

“One day I get a call from Matt, and he said he had just written lyrics to one of my ambient songs and that Justin loved it and wanted to produce it. He's texting me from the session, and he keeps saying all the nice things Timberlake is saying. It was surreal, in a way. I was never a huge fan, but you never think recording in your house is going to go worldwide and that someone of that caliber will hear it,” Preston recalls.

“The first time I met Justin was in L.A., and Matt was getting ready to go on the Ellen Degeneres show, and he asked me to come along and do the rehearsal with him,” continues Preston. “He said that Justin will probably come along as well. So I'm in the room, holding a baritone guitar — which I've never played — and I knew I was collaborating with something but I don't know what. Justin walks in, and he has an entourage, which is what it is. And the first thing he says is, 'Anyone who doesn't play an instrument, get out of the room.' I was like, 'Okay, I like this guy.' He's really calm and nice. He talks about Matt's album, but he says especially one particular song. On Be it's called 'Be Joy'; on Matt's album, When Everything Breaks Open, it's called 'Just Before the Morning.' Justin is saying, 'Man, I love “Just Before the Morning,” and Matt points at me and says, 'That's Dave.' Justin stands up and says, 'I love your Be album.' From that point on, it felt like Justin stopped seeing me as a session guitarist and rather as an artist in my own right. Which in this world is everything. It means people respect your opinion more.”

But Preston didn't just meet Timberlake. Due to terrible events in Haiti that month, he performed in front of an international audience with the former member of N*SYNC. "The week we did Ellen in Los Angeles, this bad earthquake happened in Haiti,” recalls Preston. “There was that big telethon George Clooney put on, and he asked Justin to do it. During rehearsal, Justin asked all of us if we wanted to do that telethon. So we played 'Hallelujah,' the Leonard Cohen song, in front of 68 million people, obviously televised. It took a side project in ambient music to take me to this new level.”

These days, Preston still plays several gigs a month to make a living. But his gift for making abstract music accessible, in addition to his ability to play multiple styles, likely means he'll be back on the national music scene. In the meantime, he's enjoying being a father and the reaction to In These Storms. That release, as well as Preston's other albums, can be purchased as a download at CD Baby or iTunes
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.