Many are the accounts of hobbyist musical savants who suddenly found their bedroom recordings released to international acclaim. None is more compelling than that of Washed Out, the chillwave project of Atlanta-based librarian Ernest Greene.
Washed Out's first official release, the 2009 EP Life of Leisure, consisted of six songs of irresistibly beautiful banks of sound, not unlike filaments of gold spun into cotton-candy clouds of melody. These gorgeous compositions—blending samples with fresh electronics—were at the same time melancholy and uplifting, substantial and gauzy.
Greene eventually signed with the indie-label Sub Pop and released Washed Out's luminous full-length debut, Within and Without, in 2011. Along the way, his solo project became a five-piece band that includes his wife, Blair, on guitar.
Washed Out plays Wednesday, Oct. 3, at the Rialto Theatre, sandwiched between headliner The Shins and opening act Sad Baby Wolf.
Born in 1983, Greene was always a music fan. But while growing up outside of Atlanta, and then studying for his bachelor's degree in English in Athens, Ga., he wasn't part of the music scene. "I was definitely an outsider, even when I went to a lot of shows. (Making music) just seemed like an unrealistic thing for me to do," he says via phone from his home in Atlanta.
Nevertheless, he assembled a small home studio and spent four or five years creating sound collages alone. While earning a master's in library science at the University of South Carolina, Greene was encouraged by his friend Chaz Bundick (of Toro Y Moi) to post some of his noisy electronic recordings on MySpace. These were discovered by a journalist in London, who reposted them to his blog, Greene says. And as attention to his work grew, things snowballed. This eventually led to the release of Life of Leisure.
Many listeners' first Washed Out experience has been hearing the group's "Feel It All Around" (from that EP) over the opening credits of the Independent Film Channel's sketch-comedy show Portlandia. The hit show stars Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live fame and Carrie Brownstein, a guitarist and singer for the bands Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag.
Greene says the attention given to Washed Out because of Portlandia is "amazing."
"I think probably at every show we do, someone, or usually more than one person, tells me that they first discovered the music through the show," he says.
When Greene was first contacted to contribute music to the show, he thought he was the victim of a joke.
"I got an email from Fred Armisen in 2009, reaching out, saying he was a fan, and saying he had worked with my lawyer a few years back. I swore it was a friend playing a joke on me and didn't give it much thought. Four or five months later, he emailed again. He said the first season of the show was in preproduction, and they wanted to use a track. I said, 'Sure, please take it.' It turned out to be huge for me."
By the time Greene began recording Within and Without, Washed Out included other musicians. "I was starting to change my outlook. A lot of the focus while writing the new songs was on how they'd sound live," he says. "That's something that never quite translated how I wanted with the earlier stuff."
Working with other musicians is challenging, but Greene is getting used to it. "Having never played in a band before, I wasn't so prepared for the back and forth and the responsiveness."
Now that he and his bandmates have been playing together for a year or so, Greene says he's "much more equipped to notice what works in music and be able to communicate to the others how it is and isn't working."
In addition to Washed Out's two CD releases, the group recently recorded a typically lush cover of the song "Straight Back" from Fleetwood Mac's 1982 album Mirage. It's one of the standout tracks on the new compilation Just Tell Me That You Want Me: A Tribute to Fleetwood Mac. And it's among Washed Out's best tunes, ranking up there with "Feel It All Around" and anything on Within and Without.
Even though Greene slightly alters Stevie Nicks' lyrics, when you hear him hazily intone, "The dream was not over, the dream has just begun" over billowing synths and distantly echoing guitar, it captures perfectly the melancholy mood of the mighty Mac while remaining a signature Washed Out song.