The Grand Rapids-based electronic music act Pink Sky was supposed to spend most of 2020 on tour, nourishing its growing profile and fan base with a full plate of shows slated to kick off in March at the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.
The year has not gone according to plan.
“We found out about COVID on March 6, which was when we were notified that South By Southwest entirely shut down,” said Ryan Hay, who performs in Pink Sky with Angelica Hay. The duo was booked for a showcase presented by Michigan House, an organization that promotes music and culture from here to the massive, influential audience at the festival. “That was going to be the start of a pretty long run of shows that we had scheduled. Really our North Star for the past couple of years has been playing shows. Everything really revolved around that.”
So, like countless other creatives now looking at an empty calendar, Pink Sky sought ways to adapt and cope. “We’ve been oscillating between highly productive moments and moments where everything is just a little overwhelming and it’s sort of difficult to be creative,” Angelica Hay said.
The Hays, partners who celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary in August, have remained busy. They have streamed performances, collaborated on tracks with other electronic artists and, more recently, began work on material for a new album. The new record would be Pink Sky’s third full-length release overall — following “Forms” (2018) and “Meditations I & II” (2019) — and their first since joining the roster of Circa Recordings, a label based in Chicago and Los Angeles that specializes in avant-garde, modern classical and electronic artists.
Earlier in 2020, “Meditations I & II” was named best electronic album at the WYCE Jammie Awards. Pink Sky also released “Meditations (Reworked),” a six-song collection of remixes created mostly by other electronic artists in the Grand Rapids music scene. They also issued a collaborative single this spring with Grand Rapids-based electronic artist Bronze Wolf.
More than anything, though, they miss performing live for audiences, and that loss has been the most difficult adjustment of the COVID-19 era so far. “We formed with the intention of being a live band, so all of our musical decisions were really pinned around the idea that they would and could be played live,” Angelica Hay said.
Both members are careful to use the word “band” when describing their project — which is notable, because Pink Sky neither looks nor sounds much like a “band” in the conventional sense. Instead of the traditional guitars, drums and vocals, there are warm electric pianos, swooning synthesizers, programmed beats and sequenced samples building into glistening sonic vistas that combine ambient minimalism with the rhythmic catharsis of house music. During performances, the Hays tend to subordinate themselves to visual projections that are carefully synchronized with the instrumental soundscapes. But they perform everything live on mostly analog instruments — no laptops, in other words — with Ryan on pianos, synths and bass, and Angelica on the more esoteric electronics.
“We had this really strong foundation that was built on mutual respect and trust and a willingness to engage. A lot of it was that we had gone through two traumatic and difficult events.”
Neither musician came to the project with a background in electronic music. Ryan grew up on jam bands and spent years playing in rock groups, including the popular folk-rock outfit Frontier Ruckus. Angelica is a visual artist whose creative outlet was painting before she and Ryan formed Pink Sky.
The band itself began in a place of trauma and healing. Ryan Hay was seriously injured in a traffic accident in 2012, and he spent the next three years in recovery — a period he refers to as “kind of my lost years.” But with Angelica’s help, he gradually found his way back to creativity, music and life.
“The accident took so much of my identity from me because I couldn’t work, I couldn’t play music, and even when I was able to play music, it wasn’t the same,” Ryan said. “I started to be able to come back to myself through painting, which was unexpected. Angelica gave me some of her old supplies and created a space for me to just have fun and no expectations.”
Connections Ryan made in the Grand Rapids art community, ironically, drew him back toward music. A friend tipped him off to avant-garde European composers who combined elements of classical and electronic music. Ryan started tinkering with synthesizers and found it therapeutic. Angelica saw how much fun Ryan was having and asked to join. She got a drum machine and a sampler and, before long, Pink Sky was off and running.
But when tragedy struck once more, the music again was a source of healing. The “Meditations” albums were created as a means of processing the trauma of Angelica’s experience with pregnancy loss. Because of these experiences, the Hays’ creative work in Pink Sky has become inseparable from their life together. “We had this really strong foundation that was built on mutual respect and trust and a willingness to engage,” Ryan Hay explained. “A lot of it was that we had gone through two traumatic and difficult events.”
Moving forward, Pink Sky is using the break from performances to explore new ground creatively. “We’re definitely expanding our sound and taking advantage of new sonic possibilities that we can do in the production phase, and also just moving around and playing different instruments, playing each other’s instruments, just keeping ourselves open to all sorts of new creative possibilities,” Angelica Hay said.
Ryan Hay added, “Not being able to orient everything in our lives around playing live shows has given us the opportunity to question why we’re doing things the way we are moving forward. That’s opened up new doors, new ways of thinking, new ways of recording and producing. And that’s exciting.”