When trumpeter Billy Aukstik got asked to tour the States with a former James Brown impersonator back in 2011, the then-20-year-old player passed on the offer. The invitation had come a week before his sophomore year finals at NYU’s jazz studies program, and the artist asking only had one album out. But three months later, when the Menahan Street Band producer Thomas Brenneck asked again, Aukstik said yes — he’d learned since that he shouldn’t turn down Charles Bradley. To the disappointment of his parents, and encouragement of his professors, Aukstik left school in 2011 to join the Daptone Records family and begin a nearly non-stop four-month tour of the West Coast and Europe in Bradley’s Extraordinaires. “It was bad timing [the first time],” Aukstik remembers. “Thank god they offered it to me again.”
Now, after five years embedded in New York’s soul music community, he’s starting his own label. Following other Brooklyn soul studios like Daptone or Leon Michel’s Big Crown Records, Aukstik’s Dala Records is an analog outfit. With a Maestro Rhythm King drum machine and Farfisa organ from Dap-King guitarist Joe Crispiano’s garage in Staten Island, Aukstik records on an 8-track tape machine that gives it a familiar likeness to the influential 2005 El Michels Affair album Sounding Out the City. “There are things you can achieve sonically with tape that are just impossible digitally,” Aukstik maintains. “If you try to get tape distortion on [digital audio software] ProTools it will sound like the worst thing you’ve ever heard.”
But unlike his Brooklyn predecessors in the analog label game (Daptone, Truth & Soul, and Dunham all come to mind), Aukstik keeps his catalog fluid, attracting talent from across New York’s Americana and jazz scenes. The roster includes 26-year-old songwriter and jazz percussionist John Fatum, who channels the traditions of Delta Blues, midwestern styles, and contemporary Americana as a solo artist, as well as his touring brass band, The Rad Trad’s.
The two met in their hometown of Chicago when Fatum needed a trumpet player for his sibling band, the Fatum Brothers Jazz Orchestra. After graduating from Eastman School of Music, Fatum moved to the city, where Aukstik enlisted him to sing on some of his own demos. Before long, the pair were recording a full-length record on 4-Track in Aukstik’s old East Village apartment. “John has been the artist that has grown right alongside the label every step of the way,” says Aukstik. “I would consider him the most integral element to us being who we are today.”
On December 9th, Dala will release Fatum’s second full-length album, a self-titled LP with appearances from his friends, including Texas songwriter Sarah Jarosz and Scottish musician Hannah Read. “When you’re trying to make it,” says Fatum of his choice to release with Dala, “It’s easier to try and make it with people you love.”
One of Fatum’s labelmates is Aukstik himself: Dala releases its owner’s debut soul 7” Pullin’ On My Heart Strings today, under the name Billy The Kid. Backed by The Soulful Saints, Dala’s house band, and its sibling string trio the Hartstrings, Billy The Kid’s playful falsetto and colorful hooks drift into a realm of psychedelia. Aukstik takes cues from Shuggie Otis’s 1974 album Inspiration Information, Light in the Attic’s compilation of Sly Stone’s unreleased works, and the Daptone and Truth & Soul catalogs.
Without any formal training in sound engineering, Aukstik says he relies on friends like drummer and Dunham Records co-founder Homer Steinweiss to help inform his mixing and production choices. “It’s exciting to see a young label putting out new artists and doing it on vinyl,” says Steinweiss, who has known Aukstik since he started playing with Charles. With more than a decade of liner notes on Brooklyn’s most influential soul albums Steinweiss says he enjoys working with Aukstik. “He is an extremely talented trumpet player and all around musician,” says Steinweiss.
In a genre where authenticity is part of the craft, Dala’s ultimate test came five months ago, when Aukstik shared his tracks with Bradley. “Luckily, he liked them,” Aukstik said, which gave him the “all clear” to move forward with the release. Then, tragedy: Earlier this month, the 67-year-old frontman announced the discovery of a cancerous tumor in his stomach. Aukstik was devastated: “Touring with Charles and Sharon [Jones] has been the biggest part of my life,” he says. “If it wasn’t for Charles and touring this probably would never have happened.”
Since the diagnosis, Aukstik has helped set up a P.O. Box for fans to send get-well messages. He says the beauty of his and Bradley’s friendship is that soul music brought them together. “We were from these different worlds,” says Aukstik. “He was homeless. I was from the suburbs, and we [somehow] ended up in the same band… playing together 200 days a year.”