Longtime musician makes indie noise in one of S.F.’s quietest neighborhoods

Glenn Donaldson captures the grace of the Richmond District in latest album

With its fog-dappled scenery and quiet, residential neighborhoods, the Richmond District has always been one of San Francisco’s underappreciated gems. It lacks the historic cachet of the Fillmore, Castro or North Beach and doesn’t have the hipster credentials of the Mission District, but with its loping hills, lush greenery and ocean vistas it has an understated grace.

The Richmond’s humble charm is the inspiration for the latest project from Glenn Donaldson, a longtime musician who has played in numerous San Francisco bands. Feeling despondent about the ceaseless departures of his friends from The City, Donaldson took to wandering the Richmond, taking moments to reflect on the quiet community he calls home.

Those reflections led to the creation of the Reds, Pinks and Purples, a lushly gorgeous recording project featuring layered, atmospheric songs with jangly guitars and a lyrical celebration of the minutiae of San Francisco’s northwestern environs.

“I was just at this point where a lot of my friends had left The City, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do musically,” said Donaldson, who moved to San Francisco in 1995. “I was at a crossroads. And then I decided to do this idea inspired by the Kink’s ‘Are The Village Green Preservation Society’ — just write about what’s right here, right in my neighborhood. So, a lot of the songs were composed in my head when I was just walking around the Richmond.”

Since 2019, the Reds, Pinks and Purples have released three albums, each one with connections to the Richmond District; and on Feb. 4, the group will issue their latest record, the aptly titled “Summer at Land’s End.” Like its predecessors, the album contains references aplenty to the the sea and unique natural aspects of the neighborhood.

Donaldson’s eagerness to explore the small, majestic moments of life reflects a philosophical U-turn from his earlier musical projects. During stints in the lo-fi indie folk group the Ivytree and the avant-garde collective the Jeweled Antler, Donaldson sought to tackle weighty, conceptual issues that delved in universal grievances. With the Reds, Pinks and Purples, he is looking inward.

“With the Reds, Pinks and Purples, I want to make autobiographical or slightly fictionalized elements of my life and other people’s lives around me,” said Donaldson. “Because I had never taken that approach before, all of a sudden I had a lot of things to say, so songwriting came pretty easy.”

Donaldson compares his writing style to “gallows humor,” and while there are moments of wit scattered throughout this catalog, earnestness and plaintiveness are the true calling cards of his lyrics. On the Reds, Pinks and Purples breakthrough 2021 record, “Uncommon Weather,” Donaldson tackles forlorn heartbreak (“I Hope I Never Fall in Love”), rueful reflections, (“I’m Sorry About Your Life,”), prickly fan interactions (“The Biggest Fan”). Interspersed throughout are mentions of his the Richmond(“let’s go the beach…and maybe the sun will come out”).

Those lyrics are set against an aural haze of vaguely distorted, reverb-drenched guitars and wooly waves of staticky synths, recalling vintage indie-pop artists like Teenage Fanclub, the Field Mice and Belle and Sebastian. The layered guitars and ambient sonic atmosphere are like a toned-down wall of sound, a temperate backdrop of dissonance and gentle shoegaze.

The band’s aesthetic makes it an ideal fit for Slumberland Records, the Oakland-based label that has been producing world-class atmospheric indie music for decades. Alongside other local Slumberland bands like The Umbrellas and Chime School, the Reds, Pinks and Purples have been at the forefront of a San Francisco music scene that is once again making national headlines. The beloved indie music showcase Bandcamp recently published a lengthy breakdown of the numerous groups making up this cohort.

“I think this has been brewing for a few years now, but it’s all been kind of a happy accident,” said Donaldson. “I’m not sure if I ever liked so many local bands, and so many of them I met just by random. A few of us put albums out last year, and I think that got people to really notice us. ”

Donaldson started the Reds, Pinks and Purples as a simple recording project from his Richmond home, but as the endeavor picked up momentum, he’s begun to play live shows (until the omicron variant disrupted those) with a backing band comprised of Lewis Gallardo and Thomas Rubenstein on guitars, Kati Mashikian on bass and Andrew Hine on drums (most of whom are Richmond residents.)

On Jan. 19, the band released a video for “Let’s Pretend We’re Not In Love,” the latest single from “Summer At Land’s End.” Melding Donaldson’s wounded, muted vocals with a cool blizzard of backing music, “Let’s Pretend We’re Not In Love,” follows the formula that’s worked so well for the band. The album cover offers a glimpse of a nondescript home in the Richmond, an apt metaphor for a group quietly making noise in one of San Francisco’s quietest neighborhoods.

“I’m kind of afraid to talk about the Richmond, because I like that it’s our kind of hidden secret,” said Donaldson. “It’s a perfect place for us right now.”

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