You know that glow a person can get? The kind where anticipation and excitement bursts through their cheeks? It’s unmistakable. That glow was beaming from Dust Cwaine as they sat in the passenger seat of my car one rainy night in 2016.
We worked together at a music magazine in Vancouver, and I was giving them a ride home after a team meeting. Dust recently moved to the city from Calgary and we connected easily, bonding over a shared love for 90s alternative rock. As we drove into the West End, they talked about how they were embarking on their drag journey. They’d performed once or twice already, but sometimes felt a little anxious at the thought of being onstage with all eyes on them. We stopped at a red light and I looked over at my friend. Dust—who, out of drag, also goes by David Cutting—had their hands folded in their lap and eyes flicked down, but had broken out into a sweet, shy grin. And there it was — That glow.
A few weeks later, I went to watch them perform at XY, a small club on Davie Street. Dust, with their now-signature blue brows (courtesy of drag mother Shanda Leer), fuchsia-framed cat eyes, and thick lashes, took the stage as if they had a million times, not a handful. If Dust had any nerves, it was impossible to tell. They were radiant. Confident and comfortable, like the stage was home. A natural. And the crowd loved them.
Over the next five years, Dust cemented themselves as a fixture in Vancouver’s drag scene. In 2017, they founded Sleepy Queers Productions, through which they created and hosted Commercial Drag, a bi-weekly drag show. They co-created and co-hosted Yuk it Up Sis, the only all-drag comedy show in the history of the iconic comedy club Yuk Yuk’s. They wrote and produced three musicals: Sleepy Girls Save the World, X-Mas: Days of Christmas Past, and Sleepy Girls Save the World: Here We Go Again.
Music is something Dust always loved incorporating into their drag—it’s been an ever-present force in their life, with bands like Counting Crows and The Cranberries soundtracking their childhood—and now, Dust is preparing to release their debut album in 2022. Its lead single, “INNUENDO,” is a joyful entry point that sonically nods to pop-rock inspirations like Third Eye Blind and Matchbox Twenty with vibrant, rhythmic guitar and a seriously catchy hook. The song is about Dust’s first boyfriend and explores the nuances of queer emotions in certain circumstances. “It took me four minutes to write the lyrics,” Dust says, speaking over Zoom. The words rushed to them suddenly as they walked through a Save-On-Foods in Cranbrook—the same grocery store Dust’s first boyfriend worked at when they were 18.
“INNUENDO,” Dust continues, references that “first love that you think is love, but is actually just lust—and trying to understand the nuances of relationships, when you don’t actually understand romance itself.” Being an aromantic person, experiencing that is doubly difficult for them, Dust adds, because romance is not something that comes naturally. Sexuality and physicality, yes, but romance not necessarily. It’s like a giant grandiose performance. “In the lyrics, it’s very mirrored about the performance of it. You try and say something, you try and do something, you try and perform what this thing is in order to achieve the thing that you want instead of directly communicating.”
In its early form, “INNUENDO” had more of a hyper-pop sound. But Dust admittedly struggled finding their voice inside those arrangements. Sitting down in the studio with producer Josh Eastman, they began doing vocal warmups on acoustic guitar. Something clicked. Dust and Eastman spent the next three days re-imagining the song through a more alternative pop-rock lens. It’s a sound that inspires Dust to keep moving forward as an artist still intently developing their craft.
“’INNUENDO’ is the perfectly imperfect song for me to introduce myself to the world,” they say. “My drag has always been about imperfectionism. Now that I’m in this process and I’m growing, I know that I need to let things go out into the world and I’m okay with that. But I also know that every time I work on a song, [I’m] just adding more layers of detail [to the evolution of this project].”
Dust began making music, for the first time, at the start of the pandemic. They recorded five demos in their closet—including covers of Bruce Springsteen and Jann Arden—and released them as the cheekily titled EP, AMATEUR. Then, they decided to move back to Alberta. A fews days after Dust arrived, their father suffered an aneurysm. Two weeks after that, he passed away. “I experienced grief and still, to this day, experience grief for it,” Dust says. “It was a difficult relationship. And so when he passed, I was a little bit taken aback by my own personal response to it. I knew that I needed some sort of creative outlet and I wanted that to be music.”
They soon connected with Eastman, founder of Helm Studios, a Vancouver-based non-profit creative space that helps facilitate accessible music creation for systematically marginalized artists. The collaborative relationship between Dust and Eastman is supportive and synergetic, with Dust penning lyrics and Eastman taking charge of music composition. Dust’s songs, at first, were sad. “It was like if Phoebe Bridgers was a drag queen,” they quip with a laugh. But when “INNUENDO” came, the floodgates opened and songs poured out.
“One of the things that became really clear really fast was that I didn’t want to make drag music,” Dust says. “Drag music is very club-centric. It’s very electronic. It doesn’t necessarily care too much about the lyrics in terms of having them being cliche. I wanted to create stories that were broad yet specific. I think Lorde has a really amazing way of making a song incredibly broad so it reaches a lot of people, but really specific so that it’s still about her.”
They continue: “I just wrote a song—because it’s the anniversary of my dad’s passing next week—and Adele just released ‘Easy on Me.’ And when I hear a song that a lot of people interpret as a love song, as an aromantic person, I hear it from the perspective of my friendships because that’s where I get all of the love. That’s where I get all the intimacy.”
It’s vital for Dust, who is non-binary and pansexual, to infuse their queerness into their music. “Josh and I constantly talk about, how do we translate the campiness of the lyrics that really light me up inside to be honest and earnest?” Silly and fun, they add, but still carrying a strong message. “INNUENDO” retains that with lines like, “I’m tired of dropping hints, tired of talking in riddles, tired of waiting for the right moment”—and the songs on Dust’s forthcoming album are poised to follow in the same vein. “We’re going to be talking about what it’s like to be in a queer community and the ever-evolving nature of it. We’re going to talk about what it’s like to have complicated parents, to experience fat phobic micro-aggressions and move through them, aromanticism, what it’s like to lose friends. We’re also going to be incredibly nostalgic and talk about how the era we grow up in affects our future.”
Dust recently watched Rolling Stone’s Musicians on Musicians interview with Lorde and David Byrne. At one point, Lorde asks Byrne about the portals in his career—those pivotal moments when things opened up a new dimension, in a sense. For Dust, that portal has been drag. As their drag evolved, they started taking their wigs off. They started not wearing heels. “My gender expression in drag changed so drastically—and people got down on me for it,” Dust continues. “But, in the end, ultimately my drag was this incredible place to facilitate creating spaces for other people. [Drag] taught me so much about myself. It showed me a lot of my shadows. It showed me how my anxiety manifests for other people. It showed me a lot of my toxic traits. It also opened the door to the world of creativity for me. It showed me all the possibilities. It showed me the infinite amounts of love that I have for myself and for other people. It showed me my strength. It showed me my resiliency and that I can do and be whatever I want.”
Dust admits they never really considered themselves an artist. But they’ve come to realize that they always have been, their whole life. “Drag was the portal. It was the thing that I stepped through where, once I was on the other side, I was no longer the same.”
Dust’s eyes are clear and sparkling, and they smile at me. There’s that glow again.