If you paid attention to most festival lineups and top paid DJ lists, you’d be forgiven for thinking electronic music is only made by men. Melody Thomas meets some local electronic producers and DJs who aren't men, as part of our series 'She Will move You'.
Take just a few minutes to research electronic music’s history and you’ll find many of those who paved the way are women.
- There was Clara Rockmore, an accomplished performer of the world’s first electronic instrument, the theremin;
- Laurie Anderson who created a tape-bow violin using magnetic tape instead of horsehair;
- Delia Derbyshire whose electronic arrangement of the theme music to Doctor Who was light years ahead of its time;
- and Wendy Carlos, who composed the scores to Kubrick films A Clockwork Orange and The Shining and whose Bach re-imaginings on the synthesiser won her three Grammy Awards.
That’s just to name a few, and the industry is beginning to catch up:
- Last year Red Bull kicked off a series of evening workshops in London under the umbrella #NormalNotNovelty aimed at encouraging women in electronic music.
- Smirnoff launched the Equalising Music campaign - with the intent of doubling the number of women headlining music festivals by 2020.
- The first lineup announcement for Moogfest 2018 featured exclusively female, transgender and non binary artists.
- Fourteen of Mixmag’s Top 20 Breakthrough DJs of 2017 are women.
Here in New Zealand, thanks in part to a growth in events favouring diverse lineups, and to the knock-on effect that has on up and coming performers, the number of female and gender diverse producers, beat makers and engineers is on the up and up.
Melody Thomas called Wellington producer-extraordinaire Estère to talk about her electronic music journey, asking her to nominate her own favourite femme producer, setting off a daisy-chain of nominations for local female-made music to move to.
Estère started out as a singer-songwriter, performing solo with her guitar and as one of three vocalists for now-defunct Wellington group Brockaflower. She first started to consider what it would be like to make her own beats when her friends started messing around with MPCs (Music Production Centres; combining the features of a sampler, drum machine and MIDI sequencer.)
“I just thought it was so unbelievably cool… but I had no idea where to start because it all looked kind of overwhelming to me,” she says.
Midway through her studies at Victoria University of Wellington (majoring in Philosophy and Anthropology), Estère enrolled in a Sonic Arts paper as a means of introduction to what would go on to become an exciting creative path.
“Essentially what the purpose of the course was, was to introduce people to basic principles of production. So I learned about DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) systems like Logic, and more about recording, and some of the science of sound… and one of the tasks was to make your own beat or composition. [Once] I crossed over that line I felt more confident in that area so I bought an MPC… called her Lola, and that was that.”
For the next couple of years Estère spent hours getting to know Lola in her bedroom, releasing an introductory self-titled body of work as well as a remix album, touring internationally and playing her music in increasingly bigger venues.
“I stuck to the MPC for so long because there’s so many options out there… I just really wanted to focus and hone my craft on a specific, more analog instrument. I just felt like it was a bit overwhelming and I wanted to get proficient in one area before i delved into others,” she says.
More recently, Estère has found herself ‘delving’ into producing more on the computer - using a variety of plugins including Native Instruments, and sample banks traded with musician friends. This has seen her shift away from using Lola (MPC) as the primary production medium, although she still played the central part in the production of Estère's upcoming album.
“Recently I’ve done a few songwriting workshops as a singer songwriter working with producers who are sitting on the engineers seat, but mostly what I do in those scenarios is look over their shoulder and ask them questions… because that’s what I’m really really interested in.”
Getting to feel more sure of herself means Estère is increasingly open to collaborating with other artists.
“[When I first started out] I didn’t really know who I was or what I was doing. And now I’ve had enough time to be quite clear on my own voice… [so] I’m ready to work with other people in production and not feel like I might be washed away because I didn’t know what I stood for,” she says.
When asked what she would say if she could travel back in time to speak with herself when she was just starting out, Estere says, “Just keep having fun baby, and make sure you stay open to learning.”
Estère's favourite female New Zealand producer:
“I’m nominating Villette. I’ve heard songs that she’s produced that I just thought have been really slick and silky and cool. I really like the balance of all the instrumental components…the way that everything gels together in terms of the composition. And I also just thought it was really phat. P-h-a-t.”
Singer, songwriter, producer and DJ Villette comes from a musical family - her parents met when her mother’s family band found themselves needing a lead guitarist, and her Dad jumped into the spot. Villette grew up learning a bunch of different instruments, as well as joining barbershop quartets, choirs and performing in musical theatre. When she eventually started to make her own music it was with a guitar, but moving from Hamilton to Auckland to study at MAINZ when she was 17 helped swing her in a different direction.
“I was just so sick of playing the guitar and singing - no shade towards people who do that - but I was always into hip hop and RnB music and I wanted to be able to make it as well. So that’s why I went to MAINZ… [where] I learnt how to DJ on vinyl and use Ableton… and build a skill set around producing music on the computer,” she says.
Most of what Villette knows now she learned in two days on that course - after her tutor sat her down and told her she needed to take study more seriously or she was going to fail.
“I managed to graduate and the last couple of years I’ve just been practicing. It’s really just putting in the time… you can learn everything on Youtube now which is great. So there's been a lot of experience working in the studio with other producers and then just sitting in my room at home, going through the software and trying new things,” she says.
Villette is aware of the ways representation impacts the makeup of a scene, asserting that, “People just need to see that we exist. There needs to be more of a presence, there need to be more women unafraid to go out there and do what they’re doing and stop letting the label of being female hold them back.”
Having spent a bit of time referring to herself as a ‘female producer’, Villette has recently dropped the qualifier.
“I just see myself as a producer and I happen to be female as well. That doesn’t define me as a producer. It doesn’t make my beats any more girly,” she says.
Villette’s favourite female New Zealand producer:
It’s so cool Estère nominated me because I would have nominated her! But I’ll nominate Peach Milk. She’s an amazing producer and seeing her perform live is just something else. The way she holds herself onstage… She’s so small and you see her behind all of this gear. She’s just killing it when she’s onstage and she knows her shit… She’s not one of those producers where she sounds really good recorded and then live it’s kind of a flop and it’s boring - what you’re hearing is what she’s playing. And it’s something not a lot of producers are doing.
For Madison Eve, aka Peach Milk, the push to share her music with the wider world came when she was offered a slot at Chronophonium in 2016.
“In New Zealand because there’s such a small community you want to be… doing something different and taking people by surprise right off the bat. Especially solo. … The pressure that I felt was very intense… [I was] in front of my male peers, who are all really into that kind of music and who make it themselves and who are very good… I was very scared,” she says.
Seeing Peach Milk live now, you’d never know she had once suffered from such anxieties. She’s moved from ‘hitting play’ on largely pre-recorded material to improvising with shorter melodic loops, her laptop now firmly off to one side.
“It’s much more fun for me because I’m manipulating everything on the instruments myself as opposed to hiding behind a laptop screen… For me, especially with electronic music, when you can see someone… manipulating all the sounds you’re hearing it’s a lot more exciting to see live,” she says, adding, “I think it’s important with electronic music to change people’s perspective and to get people who might not be interested in it interested.”
When it comes to offering advice to would-be could-be female producers, Peach Milk says - while cheesy - the old adage to “believe in yourself” is an important one.
“Try not to let external pressure and what you think your music should sound like… affect that art that you make… and try to be true to yourself. It’s terrifying but if you be yourself and try to be as true to your own instincts as you can, people will admire that.”
Peach Milk’s favourite female New Zealand producer:
I’d like to nominate k2k, because she’s doing something really cool that I haven't’ seen anyone else in NZ doing at the moment; making some cool techno. It’s very good.
Katherine Anderson grew up playing piano, picking up a guitar as a teenager but putting it back down again when she “never got good”, becoming frustrated by her inability to replicate the music she was listening to.
Years later she would encounter this same frustration, this time while living in Montreal, when she started playing around with Ableton Live (music production software).
“My boyfriend at the time showed me how to use [it], and I watched a lot of tutorials. It was really helpful to have him around to answer any questions I might have because it was really confusing at the beginning, grasping a lot of the concepts which are totally new,” she says, “I think my first song took about six months on and off, and nothing I [did] sounded how I wanted it to sound in my head.”
But Anderson persevered - and soon began releasing music on the internet under the name k2k. In 2015 she was accepted into the Red Bull Music Academy, where one of the requirements for attending musicians is to play a live show in that year’s chosen city. Over the space of a month, Anderson taught herself to DJ - a thing she loves doing and teaching to others around her.
While k2k has certainly made up for lost time, she wishes she’d started making music earlier - and believes seeing more female artists in the scene would have provided the necessary motivation.
“When I got started in Montreal… (Canadian producer) Grimes was just starting out too… and that was definitely inspiring. But overall it was very male-dominated and I think that definitely made it hard for me to connect to how I would even be able to do it myself. It just seemed slightly alien to me,” she says, “I was around people making music for the longest time, but it never really connected that I could be one of the music makers.”
While k2k is relatively new to the electronic music scene, she believe positive changes are happening when it comes to representation.
“If I see a gig lineup that’s 100% male now I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a really bad move on their part”. So to me it feels like awareness is increasing and hopefully participation is increasing. It’s seeming like a really positive time to open [the scene] up to female and gender diverse people making electronic music.”
k2k’s favourite female New Zealand producer:
I’d like to nominate Marie Celeste, who makes music as Jaded Nineties Raver. She’s been in the music scene in New Zealand for quite a while, she used to be in Pig Out, and now she’s running the HAVEN parties and making really sick electronic music. I think she’s doing some really cool things in the scene.
5.Jaded Nineties Raver
Marie Celeste has been part of New Zealand’s music scene for a couple of decades, performing as part of Shocking Pinks, House of Dolls and with much-loved “weird live rave band” Pig Out. At the end of 2017 Celeste released a solo mini-album of moody industrial dance tracks, Fee For A Fee, under the moniker Jaded Nineties Raver.
Heading into Pig Out, Celeste claims she had no idea what she was doing - but would spend her evenings playing around making arpeggiated synth patches that she eventually shared with the band (who loved them). Though she has a good deal more experience under her belt now, She approaches the music of Jaded Nineties Raver with a similarly open mindset.
“It’s all about experimentation for me… just working with what I like when I hear it. I don’t necessarily technically know an awful lot of what I’m doing, although I probably know a lot more than i’m giving myself credit for, but it’s just been a matter of plugging something in, sticking on some headphones… and getting completely lost in that machine,” she says.
Unusually for the producers profiles here, Celeste doesn’t use computers to make her music - focusing instead on hardware.
“I’m not so hot on computer programmes.. and also I enjoy the tactile-ness of gear. And the immediacy. And the limitations… I find with making music on Ableton there’s almost too many options. I kind of like being limited to one or two pieces of gear and really trying to get everything you can out of them,” she says.
Though Celeste echoes the sentiment of many female music makers and artists - that a higher standard is expected of them when first starting out - she’s tried to avoid putting too much pressure on herself with this project.
“It was a little bit different when I was younger and in bands because it was more of a career path potentially, whereas I’m not treating this as a career path… [This time] I’ve decided to not be so precious about holding onto things and not to really worry what other people think. That’s been one of the really nice things about doing music again, I went into it thinking ‘I don’t actually care if anyone else likes this or not, I’m just going to do it.”
Though Celeste is an advocate of equality on music festival lineups, as an organiser of events herself she’s aware of the need for other considerations too.
“If it’s a lineup that works musically and it happens to be all female then that’s great, but all too often the women-only line ups are ill conceived in terms of musical curation and the only common thread is gender.
All in all, though, Celeste reckons in terms diversity the New Zealand scene is comparably healthy.
“The year before last I was in Europe for six months touring with Keepsakes, and we were shocked at the lack of women on all levels in the scene. It was amazing. I went to the Camp a Low Hum New Years eve party [in 2014/2015] and that was amazing… it was filled with great female musicians, and it was just normal. That’s what I want to see.”
Not to mention our many other favourite female and gender diverse producers including, but not limited to:
Tali, Blaek, October, Lttle Phnx, Alexa Casino, Indi, Tei, WHIM, French Concession, Stef Animal, Laura Lee Lovely, Taipei Teahouse, Hybrid Rose, Alion, Waterfalls, Madeira, Instant Fantasy, Pocari Sweat, a libra baby, Janine Foster, Abigail Knudson, Fanfickk, Valere, Baby Zionov, EDIE, noncharlet, dzesi, Stef T