Behind the Decks: Irish Women in Electronic Music
By Emily Carson Photography by Killian Broderick
The electronic music scene in Ireland is seeing a slow but steady progression of female artists, DJs and promoters joining the ranks of their male counterparts. We met some of the women helping to pave the way.
In Dublin, International Women’s Day 2016 saw the launch of Women of Notes/Mná na Nótaí, a photographic and narrative series by photographer Ruth Medjber, which highlighted women in music and their experiences of inequality. Joni Kelly, a producer who participated in the project was keen to point out just how stark that inequality is in our clubs: ‘I grew up in nightclubs, and it wasn’t until two years ago that I ever saw women DJ’ing or playing,’ she says. ‘Ireland for electronic music for women is diabolical.’
You need only look at dance festival line-ups in our country, where a sea of men’s faces often populates the ‘artists’ tab, or look at the ubiquity of all male line-ups at club nights across the country every weekend to see that electronic music is one genre in which progress is still lagging behind the status quo. But while events and exhibitions like these highlight the issues faced by women in electronic music, they also show that there is increased discussion about their experience in the industry both in Ireland and abroad.
‘Ireland for electronic music for women is diabolical.’
Organisations like Discwoman, which began as a festival in New York and has since expanded into a platform and booking agency for cis-women, trans-women and genderqueer talent, are living proof that women are beginning to band together. Meanwhile, Siren in London has created zines shining a light on female experience both in front of and behind the decks. These organisations have created a community and events that feel welcoming to women at all levels of their career with a view to providing the support they need to enter the industry undaunted.
Cork-native Ellen King, who records under the moniker ELLLL, had these organisations in mind when she founded GASH Collective. Having joined the artist support network female:pressure, King was inspired to try and create an Irish collective to promote and support female artists while also encouraging more to come out of the woodwork.
‘why don’t we have anything like this in Ireland, like we’re so small, why can’t we all connect the dots here and help each other?’
‘I thought “why don’t we have anything like this in Ireland, like we’re so small, why can’t we all connect the dots here and help each other?”’ says Ellen. ‘It’s really hard to get producers and I truly believe they’re there, but they’re hiding and they’re afraid. I’m always saying to people “please contact me!” Even if they don’t want to play live, I’d love to play their music on the radio.’
Ellen splits her time between working as a piano teacher and making music, which has veered from ambient drone to minimal techno. Her ROMANCE EP was released on Sligo label Art For Blind last year. So far, GASH has put on all-female showcases and hosted workshops for women interested in learning about electronic music in a friendly and open environment.
Booker, DJ and GASH member Laura O’Connell, who performs as Lolz, first met Ellen when she approached her to play for Laura’s Galway-based night Bap to the Future. They quickly became firm friends, and Laura’s experiences in the industry mirrored what Ellen was trying to get across with GASH.
‘For years, I wanted to get into DJing and all my male friends were DJs, and they’re very encouraging, but I still felt intimidated.’
‘I was very aware of the fact that there were very few DJs and producers in Ireland who are female, and also very few promoters, it’s something I’ve become aware of the more I’ve put on gigs,’ says Laura.
Becoming a part of the collective has only strengthened Laura’s belief that female visibility and presence is crucial in encouraging others to pursue a career or even a hobby in music.
‘For years, I wanted to get into DJing and all my male friends were DJs, and they’re very encouraging, but I still felt intimidated. If something like GASH had been around when I was younger I probably would have gotten into it a lot sooner,’ she says.
Jenn Moore, AKA Dreamcycles, was one of Ireland’s electronic ambassadors to RBMA in Montréal last year. Coming from a more academic sonic background – Jenn’s thesis was on ‘A Sonic Approach Through Dublin Port’ – she found her non-traditional entry into the music world allowed her to begin producing with an open mind.
She almost stumbled into the RBMA experience. Heading on a whim to a talk with Trevor Jackson – the music producer and designer behind many seminal record covers – she picked up an application for the prestigious Academy. Despite the fact that the Trevor Jackson talk had poor female attendance (Jenn reckons five or six out of 80), her decision to attend had career-changing consequences and her experience of being the minority in the room only increased her drive to succeed.
Jenn’s own confidence issues came less from a female perspective, and more from feeling like an outsider to the industry.
‘I felt like I wasn’t a musician because I hadn’t been formally trained and I thought that would hold me back massively’
‘I felt like I wasn’t a musician because I hadn’t been formally trained and I thought that would hold me back massively,’ she says. ‘Something that was really reinforced at the [Red Bull Music] Academy by a lot of the people who gave talks was that they felt that they had to “undo the damage of formal music training” because of how they’d been taught.’
Jenn found the experience of the Academy ‘life-changing’ and despite having had a solid group of – often male – peers who have supported her practice she was still mindful of the effect of visibility on a developing artist.
‘Having role models who are women, that are doing what you want to do, is surprisingly important. I think [seeing more women] would have made me feel as though what I wanted to do was more realistic and achievable,’ she says.
Dreamcycles was one of the headliners for ‘Room for Rebellion’, a night in aid of repealing the 8th amendment at the start of February. Cáit Fahey, who regularly performs as part of collective Dip, had teamed up with the women behind the London event to put on a Dublin edition in Wigwam on Middle Abbey Street. She had suggested some women she had previously played out with and felt that the night’s bill reflected a truly strong and fitting group of DJs.
‘Sometimes that can make you feel as if you’re just there to fill a quota, not because of the music that you’re into, or because of your talent’
‘This is the first time I’ve been on a female line-up that actually makes sense and where everyone really complements one another,’ says Cáit.
While she is a champion of visibility, Cáit is also wary of efforts to book all female line-ups that have meant combining too many different styles, with optics taking precedence over a cohesive sound.
‘Sometimes that can make you feel as if you’re just there to fill a quota, not because of the music that you’re into, or because of your talent,’ she says.
When it comes to the Dublin scene, however, Cáit feels that an issue that weighs just as heavily as gender balance on the bill is the lack of local line-ups full stop: ‘How are you ever supposed to develop or grow or get a headline spot if you’re not putting on local gigs?’
Cailín Power, another producer on the bill for Room for Rebellion, has been playing her particular brand of driving techno for the likes of Subject and District 8 under her first name. The Waterford native plucked up the courage to pursue her beat-matching dreams after seeing a poster in college for DJ lessons and says she has never looked back.
‘I thought “this is my chance!” And I definitely think you need a teacher at the start to get your on your feet,’ says Cailín. ‘I can’t imagine trying to teach myself beat-matching.’
After years of playing in Waterford she ‘chanced her arm’ and sent her stuff to Subject who took her on as a resident soon after. After a whirlwind year becoming a resident at District 8, Cailín has found herself sharing bills with some of her heroes and feels that for her personally, the scene has been very kind and supportive. That being said, she has experienced derogatory comments – such as someone commenting: ‘where does yer one think she’s going?’ as she approached the decks with her record bag – that overshadow what is otherwise an exciting and supportive environment.
This is something that Ellen identifies with, citing an attitude of ‘you’re only there because you know someone or because you’re going out with someone who works in the venue,’ which she feels deters women from keeping up the graft of hustling for gigs and improving their practice.
While everyone was keen to make it clear that they value the support of the men that they play with, collaborate with and bounce ideas off, they all ultimately felt that a shift in the public opinion of female producers and DJs needs to accelerate.
‘Had I not seen Nina Kraviz doing what she does I wouldn’t have taken myself seriously’
A sense of ‘imposter syndrome’ was repeatedly mentioned as something that felt like a particularly female experience within the industry, which isn’t hard to sympathise with when stories of men undermining their technical abilities or questioning their validity as an artists on the bill were all too common. Another thing that cropped up repeatedly is recognition of the fact that more female role models would have a powerful effect:
‘Had I not seen Nina Kraviz doing what she does I wouldn’t have taken myself seriously,’ says Cailín, who began producing music and vying for a more serious career in the wake of watching Kraviz’ career explode a few years ago. ‘Once you begin to notice how few women are on line ups you notice it more and more and you become fixated with it,’ says Ellen, but she hopes that GASH encourages enough women to join the fold and explore electronic music that she has a constant stream of ready artists, available to play wherever necessary: ‘I love this idea of having an army of amazing women that you can book for anything and they’re a force to be reckoned with. I love the power in that.’
While the image of brigade of female DJs, ready to fight inequality with driving beats is an exciting one, Cáit is mindful of the fact that a groundswell of support needs to come from both bookers and the general public.
‘We need people to act about it and not just talk about it.’
‘We need people to act about it and not just talk about it. You need to book female artists and support local DJs,’ she says. ‘A lot of people talk about it or get in these Facebook arguments about feminism but what are you actually doing about it?’
While groups like GASH are using their platform to expand the visible roster of female artists and DJs, securing a future with more women across the board lies with us, the punters. The bankability of female artists has long created a chicken and egg scenario where women can’t get gigs until their names are big enough but can’t get big enough until they get booked. While the Internet has democratised this process of exposure it’s still up to us to vote with our wallets and buy female, attend female and support female where possible. Who knows who we might coax out of hiding if we do.