Words by Kavina.
“It’s about the journey, not the destination!”, was the advice James Zabiela gave me in response to a thank you letter I especially flew to hand-deliver to him in Sydney at his Chinese Laundry set (proper young fangirl moment). After just starting my law degree, I felt completely uninspired. I remember surfing YouTube at 4 am instead of starting my criminal law assignment (due later that day!) I stumbled across James’ live Pioneer DJ demo, and by the time the sun came up, it had completely changed my life.
James’ words have stuck with me throughout my career, from my first DJ competition, through to finding my sound and establishing myself in Brisbane. They are second only to the people I've met along the way, who’ve shown me the ropes and extreme generosity in a harsh industry. Being able to play beautiful music and take people on a journey, whether it inspires, connects or moves them, has been one of the most remarkable and electric experiences of my life. Here’s a little summary of my experience as a DJ, so far:
My first time playing in public was for a nationwide Australian DJ competition called ‘Your Shot’. I nervously entered, with the hope of meeting a judge who ran Auditree events, at the only underground bar in Brisbane at the time - Barsoma. By coincidence, I didn't have to look far as Frank was assigned to judge my set. I reckon it was a remix of The Chemical Brothers ‘Swoon’ that drew his attention, as he voted me as his winning pick and invited me to see Hernan Cattaneo at an event the next day. It was this that defined my path for the rest of my career.
It also just so happened that owners of a soon-to-launch underground club in Brisbane saw my set, and later invited me to play my first major supporting gig, for Way Out West’s, Jody Wisternoff (another hero). As a complete novice to the workings of the industry, I had no idea what a thriving underground music scene was out there, waiting to embrace me. I quickly learned that once you acquaint yourself with the local community, opportunities start to arise.
Being a DJ in a smaller city
I wouldn't underestimate the benefit of starting your DJ career in a small city with a thriving dance community. Playing in Brisbane has allowed me to meet and play alongside many of my idols, from Sven Väth to Seth Troxler and Green Velvet - whom I played with at the Future Music Festival. We went to see Drake together, and he teased me for being too embarrassed to wear my Drake t-shirt in front of him. Intimate gigs allow you to connect with the crowd; space to ask your heroes questions that they would otherwise never have the time to answer and to form networking friendships. A unique experience is getting to stand beside one of your favourite DJ and watch them mix. It’s the highest form of DJ education you can ever receive. One thing I appreciate now, with all the new venues exploding to life, is the number of opportunities to get out and play, as the only drawback when I was trying to gain career momentum was the lack of places to gig. However, in my case, I was lucky to fall into the right hands. I believe if you’re passionate, fate will hook you up.
Finding my sound, plus an epic friend and mentor
I found my sound the day that Frank, the judge invited me to an Auditree event because he thought I’d connect with the artist playing. I later discovered that he was one of the best progressive house DJs in the world, Hernán Cattáneo. While James Zabiela’s technical genius initially inspired me, Hernán was the epitome of feeling and the journey. That was when James’ words resonated again, and I knew my sound journey had led me to Hernán. I was learning to master three-minute mixing, which Hernán had surpassed. He could smoothly roll out tune after tune as if the music were one big tidal wave of intensely rolling bass lines that seamlessly collided and transported you. He was utterly at peace and enthralled by the crowd and music (total bliss).
After his set, I told Hernán how I felt and said one day I was going to play beside him. His answer was, “next time I come back if you work hard, we can play together.” I took that seriously and worked my butt off to prove myself, and to be considered by the promoters of his next show. We’ve been friends ever since.
The best advice Hernán ever gave me was, “someone helped me, and if I can help you, and you can help someone, then we are all helping each other, and that’s pretty cool.” This guidance has been accurate many times, and I can remember a time I was struggling to move up the DJ set times. This example is the only time I will mention the term ‘veteran boys’ club’, but Hernan insisted I close for him after his set, even though it wasn’t usually my time to play. However, because of that one opportunity to show my stuff to a massive primetime crowd, I finally earned some street cred. So yeah, all it takes is one act of kindness. Don’t forget to pay it forward!
What kind of artist did I want to be?
The best way to find what kind of DJ I wanted to be was to get out there and give different avenues a try. I had a DJ residency at a cocktail lounge, which allowed me to learn the art of six-hour sets, experiment with many genres and see how music can lift and complement customer moods. I played beautiful events for the Brisbane Gallery of Modern Art, warmups for underground DJ tours, as well as online video-streamed sets. I found that I wanted to play for experiences and artistic events and create a sound-journey adventure.
Artistic integrity is essential, and I stand by the quality, not the number of sets (for myself). Music is a shared experience, so you must play for yourself and your crowd. Also, if people can see your passion, they become inspired because music is infectious.
It’s also essential to establish your career goals. If you want to have a steady roster, playing for many bars, it is possible. However, if you want a career as a DJ artist, you need to establish a sound and affiliate yourself with specific artists and events. You keep your brand consistent and build a following, which is where your SoundCloud mixtapes become your best advocates.
Me? I want to tour the world, sharing sparkly, rolling basslines on thunder and lightning sound systems to intimate crowds, and take people on an epic journey through soundscapes. I also want to smile heaps and drink chocolate milkshakes!
As with any journey, mine took a few interesting turns. There was the existential crisis as to whether I wanted to live my life as an artist, or put my journalism and law degrees to use? After living in LA, and experiencing the insane live music, I decided to move to Melbourne and be brave enough to go all in. Even with my experience, it’s fascinating to again feel like a novice in a new city.
I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learned into action. Melbourne is a place that has so much to offer in terms of live music experiences. Funnily enough, starting to get amongst it is how I came across this job writing about live music for like-minded peeps at Muso. Pretty amazing where the journey takes you.
For DJs, apps, like they have at Muso, have changed the game as to how we find gigs, making it easier to put yourself out there and see which venues are looking for DJs. Not to mention the level of accountability that comes with their team taking over the booking and invoicing duties so you can focus on music. If you’re interested and want to kick start your career but don’t know how to, try Muso.