“Spend endless time on it. Live and breathe it.”
We speak to Maya Jane Coles ahead of her Nocturnal Sunshine show at Sónar this weekend…
Maya Jane Coles is one of underground dance music’s biggest stars; she’s played every influential club across the globe, graced the cover of 20 different magazines in eight different countries, and released three full length albums to critical acclaim, two as Maya Jane Coles and one as her darker alias Nocturnal Sunshine, with a second Nocturnal Sunshine record on its way later this year. After beginning to hone her skills aged 15, producing hip hop before experimenting with darker electronica, Coles later progressed to producing house as she spent time dancing in the clubs and warehouses across east London. It was in 2010, with the release of ‘What They Say’ via Real Tone Records (The Martinez Brothers, Shonky, Franck Roger), that her meteoric rise really began.
On each of her records, which she self-releases via her own label I/AM/ME, Maya Jane Coles will write, produce, sometimes sing, engineer, arrange, mix and master her music, sometimes even designing her artwork too. A true master of her craft, Coles has established a unique blueprint for both Maya Jane Coles, and Nocturnal Sunshine, releasing music under both monikers to allow space for the breadth of her taste and inspiration. The latest Nocturnal Sunshine project, two-track EP U&ME, captures Maya’s formative hip hop influences, marking new ground for Nocturnal Sunshine ahead of the release of the LP later in 2019.
Maya Jane Coles will bring Nocturnal Sunshine to Sónar by Day this year, a prospect she finds refreshing and challenging, as Nocturnal Sunshine sets allow for a broader sonic spectrum than her sets as Maya Janes Coles, which sit within the boundaries of house and techno.
Ahead of her performance, I spoke to Maya Jane Coles about the value of autonomy, London’s unique energy, and Missy Elliott’s many, many classics.
How would you describe what you do to someone that hasn’t heard of you before, and can you explain the differentiation between Maya Jane Coles and Nocturnal Sunshine?
I’m a music producer and DJ. Production comes first for me but DJing comes a close second. I compose, write and engineer all my own work and occasionally do my own vocals, or get guests to feature on my tracks. I generally have a high turnover of tracks and not everything necessarily fits into the same category, so it’s nice for me to have multiple outlets to release my work.
I’d say Nocturnal Sunshine leans more towards my early sounds and influences. I feel like there’s less pressure and less expectation with that project so I feel like I can go anywhere with it. The new album (dropping later this year) leans over to some of my old hip hop productions. That’s what originally got me into making music, so it’s nice to go back to my roots. The stuff I release under my real name has a certain consistency to it. I always find it difficult to describe my music in words. At the end of the day each track just needs make you feel something, that’s the most important thing for me. I try to make music that hits a certain spot.
Can you tell me about your formative experiences of music?
Hip hop was my first love for sure. Mainly US stuff. When I was a teenager I remember seeing shows like The Pharcyde, Jean Grae and The Roots. I loved everything from old school hip hop, to the whole Memphis dirty south hip hop scene, and also all the amazing East Coast rappers — Nas, Mobb Deep, Wu Tang Clan. Then I also got into house, techno, some DnB and dubstep in my late teens. There were so many London raves I’d go to that exposed me to amazing electronic music.
Who do you think are your biggest influences musically?
Missy Elliott is one of my all time biggest inspirations. She was one of the first artists that taught me that you don’t have to play by the rules, always innovative and coming out with the freshest stuff. Timbaland’s productions were so futuristic. Supa Dupa Fly, Da Real World and Miss E… So Addictive are still classics to this day, and still sound like the future! I have a real appreciation for unconventional artists who just do their own thing and never try to conform.
You release all your music via your own label, can you talk about that release process a bit?
I’m very particular about what I release. I don’t want an A&R telling me what I should and shouldn’t put out. I want that control for myself. I started my label I/AM/ME as a platform to release all of my own projects and to have control over my own release schedules. It’s nice to be able to release what I want, when I want, and not have to answer to anybody or live up to someone else’s timelines.
You’ve spent some time producing for other artists, how do you think that impacts your own material?
I love producing for other artists. It’s nice to be able to inject my sound into different projects and collaborate with others. It only affects my work in a positive way. The more different genres of music I work on, the better and more well rounded I become as a producer. You learn through experience.
What advice would you give an aspiring producer?
First things first — the most important thing is to master your craft. The only way to get really, really good at something is to spend endless time on it. Live and breathe it. The rest comes later. I spent pretty much every spare second of my time from the age of 14 or 15 making music, and it probably took me about a decade to be really, truly happy with my sound, and feel like I had my own unique style. Having a sound that no one else can recreate even if they tried — that’s where you want to be, the true goal as a producer.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your career to date?
I’d say the early years trying to make my career happen were the most difficult. It’s hard to try to not settle for a plan B. Plan A was the only way. From age 16 I knew what I wanted to do. But it wasn’t easy, and it definitely took a lot more work than people will ever know. From the outside it can easily look like things happen from out of nowhere when that really isn’t the case. Aside from that, the first few years where I toured relentlessly were hard. When it’s all new you have to take every gig that comes your way, and it’s not easy finding a balance. There are so many people you feel like you need to please. I feel like I have it great now though. I’m so happy with the current balance I’ve found between touring, studio time and my personal life. Things are pretty good!
And the most rewarding?
Just thinking about everything I’ve achieved to this date feels incredibly rewarding. The way I’ve navigated my career, I’ve done so in a way that I don’t feel pressure to stick to just one thing. I feel free as an artist to be myself and stay true to myself, and I don’t ever feel stuck within one genre or scene. I can produce hip hop one day, house another day, work with a folk artist the next day, etc. I’ve barely even reached my goals yet. I still have a long way to go and that’s super exciting for me.
Which up-and-coming artists do you think are doing interesting things right now?
Where are your favourite places to play and why?
It’s gotta be London 100%. London is my base and always has been. I have the most amazing friends here, every party gets pretty wild. It’s never not fun! Tokyo, Osaka, Los Angeles, New York are also some of my favourite places to spend time.
What can we expect from your Sonar show?
I guess you can expect a mashup set filled with bass, broken beats, dub, hip hop, techno electronica, and varying tempos. It’s much more of a challenge for me playing as Nocturnal Sunshine as my Maya Jane Coles DJ sets are predominantly house and techno. Nocturnal Sunshine can go anywhere.
What else do you have coming up?
My second Nocturnal Sunshine album is coming out later this year and I think it’s one of my favourite releases to date. It keeps the dark essence of the first record but at the same time it’s very different. It’s nice to go back to my roots a little and bring in the sound that carved my identity when I first started producing. A lot got left behind and I feel like now is the time to bring it all back.