It’s release day. Avalon Emerson sits in a small off-white room talking about her latest collection of transformative, abstract techno pop beats, DJ Kicks. Thin metal wire glasses accentuate her face as she leans slightly closer to the screen which scrunches, slightly, at the first question. She doesn’t quite like it, but, in fairness you, shouldn’t offer a clunky question to an artist that expertly produces streamlined anthemic club sets. Still, Emerson is graciously contemplative before answering.
“The description and the method seem like two very different things. With the description, I’ve always had a little bit of a hard time, but I think I sit in kind of a weird place between club, Euro-centric kind of DJ things, and obviously a more ‘underground’ thing,” she tells GAY TIMES. “I don’t know where I fit. It’s unique, it’s interesting.”
Pinning a genre on Avalon sounds ridiculous. After all, how do you label a wide-ranging creative that incorporates everything from dreamy breakbeats to stretched-out experimental synths? When it comes to method-matching, things are a little more straightforward. Avalon pictures the placement and poses a few questions before figuring out the finer details. “If we’re talking about my own originals, sometimes I start from a place of thinking about where it’s going to go,” she explains. “Is it going live? Is the song going to be something that I DJ? Is it gonna be a big festival song or is it going to be something more delicate?”
Usually, a few core questions are enough to paint some direction, but it doesn’t always cut it. “I’ve definitely started remix projects without a really clear vision of where it’s going to go, and then it just doesn’t work,” Avalon admits. “Instead of trying to hack through a jungle to get something, I just say the remix isn’t working out and nothing ever comes of it. I have a pretty strong vision with remixes before I even start. On a good day, I can kind of hear an idea in my head. It’s the same with my original music too. My process over the past few years has been trying to streamline the tools I use to translate an idea from my head to a finished product.
Conscious of her answer, she follows up with a sincere justification: “My answers are kind of meta, because I’m trying to answer in a way that’s truthful to all the different things that I do. It ends up being a little abstract, sorry!”
If you take the time to listen to Avalon’s music, suddenly her sprawling sound makes sense. It also mirrors her deeply personal, emotive connection between music and location. Starting out, the DJ set up as a product photographer and web developer in San Francisco. Suddenly finding herself with the means, the artist upped and left the industry. Admitting her story of travelling and change requires some “nuance”, she delves into her discomfort around her previous placement.
“Then and especially now, I feel like we’ve seen a distillation and furthering of the whole monster that has become like a big fucking, disruptive gross tech thing. In San Francisco, when I was working there, it was just like, everyone’s just trying to make a billion dollars and doing it in these shitty ways. Everyone had these crazy God complexes and it was just really bizarre. So I was like ‘I’m gonna get out’ and was either going to move to LA, New York or Berlin.” In the end, Avalon found herself living in all three places.
Berlin was, mostly, where it all began. After finding somewhere for around 300 euros a month, she continued working in tech and releasing new tracks until a full-time career in music became a feasible option. “I didn’t quit my job and I didn’t try to hustle to become a musician because I always thought that I shouldn’t be giving up as a developer. It was a good career, so why should I become a DJ? I guess the decision made itself for me, for better or worse.”
Travelling and borders has become something Avalon has continued to fixate on. “This fucking year, man, it’s wacky,” she sighs, before continuing with her anecdote: “Fast forward to whenever and I’ve been touring really heavy, even when I had a full time job. For the past five years I’ve been touring crazy amounts and I wanted to start spending larger chunks of time at home and wanted to be closer to family.” As music continued to take her across the globe, Avalon knew she would have to split up her time for the sake of her headspace. She even hatched an elaborate plan: “I was going to be spending chunks of time in LA and then go over to Europe for the summer and tour from there so it didn’t bleed into my entire life. I planned on making this move in January so that’s when I moved to LA and then fucking Covid shit booted off and I found myself stuck there. I had planned on doing some stuff back in Europe, but that didn’t happen. Then, after the way some personal stuff panned out with my partner, New York started making more sense.”
Now settling in New York, the dance DJ has had time to self-reflect about her emergence in the male-dominated genre and how the scene is changing. “I haven’t been in the game as long as some people, but in the past couple years, it has definitely been opening up,” she observes thoughtfully. “I just think that if good, interesting curatorial clubs, festivals, or labels want to continue to put out good music, it’s naturally got to become more diverse. The best music comes from synthesising different viewpoints, different gender identities, and racial makeups. This is the kind of makeup that good scenes globally represent. The best way to be stagnant is just to keep releasing things from one type of person.”
Although she had faith that things are getting better, she admits there’s ways the industry is still being gatekept. “Diversity is still really hindered by things like who’s allowed to travel where and for how long and it keeps things crazy Eurocentric. Whoever has an EU passport gets to play and gets to travel, headline shows, release music and become big. It’s a real shame because there’s a lot of really sick talent that is shut out from this underground dance music world.”
Avalon’s astute industry-wide awareness stands as a background to her latest project that includes a mosaic of fresh mixes, covers and original music. “DJ Kicks is part of the series that’s been going on for 25 years now. It’s so cool to be a part of and it’s a big honour,” she tells GAY TIMES. While DJ Kicks reinvents the modern terrains of techno-blending nostalgic eras with a contemporary landscape, Avalon brings forward a rehashed sound that darts between anxious anticipation and limitless energy. But despite its ecstatic sound, the DJ had a tough time bringing it all together. “In a lot of ways, I faced creative challenges through the rigidity of this series. The length of it has to fit on a compact disc, which is kind of crazy in the day and age of SoundCloud mixes. Every song had to be licensed and cleared because it was like a licensed mix. So the creative challenges of working within this kind of anachronistic framework was definitely a challenge. It was hard, but I think I came up with a pretty good resolution for some of these things.”
Seemingly pleased with the release, Avalon’s mind inevitably turned to the awkwardness of promoting a new set during a pandemic. So, when I ask how she’s feeling about the realities of touring, I’m not surprised when she replies with a rhetorical — “We’ve all had a lot of time to think about this, right?” Because, truthfully, we have. As a DJ that has built a career on underground clubs, shows and festivals, Avalon is one of the few artists braving a release during such an uncertain time. “I have a lot of feelings and thoughts on this,” she laughs. “It’s such a wacky time to do anything. It’s a wacky fucking time to be promoting anything. It’s hard to feel optimistic about a lot of things right now, in general. It just seems like promoting a DJ mix is not really high on the priority list. It’s really crazy. Sometimes it feels very defeating, but I also think that people appreciate the escapism of music and I think that’s still important. People seem to be excited about this so I’m really happy people are still listening to dance music even though no clubs are open.”
As clubs stay shut and venues continue to lose revenue, there’s not many options for live music right now. “In a lot of ways, it shows us how important those other things are,” the American artist stresses. “In the past decade, we’ve been slouching towards this assumption that everything is moving digital and can be done virtually and it really can’t! You can bemoan the hyper industrialization of club culture or music culture where everything is overblown and the crazy high festival ticket prices, but it is an industry and it is a lot of people’s jobs. It’s the reason why this machine goes around. You can’t just replace it with some streams online.”
There’s no doubt that Avalon would happily trade in any number of Zoom call interviews for what she calls her “real world feedback loops”. “When I’m at a show, someone might come up and say ‘I like your new song’ or I’ll play a new record and get feedback seeing if people are dancing,” she recalls. “Now, being stuck in my room, looking at numbers creeping up on music streaming services and realising ‘Oh, this is it. This is what I’m supposed to be celebrating.’ It’s weird and hard.”
As the success of release day lies in the headlines or reviews or number of streams on platforms, Avalon seems dejected at this new reality. “I’m trained to value these little KPI numbers, but it doesn’t feel that good,” she confesses. “A lot of these streaming numbers are created by playlist placement. The way people listen to streaming services is such as a silence filling machine instead of active listening. If you look at 100 plays, how many of those are someone actually sitting down listening, enjoying something? You can’t really tell because it’s all flattened into the same listen.”
As the release inevitably lined up with the frustrations of COVID-19, I ask Avalon if she’s happy with how things came together. “That’s a good question. Like any piece of art, I associate a lot of emotional memories with it. A lot of them are tangential anxiety, but I’m glad that it’s out. It was like it was pushed back a couple times. The stuff around it has been such a fuckin winding road, so I’m glad the ship has pulled into the harbour.”
Now the big day has arrived, Avalon plans to make the most of the break. “I’m gonna try and chill a little bit and maybe explore the unarmed green field of making brand new music. I’m excited about it,” she says, sounding more optimistic. “This has been taking up my field of view for a long time. Now that I feel like I have a homebase, I’m setting up a studio space outside the home. Oh, I’ve also picked up woodworking as a quarantine hobby.” Avalon Emerson, as always, proving she can creatively carve out a name for herself.