Maya Jane Coles on dance music’s growing diversity: “I would be the one girl playing alongside loads of other white men”

HUNGER sits down with the iconic producer/DJ following the release of her latest EP, ‘LDN.’

It’s rare that a song truly stands the test of time, influences generations to come and becomes a cultural zeitgeist, but ‘What They Say’ is precisely all of those things – and more. Crafted by British-Japanese electronic underground icon Maya Jane Coles, that track was just a taster of the incredibly varied and captivating musical styles we’d see the producer delve into later down the line. Coles’ influences spread far and wide; growing up, she became enamoured with just about everything from punk and soul to hip-hop and jazz – leaving no musical stone unturned. Those influences and her experimental attitude have led to her becoming one of the most beloved artists to have come through the 2010s, with a loyal fanbase continuing to follow her worldwide. 

It’s not always been plain sailing for the star; after dropping her first-ever single, ‘Sick Panda,’ in 2007, Coles wouldn’t release her debut album, Comfort, until 2013. With that project, Coles proved she was a force to be reckoned with, incredibly producing, engineering and mixing the album entirely by herself – a testament to her unmatched passion for her craft. As her career progressed, Coles became a mainstay in the music world, and her talents saw her take on shows across an incredible 40 different countries. Whether it was the most prestigious clubs in the world, fashion runways, the Tate Modern or even stadiums, Coles’ eclectic mix of dancefloor-filling tunes has been adored across the globe.

And 16 years on from her debut single, she’s still, remarkably, continuing her musical evolution, and finding new sonics. Her latest EP, LDN (released under her Nocturnal Sunshine alias), sees the musician team up with rapper, actor and childhood friend CHA$EY JON£S for their second collaborative project. Returning to her first love, hip-hop, the grimy, brooding project is filled with cutthroat lyricism that is perfectly complemented by Coles’ ability to craft soundscapes equally energetic as they are unsettling. Here, HUNGER catches up with the star to discuss the process behind her latest EP, what drives her to keep striving upwards, and dance music’s diverse evolution.

With all the success you’ve experienced throughout your career, how do you maintain the hunger to keep improving?

I don’t think I’ll ever be at a point where I sit back and feel like I’m done. I don’t feel like I’ve reached my peak. I’m constantly growing and evolving. Musically, there’s so much more I want to do, but other stuff too. I like to keep learning and keep challenging myself. Even with my music productions, there’s always more to learn technically, and I feel like I’m still always improving.

What do you think is the reason behind your longevity?

I just keep doing what I love. If it doesn’t make me happy, I won’t do it. When it comes down to business, sometimes that can slow you down, there are always opportunities that will “make you bigger” or get you more exposure, but at the end of the day, the most important thing for me is to keep feeling the passion about everything in my music and what I’m doing in general. Then the journey becomes easier. When you start doing things you don’t like and don’t stay true to yourself, things start to get miserable. Authenticity = longevity.

How did your EP, LDN, come about with CHA$EY JON£S?

So, CHA$EY and I are actually good friends from school, and we used to make music together back in the day. When we were like 15, we tried to start a rap duo, and I used to make beats on a cracked version of Cubase and record our vocals with a tiny clip-on radio mic. Definitely utilising minimal equipment to the max. When we left school, we didn’t see each other for a few years. Then we reconnected again through the rave scene. Fast forward a significant amount of time and we ended up back in the studio, this time with years of experience, and the tunes just kept flowing. Making music with close friends is the best.

What was the creative process like on that project?

Ideas just flow really organically when we’re in the studio. We’ve done so many sessions together at this point, and I don’t think there’s ever been one where we haven’t come out with some gold by the end. CHA$EY’s flow is so diverse, he’s always up for spitting bars on anything, and my productions are super diverse, too, so our sound together doesn’t ever get samey samey. We definitely have our UK/grime/bass side and then our more classic hip-hop side. The EP isn’t a one-off release; it’s an ongoing project now, so there will be so much more to come.

What has been the most surreal moment in your career so far?

Eating caviar and drinking champagne with Depeche Mode on the top floor of the Four Seasons hotel in Moscow just after warming up for them in a stadium was a pretty surreal moment for me!

You’re known for having a hand in every element of the creation of your music. Is that something you’re very particular about?

To go through the process yourself is the only way to learn and really master the techniques. I might not be the best at first, but the more I learn through trial and error and through seeing my own progression, the better I get at each part of the process. It may be a much slower journey, but if I had someone else helping me from the start, I wouldn’t have the same skills that I have now. So even though I can listen back to some of my really old back catalogue and hate some of my mixdowns or pick flaws in the production, I’m happy I’ve always gone through the entire process myself as I wouldn’t be at the level I am now if I hadn’t.

Obviously, you’ve explored a massive amount of genres and sounds over the years, is there anything left to tick off?

There will always be more to tick off, I don’t like to limit myself, and anything is possible. I still have so much more to explore in the classical/film score side of things, the pop world, the songwriting world, and other electronic genres. It’s endless, really!

How do you think dance music has evolved since you were coming up in the scene?

The scene feels like a completely different place from when I first started out. It’s incredible seeing so much more diversity when it comes to gender, race, sexuality, and even general music styles. We still have a long way to go, but at least the cogs are in motion and are moving in the right direction. I enjoy DJing a lot more now than I did years ago, as I meet so many more like-minded people when touring. It wasn’t like that before. I would be the one girl playing alongside loads of older white men playing really similar music, and it would get pretty boring.

What advice would you give to someone trying to make it in the music industry today?

Don’t get too caught up in what other people are doing or what is “popular”. Just do you and focus on your own craft; the more unique, the better. When you make something that sounds amazing, people will want to buy/listen/imitate/get inspiration from you regardless of what is trending. Be the one to set the trends; it’s way more exciting than following.

What’s been your favourite venue to perform at over the years?

I always love Coda in Toronto, Vent in Tokyo, Sound in LA, Fabric in London, and Flash in Washington D.C. I could list so many.

What artists have been in your rotation recently?

Brennan Savage, Otik, Leikeli47, Interplanetary Criminal, UNIIQU3.

What album would you pick to soundtrack your life?

I guess any one of my own would work!

You’re also a talented illustrator; would you say that’s as important as music is to you?

Thank you! Music is always going to come first for me, but creating visual art also makes me super happy. I do wish I spent more time on it, though. I feel like with the visual stuff, the process is slightly more frustrating for me, and it’s difficult to get to a point where I’m 100% happy with something. Actually, I’m very rarely 100% happy with my pieces. The more time I spend on my artwork, the less it will be like that, I’m sure. Everything is about practice and about the number of hours you put in.

Are you looking to go down any other creative avenues in the future?

Oh yes, one million per cent. Fashion, film, photography, 3D animation, cooking, and audiovisual installations/immersive experiences are all things I am interested in.

What can we expect from you in the coming months?

More tunes, more gigs and hopefully, more artwork. I’m touring much more heavily in the US this year, so I will be based more in LA. It’s an exciting change and hopefully will unlock another side to my creativity and production work.

WriterChris Saunders