It seems that Maya Jane Coles lives in her own province of the dance-music world where she doesn’t realize a lot of givens.
Cases in Point: When she started producing, she assumed everyone made their own music, so she spent years perfecting that craft. Also, she didn’t realize many DJs pre-plan their sets, something she would find nerve-wracking – so she developed her own personal approach to playing out, one that generally evolves from gig to gig.
But, the goggles through which Coles views her professional setting have served the 28-year-old London native well, and her hard work, especially in the studio, has paid off enormously.
Her dedication to production landed her two awards: DJ Mag’s 2010 Best of British Breakthrough Producer and 2015’s Best Producer for her Nocturnal Sunshine project. She’s released three full-length albums, one as Nocturnal Sunshine and two others, 2013’s Comfort and this year’s Take Flight, under her own name.
The 24 songs on Take Flight focus on the more personal. With the CD’s Disc One, it offers more home listening, as it were, while Disc Two features more dancefloor-centered material in Coles’ patented and inimitable house/techno style. This output stands alongside her productions for other artists like Little Boots, Chelou and GAPS, in addition to her in-demand remixes for top-level talent, which inevitably break into playlists worldwide. Her original productions have, in turn, been used to create mainstream hits – in particular, Coles’ 2010 track “What They Say” which was sampled for Nicki Minaj’s 2015 radio smash, “Truffle Butter.”
Since 2012’s “Easier to Hide”—the lead-up single to Comfort—all of Coles’ musical output has primarily been released on her own I/AM/ME label (with artwork designed by herself). This is a personal choice, as she has no shortage of offers from major labels to sign her up – not a surprise as her following remains notable, if social media is anything to go by.
Coles’ crowds follow her across the globe from festival stages to underground clubs, and every venue in between, which can be museums, fashion shows, or enormous sports arenas. In fact, this past summer, she opened for Depeche Mode on the Eastern European leg of the legendary band’s “Global Spirit Tour,” hitting mega-venues in Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Romania.
There isn’t a club or a festival with a recognizable name anywhere on the planet that hasn’t had Coles behind its decks. In spinning USBs on a Pioneer DJ CDJ/DJM system, her selections fit the setting, but always have a distinct Maya Jane Coles marks on them, documented by her high-profile compilations DJ Kicks (2012) and Fabric 75 (2015).
A few weeks prior to the release of Take Flight, the generally press-shy (but nonetheless winsome) Coles explained her world the way she sees it.
DJ Times: How was touring with Depeche Mode for you?
Coles: I was never a Depeche Mode fanatic, but I’ve always massively respected them for their attitude toward what they do and the kind of movement they’re involved with. Even though our music is completely different, I think the mentality behind it is pretty similar. Their fanbase spans such a huge, diverse range of people. It’s what I want to reach with my music. They’re super lovely guys, really friendly, made an effort to talk and hang out and were very sweet to say, “Oh, we’re really big fans of yours and thank you so much for doing this.”
DJ Times: How did you determine what would be appropriate to play? Was there a lot of planning involved?
Coles: Deciding what to play to a stadium of 80,000 people that are waiting to see someone that isn’t you was the most stressful thing ever. I was thinking what can I play that is catering to their audience more? But I didn’t want to compromise anything or change anything. Generally, what I play is quite eclectic, anyway. I tailor my sets depending on if it’s a festival or an intimate 300-capacity club. With this tour, I did pre-plan stuff, which is something I don’t ever do. But then when it actually came to the gigs, I ended up playing different stuff to what I’d planned anyway. It’s difficult playing to that kind of audience because there’s a real detachment from the crowd. Even the people that are in the front row that have moved to the front to see me play, I’m so far away from them. I played what I wanted to play and got a good response so that was pretty amazing. Even got a chant for my name on a couple of the gigs afterwards. In a stadium, that’s pretty insane.
DJ Times: What did you think you were going to play, and what did you actually end up playing?
Coles: I had way more downtempo stuff ready. It’s not a rave. It’s people coming in, buying drinks, getting ready to see the show. But when it came to it, people at these gigs were ready to have some fun. I was going back and forth with different styles and they were very receptive to what I played. Anyone that’s a hardcore Depeche Mode fan just gets music in general.
DJ Times: How do you approach different types of gigs, from festivals to clubs, daytime to nighttime, with the massive range of venues and locations you are booked to play?
Coles: They key thing is to only play things I like. That’s the only consistency. What changes is, if I play in a really small, dark, underground club where it’s got an amazing sound system and you’re completely enclosed in it, I play a lot more bass, hypnotic, stripped-back stuff, longer tracks that are more techno-based. At festivals, I play stuff that will reach out to and resonate with a lot more people. I play a bit more of my own stuff—which I don’t often play.
DJ Times: Why don’t you play your own music more?
Coles: I’m always trying to play fresh new music. By the time an album comes out, for me, the tracks are so old and rinsed. I’m focusing on the next album now. I play more stuff that’s unreleased because I’m super-excited about it.
DJ Times: Are there particular venues that you feel are more conducive to allowing you to do what you would like as a DJ?
Coles: When I play in London, they’re usually my favorite sets. I have quite a big fanbase here that have been rooting for me from when I first started playing out, before I ever traveled, when I was playing East London clubs. It goes way back and I can really feel that in the crowd. With the whole U.K. sound, there have been phases of garage and breaks and jungle and all kinds of stuff, so people pick up on it when you drop in a track that’s totally unexpected. Some crowds don’t get that at all. In London, you can really go anywhere with it. Also, all my best friends are always at my gigs, so it becomes like one big family party.
DJ Times: You’ve played a few back-to-back sets this year, with Heidi and Kim Ann Foxman and Wax Wings. Is this something you’d like to do more of?
Coles: Back-to-back sets aren’t ever really a choice. I feel some people prefer to play back-to-back because you can kind of hide, or if anything goes wrong, no one’s directly to blame. DJing is so personal, I prefer being in control. I only play back-to-back with good friends. It’s got to be natural. I’ve never done a back-to-back set with somebody that the promoter has just suggested. Usually, if I’m asked for a back-to-back set, then I’ll invite a good friend. We never have to chat about what to play or talk about it in any way beforehand. The one I did with Heidi, I hadn’t seen her for a few months and we hadn’t even spoken that entire month. We just turned up, played, and it was seamless. It’s stress-free.
DJ Times: You’ve had a bit of stress recently with the passing of your mother, which you posted about after your gig at Printworks London, which you played the day after her passing.
Coles: It’s something you’ll never understand until it happens to you. In that situation, the cancer, the lead-up to the very end, which is the scariest part, I was terrified of going on tour or traveling because I was like, “Oh my God, if I’m away and anything happens, what do I do?” I was thinking of canceling all my gigs and my mum kept saying, “Don’t cancel anything – I don’t want you to cancel anything.” She wouldn’t want me to stop what I’m doing at any point. I secretly did cancel some stuff here and there. I wanted to be in London to see her as much as I could.
DJ Times: Your post was very personal, very real, and incredibly touching. And it might sound like a cliché, but what you said about “music really is the healer” rang true.
Coles: The first week of the Depeche Mode tour, my dad hadn’t been in a good way, for obvious reasons. He was looking to go somewhere for a week to be detached from London life and anything to do with my mum, to do something fresh and have the time away. I suggested he come to the first show in St. Petersburg. He’s never been to a big show of mine, ever. He came out there and honestly, it was very emotional. He had the best time. For him to see a show like that, once-in-a-lifetime thing for him to be a part of that, it was really nice. Music really is the healer.
DJ Times: In order to most efficiently access your music, particularly on a night like that first night of the Depeche Mode tour, do you have an organizational system for your USBs?
Coles: I keep things in chronological order. Every time I play a gig, everything new I’ve got for that gig is listed as the date of that gig and it’s in that folder. Then there are folders of archives of old stuff. I try and keep things fairly organized because my brain can’t deal. I roughly know where everything is. That was the difficult thing switching to USB for me because I was so used to visually categorizing stuff and picking stuff out by just seeing the color or whatever, which you can’t with USBs.
DJ Times: What’s your general approach to a typical set?
Coles: I try and play the new stuff that has been sent that week, but mix it in with ideas I’ve been working on or old stuff. It’s a mish-mash of everything. I had to play a set that was for TV recently. Everything had to be cleared in advance, which meant I had to submit my tracklist before and I realized how much anxiety it gives me to pre-plan an exact set with no possibility of change. I didn’t realize so many DJs have a pre-planned set. They feel anxious if they don’t have that because they don’t know what they’re going to play. For me, my worst fear is to play to a crowd and they don’t really get what I’m playing, but I have to play the track I have locked in next.
DJ Times: Were there DJs you particularly admired when you were starting to get into the music?
Coles: When I first got into music production, it was completely outside of the DJ world. It was hip-hop/trip-hop kind of stuff. I started going raving when I was 17 in East London with friends who would go to these warehouse parties. I thought I hated house and techno, but it was actually really good. I heard quite a lot of DJs without knowing who I was listening to. I was never a DJ fangirl. I’d like listening to the music, but I wouldn’t necessarily be like, “Oh my God, so-and-so is playing – I have to go and see them.” I was more like that about music that influenced me growing up like Björk and Massive Attack. They held more of a wow factor for me. Labels like Poker Flat, Mobilee, Innervisions, and Ovum were my first glimpse of that music when I started buying vinyl.
DJ Times: Your original intention was not to be a DJ/producer per se, but more of a non-dance music producer?
Coles: When I started learning how to use music production software—Cubase when I was 14, then I switched to Logic a year later and I’ve used it ever since—from I’d say 15, I was so certain that was what I was going to do with my life. DJing started two, three years later after and that made me change direction in music. It was after I started buying vinyl that I thought I might like DJing. Also, I realized if you want to make a career as a producer, one, if people buy your music, they’re going to ask you to DJ, and two, music sales aren’t really sufficient enough these days to purely make a living around selling records. And I just grew to really love it.
DJ Times: How did you learn to DJ? Was it using vinyl?
Coles: I had some friends that were DJs that I had a couple of sessions with, but then I decided I really needed to teach myself. I ended up getting a grant when I was 17 to buy music equipment and managed to get a whole bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to get otherwise. I bought Technics 1210s and because I was more into hip hop, a Vestax mixer, which is more what scratch DJs use. I was playing vinyl for a bit, but once I became a touring DJ, I never played out on vinyl.
DJ Times: What was the grant?
Coles: National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts [NESTA] had a pilot scheme to pick eight young people based in the U.K. who specialized in any field within arts, science and technology and were ahead of their years with what they did. When I was at school I did a few free, government-funded summer courses where they had a studio. A couple of the tutors put me forward for this grant and I got picked. They gave me £10,000 to develop my creativity, which is insane to think about it now because there’s nothing like that anymore. As a 17-year-old that wanted to buy some decks and a new laptop and the right software for production, I was like, “Oh my God, this is unreal.” It totally helped me be able to spend my full time focusing on what I wanted to do for a while without having to actually think about a shitty part-time job that’s going to eat up all my time just to be able to buy the things that I needed to use for what I wanted, which is what most people have to do.
DJ Times: You’ve said when you started producing you assumed everyone did their own songwriting, producing, engineering, mixing, so you focused on developing those skills, which is not necessarily the norm.
Coles: Regardless of gender, it’s just a thing in the dance world. But there are a lot of new, emerging artists I’ve come across that totally do everything. They remind me of myself when I was younger and trying to make it in the same way.
DJ Times: How long did it take to get your work to a competitive standard?
Coles: If you want to get good at something, the key thing is time. Anyone can get good at pretty much anything if you spend a ridiculous amount of time on it. I was ahead because I started when I was 14. I ate, slept, breathed music from that age. I’d use my school’s crappy studio, which was basically just a PC and a keyboard. I would go after school with my best friend and we’d sit there for hours until the cleaners kicked us out. I’d go home where I had a cracked version of Cubase and I would just sit on it. I’d barely sleep from working on music all the time. If you decide to start doing that when you’re 22, you don’t have that kind of disposable time that you do when you’re 14. As you get older, life gets in the way.
DJ Times: You’ve reached a point where as diverse as your productions are, they are very identifiably you, including all 24 tracks on the current double album.
Coles: I wanted to cross genres without it sounding all over the place. I feel like hopefully it carries enough of my personality so someone that’s never heard the tracks before to hear any one of them and be like, “Oh, that’s Maya’s track.” I did play a few things out from Disc Two before they’d even been premiered. “Werk,” for example, I played it out quite a bit before it came out. Instantly, everyone knew it was my track. I thought, “This is cool – people are starting to know my sound without having heard new tracks before.” That took a long time. As an artist, there was a point when I had the realization that now all my music sounds like it’s my music. Until I got to that point, while you’re still learning, music you make is all over the place. You make things that don’t sound like you at all. Maybe it sounds too influenced by something else you’ve heard. That’s how you learn.
DJ Times: Is your studio in your home?
Coles: I’ve always liked working from home. I travel so much, the last thing I want to do is commute to a studio outside of my house. I just moved and I’m building the studio now. I’ve never had a fully soundproofed studio in my house before, so it’s pretty amazing to be able to work on music at any time of day or night and not have to worry about neighbors. I need to have daylight in my studio. Essentially, you’re building a room within a room and, quite often, the case is you don’t have any daylight if you’re in a big building. I want to make it as homely and comfortable and cozy as possible, the ultimate relaxation space as well as being functional.
DJ Times: What is your studio set-up at the present?
Coles: My set-up itself is super-basic. I have a desktop, but because I work on my laptop all the time when I’m away, I never bother even turning on the actual iMac. There are Genelec monitors, lots of guitar effects units, three guitars and a bass guitar that I use in loads of my tracks to create sounds. If I’m creating a sub-bass sound, I’ll often record from an actual bass guitar as the sound source and then sample it in and then replay it on the keyboard. A couple of MIDI keyboards. I have some old MIDI sound modules. I have the [E-MU Systems] Proteus 1000, which is what U.K. hip-hop producers used to use way back. I used to use it when I was 15 on one of the summer courses. When I got that grant, it was one of the first things I bought. I don’t even know if anyone still knows what it is. Until recently, I was using it loads. I don’t use any external synths. Everything I do is in the computer.
DJ Times: Are there particular plug-ins you’re favoring?
Coles: Native Instruments Kontakt and Battery are essentials for me. I have some user-made random plug-ins that I’ve found or that people have recommended to me that are really cool. Most of the time I use the built-in sampler on Logic, the ESX24. I’ve used the same set-up for such a long time and don’t really feel like I need 30 different modular synths and old analog gear. I feel I can make what I love with what I have. Sometimes I feel like people have way too much equipment and not the right ideas.
DJ Times: What do you like to use as sound sources?
Coles: I like to use samplers mainly. I’ll create my own sounds within Logic on the ESX24 or ES1. You can do so much with them. If you know what to do, you can really make sounds your own. I sample my voice a lot and make instruments out of my voice. A lot of sounds that might sound like synths are actually my voice being sampled. I like creating stuff from raw elements and then effecting them loads to make them sound electronic. My stuff has an organic sound and it’s probably because it’s literally recorded raw then sampled then effected. I feel it keeps the richness of the natural stuff.
DJ Times: If you have a sound you’re trying to create already in mind, how do you translate that to your voice in order to get the raw sound that will eventually become what you’re hearing in your head?
Coles: I work on tracks all the time. I’ll sing something or say something and it will just be ideas. I’m not a full-on songwriter – I just sometimes like to write songs. But a lot of stuff I make will never see the light of day. I’ll still have the ideas left and I’ll take an a cappella I’ve recorded from a previous track that I never released and import the file into Battery or the ESX24 and then chop up pieces of the vocal or words or sounds and then effect them and play them on the keys, replay a melody. It all started from me having access to loads of old a cappellas or I’d rip old a cappellas off vinyl and do the same thing. When you start releasing music on a large scale, unless it’s a bootleg white-label thing, you can’t just use samples like that. But that was how I learned, so I decided to keep doing the same thing but with my own vocal and that became my signature thing.
DJ Times: What’s an example of that on Take Flight?
Coles: “Trails.” All the sounds on there are my voice. That’s a good example of how I would sample one simple sound of my vocal and create a melody and composition with it.
DJ Times: What microphone do you prefer to use? Do you employ a signal chain for your vocal?
Coles: I use a Røde NT1000 straight into my audio interface. Everything is treated afterward. When I’m recording, I’ll monitor with effects on it, slight reverb in the chorus or something, but everything is just going in direct.
DJ Times: What about the vocal contributions on Take Flight? Are those recorded with you?
Coles: The stuff with Chelou, we always work together. All the others are sent completely raw, first take. Apart from Rachel from GAPS, which was perfect, we did a lot of back and forth, which is usually the case when I work with people remotely.
DJ Times: What are some changes you’ve personally noticed between Comfort and Take Flight?
Coles: When I released Comfort, it was more about showing that I wasn’t just about one thing. After a long run of club-based releases leaning more towards house and techno, I wanted to showcase my poppier side. With Take Flight, I wanted to merge the two worlds a little more. I decided to work on fewer collaborations than I did on Comfort, as the music I make generally feels way more personal when I work on my own. I hope Take Flight carries the same essence and personality as Comfort, but also shows progression and evolution in my production. At the end of the day, I always want my latest album to be better than the last.