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Laura Jones Interview: Light and dark

Laura Jones spoke with John Thorp about the need to lose one’s self and the ever changing realities of living with a disorder that could directly affect your passion.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 17th Aug 2016

Back in 2011, DJ and producer Laura Jones sprung out of seemingly nowhere with ‘Love In Me’, an Ibiza conquering, delicate tech house anthem that defined a summer. Jones was already a highly skilled DJ, and was quickly taken under the wing by clubbing institutions such as fabric and Circoloco, while continuing to develop her studio ability.

Having been diagnosed with macular dystrophy in 2008, a degenerative eye disorder that has severely affected her vision, success since has been somewhat bittersweet, with Jones continuing to DJ on an international scale and hone her productions in the studio with her partner, Gavin Herlihy.

Now, Jones has launched Sensoramic, a new record label inspired by the human desire to expand all five senses, imbued with a notably psychedelic sound and aesthetic.

In the wake of the success of Sensomaric’s first release - Herilhy himself under his Karousel alias - Jones caught up with John Thorp for a wide reaching discussion touching her interest in Native American art and the challenges she has faced over the past few years ahead of her gig at The Rainbow Venues for Portal on Sunday 28th August.

What are the advantages to releasing your own music through your own label, and who inspired you to make the move and take on that responsibility? 

I’ve always wanted to do it for starters. I’ve been on a bit of a funny and interesting journey really, musically, right from the get-go. The whole ‘Love In Me’ thing [Laura’s 2011 Beatport hit] was very much right time, right place, and I definitely wouldn’t change it, as I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.

But when I took some time out from releasing last year to sit back and reflect a bit, to look at my record collection from the last ten years, and review how the journey had gone, it was positive and negative. You can over analyse, and one thing you’ll often find with artists, is they don’t like anything they did five years ago.

So without wanting to sound clichéd, my sound has undergone a bit of an evolution and after awhile you get to the point with the music that you’re making, that you want creative freedom over your output and the decision of what you put on your own imprint. There’s a lot of great music out there, and I want to bring my own vision of what a label could sound like to the table. 

Do you think the dance music industry is heading in a more artist led direction, through platforms like Bandcamp. There’s less need for a demo to hang around for nine months before it comes out, at which point you’re suddenly sick of it.

You’ve hit the nail on the head; you make a track, then it doesn’t come out for two years, you’ve moved on, and you’re now making music with different equipment, analogue gear instead of in the box instruments because you can afford more gear and that track you made two years ago that’s just come out doesn’t represent where you’re now at.

Also, I’m now able to invest a lot of time in the artwork itself and how the music is presented visually. Honestly, I’ve always invested my money and time into music, but never into art. And now music’s my job, it frees up, to a degree, a little bit of time to put energy into other things I might not have been able to before, back when I had a full time job and I was pursuing music as my 110% obsession.

Recently, all this hand stamping on records means the music should do the talking. But at the same time, for me personally I want vinyl I can look back at it ten years and be proud of it as an artistic statement both visually as well as musically.

The Sensoramic artwork is arranged by Sarah Sense, a Native American artist. That’s an arguably unusual, distinctive choice for a dance music label. How did that hook-up happen, and what about her work and sensibility do you think suits your vision for the label?

I’ve had always had an affinity towards Native American art and artisan craft jewellery, so I guess it stemmed from starting to pay a little more attention to that world. I came across Sarah and her art really mesmerised me. In the flesh, it’s texturised art influenced by the traditional basketweave passed down from generation to generation from her native tribe.

She uses that as an influence and inspiration to weave digital photography that she takes herself. So it’s a modern approach but at the same time carries on ancient cultural traditions that are entrenched in her heritage. And that has lots of parallels with where I see the label going in that sense. We’re always taking inspiration from our past, but I think it’s important to be forward thinking at the same time.

A lot of people might associate you with Visionquest, who you’ve played a lot with over the years, including at Sonar recently. You say Sensoramic is about pushing the senses, and I know that’s a running thread in their work and image too. How has your relationship with them influenced your perspective as a solo artist or label boss?

Well I guess we’re all like minded friends in the sense that we’re all searching for something more and that’s loosely where the ideas behind the label names have similarities. When I joined Visionquest, the name couldn’t have been more appropriate for myself, with a visual impairment!

It’s funny you’ve bought them up in correlation, as I’ve never seen them as being that similar. Sensoramic is more directly influenced by my own experiences and the idea of expansion of the senses as well as my own personal relationship with the world.

People expanding or escaping themselves seems to be a pronounced theme in electronic music of late...

These days thanks to the internet, if we have access to a computer we have a wealth of information at our fingertips. There is an abundance of ideas about food and diet, meditation, life, spirituality, yoga and more being shared around and we have much more access to ideas that could affect how long we live and how well we live.

It’s a really exciting time as even though there are a lot of dark things happening in the world, there is also a lot of positive expansion of our knowledge about the world and our place in it as well as how we can relate to each other. Really it’s all about a battle of information at the minute, good ideas versus bad ideas and I believe good ideas will always win.

As you reach the pressing stages of the first few releases, and the ball is rolling, is Sensoramic something that will naturally unfold now, or do you have a very specific game plan in terms of artists you’re pursuing?

To clarify, I’m certain of the direction that the label is going to go in to an extent. It’s very much going to sit somewhere between house and techno, with elements of minimalism in there. But I want music that I don’t feel is being overdone at the moment.

I’m not being held to ransom with genres. If somebody sends me a track and it’s more full on techno, I’m not going to say, “Well, I’m more of a minimal label…” If I really like it, I’ll put it out.

You were only 25 when you were diagnosed with Macular Dystrophy, in 2008. You’ve talked in the past about how this understandably lead you into bout of depression, which you were about turn around, fortunately.

Depression and anxiety seems to be a prescient topic at the moment on the club scene and across dance music in general. How, if at all, do you think attitudes towards mental health have changed for the better in the years since? 

I’ve seen four of five articles about dance music and mental health circulating, and I do think it’s really positive. Everyone wants to be a DJ now, and I think it’s really good for there to be a more open dialogue, as if you want to be a DJ it’s important you’re aware of just what you’re getting yourself in for.

People assume DJs live a glamorous, carefree life of constant success and partying but there is a dark side you don’t hear about, the overwhelming tiredness, the stress of keeping on top of things, the drive to be successful and on top of your game, dealing with the clique-iness of the industry and the constant battle to stay healthy which can all get you down. It’s multi-faceted as to why it’s a stressful thing. 

If you’re DJing every weekend for example you don’t sleep a lot. Even if you’re behaving yourself and not partying you’re playing til late and maybe sleeping an hour or two, before going to the airport, connecting somewhere, sleeping an hour or two on the flight but it’s not real sleep, getting to a new country, going to dinner.

Then maybe you can’t take a nap because your body clock is all over the place and suddenly it’s time to play again. You get to the next flight with no sleep, more connections then home. All you want to do is sleep for a week when you get back but you can’t because you have to stay on top of not just the business of being a DJ but the business of life itself! 

When you’re not sleeping enough you’re immune system is really weak and all that time on planes and in clubs means you’re surrounded by germs, so it’s a constant fight to stay healthy. And all of this is assuming you’re not partying so if you are that’s a whole extra dimension of problems on top. 

You have to learn to cope with this lifestyle otherwise it will run you into the ground. It’s easy to play well when you’re feeling refreshed and well slept and amongst friends. When you’re on your own on the other side of the world, on a different timezone, on an hours sleep, and you’re feeling sick but you have to play a festival, it’s a different matter entirely.

You have to switch on your stage persona even when playing is the last thing you feel like doing. The first thing most people do is resort to booze or drugs but I’ve learned to meditate to manage the stress and instil some confidence in me even when my brain is running on empty.

Did having a hit as huge as ‘Love In Me’ so instantly and early in your career add to that pressure and expectation?

Yes it did. Because people put you in a box and make a judgment on you for good or bad there and then which will always follow you around. 

‘Love In Me’ was one of the first tunes I’d finished, back when I was working in a 9-5 marketing job and miserable. Then suddenly I was playing every weekend but it could sometimes be a bit soul destroying when you start finding yourself booked for gigs that you don’t want to play.  

But that comes back again to how you let your stress manifest, and how to deal with it positively and productively. I feel like I’m only really getting going with my career now. Getting a handle on how to produce as well as DJ when you’ve been thrown in at the deep end has been no easy feat but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

To be both a producer and a DJ as well is incredibly hard as really to be a master of one of those trades you need to do it 24/7. To be a master of both trades and juggle touring life on top is a real challenge. Not everyone can pull it off. Move D or Ricardo Villalobos are examples of artists who operate on an extremely high level on both counts.

Since your diagnosis, how has your relationship with clubs changed in terms of sensory perception? It must be interesting at least to see, feel and hear them from a different angle than throughout your teens and early twenties. 

In the earlier days of touring. I was almost trying too hard to see what I was doing, often to the detriment of listening. If you put more energy than you might normally do into one sense then it’s going to be at the sacrifice of your other senses. And it did lead to me probably not playing my best and not shooting from the hip at times.

I was just trying so hard to see what was there, but there was a turning point where I started listening more, rather than living in the stress bubble of trying to see. So having this disease has positives too. You pick up on other sounds and energies that you wouldn’t otherwise. My boyfriend Gavin Herlihy has to help engineer and arrange my tracks for me now, but I hear things in music that he misses all the time. There always pros and cons, but I do still have my ears and that for me is a massive pro.

Obviously your condition doesn’t reduce your power and skill as a DJ at all, but it’s probably not viable for you to be rooting for dusty vinyl as you might once have. How have advances in technology assisted in your DJing?

85% of what I play is music I bought on vinyl, I just have to rip them to AIffs. CDJs have backlit screens so I’m able to read the names of the tracks but reading the labels on records is impossible but there are technologies on the horizon that might save the day.

Although Google Glass seems to have fallen on its arse, one of the companies that was bought out by Google is an Israeli tech company called OrCam who have developed a little black box you put on the side of your glasses that assists with vision problems. As you’re looking at something, it takes an image of it, effectively. Then it reads it back to you via a mini speaker by your ear.

The technology isn’t able to help me out just yet however. We tried it at home with all the curtains closed to simulate a club’s dark environment and it couldn't read the vinyl labels because of all the different crazy fonts on each record but I’m hoping, further down the line that they can get around these things.

There are a lot of intelligent people out there working on a lot of intelligent stuff so there is a lot of hope. I got this condition at the right time, as weird as that sounds. When I was first diagnosed, I wasn’t getting a lot of answers from the medical industry, and I came across a blog from a Swedish lady living with in her fifties. For most of her life there was never any light at the end of the tunnel, but there is with mine and thanks to technologies like gene editing there is a chance of there being a cure in my lifetime.

How at ease are you with your condition now and into the future? Have you grown into the reality or had to do work to alter your perspective? 

Honestly, it’s something I’ve definitely got my head round, to an extent. But then, you can never be fully prepared as it’s always getting worse gradually. I’m a lot more positive and mentally tougher than I used to be. When I was first diagnosed, I remember being told the news so coldly. I was 25, sat in this room alone and in my experience, in the case of bereavement or bad news being spring on you like that, it takes a little while to sink in. But when I heard my diagnosis I literally cried instantly.

It’s not been an easy ride, and I think what I’ve always struggled with, is that I’d like to be a prolific producer. This all sort of happened around the time I was teaching myself to produce. But at the same time, you work around these things, and the body is amazing in how it’s able to cope with whatever adversity is thrown at it.

The realization that I wouldn’t be able to do this by myself, that I’d have to work with an engineer means that even though I remain very hands on, writing the music, using sequencers, writing drums, etc, it’s just not quite the same when you’re not in the driver’s seat, tweaking every last detail yourself. When I was learning, it was very a process of much trial and error but now learning to communicate my ideas is the most challenging thing.

But I approach it positively. I go to hypnosis sessions. I do meditation and yoga every morning and getting on with it is just about making the time for all of these important things.

Laura Jones plays at The Rainbow Venues' Blackbox on Sunday 28th August for Portal with Pan-Pot, tINI and Butch. Tickets are available from the box below.

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