Features I by I 02.06.14

Aphex Twin, Mantronix and the soundsystems of Nottingham: why Ronika is not your average popstar

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ronika interview

It’s not clear whether Ronika knows how good she is.

Not that she is overly bashful about her music – she is rightly proud of the years of work she’s put in and her ethic of self-determination – but when the idea that she might achieve pop success is mentioned, she narrows her eyes and becomes guarded in her answers, as if this is a very strange suggestion. It’s not that odd an idea at all though: her songs are sophisticated but have hooks for days, which are extremely easy to imagine coming out of the radio, and are precisely what saves her from merely being a retro act.

Yes, she heavily mines eighties freestyle, disco-boogie and pop (and rocks a look that combines glam and dishevelment in a perfect balance evoking early, new wave Madonna), but there’s an immediacy and force of personality to her songwriting – and a club-honed directness to her production – that blows all that aside. Despite being named after a legendary record shop in her hometown of Nottingham, ‘Selectadisc’ is not “record collector pop”, it’s the real deal. She’s someone who revels in being part of a living music scene, as became very apparent once I got off the subject of popstardom…

“From a REALLY young age he got me into everything from Metro Area to A Guy Called Gerald, early Aphex, Carl Craig…”

So, first album is always a symbolic thing; do you feel like there’s a step up? Are you speaking to a different audience?

Yeah, well, I’ve just done interviews with NME, The Mirror, Mojo, The Observer, various bits and bobs. All the other releases I’ve put out have had quite nice press actually, but yeah, this is the first time I’ve had features, so that’s different. But it’s an independent release, so it’s all pretty laid back, I’m not overwhelmed by it or anything. My only real concern is the vinyl coming back on time!

Was the album something you were always working towards as you put out your earlier stuff?

Hmmm… I’ve had a steady stream of singles, EPs, but I did want to do something that felt cohesive as a whole. It’s fine to just keep putting stuff out as often as you can, and I make new stuff all the time, but I did want to do something that felt like a vision, a sound, something coming together.

It’s a really pop album – do you see yourself at a point where you might call yourself a pop musician as such?

Sure, yes, at its heart it is a pop record – but it draws on lots of other more underground influences, dance influences, hip hop, and obviously the predominant thing is that it’s influenced by a lot of eighties club subgenres. So there’s a pop theme but there’s other influences in there. But am I a pop artist? Ummmmm…

Well in blunt terms, could you picture yourself standing next to Jessie J and Tinie Tempah at some T4 event?

[stoney faced] No. I’m a producer, I’m a DJ, I see myself as somewhere in between really. I still DJ, I still produce, and those are things I like to do – writing and singing songs is another part, but not the be-all and end-all. I’m not ashamed to make pop music, not at all, but I really don’t think I fit alongside those kind of big commercial pop names.

What if one of your songs were to really blow up on a commercial level, though, would you play the game, do those kind of gigs – the Capital FM, T4 kind of stuff, the TV appearances?

I’d have to take it as it came. Some things I’d do, some things I might not do. I’ve not been in that position so I really don’t know. But look, the decisions that I’ve made with the record, I could have gone down a mainstream route – I’ve had offers, people wanting to turn me into a mainstream pop artist, and I’ve turned them down to do what I want to do, to do my vision which is obviously having my own elements in the production and keeping my own influences and sound. So yes, so far, I have avoided some of what you’re talking about already. I didn’t want to be told, “We’re going to put you in the studio with a load of pop producers.” I have worked hard to produce my own stuff, to learn how to do that, to get my own sound, and it was important to me to get some of that into my own record. It was important that what I’d learned didn’t get lost.

You started clubbing quite young and remain connected to the club/DJ world – how did that influence your style?

OK, I started going out when I was 13, 14, and it was for the music from the beginning. This was under the influence of one of my brothers. I’ve got two older brothers and one was really into electronic music, and from a REALLY young age he got me into everything from Metro Area to A Guy Called Gerald, early Aphex, Carl Craig…those are the sort of things I was exposed to. I absorbed them, and wanted to hear those sounds in a proper setting as soon as I could. In parallel, my other brother was more into pop, alternative, new wave stuff like New Order, The Cure, Pet Shop Boys, and those were influencing me as well. A lot of this would be in house parties, because in Nottingham there’s a lot of soundsystems that would come and set up in a house. So that was my playground really.

OK, that’s interesting – so do you think seeing it being done in that very DIY sort of setup has fed through into your own need for self-determination?

Definitely! It was really a very organic, DIY sort of scene. In fact, one of the soundsystems was called DiY – so yeah, it did feel like something you could get involved with, whoever you were, without any sort of mystery or barrier to getting in. I did start out handing out flyers for clubs, just to get involved and help me get in, because I was obviously too young [laughs], then I started working on cloakrooms and stuff. Then I started going down a local studio, from the age of 14, just to start trying to pick up on that side of things.

So you wanted to make specifically the kind of music you were hearing out, even at that age?

Yep, was listening to so much electronic music, and hip hop as well, and I knew the beats were as important to me as writing songs, so my first thought was to get into the production side. I did start the guitar when I was 13, so I had been playing around with writing songs, but the production idea was what grabbed me.

ronika interview 2 - 6.1.2014

And did you see yourself making records, or was it just something you wanted to try out?

Oh no, I took it quite seriously. Sure, at that time I was experimenting and finding my feet, but from a young age it was always music for me, I was very blinkered – and then as soon as I’d played around with production, I started to find my sound, and that was it. The first stuff I messed around with was inspired by early electro, Egyptian Lover and Mantronix, that kind of thing. Obviously that’s still an influence, but it was much more so back then! I was discovering stuff like Kraftwerk, and also Tiga and The Hacker and stuff.

So what did you envisage coming from this? Were you actually thinking “I want to be a famous DJ/producer” at this stage?

Well I don’t know… ummm… OK, yes I did really. Yeah. It’s a good question though, I’m just trying to think how exactly I did picture myself. I always saw myself as a jack-of-all-trades really, DJ-producer-singer-writer, because I did take the songwriting quite seriously at the same time – but to begin with that was separate from making beats.

So how did those early songs sound? Did they always have a pop/club feel?

Not always. I’ve dabbled in more souly, hip hop stuff as well, and a few other things – but then I arrived at this sound where I am now, started making stuff influenced more by disco, boogie, Italo and freestyle about six years ago. I’ve just been working on this sound ever since.

What’s the reason you stayed in Nottingham at this point rather than going somewhere you could maybe have made connections more quickly?

Money. It’s expensive, London. That was really it. I love Nottingham and everything, it is my home town, but I also love London, I love New York, I love Berlin – I would’ve loved to live in any of those cities, but being an artist is about putting time in. In Nottingham, I could work part-time so I could do this, not be working every hour of the day just to live. There’s no way I could’ve done that in London.

And you were married young… That’s not something that people would normally associate with someone who has their eyes fixed on musical success.

Well, my husband’s a musician too, he makes electronic music too, so it’s actually a really nice creative partnership. Yeah, we got married very young but we’ve grown together, grown up together, we still go out together a lot – you know what they say, “the couple that raves together stays together!” [laughs heartily] It’s really good, he inspires me, we inspire each other, we run things past each other, we’re each other’s quality control. We’ve got a studio we share, which is nice, and I couldn’t imagine any other way…

So when did you start making connections into the wider industry, or getting a sense people were listening?

I put my first EP out in 2010, that was Do or Die, and that was my first moment of just feeling, right I’ve got to start my own label and put something out, because otherwise I’ve got all this music sitting on a hard-drive and I don’t know what I’m waiting around for. That went down quite well, then my second EP started to get me quite a bit of press, and slowly I started to get opportunities to work with people like Hervé and Mylo, a Dutch producer called Shook – and now I’ve just done a couple of tracks with some nu-disco guys including one of my absolute heroes that I wish I could say but had better not until it’s announced… But I had to make this happen. I had to put stuff out there, make sure it was put in front of people – and I did that over four years, until I finally decided, right, now’s the time to put out something a bit more cohesive.

What was the trigger for that?

I’d always wanted to do it. In my head I had all the songs for the album bubbling around, and it was a matter of pulling it all together from various demos and updating bits of production, getting happy with all the mixes, and that just felt like a bit of a big project. So it was just getting that together. Having my management on board was a big help, I joined up with them after my first couple of releases, so they helped me A&R the album as it were, and yeah, it was really practical stuff like that that decided that this was the time for the album.

So if you’re cautious about stepping through the mirror into the pop world, is there a part of music where you do feel particularly at home?

Well, when I started doing stuff with disco influences it was pretty much on the underground – obviously those sounds have blown up a lot in the last year or so, but I still feel like the obvious place for me are in with that disco world, all the disco, boogie, electro, retro-house elements in what I do fits nicely there. I fit on those sort of bills.

So a Soul Clap, Todd Terje, Lindstrom sort of world… that sort of laid-back clubbing crowd?

Exactly, yeah.

And are you still planning ahead?

Well, I still feel dead inspired, so I want to keep making music as prolifically as possible, I want to keep on doing collaborations. I’d like to produce for some other people, I’d like to build my label a bit and put out other people on it, and just more gigs. There’s so many people I’d like to work with. I wish I could mention the one I’ve just done because its someone whose tunes I’ve loved for like ten years and that was a real ambition fulfilled. But outside the disco thing, I’d absolutely love to work with someone like Dâm-Funk, or Onra, who is just something else, or Bibio… and that’s just one style. There’s so much out there that’s interesting and that I’d like to do!

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