Softcoresoft: In Conversation

Montreal-based DJ, producer and live performer, Softcoresoft emerged out of her local scene in a relatively short space of time. Coining this musical project only four or five years ago, her acclaim has risen in such a way that she is recognised by international publications and platforms, that stretch far beyond her home turf. Musically, she blends textures and feelings from techno, acid, trance, EBM and even industrial genres, that she has procured over the years and steeped into the tea of dancefloor-geared acid-techno she now makes.

An energetic and passionate character, she throws herself into her many projects that orbit in sync with her production ventures, largely encompassing socially-geared work. Whether that be curating and releasing music on benefit compilations, that look to combat international social issues, or providing a platform for women and marginalised groups in her local community, these sentiments extend throughout much of Softcoresoft’s universe, becoming a force that drives her daily.

With such an interesting and inspirational array of things to talk about, not to mention a killer EP on Lobster Theremin, we stepped into the world of Softcoresoft, delving deeper into her journey up to now.

Your parents are from Romania, but I understand you have lived in Canada since you were three years old. Can you tell us about some of your early experiences with music and where your musical journey has taken you so far?

I’ve never really linked my musical trajectory back to my childhood. But one thing I’ll say is that Romanians do love music, and their gatherings are very festive and dancey. (Have you ever listened to balkan music? It’s basically gabber but with trumpets and accordions!) When I was a kid, my parents and grandparents would listen to Spanish music, Romanian pop and folk, disco, as well as what was on the radio, like Maria Vidal. In high school, I listened to a lot of reggaeton and indie rock, I eventually came into new wave and more directly electronic genres.

In my later teens and early twenties, I started going to shows around Montreal, this was in the late 2000’s, at the time when Grimes was starting out and “indie” was becoming more electronic. I guess it was at that moment where I started to go and seek out loft parties and DIY spaces where music was being played. I had a lot of friends who were musicians at that time too, so I was surrounded with music. I started getting hand-me-downs of gear from friends and partners. I got a Korg Electribe EMX-1 and that was the first piece of hardware I got to play with, so I really started to get into making music.

You fell in love with acid and trance styles and from here you started to DJ and produce. Can you tell us about some of the artists who really inspired you at that time?

Luke Vibert, I remember when I first heard ‘I Love Acid’, that track is just so beautiful. There are so many names I could tell you, as I look for new artists and new music all of the time, but I also remember being really excited by Kim Ann Foxman early on. At the time when I started to DJ this was also around the time when the discussion around female DJ’s and producers was really beginning to take shape in the media, for example, Discwoman popped up around that time and there were all these articles about ‘Female DJ’s and Producers You Should Know’. I discovered people such as Ellen Alien, Paula Temple, Helena Hauff, Laurel Halo and Lena Willikens, who were influences on my early trajectory musically, but also in making me feel like I was part of a community where there were female predecessors to look up to..

You mentioned you were into indie music, I’m curious as to what bands or artists you were into within that realm?

I remember being pretty obsessed with Land Of Talk and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There was also, as I mentioned, the New Wave stuff that I was into, big classics such as New Order, Devo, Depeche Mode, Visage and Siouxie and the Banshees. On the other hand, I also loved the more minimalistic styles of electronic pop coming from people like Jenny Hval, Majical Cloudz and Juana Molina. Post-punk was another thing I was into, Spanish bands such as Ataque de Caspa. In a way, this all fits in with some of the industrial and noisier sounds I like now.

It’s not easy, teaching yourself to DJ or produce. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you faced in the beginning and how you overcame them?

The challenges were getting access to equipment and knowledge, but I was fortunate to be in a moment where there was a lot of women and non-binary folks around me going through the same process. We would get together, share knowledge and book each other. My friends were also really supportive, even male friends! I remember a key moment around one of my birthdays where a bunch of my friends got together and bought me a Traktor controller. I had been talking about how I wanted to start DJing, I’d been making a lot of playlists and I felt like there was something in this; putting music together in this way.

One of my friends knew the chef at a bar here in Montreal and their DJ had moved away so they needed a person to fill the Friday nights every week. So, pretty early on I ended up having this weekly gig at that bar. This was super formative for me because I had the practice of going out and playing weekly for many hours, in this place that wasn’t as stressful as playing for a dancefloor. I wasn’t the center of attention, so it became this playground where I could just play tracks and practice mixing without everyone looking at me, or feeling like I needed to make people dance.

Your friends and respective peers were obviously such a support system to you when starting out. When you started to get more gigs, beyond just playing in that bar, how was your experience of the scene in Montreal and how did you navigate that?

There was a lot of support from collectives of young women and queer folks who were really hungry to support one another. There were people like Frankie Teardrop who were starting to throw DIY parties and book local DJ’s. Those parties and that collective became a really big part of the queer electronic scene. Being part of that community, where people were booking each other and you didn’t have to schmooze some dude in order to get booked at an underground rave, was very important. It was all about propping people up! That was how I made the step up from a bar DJ to playing out and getting people to actually dance.

There was a funny moment I had at a club here in Montreal called Datcha. I was going out with a musician at the time, this guy asked if he DJ’d at all, he didn’t but he was like ‘Yo, my partner DJ’s’ and the guy looked at me like ‘Oh yea? Do you have any mixes I can listen to?’. Immediately I was like ‘Yeh yeh sure, I have a mix, I’ll send it to you next week.’ I did not have a mix! I went home and had to record a mix for this dude.

I sent the mix to him and also another friend who had a gig at the club and she said we should throw a night there, one thing led to another and we did it. Slowly I became part of this circle where people knew I DJ’d out and they were hearing me play. This exposure started to legitimize the fact I could play and therefore I got gigs in other places. I’d record my gigs and I started to accumulate my ‘DJ CV’ if you like, with mixes, set recordings and gigs.

The scene in Montreal is small but nevertheless it’s thriving. Can you tell us about some of the artists in the scene who are doing particularly special things?

There are a lot of artists here and some are getting recognition, others are not. There are people like Marie Davidson who is a really important part of our scene, she was working the loft scene for years and years before becoming an internationally known artist. Also, Frankie Teardrop who I mentioned before, not only are they an amazing DJ, they’re a very respected and prolific party promoter and festival creator. They made this festival called Slut Island, which is a femme, non-binary, queer festival. Priori, he’s really popping off and having a cool place in the scene here. I now run a label called Humidex here with two friends who go by the names, S. Chioini and Absurde. S. Chioini has been a part of a label called Acte, Kara-Lis Coverdale was also a part of that with Laced, they’re all great artists. There are also people who have moved here from other cities such as Regularfantasy. Oh my gosh, there are tonnes!

You’ve done a lot of work within your local scene, towards leveling the playing field for women and LGBTQ+ people in music. You curate parties and events such as Lagom and also within your work as part of Never Apart. As a woman, are there any specific moments that inspired you to pursue these projects?

For me the motivation was actualizing this ongoing conversation about diversity in line-ups. I wanted to give something back, as this conversation essentially helped me to come up in the first place. Lots of parties were suddenly like ‘okay we need more women’; People were almost like ‘where’s the list?’. Whether or not their motivations were just part of the trend or actually concerned about scene building and making a viable, welcoming environment, either way people were looking out for women DJs. It made sense for me to give something back, as I had been allowed to enter the scene in a way that was relatively pain free. I had been able to play out as a beginner and was given the space to experiment, make mistakes or even train wreck in public! I realised that all of this was the kind of formative stuff that everyone needs.

How do you feel your work furthers the conversation around female DJ’s and producers?

I feel like now, we are almost five years into having this conversation about diversity, but we still need to look forward and look at how we make the next steps; for example, is it necessary now to curate line-ups and make a point of saying that it’s ‘all women’? For me now, I’m looking at how we can push the conversation forward when promoting parties. In my work with Never Apart, I don’t use language that refers to the fact that it’s ‘an all-female line-up’, I’m curating those line-ups without needing to make a point of it.

Working within an organization that backs that sort of vision has allowed me to bring that strategy to fruition. These parties have a different vibe too! When you’re around a lot of women, non-binary or queer folks the vibe is completely different to being around a bunch of dudes who like techno. There are a lot of thoughtful, engaged male artists and promoters, but it’s about creating an environment where people feel comfortable and where the conversation can be free flowing; the type of party where you actually want to be, rather than some scary sausage fest.

Within dance music, this focus on inclusivity sees white cis men excluded from the conversation, for obvious reasons. However, in talking about how we push the conversation forward, do you think some males can become allies to us?

I’m not a “kill all men” type of person, but I do think exclusionary spaces are very important for specific purposes. I read this paper in University (Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy by Nancy Fraser) that really shaped my thinking around this. It said that these types of exclusionary spaces (spaces for a specific marginalized group, created by people from that group) are a really good training ground for what Fraser calls “subaltern counterpublics”. It allows them to get enough practice, confidence and support from peers to then turn around and be able to face the world.

Exclusionary spaces are safer for some people, they’re great for expressing oneself, testing ideas and identities, doubting and asking stupid questions, which can be really daunting and scary. For some people whose identities are marginalised, they also need those exclusionary spaces so that they don’t have to explain themselves constantly, or be looked at in a certain way, and just relax. However, I think mixed spaces are good too. It’s helpful for those of us who have the means and energy to have this conversation and instill those values to non-marginalized, privileged people. Some mixed spaces have also managed to instill safer space rules and have an environment where people are blending *relatively* harmoniously.

I get the sense that you prefer to be out there doing things and making an impact, where do you think that part of your character comes from?

I guess it comes from the fact that it’s hugely gratifying, when you’re out there doing things and you get direct feedback from people because they feel inspired by something you did or they learned something. I had been doing some academic work, but I put it to one side in order to get involved with the scene hands-on. It feels easier and quicker to do things at a ground level, than to write papers on stuff that people aren’t going to read. For me as an energetic and passionate person, I saw that I could do the things I wanted to do and touch people in a direct way.

Reading and writing on my own felt strange, the way things have to be deconstructed and argued in academia made me feel like I was in an echo chamber. I also felt like I hadn’t had enough time in the “real” world to have something particularly insightful to say. I wanted to go out and see the reality on the ground, see what I could do with my own power and ability before writing so confidently about what I know.

This socially geared work in your music has also fed into the way you put out music, as you have had your tracks included on a number of benefit compilations. Why is it important for you to have your music included on those compilations? As opposed to simply putting out music for your own satisfaction or benefit?

Personally, I think it’s the least you can do as a DJ. There are sides to this job that can be hedonistic and fun-oriented, but it’s also important to bring attention to issues or resources that effect and help others. DJ’s can do a lot in terms of standing for something and having a message, raising money through music. I think that’s a very basic thing to do and an easy responsibility for any DJ or producer. I have the tracks laying around, so why not throw them in a compilation and raise money for something that will concretely change someone’s life or experience in the world. There is so much money needed in various places in the world right now and a lot of money isn’t being funnelled into the right places. You can use the platform you’re given as a DJ with attention from the media or your surrounding community. If your word is worth something make it count.

You recently founded label, Humidex with friends S. Chioini and Absurde. Can you tell us how and why you three came together to start this label?

We were hanging out together and I realised that they made really great music. There is something about the scene in Montreal and in Canada itself, there isn’t actually much of the easy access, standard techno being made here that you find so easily in Europe, in places such as Berlin. I had the idea to start a label congregating around that techno sound, but the music would be made in Canada. We were exchanging music and listening to each others tracks, trying to help each other find labels to put them out on and I told them my idea for the label. It turned out they had been thinking about it too, so it naturally came together in a way and we decided to push this specific sound; Canadian Techno. ‘Techno’ is a pretty open format with our label, Chioni makes bassier stuff, whereas Absurde is loopier techno but it all has this heavy, dark sound that we like and look towards in other places. We just wanted it to be made here in Canada instead.

Moving on to talk about your ‘Otherworlds’ EP on Lobster Theremin. This was formed from music you made for a live set at MUTEK festival. Do the tracks in the final EP differ much from the original tracks you made for that live set?

Yeh quite a bit actually in the end. I composed the elements of the tracks for that live set, which was a couple of years ago. Then I started to work with them and re-recorded them with Danji Buck-Moore, who helped me with the mixing and engineering. We went to a studio and I reperformed the tracks there, then we had these multitrack recordings to work with that we polished up, either taking things away, adding effects or just cleaning up the mix.

I used to do one take, recorded into my handheld recorder and just call it a day, because I don’t enjoy the fiddly computer process. I just want it to be as energetic as possible and I also felt like there was something quite cool and magical about this performative aspect of making music in one take. I would never copy and paste a kick drum, I play it out loud and then if I need to trim or tidy it up, I would do that later. However, throughout the process with Danji I learned a lot about mixing and I could see it sounded a lot better when you actually mix tracks. The mixing is what makes this EP different, but the process, energy and compositional logics are all from a performative ‘live’ perspective.

When you’re making tracks in this way, how does your process affect the end product?

The live, performative aspect of my music often makes it a little confusing for nerdy music people. It’s four by four but then after sixteen bars there might three extra kick drums. Percussionist friends of mine say my tracks have weird grooves. To me, in that process of making I end up with strange, A-typical grooves or percussive patterns because my ear thinks they sound cool; that ends up in a final product that is slightly weird or uneven in relation to the standard format of techno. My body tells me when to add or remove an element, or helps me feel out of rhythm because I’m in the process live and recording it as I’m making.

What’s coming next for Softcoresoft?

I’m going to be spending some time in Europe for a mini-tour. I’m already confirmed to play at Buttons in Berlin, along with Possession in Paris and a date in London soon to be disclosed. I really like the work of Mathilda who runs Possesion—she’s a tireless techno freak and a queer woman who’s running this high level techno party and it’s fucking amazing. Other dates are yet to be confirmed. Over the winter, I definitely want to make more music, the Canadian winter is a bit of a thing! There’s a lot of time where nobody contacts you and everyone is at home because it’s too cold, so that’s a great time to make music.

Softcoresoft’s Otherworlds EP is out now on Lobster Theremin Black – get it here.

Words: Sophie McNulty

Featured Image: Saad Al Hakkak

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