Maya Jane Coles: Say Her Name


When West London house producer and DJ Maya Jane Coles plays Electric Zoo this Saturday, she’ll have something of an uphill climb ahead of her. The young U.S. EDM audience isn’t the most patient of crowds, growing sullen when DJs don’t deliver bass drops like clockwork. Coles makes dubstep-derived music as Nocturnal Sunshine, but she’s better known for the subtle but incrementally powerful deep house she makes and plays under her given name, and that’s what she’ll be presenting this weekend.

Considering how blatant the EDM-festival audience likes its hooks—as shown earlier this year when veteran house DJs Mark Farina and Dennis Ferrer were replaced during gigs in Las Vegas and Miami, respectively, for not playing music that was “commercial enough”—Coles might have legitimate reason for worry. Electric Zoo, she says, is the largest setting she has played. But the numbers don’t faze her.

“I don’t particularly tailor stuff,” says Coles over the phone from her London home. “I would not play something that I personally don’t like just to fit an audience. I never like to calculate things beforehand. The key thing for me is to find stuff that nobody knows—nobody has any idea where it’s from. You need to think a lot more about keeping the energy high when it’s that amount of people. You can still take people on journeys. But it’s very different than playing in a small club.”

Coles’s rise has been as meteoric as EDM’s, but there are differences. Concentrating on downtempo breakbeats, she began making tracks on the software program Cubase at age 15. Two years later, she says, “I was exposed to the underground house scene in London—music I’d never heard before. Before then, the dance [music] I was exposed to I’d heard through mainstream radio and TV. It was only after I started going out to the right places that I heard dance music that really inspired me. I wanted to create my own take on it.”

She’d already issued a half-dozen house EPs when the French label Real Tone issued her four-song What They Say EP in September 2010. A month later, the title track—a minimalist deep house shuffle anchored by a slinky organ lick and a repeated vocal sample (“You know”)—sat atop the monthly DJ charts gathered by the dance website Resident Advisor.

“To me, it was a surprise because it was just another release I was doing,” she says of the brouhaha “What They Say” kicked up. “I hadn’t made that track and thought, ‘Oh, my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever done.’ It was just the next release. I was really surprised by the reaction it got. It doesn’t fully represent, as a whole, what I do. But it was great: I didn’t have to try and put myself out there for gigs. Things came to me.”

Coles’s profile vaulted immediately. By the end of 2011, she’d guest DJ’d an episode of BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix, and this year, she was tapped by Florence + the Machine—stars in the U.S., huge in England—for a remix of “Spectrum (Say My Name).” (“I didn’t have any sort of guidelines,” she says of the Florence remix. “I got to take it in whatever direction I wanted.”)

For a more complete portrait of Coles, turn to her volume of the K7 mix series, DJ-Kicks, issued in April, which ranges from Adam Stacks’s Brazil-touched “Hey Love” to Caribou’s electro-buzzy remix of Virgo Four’s “It’s a Crime,” all while staying comfortably in “deep house” territory. The highlight is Coles’s own “Not Listening,” which she created specifically for the mix. With its bounding kick drum, busy bass, whistling synth smears, and freaky, dubbed-out vocals, it’s an intensely playful track that the rest of the selections pivot on. The mix holds up to a lot of plays, doubly impressive given how little time Coles had to prepare it. “I was at home in London; I had a few weeks, but I was traveling within a few days [of the deadline],” she says.

Coles also has a full album in the works. “I’m in the process of negotiating with a lot of different labels. I was aiming to release it at the end of the year, but due to a real hardcore gig schedule, it’s more likely going to come out at the beginning of next year,” she says. “It’s a lot more personal than my single releases. It’s not aimed for the club. I’ve made enough tracks to fill loads of albums, but I waited till I’m really happy. It’s my best material ever. You’ve only got one chance to release your first album.”

Maya Jane Coles plays the Sunday School Grove stage of Electric Zoo on Saturday. Electric Zoo, with Skrillex, Diplo, David Guetta, and others, takes place Friday, August 31, through Sunday, September 2.