Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 004. Order your copy here.
Avalon Emerson is in a strange and scary place: America in 2020. “It definitely feels weird to be putting out a DJ mix right now,” Emerson says, sat under a tree in a park in Los Angeles’ Montecito Heights. “It seems context-less,” she adds, referring to the desolation of club culture since the pandemic hit. The mix in question is for DJ-Kicks, the 25-year-long series that’s been blessed by multiple legends, from Moodymann to Kemistry & Storm. It’s seen as a seal of approval from the dance music world, and in the absence of parties, a DJ-Kicks mix is the next best thing.
While Emerson talks about our unnerving times, a police helicopter appears over a hill and hovers above the park, causing the families having picnics to look up and dogs to start barking.
Emerson is relatively new to LA, but she’s already got the relaxed openness and friendly-but-dark humour of a local down pat – something that eludes most transplants. She grew up in Gilbert, Arizona, where her mum still works as a postwoman, a profession Emerson honours by rocking an American Postal Workers Union T‑shirt and a US Postal Service-branded mask.
She attended Arizona State University from 2007 to 2008, where she discovered dance music during the halcyon blog house days through sites like Rose Quartz, 20jazzfunkgreats, Gotta Dance and “pre-Condé Nast Pitchfork”. Soon she was DJing “indie dance people” remixes of Ellie Goulding, La Roux and Friendly Fires at house parties on whatever devices she could. “It was before all music in the world was on YouTube. It was more MP3s and iTunes DJing. And I thought that was really fun.”
After university she moved into an artists’ warehouse in San Francisco, producing music, DJing and taking pictures for SF Weekly’s nightlife column, all the while holding down a day job in the burgeoning tech industry. “It was so gross,” Emerson says, describing the tech world as unnecessarily disruptive and a waste of resources.“I couldn’t do it anymore, so I moved to Berlin.”
In the German capital – a city with a ravenous appetite for raving – Emerson thrived as a DJ and producer, gaining a reputation for her vibrant style of DJing, which was robust enough to keep a crowd dancing until daylight, but melodic and unpredictable enough to stand out among the monotone thud of purist techno sets. Emerson’s free and open style bled into the songs she began producing as well, most notably her revered 2016 release The Frontier, a psychedelic track that gained her yet more recognition and requests to play around the world.
“There are high expectations for DJs there,” Emerson says of her four years climbing the ranks of Europe’s then-booming club and festival circuit. “The sets are usually four hours. Sometimes closing sets are around nine. One time I played 12 hours straight. Every time I played I definitely levelled up my DJing abilities. I feel at home there.”
Forming a community with other DJs like Elissa Suckdog, JASSS and Roi Perez, Emerson made all the hard work look like fun, with regular Insta posts of her laughing while dragging her record bag out of Berghain at sunrise. She attracted attention and acclaim not just for her DJ skills but for her sense of personal style and identity as well. “I don’t know if I invented the skinny lesbian with glasses look,” Emerson says, chuckling. “I’m certainly not the first [queer woman DJ]. If other queer women see something of themselves in me, that’s wonderful, that’s great. Happy to help. Happy to be a part of it.”
It was a wild ride, but even before Covid-19 wiped out her schedule, something had to give. “I had been touring in Europe pretty fucking hard for a while. Just recently I was looking at my old tour posters. I was doing two or three shows every week, and maybe once every couple of months having a weekend off. I was just constantly on the road, and it was just so insane trying to have any kind of life.”
Concerns about her health were paired with a simmering feeling of guilt about climate change. “I was using many lifetimes of what I should on a carbon budget. Taking planes and taxis everywhere to DJ for other people – that’s ridiculous. There are no clean hands in this world at all. I was taking hundreds and hundreds of flights each year.”
To “break the cycle of the big carrot” – of constantly touring and playing shows in Europe – Emerson left Berlin in January and moved to LA. Taking a step back from DJing, she decided to try her hand at producing and songwriting for other artists, partially inspired by her love for her mother’s collection of ethereal indie-pop music like the Cocteau Twins. “Some of the pure electronic music genres, they’re kind of interesting, but I don’t stick around in them that much,” she acknowledges. “I guess I like pop music more at the end of the day.”
Earlier this year she put her pop music proclivities out in the open with her remix of Robyn’s Honey, the title track from the Swedish star’s 2018 album. It was released in June on streaming platforms and as a limited-edition vinyl 12-inch. “I almost cried when I heard Honey. I feel like it was one of the fastest remixes I’ve ever done. Everything was flowing really well. It was a really lovely song without me doing anything – I just added a new world for it to live in.”
Since March, when the coronavirus lockdown went into full effect, Emerson says her plans to transition into more song-based music have come to an abrupt halt. “Everything is weird. It’s a lot of on-pause and half-aborted plans, just like everyone.” She describes living in LA with her girlfriend and their roommates as being “plunged into extreme isolation”, as she is separated from friends and her established community in Berlin, where she still keeps an apartment.
It’s in this context that Emerson’s DJ-Kicks mix was made. It opens with her cover of Long-forgotten Fairytale by Boston indie legends The Magnetic Fields, with Emerson singing the vocals. Finalised during the early stages of lockdown in LA, she says the mix is meant for this new solitary life, for long car rides and at-home listening.
While Emerson is proud of the mix, it is being released at a time when the entire dance music community is unsure about the future of clubs, festivals and raves. There have been awkward socially-distanced club experiments happening in Europe and Asia, and many of this summer’s music festivals have been optimistically rescheduled for 2021, but Emerson is not convinced. “Everyone thinks there will be this day when people go back and crack a beer and everyone will be ecstatic, but that’s never going to happen,” she argues. “Even if there was a vaccine and everyone somehow got it instantly and it worked, then everyone would still have extreme trauma and anxiety. So it just seems over.”
She’s not fully bowing out of the club scene yet, though – she hopes to get back to DJing and to the music community when she sensibly can, albeit at a slower pace.
“I moved to LA to take a little bit of distance from my life of being constantly on the road, but ended up getting sort of marooned nine time zones away, and watching the nightlife and live music economy collapse is the least of my worries,” she says. “I know I can tend towards being a bit of a black-pilled doomer sometimes but there’s so much uncertainty and fear surrounding everything right now. I hope I can, at some point, get back to DJing and being a part of the music community like I used to be.”
She’ll have more time to think about it on a days-long road trip she’s taking from LA to New York with her girlfriend, with a stop in Arizona to visit her mum.
One thing she is certain about is that people will continue to form bonds over their shared interest in club music. “It’s kind of a lizard-brain cathartic tradition that people have done for millennia. I don’t think it will go away forever. It will just change. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.”
In the meantime, Emerson has been enjoying her new lifestyle. She’s been learning how to play salsa piano and a bit of woodwork. “It’s fun to make something physical, not something that will later be judged on the quality of the synthesis of influences and abstraction of ideas and how it fits into a political mosaic!” she exclaims.
She’s in a new place, and seemingly at ease with it. “I don’t get joy out of surgically weaponising my kick drums anymore. I kind of don’t care… I’m trying to learn more music theory. I like music. I like listening to it, I like playing it, I like DJing, I think it is a craft to hone and I’m good at it,” she concludes. Then there’s a slight tinge of nostalgia and regret that her club career might have unwittingly ended: “I had a pretty good time. I can’t complain too much.”
Avalon Emerson’s DJ-Kicks is released 18th September via !K7