Artist of the Month: Maya Jane Coles’ Uncompromising Attitude is The Key to Her Success

It’s been 10 years since Maya Jane Coles released the track that would change her life forever. But success brought immense pressure to compromise her creative vision. Katie Thomas sits down in London with Coles, who discusses maintaining her artistry, and her excitement at producing club-focused music once again.

14 min
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Mar 10, 2020
Katie Thomas

In flicking through past interviews with Maya Jane Coles, one particular word stands out — meteoric.

In 2010, when she was just 22-years-old, the British-Japanese producer and DJ released “What They Say,” a silky house cut that would go on to define the early 2010s trend of tech house dominated by labels like Crosstown Rebels and Hot Creations. “What They Say,” which Maya describes as “the track that keeps on giving,” was the catalyst for her meteoric rise from burgeoning newcomer to international heavy hitter. A decade later, and Coles has proven time and time again to be one of the hardest working and most accomplished artists in dance music.

Search for Maya Jane Coles on Discogs and you’ll get a whopping 526 items assigned to her name, and her Beatport profile lists 232 releases. She’s delivered well over 100 remixes for the likes of Bonobo, Florence & The Machine, Little Dragon, Sia, Tiga, and The xx; and four albums under two aliases — Maya Jane Coles and Nocturnal Sunshine. She has over 3 million followers on SoundCloud, and a handful of her most popular tracks on Spotify have amassed more than 5 million streams. In 2014, Nicki Minaj heavily sampled “What They Say” on “Truffle Butter” featuring Drake and Lil Wayne — the lyric video has almost 39 million views on YouTube. Maya has appeared on the cover of over 20 magazines, and has DJed in over 40 countries. Touring furiously throughout the majority of her career, she’s played most regularly at Ushuaïa, the now-closed Space and Pacha in Ibiza, as well as Creamfields and fabric in the UK. She often shares the bill with superstars like Joris Voorn, Jamie Jones, Eats Everything, Seth Troxler and Richie Hawtin.

But what’s most impressive is that Coles’ colossal output is all her. She writes, composes, arranges, produces, engineers, mixes, performs and maybe even designs the artwork for every release. She’s a machine — one with a masterful ear for melody.

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Growing up in London, Maya was raised by parents she describes as “massive music heads,” and her formative years were soundtracked by an eclectic mix of dub, classical, punk, jazz, reggae, metal, blues and soul. She learned at least six instruments growing up — guitar, piano, saxophone, double bass, drums and cello. And when she started producing at around 15 years old, Maya would raid her parents’ vinyl collection, sampling old blues and jazz drums, which became the foundations of her initial forays into music making. It was a household devoid of any commercial or conventional pop music, and Maya’s “lack of knowledge when it comes to cheesy ‘80s music says it all really,” she says with a laugh.

Maya’s school years were spent immersed in ‘90s and ‘00s hip hop and R&B. In her early teens, shows by The Pharcyde, Jay Z and Jean Grae proved instrumental in her development, as well as Mary J. Blige and Alicia Keys. “And then the raving came,” she chuckles. Parties like DMZ and FWD>> showed her a world of dark, moody dubstep, and east London warehouse parties hosted by the likes of Secretsundaze first exposed her to house and techno. Maya now lives in Shoreditch, and that’s where we meet on a rainy January afternoon. As we talk about her introduction to electronic music, she’s quick to point out that she’s aware of the benefits of growing up in London, particularly as she was finding her feet. “You’re definitely spoiled here,” she says. “Places to go, different club nights, niche pockets and sub-genres, and a scene for everything. At that time, if you lived in a remote town somewhere, it was more difficult to access what was going on in the underground.”

Her home computer came installed with a demo of FruityLoops (known now as FL Studio). In her early teens, Maya would practice for hours on end, eventually learning to record her own loops, chopping them up and re-looping sounds over one another. Maya then began teaching herself Cubase on the computers at school, recording vocals with her friends for fun. As she turned 16, she knew she was going to pursue music. She switched to Logic around this time, and has used it ever since.

Finding the balance between the methodical workings of computer technology and a mind that thinks in colourful earworms and compositional layers, proved, at times, frustrating for Maya. “The technical side wasn’t as good as the musical ideas I was coming up with,” she says. Despite moments of frustration and clashes between composition and production, Maya found comfort in listening back to her work regularly, recognising how much her abilities were improving in a short space of time. “It gave me the confidence to keep at it,” she says. “I knew I was getting better and better.” The music she makes might be electronic and made with machines, but she approaches her music like a living, breathing, instrumental composition — not least in the way she uses her own voice.

Maya’s vocals are omnipresent in her music. Sometimes it’s a recognisable vocal line, but more often than not, her voice is heavily manipulated: filters, compresses, reverb, pitching up, pitching down. She uses it like a sample, and Logic is filled with saved vocal presets of her own. “I love making instrumental music,” she says, “but adding a hint of the human voice, that vocal element, takes the instrumental to another place, and gives it character.” Maya said last year that it should be the goal of a producer to create something utterly unique, something that cannot be replicated. She has achieved this in the way she uses her voice as an instrument. “It’s a signature thing for me that I’ve developed over time”, she explains. “You couldn’t replicate it, unless you managed to get ahold of an a capella on one of my tracks.”

Racking up studio hours and allowing space for trial and error is how Maya has been able to let her sound evolve organically over time. Rather than a sudden swerve into a new lane, she found herself making so much new material that it felt right to create a second platform through which to release music. Enter Nocturnal Sunshine, a moniker that’s indebted to those nights spent on the dance floors of FWD>>, where house and techno take a step back, and garage, breaks and dub come to the fore. “It’s like a split personality,” she laughs. “It’s hard to put into words exactly how they differ, but when you listen to both and compare, they speak for themselves.”

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During our conversation, it becomes clear that Coles cares deeply about satisfying her fans; that they get what they pay for, so to speak. She wants her fans to know what to expect. As far as she sees it, there’s a remit for what she can play, and produce, as Maya Jane Coles. If she moves beyond that self-imposed invisible boundary, she becomes Nocturnal Sunshine. More than once she mentions the fans of “What They Say,” wondering aloud if she’s “deprived them a bit,” having quickly moved away from that particular palette of house following the track’s success.

And now, a decade later, she hopes to give those fans what they’ve been waiting for. There’s a third Maya Jane Coles album on the way, and it’s set to be the most club-focused LP she’ll have released to date. “I moved away, and now I’m dipping back in,” she explains. “It’s nice to have time out from different sounds and different projects to focus on; it’s important for me that things never feel stale.” As Maya points out, tastes and trends tend to be cyclical. To be working on producing dance floor-ready house again now, 10 years after the life-changing impact of “What They Say,” feels important.

Churning out music at the rate Maya does could easily feel repetitive. But she chases the thrill — that moment in the studio when you realise you’ve hit the jackpot. It’s what keeps her excited, engaged, motivated, challenged. “Nothing else compares,” she says, gratefully. “Even if I wasn’t releasing music, I’d still be in the studio, making music all the time.” As she focuses more on producing music for other artists, she’s faced with a new challenge — for someone that’s always been so resolute about doing things her own way, suddenly, “It’s no longer all about you,” she admits. “But I’m stepping out of my comfort bubble, and it brings out something new in me every time.”

As far back as she can remember, Maya has been advised and instructed that if she wanted greater success, she should pick a sound and stick to it. “You’re easier to sell that way,” she says, “and it’s less of a risk.” But Maya takes inspiration from her all-time hero, Missy Elliott. “She has never been afraid to do the unexpected,” she says. “Even now, she’s still killing it, she’s never compromised.” For Maya, a refusal to conform has allowed her to establish a multifarious career, paving the way for longevity.

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She models herself after powerful, nonconformist women. Artists like Björk and Peaches, for their crazy performances, concepts, and for what they stand for; or Erykah Badu, for “being such a badass style icon.” For Maya, it’s not just the music, it’s the whole package — the videos, the art direction, the overall aesthetic, and most importantly, the mentality and ethos of the artist. Looking back, she wishes she’d had a female producer she could have looked up to as she was honing her craft. “I still can’t get my head around the fact that there were so few women producing records back then,” she says.

In a world that was dominated by men telling her what to do and how to do it, Maya Jane Coles has stayed true to herself. If she could go back to the beginning and give herself one piece of advice, it would be to believe in herself — to remind herself that the endless graft and grind would be worth it. “It would have been good to have had somebody to tell me I should do it my way,” she admits. “I always felt as though I was fighting against what I was told.”

Difficult as that fight was, it ultimately led Maya where she is today. “I feel like the limits of my music are endless,” she says. “In my head I see it as this big galaxy that keeps going and going.”

Through the highs and the lows, and the moments where she thought about giving up, Maya Jane Coles refused to conform. She’s done things her own way, shining bright, like a star in her vast musical galaxy.

Katie Thomas is a freelancer living in London. Find her on Twitter.

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