Artist of the Month: Miss Monique
Artist of the Month: Miss MoniqueDecember 13, 2021
85 million views on YouTube, almost a million followers across social media, seven years of touring the world, founder of Beatport’s 5th best-selling progressive house label — Miss Monique‘s numbers are unreal. She should be on top of the world and soaking up the Sharm el-Sheik sun that is beaming down on her between gigs in Egypt. But instead, she is slightly flustered and needlessly apologising for being precisely 60 seconds late to our Zoom interview.
“I’ve had a crazy day and all the batteries in my stuff were dead,” she says, failing to contain a little nervous energy. “I’ve been trying to find electricity and a good internet connection, which doesn’t exist at all in Egypt!” All good, we say. Some DJs are days late. “Wow!” she laughs, incredulously, because Alesia Arkusha is part of a new generation of artists for whom DJing is a job that goes way beyond playing records.
It is a business that needs constant attention. Meetings matter. Punctuality matters. Having meticulously painted nails and the trademark green flash in her hair matters. Wearing something functional so that she isn’t “distracted by a flowing dress” when DJing matters. And when the yet-to-turn 30-year-old Ukrainian isn’t DJing, she’s producing. If she’s not producing, she’s A&Ring for her label Siona Records, scouting the next location for one of her hugely popular video streams, replying to as many social media comments as she can, or preparing for her next podcast. It’s all in a day’s work.
“Even if I’m on vacation, I’m always with my phone or my laptop,” she says in perfectly good English, even though she needlessly apologizes more than once. “It’s part of the job. I cannot go a day without at least checking my email or taking some calls.” The day we’re speaking started early. Alesia got up at 7 am to go and record a new mix in an idyllic beach location. It was a retrospective of her favourite records of the year and is the latest in an ongoing series for her YouTube channel.
In previous editions, Alesia stood playing on a circle of salt no larger than an average-sized living room rug, surrounded by the Dead Sea and backed by a cloudless sky. She has also played on the deck of a tugboat as part of a virtual edition of Atlas Weekend in 2020, and from the middle of a towering pine forest. The mixes are an extension of something that first started six or so years ago on Radio Intense at home in Ukraine. Eventually, Alesia started doing the mixes from home rather than the studio, then decided to take them to exotic locations.
“I have kept doing them because there is such a great community around them,” she beams. “The comments are so positive and the people are so nice that I didn’t want to lose them. I don’t know why, maybe it’s my huge luck, but I’ve never had haters. Of course, some people are critical, but they say things that make sense so I have to pay attention on what they say because I’m a very self-critical person.”
Where she DJs influences how she DJs in that moment, as does the weather, time of day and temperature. And when she’s on tour, she is also mindful of mixing up her sets according to who she is playing for. At Fabrik in Madrid recently, she played plenty of big techno, while in South America, she knows the audience is more into her melody-rich, elegant progressive house sounds. “I don’t know how to explain it,” she says, before perfectly explaining it. “I just move like the waves.”
A more seismic shift came when Alesia was 10. She moved from a small countryside town in Ukraine to the capital, Kyiv, and notes that it was something of a blessing. “It was really nice because it had so many more opportunities to grow, you know?”
She says she was a “really happy” kid, but that she didn’t always enjoy school because the big city kids “were a little bit rude, so I am glad now that I am grown up and free to do what I want and meet people that I actually like.”
Her childhood was “normal” with hard-working parents who didn’t have a lot, but had enough. Alesia’s mother worked as an accountant for a big company, and her father — who she no longer sees — “worked in analytics, not for the FBI, but for something similar for a Ukrainian government security company.” Growing up, Alesia says she was aware of the tension between Ukraine and Russia but grew to accept that both sides kept many secrets. “I try not to be too involved in it but it still has an impact because we all have friends, brothers, sisters, mums and grandparents in Russia so the conflict makes me sad. I don’t know what it is about, but I know that normal people have lost their lives and lots of things in them because of it.”
It wasn’t until she was 16 that Alesia first heard electronic music. Before then, she was into “awful Russian heavy metal,” and music never really factored into home life. “I didn’t have musicians in my family. I didn’t even have any friends who were like, you know, party makers or anything.” It was on holiday with her mum that Alesia first made contact with someone from the electronic world. Artem, her now-manager, was working in the resort where Alesia was staying, and they became friends. He was DJing in the evenings but told her she was too young to be partying with the older people.
“He said ‘When you’re 18, we’ll meet up again.'” They became friends on social media but never spoke. Aleisa forgot all about Artem. She was in a relationship of five years and instead had “standard dreams” about finishing school, getting married, and going on to study to become an English translator. “But when I got to 18, Artem got in touch and we met up. Everything changed. And I am so happy about that because now I swear I can’t imagine my life in any other way.”
The pair immediately started going out partying together. The first DJ she ever saw was Sander van Doorn and she fell in love with the music and the whole scene. “It was just a whole other world. Before that my world was just school, lessons, and being at home because my mum was so focused on me studying. So in the club, I was just like, wow!”
Artem encouraged Alesia to have a go at DJing. Back then, there were no YouTube tutorials and much less information on the internet. He arranged for her to go and practice on CDJs in the local club, so she did, for just six hours over two days. The club promoters were already familiar with Alesia because she had been seen in the club “a little drunk” and dancing like crazy. “The next morning, people said I had a nice energy and good relationship with the crowd.” So, the third day after she started practicing, she was asked to play her first gig.
“I am so glad no one was there and no one had camera phones because that was the worst set in my life,” she laughs. She still has the same CDJs and until recently used them for her weekly podcast, but now of course her skills are vastly improved. In fact, they improved in double quick time: a month after her first gig, a second local club came calling, and for the next five years Alesia played extensively throughout the country.
At the same time, she studied Tourism & Travel at University in Kyiv. It was of some interest to her but she was more focused on becoming a translator. It was something her mum had pushed with private English tuition, and something Alesia enjoyed and picked up from watching English movies. “I thought I was so good at English, but then I made my first foreign trip.” It was to DJ in India and is a trip Alesia will never forget. Not only did it bring into sharp relief that her English was not as good as she thought, but it was near the mystical city of Varanasi where up to 300 Hindu bodies a day are cremated in the belief that they will be freed from the cycle of rebirth.
“The smell is just wow,” she remembers with a skewed expression.”It travels for many kilometres. It hit me as soon as I left the airport and was something I had never felt before. I was like OK, I’m going back home.” The older and wiser Artem calmed her down and Alesia stayed to play her set but didn’t leave the hotel room apart from for the gig. “For three days I was locked in the room. I was so stressed because everything about the food and the culture is just so different. It was absolutely another world.”
When Alesia returned home, her mum was nervous. “She didn’t have faith in my career as a DJ and wanted me to become an air stewardess.” She decided to complete the degree to keep her mum happy. “After four years, I came home with the document, gave it to her, and said ‘that’s for you, now I’m going to live my life.'”
Even years later, once Alesia had completed DJ tours of multiple continents, her mum was still uneasy. “One day she came to me and said, ‘I heard some information that Ukraine International Airlines needs air stewardesses.’ I said, ‘Mum, you need to stop. It’s been seven years already. We did it, come on, you need to start to believe in me!’ It was really funny because, except for my manager, nobody believed in me. It was stressful then, but it’s a funny story now.”
As the sun begins to fade in Sharm el-Sheik, Miss Monique’s energy does not. She talks passionately about spending “three to five hours a day” searching for new music for her DJ sets or her label. An artist’s name, profile or social media stats never factor into the mission. “We are just searching for unique sounds,” she says. “Something that is not just copying the mainstream, but also something that is not too underground. We are searching for the balance between these two categories.”
The label represents the core progressive sound that Miss Monique plays, but she also veers into melodic techno and Afro grooves. Her most recent EP on Purified Records is full of mesmerising melodies and widescreen atmospherics. The drums roll deep and lock you in while the bleary-eyed keys layer in rich emotion. She has also recently started a second label, Pillar, for more underground sounds. “Progressive just makes me feel happy. Even if I am in a bad mood, I just turn on the music and it brings my mind back to a positive world.”
In another life, Alesia Arkusha might have traveled the world as an air hostess, serving drinks at 35,000 feet. But instead, she is receiving them as Miss Monique, flying from gig to gig, hot on the heels of breakout Ukrainian stars like ARTBAT, Nastia and Woo York. “I’m not on that level yet,” she says. “Maybe one day.”
Kristan Caryl is a freelance writer living in Leeds. Find him on Twitter.