Cover Story: Cassy
Cover Story: CassyMarch 21, 2023
New Year’s Eve, Berlin, 2002. Several streets are blocked off and police are everywhere. It’s -8.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Ice might be forming over The Spree, but a million ravers are gathering past the river at the Brandenburg Gate. Despite the freezing weather, Europe’s largest open-air disco is still going ahead. But not for Cassy.
Instead, she’s a few kilometers east in Friedrichshain. A drab and since-demolished freight depot originally intended for train repairs is throbbing with bass and packed full of bodies. She stays for days, on and off, leaving only occasionally to sleep for a couple of hours. It’s the epic week-long closing party for Ostgut – the precursor to the legendary Berghain. On that sweaty concrete dance floor, exactly 20 years ago, Cassy decided to move to Berlin.
It took just a few weeks to arrange. She’d been living nestled between Lake Geneva and the mountains. Restorative Alpine air, clear blues skies and gorgeous Swiss landscapes were right outside her window. By day, she enjoyed working in a high-end fashion boutique, but she knew that to make it as a DJ she had to leave those blissful surroundings behind. By February, she’d left Geneva for good. The famously grey and gritty German party capital awaited.
The move soon paid off. Just a year after arriving in Berlin, she was made a resident at Berghain’s cult upstairs space, Panorama Bar. She remained deeply entrenched in the city’s scene for seven years before finally falling out of love – both literally with her then-husband, and metaphorically with the city. “I was just over it,” she says in her signature frank fashion.
After the divorce, she needed more colour in her life so headed to Paris. “I wanted nice wine, neighbourhood restaurants and gorgeous-looking people,” she remembers. “I wanted to dress up and wear some high heels and lipstick. I suddenly saw Berlin in a different light as a single woman and I wanted out.”
At the start of 2020, Cassy was having those same feelings of wanting out. This time it wasn’t a place she had grown tired of, but the entire dance music scene. “I didn’t want to hear one house or techno beat. I felt no love for it,” she says, holding her head in anguish at the memory. “And then I listened to drum & bass.”
Before COVID, Cassy was already feeling that she couldn’t go on, and that included everything from being a DJ to running a label. (She has her own singular and successful imprint, Kwench.) “It was so boring,” she says as she casts her mind back. The pressures of being a single mum, the grind of the game and the battle of the business side “was really fucking doing my head in. I hated it with a passion.” She even started doing an online Journalism course with a view to potentially getting into scriptwriting.
But one mid-pandemic August afternoon she tuned into a live stream hosted by London club FOLD. Drum & bass don Ray Keith was playing on decks that were set up in a lift covered in old flyers and label stickers. MC Flux was on the mic by his side. “It was just the coolest fucking set. It really got me and I will never ever forget the way they played and took us on a journey. It was so pure. I felt the way I did when I first saw Jeff Mills or Laurent Garnier. It reminded me what it was all about.”
Moving back home to Vienna and reconnecting with her vast collection of vinyl was also a big source of re-inspiration. It was a further reminder of the good old times and the purity of the early days she realised she wanted to get back to. In fact, she loved the process so much, Cassy now regularly digs through her racks and shares spur-of-the-moment thoughts and reflections about the music she unearths live on her Instagram. The series is called Talking About My Records and it has proved both cathartic and hugely popular.
In the nearly two decades between moving to Berlin and tuning into that lockdown live stream, Cassy reached the top of her game by whatever measure you care to use. As well as the Panorama Bar gig, she’d worked at Berlin’s iconic record shop Hard Wax, made entries into three legendary mix series – fabric, Panorama Bar and Cocoon – held down residencies at Amsterdam’s Trouw, Ibiza’s DC-10 for Circo Loco, Paris’s Rex Club and New York’s Output, released on labels like Perlon and Aus and earned a reputation as someone who could play to discerning heads in a gritty underground basement or light up the main stage at Creamfields.
“I think it’s essential as a DJ to have that in your locker,” she says. “You should be able to rock all different situations and move between different scenes and sounds. I don’t discriminate.” There’s some impressionist artwork done directly on the wall behind her as she talks. Smudged blue and black chalks, a yellow cone and blades of green could be interpreted as a dinosaur or bird eating some grass. Once upon a time in her Berlin days, it might have been by a trendy young artist. Instead, it’s a much more valuable doodle by her son. Along with Cassy’s mum, who occasionally appears in the doorway behind, the three live together in the countryside just outside of Vienna.
Catherine Britton was born in London in Kingston Upon-Thames but then raised in the Austrian countryside by “very metropolitan, very eccentric parents.” Her mother, a caterer who worked for Coutts Private Bank, was a native, and her father was a Barbadian who had worked for British Rail. They sent Cassy to a Catholic boarding school. She did Latin and an A-Level in music and was around “very conservative people. It was very strange, because the only Black people around town were like, my dad, some diplomats, and some drug dealers. I was aware of it, kids at school were aware of it, and people used to say some extremely stupid and extremely ignorant things.”
The cliché rolled out is that people from all walks of life often find acceptance in the more diverse world of dance music. Cassy agrees. “Absolutely that is true, but I got into that much later.” It’s no surprise that there wasn’t a vibrant techno scene in the chocolate-box countryside of Austria to lure her in during her formative years. But there was a jazz scene, and musicians including the otherworldly Sun Ra even stayed at her parent’s countryside inn on their way to play Jazz Podium Thürnthal. At that young age, though, Cassy was more into theatre and opera. “If Detroit is the cradle of techno, Vienna is the cradle of classical,” she says wisely.
Despite the pre-conception that opera is accessible only to rich, affluent intellectuals, Cassy says it’s actually a lot more diverse and open. “But, people-wise, it wouldn’t have been my world. You can’t smoke and drink and party and rave for a start,” she jokes, “You have to be extremely disciplined and look after your voice.”
Before that taste for hedonism was ever developed, Cassy went to study at a prestigious London drama school. To this day, she has a stage presence when she talks – a vast array of facial expressions and plenty of movement accompany her candid and emotive language. “I never got as far as auditioning for an opera course because I had already stopped singing” she laughs, explaining that what she saw in London had already stolen her attention.
It was in the English capital that her ears were opened to whole new musical worlds. “I would go to Metalheadz nights. I was into acid jazz, r&b. I wasn’t buying records at all then, I was just listening at that stage because to start with I still thought I was going to become a Thespian actress. But it taught me that there should be no limits on what you can and can’t listen to.”
During the years studying drama, Cassy made several trips to Berlin for theatre and opera shows. She would stay with someone she calls a cousin but who wasn’t actually her cousin, although their grandparents were cousins. “It gave me a really strong connection to Berlin early on. Everything I liked to watch was always set in Berlin and I always found the city fascinating.”
At that time her musical heroines were artists like the formidable Chaka Khan. It was nothing more than the range of her voice that wowed a young Cassy. Lesser-known albums like “CK” from 1988 were the ones that resonated most. “But there was only one person I would like to change life and career with, and that’s German mezzo-soprano, Christa Ludwig.”
Ludwig was born during the Second World War and came from nothing but eventually got to the very top of her field, travelled the world and worked with great American composers like Leonard Bernstein. We put it to Cassy that she has reached comparable heights. She pauses, then says, “I guess this is why I am back to enjoying DJing again now. I’m back to doing it for its own sake.”
That is also true of the music Cassy is making right now. She no longer has a studio setup but instead blocks out time to go and work with other producers she admires. And it’s working, because she is on a fine run of form that has seen her put out some of the best music of her career in the last two years or so. It is always rooted in house music and always soulful, with raw edges and the sort of steamy pads that bring real emotion to the dance floor.
But it has taken time to get here. With age comes an acceptance of who you are, a confidence to do what you want to do, not what people expect. Without that self-assuredness, artists who make an album, for example, will always be pushed outside their usual comfort zone to try and show something new. Most of the time that results in token ambient tracks and dreary downtempo pieces that are easily forgettable, or big and obvious attempts at hits that turn fans away.
In Cassy’s case, she threw herself wholeheartedly into working with her own voice on her 2016 debut LP, the still-excellent “Donna”. The record remains an accomplished piece of work with broody tunes that draw on indie, electro, pop and a deeply soulful cover of Prince’s ‘Strange Relationship.’ And the album was co-produced by the super-switched Philadelphia DJ, producer and college professor King Britt.
“It was something that was expected of me to finally have that done because that’s what people want,” she reckons. “But I was also trying to do it in a way that felt organic to me. I guess people would have liked a hit record and would have liked to see me become more of a headliner, or it would have been easier for my agent, you know, or better for my management. But I changed all that team anyway, so it is what it was.”
Cassy did write another album during lockdown, but after stop-start discussions with a label she decided to release it on Housewax as two EPs, CBM 1 and 2, in 2021. “No one wants to hear an album from me,” she says. It’s a shockingly honest comment, but one many more artists would do well to accept, not least because it has freed Cassy up to do what she does best – make red-hot 12″s for the club, which is an art in itself. “Being creative in the studio is so much fun and that’s what I’ve rediscovered,” she says. “I know that I’m not really a singer, and I don’t want to be, but I really enjoy using my vocals and I know there’s so much to still do.” Her new EP (called The Mission) bristles with her idiosyncratic techno-soul energy and lead track “The Get On Down” is undoubtedly one of her strongest releases to date.
Part of the catalyst for all this was listening to a Rick Rubin podcast titled How to Access Your Creativity. “He says you have to make tracks that you like, even if no one buys them, and even if you have to support yourself with another job. And that’s exactly it. So that’s what I’m doing. I’m just doing music because I don’t have to impress anyone anymore. I don’t have to be super famous. Yeah, great. If I have a hit record, that will be amazing. I can buy a new car. Of course, I would love that. But if not, I still made the tracks I wanted to make. And that makes me happy. My motivation now is pleasing myself, but also being there, being myself as a woman and a woman of colour. You don’t have to be part of a group, part of a clique, part of a sound, you don’t have to be accepted by anyone but yourself.”
These are life lessons learned going back to being the only person of mixed heritage in school. “I grew up half this and half that. I don’t see myself as Black. Obviously, I cannot see myself as white. So I see myself as a mix of things,” she says, before getting on to social movements like Black Lives Matter and 50/50 gender balances on party line-ups.
“I don’t do feminism and anti-racism stuff for marketing sake,” she says, turning serious. “I think if you want to change something, you have to do it in your own community. And you don’t have to do it via propaganda. I just do my best as a woman. I’d like to think I speak for everyone, not only for the people that look similar to me. I think the best way of changing things is by being the change, and not always proclaiming things and making the whole world crazy and dividing people even more, you know. We all have different ways of seeing the world and different ways of going about it. No one is right. There is no right way. There’s only hate and love. And either you manage to fucking get over the obstacles and shine a light and be different or you just keep living in this division shit. And I’m just over it. I grew up with it. People told me ‘Oh, you have to act the way you look. You look Black, but you don’t act Black and I’m like, what does that even fucking mean, are you insane?”
Part of Cassy taking back control is a rethink of how she operates her own label Kwench. She started the imprint in 2017 with the intention of using it as a platform for new talent. She dropped a series of collaborative EPs alongside the likes of Pete Moss, Art Alfie and Demuir as well as solo outings from Tuccillo, Kristin Velvet and Davina Moss.
Back then she admits she wanted to set the underground agenda with taste-making new sounds and producers. But in the modern day, the churn is so quick, the release cycle so short, and the chance to stand out so limited that releasing something every month to stay visible became more of a chore she felt beholden to than a pleasure she enjoyed. Now the label is about releasing only what she wants, with who she wants, when she wants, all while eschewing cliques and elitism. “I am way happier with this! It has to be something that my heart is one hundred percent behind. And it has to be house or house that leans towards techno. Keeping it unique in the way that it sounds and something with a bit of a twist.”
All of these realisations mean Cassy is back on the road and happier than ever. Being away from her son “will always hurt”, but that she can leave him with her mother helps. As does the fact that when she’s in a club these days, she’s enjoying it and back to giving her best, which at least makes the time apart worth it.
“I’ve always enjoyed the travel but I used to get anxious. I’m more mellow now so I like being between places, I like airports, I like train stations, seeing other places, being lost across time zones.” She mentions German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt who said that the more he was exposed to danger, craziness and uncertainty while travelling, the more his mind and body got stronger. “I completely understood that when I read it,” she says.
Next up for Cassy is a first: her own party series. Cassy’s Play House was born in Ibiza and was, at the time, a rare female-fronted party brand, but will now be set up quarterly in New York, starting later this year. It is a place and space she feels “is in my DNA” and cites the city’s legendary Sound Factory and Paradise Garage as “probably the best ever clubs” and a real inspiration for what she does. The party will be a platform for people “no matter their sex, who they want to have sex with, or the colour of their skin” and will veer into both house and techno.
“I should have done this years ago,” says the newly empowered Cassy, not for the first time, but hopefully for the last.
Also read: Playlist of the Week – Cassy
Kristan J Caryl is a freelance journalist living in Leeds. Find him on Twitter.