Cover Story: Kristin Velvet
Cover Story: Kristin VelvetJanuary 16, 2023
Mariachi bellows from a taxi as the first beams of sun break up the darkness. It’s 6am, the day after Boxing Day. While most are using the final days of 2022 to kick back and take stock, I’ve got one last interview to complete having just landed off the back of a 15 hour journey from London to Old Town, Puerto Vallarta, lugging 25kg of rodeo belt buckles, leather fringe and other favourite pieces from my birthplace alongside magazines purchased at the airport that bear my name whilst making the hasty decision to break in a pair of gold, crocodile Laredo cowboy boots along the way.
I’m four days from spending New Year’s Eve with my Mom and Dad. But first, despite my body being totally clueless about what time zone I’m in, Australian DJ, self-taught producer and Arms & Legs label boss Kristin Velvet is on my screen, wide awake, with her fast-approaching Slater Hills EP on the way and ready to chat.
Dressed in all black, with slicked espresso brown and honey blonde hair and an electrifying smirk, Velvet instantly moves me onto the same wave.
“Berlin has this beautiful calm between Christmas and New Year. Ideally, I would like this to be a time to stop and reflect, but I’ve never been able to sit still for too long. I’ve got my eyes locked on what the future holds.” She winks.
Velvet’s due a victory lap. She kicked off 2022 being named Beatport’s top trending House act, then spent the remainder flexing her status as a formidable force playing prime slots at festivals and clubs across the globe. She released a string of bangers that clocked co-signs from electronic music heavyweights such as The Blessed Madonna, Carl Cox, Jamie Jones and Cassy. Racked up numerous Beatport top 10 spots and was invited to do a BBC Radio 1 Mini-Mix by long-time supporter Danny Howard. At the same time, her single ‘The Undertaker” was named Radio 1’s Future Dance track of the week by Sarah Story.
Velvet proved her prowess at every turn on both sides of the booth with dance floor heaters and a blend of future nostalgia that traversed Chicago and Detroit house, 90’s RnB, golden-era hip hop, and UK big-beat with her own unique lick. All whilst keeping independent record label Arms & Legs relevant and holding down her residency at Watergate in Berlin.
“Sometimes I have to check myself. I ticked so many boxes in 2022 that were 2019 “dream board stuff” I wanted to do. But now my dreams have gotten bigger, I’ve set new goals, and I’m always looking for what’s next rather than stopping and looking at what I’ve achieved and going, “Holy shit, that’s pretty cool!”
Kristin Velvet was born on a farm in the Outback, Australia, with closer proximity to line dancing than raving. “Where I grew up, I had to drive 2 hours to see my next-door neighbour. The drive from my house to the bloody front gate where the school bus picked us up was a half-hour drive!” She laughs. “I got a car when I was still young enough that I remember looking underneath the windscreen wipers when I was driving because I was too small to see over them! All the kids did. We’d drive to the bus and leave our cars at the gate, then drive ourselves back home after school so that mom and dad didn’t have to take one minute away from the farm.”
By her teens, Velvet’s interests very veering far out of range from western life. Her fascination with Japanese prompted a move to Sydney to study the language and economics at Uni. Totally unaware that instead, she was about to unleash her lifelong obsession with music.
“I went to a festival in Sydney and lost all my friends. I was by myself and saw this band play, and it changed my whole trajectory. They were a Melbourne, jangly guitar band but just really moved me. Tears were pouring down my cheeks. I’d never felt these emotions before about music. I was like, “Right, I have to spend the rest of my life chasing this feeling.”
Velvet became obsessed with music. She poured over music press weekly and got jobs at live venues between studying, eventually making another ambitious switch up by moving from Sydney to Tokyo.
“When I graduated, I bought a one-way ticket to Japan, got in on an English teaching visa, and didn’t know anyone. It was a huge culture shock, but that’s what I was looking for. I really wanted an adventure and to get out of Australia. I just felt like I wanted to go and live in the biggest city in the world, in a tiny shoebox, right in the middle of it and immerse myself in something completely different.”
Blasted by visual and sonic stimulation at maximal levels from every angle of Tokyo, Velvet let the music take over. “I started going out to parties and club nights I’d heard about, and that’s how I formed my “Tokyo Tribe.” I said I was a DJ even though I had no idea what I was doing and rocked up to my first gig with an iPod.” She giggles. “But it was a very supportive community of creatives, and we all taught each other and played at each other’s parties. Then we started throwing our own, and it became just this really lovely thing.”
Those parties gained considerable traction and hype and positioned Kristin Velvet in high demand as a top DJ and promoter in Tokyo. However, London was calling. “I wasn’t beat matching. It was “cross-fade out” and all this kinda music that was popular in the early 2000’s like Erol Alkan Trash-era type of vibe. Soon we discovered that what we were doing in Tokyo was heavily influenced by what was happening in East London. I had lots of invitations and opportunities to keep up with the parties in Tokyo, but my visa was up, and I was like, ‘Look, if I’m gonna do this seriously, I have to go and see East London for myself and experience what’s inspiring this whole scene in Harajuku and Shibuya.”
Velvet touched down in London and secured (what she describes as) a very “bull-shit” corporate job, which allowed her to dig for music, update her MySpace and rave full-time. “I went to Trailer Trash my first weekend in London, and Hannah Holland was playing; she was the queen! It was epic; after that, I was there religiously every Friday and raving every day. Tuesdays I had off, Wednesdays were Nag Nag Nag, Thursdays were something else, Saturdays maybe a warehouse party, then Sundays Boombox. London had so much colour and loudness. I was going to these incredible clubs that were like a filthy sweatbox and hearing all this fucking incredible music. Again like Tokyo, all of my senses were being blown away. I knew I had to stay in London. I didn’t go back to Japan.”
The burgeoning East London scene stole a piece of her heart, and the iconic DJ’s spearheading it became some of her biggest inspirations. “Gosh, I was inspired by, and still am, by so many iconic London artists from that time. JoJo De Freq (Nag Nag Nag), Cormac, Peter Pixzel, Jacob (wetyourself), K-Tron and Warboy.”
Velvet was carving out a name for herself on the dance floor but burning the candle at both ends. “I loved the rave, and I still do. I just LOVE the rave! It’s such a special thing. But after a year, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I had to move on and have a healthier life.”
From there, she bought a controller and went and lived on a boat in the South of France on a hostess job on the canal. “I’d pull out that controller and DJ on my boat every second day when I had afternoons off. But there was never any intention to make music professionally. It was still just for fun.”
The universe had other plans. Velvet moved back to Sydney and locked down a flash new marketing job at Universal and then Domino Records as label manager. “That was such a great era. Hot Chip came back to the label, Animal Collective did another album; I was working with all this amazing music. I did all the album cycles, but after two and half years, I felt like I’d done it all. My mom said to me “You’re in such a good rut, but you’re not growing” I needed a change and a challenge. So that’s when I moved to Berlin.”
At this point, Velvet had been honing her skills as a producer in private alongside one of Berlin’s most celebrated house & techno practitioners, Daniel Steinberg, for the past two years. He helped her with music production, and she lent her expertise on the music side of his and Nils Ohrmann label Arms & Legs.
“I moved to Berlin in 2013 with no plan, no idea what I wanted to do, no friends. I got there, and it was pretty much a disaster. It was like ‘Oh fuck, what have I done? I’ve thrown away this great job, with great friends and this quality of life in Sydney where everything is so beautiful and easy.’ I tried a few different things. I worked in PR, and one of my friends from Uni was living here so together, we tried putting on classical concerts at the Berliner Philharmonie. I was just throwing shit at a wall and seeing what would stick!” She takes a breath and continues, “I’d built up my identity and ego off the back of what I’d achieved in Sydney, and that was all gone. I was no one, nowhere. No one knew who I was, or for that matter, cared. So I was really starting from the bottom. And I think that was also a really healthy experience. I started reading a lot of philosophy to understand these feelings that I was feeling while struggling with my mental health.”
While Berlin might have started as Velvet’s biggest challenge, it also propelled her on a steady trajectory through the industry that shows no signs of slowing down.
She felt no goosebumps at her gig at the Berliner Philarmonie but that same week, she was reminded of her destiny while attending an Arms & Legs party. “I just had the time of my life, and I was like “Well look, here’s the answer. This is what I gotta throw myself into.”
She stepped into the position as co-label boss at Arms & Legs and landed her first Berlin DJ gig. “I remember a friend of mine asked me to play at a bar under a bridge in Mitte, and I was off social media at the time. None of my friends really knew about my ‘Kristin Velvet’ project so I had to physically call them and say that I was playing. Everyone was in shock. Someone sent me a photo of that night the other day, of me with all my CD folders. It’s so old school! When I started out playing in Berlin it was at these really tiny spaces like Farbfernseher which was like playing at a friends house party and where you could build your confidence and try new things. You can’t hide anything, you can’t phone it in. It’s very raw and there’s this amazing energy exchange. I think it’s really important that cities still have these kind of places where you can bring people up. You have to learn that way, because you can’t go from zero to hero.”
Since 2013 Kristin Velvet’s played peak slots everywhere from Boiler Room, Mint Warehouse in Leeds, Ministry Of Sound in London, Pacha in Barcelona, Revolver in Melbourne and festivals that include Snowbombing and Subsonic Music Festival Australia.
Whilst most of her material has landed on Arms & Legs, Velvet’s productions have also appeared on Felix Da Housecat’s Founders of Filth, Hot Since 82’s Knee Deep in Sound and Cassy’s Kwench imprint. She’s released four Cats Love Velvet EPs — the collaborative project she has with Felix Da Housecat, she’s been called upon to remix Jesse Saunders and Paul Mac, and her own productions have been mixed by Louie Vega, Cari Lekebusch and Mark Broom.
More than that, Velvet’s flexed the dexterity of her skillset by igniting dance floors with her music and tuning into her knowledge as a raver. “For creators, it’s a symbiotic relationship between the DJ/artist and the dancer. That’s what you’re creating music for; for someone to be free and feel it on a deep level.” She goes on, “The place I go to get inspired and feel the most creative is the dancefloor. That’s my happy place. As a dancer, it’s so special that you can be taken through all these emotions and just totally give in to this journey. In the DJ booth, you’re calling all the shots. When I’m playing I know what’s coming, but when you’re on the dancefloor, you don’t know which emotion the music will pull out of you. You don’t know if what the DJ plays next will have you crying or fist-pumping. It’s like you’re possessed! I always say that as a dancer or a raver, the music should move you and dictate the way you dance. So, whenever anyone thanks me for an amazing set or the music, I always say, “Well we create that together. Without that energy coming from the dancefloor the DJ can’t do the magic.”
With DJ’s clocking meteoric fame, it’s a wonder if Velvet feels pressure to nurture her underground clout or cash in on a mainstream crossover? Is it a bad thing to play clubs that are “uncool?” “I just play anywhere I can. Whether that’s a super hype venue or a super commercial venue. Every one is an opportunity for me to play the music I make and the music I love to a new audience. I don’t care where that is! It’s just like, ‘Omg I get the play the music that I love on a big sound system.’ Anyways, you can bring your vibe anywhere you want to take it, so it really shouldn’t matter.” Going back to her roots she says “I think my whole vibe is that electronic music should lead you to a place of non-judgement. And if you find mainstream success on a brilliant cross-over track like Eliza Rose did last year with “BOTA,” than that’s a bonus to a wider scope of dancers you’re touching with your music.”
With so many independent labels out there keeping up alongside the majors, how difficult is it to keep Arms & Legs relevant? “I never really thought about it like that. Everyone has a label, but I never think about being relevant. Arms & Legs is a vehicle for us to release our own stuff. If the tracks are getting picked up and played, then the label stays relevant, if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t.”
Velvet says her dream artist to ink a deal with Arms & Legs is the one she still needs to find! “It’s someone who loves the Arms & Legs sound aesthetic and has a brilliant ear for fresh, catchy hooks and infectious grooves. If that’s you please get in touch!”
Off the back of the topic of dreams she reels off producers and composers to collaborate with. “If he was alive still, I’d love to collaborate with John Cage. I’m fascinated by how he thought about sound through the lens of Zen Buddhism, challenged the notion of likes & dislikes, and how lively, charming and enthusiastic he seemed as a collaborator. It seems he was an endlessly curious and original thinker and I’d love to be in the same room as him.”
As for people alive today, Velvet would love to link up with Josh Wink. This is fortunate, as he recently remixed her forthcoming track on Ovum Recordings. “It totally blew my mind. What he did with the parts was so incredibly inspiring. He is such an immensely talented, legendary producer. “
As for new music, Kristin Velvet has a heap of it on the horizon following her latest single “Perfect Division (Nothing Else Matters).” She has a remix for Kassian’s track “Actions” on their label Faux Poly, another single for Danny Howard’s imprint, and that new Slater Hills EP of her own.
Back on the farm, I have to know whether her Mom, Dad and brother listen to her music. “No, they don’t!” she bursts into laughter. “They don’t understand what I’m doing. They’re so Outback. They live on a farm where there’s no phone reception, and they only just got the internet. In the past, I would have really loved it if they “got it”, but now I’ve also kinda accepted that they don’t. I’m going back in February, and it’s always this insanely grounding experience. The life that they lead and it’s very harsh and hard. Whenever I call up for my weekly call, I have DJ struggles and all that. I’ll find out whatever’s happening on the farm that week, and it gives me so much perspective.” With her faultless charm, she turns the conversation back to me. “I’m sure you find it too that you can get very sucked into this whole electronic music bubble. I LOVE this bubble. But there’s a whole, real world out there and some perspective is really beautiful.”
As I write this, my parents have arrived in Mexico. And despite how proud they are of my grind in the Big Smoke and the “name-making” I’ve done for myself, neither of them care that I’m making my Cover debut for Beatportal. Dwight (my Dad) is smoking and polishing my cowboy boots on the balcony using a magazine I wrote in to protect his jeans, while at the same time, Sheila (my Mom) hassles me to finish up so we can go for margaritas.
As we close, I ask Velvet what’s been her biggest obstacle. “It’s fascinating this choice of word ‘obstacle’. Because an obstacle is actually something that stands in your way. I actually don’t feel like I’ve had one. My whole life, there’s been no obstacles! Genuinely speaking, I think the universe has been really cooperative. I’ve had challenges but I’m really grateful for them because they’ve taught me much more than if I hadn’t had to overcome them.”
Looking back at the journey thus far, Velvet concludes that her greatest personal achievement is yet to come. “I think my proudest accomplishment is just the fact that I’m still here. It’s my resilience and still showing up. I made it to the end of 2022 and survived another year. It’s as simple as that. There’s no plan B.”
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance dance music journalist living in London. Find her on Twitter.