Cover Story: Saoirse
Cover Story: SaoirseJune 22, 2023
Blood-red lasers cut lines across glistening bodies that jack and undulate in a thick, humid haze. Front and centre, lauded selector Saorise is tearing into her set as dancers climb and claw a cage surrounding the DJ booth. The room is at boiling point, but Adonis’s second birthday is just getting started.
A converted mechanic’s workshop in the depths of Tottenham might have seemed like an unlikely birthplace for a queer underground clubbing renaissance, but from the moment Adonis kicked open the doors of The Cause, it was clear that something very special was bubbling, and Saoirse was pivotal to the mix.
That night in 2019 was the first time I was electrified by Saoirse’s dance floor heaters, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last.
Saoirse was driving a pummeling and progressive sonic aesthetic at a breakneck pace. As an established and authoritative figure in dance music, she was already deep into crafting a career that traversed sonic worlds, subcultures and scenes.
In the years that followed, the Irish-born DJ was in demand to play at the most revered queer parties in Europe and techno clubs. Saoirse gained meteoric traction, quit a high-paying job at Resident Advisor in favour of honing her skills creating music, and dropped two critically praised debut EPs, trUst 001 and Two Bruised Egos, on her own terms.
Saoirse flexes her creative muscle further each turn and remains super dedicated to the elements that fuelled her from the very start; music discovery, building an inclusive community, and adding new dimensions to her artistry.
When we speak, it’s half a decade after her sweat-drenched Adonis set blew me away. She’s in her London studio in Bethnal Green making music, off the back of toasting her own 2nd birthday at Body Movements and on the precipice of celebrating their 3rd this summer. But first and foremost, we’re here to chat about where it all began and what it took to pour her prowess and passion from both sides of the board into her proudest project – her hugely anticipated ‘fabric presents’ compilation.
“It’s hard to articulate what doing a ‘fabric presents’ means to me, a club and mix series I feel truly indebted to. It’s probably one of the most meaningful things I’ve done yet. It feels like much of my life has revolved around Fabric in many ways. This is where music truly influenced my life, where I learned to be a good raver and where the longevity of the dancefloor hit home.” Saoirse beams in a black t-shirt surrounded by banks of synth. “I came to London to go to Fabric as a raver from Dublin. Back then, at 22, my entire life revolved around electronic music. Whether that was records, writing music, finding music, or going out raving. Fabric was a Mecca for that.”
Saoirse became transfixed by a scene of like-minded music heads who were elevating her own knowledge and the energy and unity she felt on the dancefloor. “A few of my peers in the industry, like Midland, messaged me about the ‘fabric presents’ mix and said, ‘You know I don’t know anyone else in our world that a fabric mix would mean more too, especially knowing your history with the club.”
Saoirse reflects, “There have been so many important moments in my life that have reverted back to that Fabric dance floor. I met my first ever love at Fabric and people who’ve become my closest mates. “Saoirse (a name which means Freedom in Gaelic) continues, “I felt aligned with the scene. The world these new friends were living in felt like there was so much opportunity to grow with music, let go and be myself.”
“There were a lot of different aspects that I was thinking about when I was selecting the music for the mix. One was, ‘What do I want to hear in Fabric?’ So I leaned into the textures I knew from within those club walls.”
“Secondly, ‘What music and artists are out there that people might not really know about, that they should know about?!’ A lot of the music is from very small labels, independents, or the first records of certain people. Lastly, I wanted it to be timeless. It was about ‘What can I play that sounds fresh but will also sound fresh in 10, 15 years.’ There’s nothing on there that is a big track of right now but won’t be in a few months.”
“I’ve pulled together a sound from the feelings and textures of those little tin cases, the techy swing of Craig’s ‘fabric 01’, the mind-altering drums of Shackleton’s ‘fabric 5′ or the risk-taking of Villalobos’ all-own productions of ‘fabric 36’. She continues to wax lyrical “To find myself sitting among my biggest heroes – words can’t explain how good it feels, but it feels fucking good.”
fabric presents: Saoirse drops on July 14th. Buy it on Beatport.
Saoirse was born and bred around music. Her mother was a musician in traditional Irish bands, while Saoirse was a natural percussionist. “We used to go to a Dublin pub every Sunday, and there’d be a trad session. I’d play the spoons and collect the money in a little hat and everything. I can still play the spoons and whip them out at an after-party now,” she laughs.
Due to Dublin’s strict curfews, her first foray into the electronic music scene came at a very young age in Dublin, accompanying her mom, who threw illegal raves, DIY parties and family-friendly events in forests and beaches with her friends. At 13 years old, while other kids played sports, festivals became Saoirse’s “natural habitat” (thanks to her mother also running Glastonbury’s Underground Piano Bar for the past 20 years). However, Saoirse quickly confirms that she was diving into the genre independently long before.
“There was just something about electronic music that immediately drew me in and became the fabric of ‘me.’ From extremely young like, I remember walking to primary school, like 6 or 7 years old and listening to Prodigy back to back and Orbital or Leftfield on cassette.” One tape in particular handed to her by her babysitter’s moody son became her siren call. “It was The Prodigy’s 1992 ‘Experience‘ album. That was monumental. I listened to it relentlessly and knew every tiny detail.” she says.
Into the groove and heavily inspired by her DJ mates, Saoirse began the hustle (some never succeed) of turning music into a money-making career. “I learnt how to drive at my mam’s DIY parties. They normally took place about a 20 or 30 min walk to where the actual raves were. So I’d take my mam’s van, charge everyone a fiver, then drive them down to the beach. One night, I made £75!” she laughs.
Saoirse’s passion grew, and she soon developed tunnel vision to get behind decks. “I used to watch my mates play for hours, thinking, ‘I need that’.” Her mother encouraged her to pursue her ambitions and secured Saoirse two turntables and a mixer at 15 years old from a mate in exchange for a lump of hash.
“They were belt drive, purple Numark things. They were so different from Technics. Because they were belt drives, you had to mix with your finger kind on the record, so it was much more difficult, but they were the cheapest ones around. There were no tutorials or videos. It was just practice, practice, and that’s the same now. It’s a skill THAT DOES NOT COME OVERNIGHT. You have to spend hours and hours. I’d just practice in my bedroom, absolutely blasting hard house.”
In fact, Saoirse admits that getting her off of them was a nearly impossible task. “Every time I had an argument with my mam, I’d be straight on them. I honestly could be in such a foul mood, and I’d have a little mix for an hour and come out smiling.”
As a teenager, she worked in Dublin’s Abbey Discs (one of Ireland’s most renowned dance music record stores) from 2003-2006 and was introduced to the sounds that dominated Ireland’s alternative enclaves: hard house and trance. Saorise also developed an insatiable habit for vinyl collecting, and any money she made from Abbey Discs, paper rounds or shifts at local chip shops was ploughed into records.
There are still 2,000 records in her nan’s loft that she can’t part with. (“It’s funny hearing Nina Kraviz play records I rinsed when I was sixteen, and that cost fifty quid now!”) Saoirse joked. “My nan sent me a really funny text the other day that she must have gotten from the newspaper or something. She said, ‘Saoirse, I heard that vinyl is making a comeback. Don’t forget who has yours!’ Like in case she wants to make a few quid!”
Saoirse frequented mega raves with Carl Cox, Jeff Mills and Pete Tong. Her childhood obsession with pirate radio led her to play slots on RTÉ (Ireland’s largest illegal station) whilst she carved out a formidable presence DJing hard house and trance spaces.
“I used to play at shows with Lisa Lashes, Tiësto, all these huge trance parties because that was, was the world I was in. I came up in the hard house and trance scene, and it’s quite funny because, in 2023, that’s what’s ‘FUCKING HUGE!’ A lot of these younger generation DJs are playing music now that I was playing at 15,” she winks. “A lot of those artists that they’re playing aren’t even on the scene anymore, yet all of their music is getting hammered now and relived through a new generation. That’s quite a beautiful thing to watch.”
Although she admits some tracks in heavy rotation were never good the first time, she clarifies still, “I can imagine what it was like for someone who didn’t grow up in that scene to be hearing these records decades after me, and feeling the same way I felt when I heard those the first time. Like ‘Wow! This is an absolute belter.’
Aged 18, Saoirse discovered Ibiza, doing three full seasons in a row and was spellbound that an actual island could exist for people who only liked electronic music! Then at 22, she discovered Fabric.
An epiphany during a Villalobos at Fabric’s 10th birthday inspired her to relocate and pursue things seriously.
“Dublin is a small place, and I felt like I’d reached a ceiling. Clubs would shut at 2:30 am and still do. Yet it was 10 am on Fabric’s birthday, Ricardo Villalobos was playing, and the place was absolutely heaving. I was having this experience that I’d never experienced before. A friend recommended the job at Resident Advisor to me on the dancefloor, and the rest is history.” she continues, “Also, as a queer person, I was still in the closet. When I went to London, sexuality felt more open and fluid. So many things were pulling me towards this place, and Fabric was at the heart.”
She secured a job at age 23, and the music industry landscape unfurled.
Saoirse went from hometown support slots to playing London’s most hallowed venues and nights – Phonox, fabric, FOLD, Adonis, Chapter 10 – and frequenting countries across Europe, the US and Asia, from Berlin to Bali and the Balearics, and festivals like Sonar, Horst, Love International and Strawberry Fields.
Radio, too, became a defining space for Saoirse to experiment and grow: at RINSE, she was the first house-focused resident show and became known for championing respected legends and emerging guests from DJ DEEON to Aurora Halal. Her rallying Resident Advisor mix, Radio 1 Residency, and Essential Mix carved out more ambitious, frenetic soundscapes that would become elemental references for the wider scene.
All this whilst still balancing a senior role at RA. Ultimately, it would take Covid and the world and music scene grinding to a halt for Saoirse to focus entirely on music. “All of a sudden, I could give myself so much creative space. I could make mistakes, have no deadlines, and explore what sounds resonated with me. I could work out what synths I liked and how to use my synths.”
Saoirse’s confidence grew as a producer as she became more comfortable with her equipment and sonic aesthetic. “I’ve always had equipment. I was always one of these people who’d go, ‘That looks really cool,’ and I’d buy it, and it’d just sit there because I wouldn’t have enough time to work out how to use it. Now all of a sudden, I was using it all. I was sleeping in the studio. I would come here at 9 am, illegally, and just stay overnight. I was working 12-16 hour days on music.”
She embraced the freedom within her moniker and launched her label, trUst Recordings, while self-releasing her debut EP. “I had always been writing music thinking, ‘Ah, I love this label. Let me see if I can write something that works and they would like.’ But that blocked me creatively. It was an obstacle.”
Saoirse’s fearlessness and open-hearted curiosity, dedicated crate digging, nimble, club-driven sounds, and years on both sides of the decks propelled her to fast track to top producer with plenty of the scene’s finest as close mates she could test drive her tracks with. “Until then, I never thought anything I’d made was good enough music-wise. But I sent this new music to some friends, and they said, ‘This is good! You should release it’ My best pals also work in music and are DJs and producers, so I knew they wouldn’t say to me, ‘This is great” if it wasn’t. Then when they were literally playing it out themselves, I knew that it couldn’t be that bad.”
trUst and Saoirse’s breakout EPs clocked hype and found her igniting the dancefloor of London’s FOLD and sending shivers of pleasure through the voguing crowds of Barcelona’s LGBTQ+ night Maricas, where she’s a resident. Earlier in 2023, she curated a night at Fabric with frequent collaborator Shanti Celeste.
In 2022 she played blistering festival sets at Houghton, Love International, and Glastonbury, including infamous four-way B2Bs with close friends Moxie, Shanti Celeste, and Peach (known collectively as SASS). An example of the quartet’s outstanding musical chemistry is SASS’ four-hour Glastonbury, which is the stuff of legend. The set extended into six hours, propelling the waved crowd of ravers into revelry with speed garage, bolshy breakbeat, and the song of the summer, Eliza Rose’s ‘BOTA‘ until the sun came up over Block9 (some swear a rainbow appeared).
Dance music is built on the concept of utopia; in Saoirse’s world, she’s always wanted that to be a shared reality. Saoirse also decided that if there was a dream out there that she wanted to achieve or something missing on the scene, she would create it herself.
“I noticed that queer parties could be quite constrained to the dark corners. That makes it all the more fun, and it can be purposeful. But I believe queerness should be visible in bigger spaces with amazing production and sound. I wanted to expand the spectrum of what people thought queer electronic music is and can be. I wanted to take up space and empower this scene of insanely talented artists.”
“I had this idea like ‘why not do an event with every single queer promoter that exists'” so Saoirse linked up the Little Gay Brother Clayton Wright, put plans in motion, and became a co-founder of the UK’s first queer and trans electronic music festival. Body Movements brings together LGBTQ+ collectives and artists and sets a standard for queer events worldwide to take hold of the venues and high-level production specs usually reserved for straight, white parties.
The festival’s debut and second birthday were both celebrated sell-out parties. The winter event cemented their clout even further and acted as a testament for Body Movements and the Queer electronic scene to crossover, with a sold-out 11-hour marathon at the 6,000-capacity Printworks.
“I knew that we deserved to be in these incredible spaces. After witnessing the amazing response and support we’ve had with Body Movements, I’ve realised it’s so much bigger than me. It’s my proudest accomplishment. It hit me like, ‘Fuck, this is important, and it needs to keep growing.’ Body Movements, this thing we created, is supporting emerging artists and making this huge safe space, and we need to cherish and nurture it and look at how it’s blossoming.” she lights up.
When pressed to articulate what she wants fellow ravers and electronic heads to experience when they listen to her music, Saoirse says, “I like to take risks and respond to the crowd – I want to move really fluidly from what’s wacky, ravey, headsy. Maybe an all-nighter will start on tech house and finish in the depths of liquid bass or jungle and jazz.” she pauses. “Although, me and my friends laugh and call my music emo tech. It’s music that can sometimes also make you cry a bit. Head down. It’s a tool that’s made for the dance floor. ”
When it comes to sharing the wealth of her sonic gems, Saoirse has no interest in gatekeeping her music but instead championing and shouting out the undiscovered “I’ve always been that way. When I did my Radio 1 residency, most of the music I played was stuff that hadn’t been released yet or had flown under the radar. That will be a part of what I do forever, like, ‘Hey, you need to know about this person! Have you checked them out?!’ I’m also super generous with my music. When people ask me for track IDs, I always tell them. I think music is meant to be discovered and shared.” Between her and Shanti and her mates, Saoirse says they are constantly sending each other records, swapping tracks, and expanding or testing each other’s musical palettes.
Adding to Saoirse’s staggering skillset, she’s also an extremely articulate speaker who appeared on panels to share hot takes on equality, inclusivity, and female representation in the industry.
“There weren’t really any female DJs I could look up to. A lot of the female DJs had this real ‘look’ like loads of cleavage and were very sexualised. Posters would fly around with two girls kissing with headphones on. It was a much different time, and it was very much a time of ‘she’s a girl. She doesn’t know how to mix.’ I used to get things like, ‘Oh, her boyfriend taught her.’ Their answer was always that there was a man behind your success.” She takes a breath. “In the era, I came up in, I was battling so hard. Back then, you could count on one hand how many famous female DJs there were. I’m pleased to see the evolution, but there’s still room for change and progression.”
As we conclude, I ask her what advice she’d give to the new-gen producers and DJs rising up or just paying their hands on decks. “I don’t think I’m a very good example because I’m in my mid-thirties, and things have really kicked off for me the last couple of years. It took me 20 years! I don’t necessarily think I’m the best person to say, ‘Follow my footsteps.’ What I will say is if I hadn’t made it or hadn’t become a touring artist, I would still just be at home mixing records. I was just doing what I love, and I’ll always be that way. Music is my whole life. So I would say do it because you love what you do, not because you want to be famous, and everything will fall into place.”
Tracy Kawalik is a freelance dance music journalist living in London. Find her on Twitter.