Cover Story: Steffi
Cover Story: SteffiOctober 18, 2022
Marcus Barnes speaks to Steffi about her forthright nature, a death in the family and why her new album The Red Hunter may be her most truthful statement yet.
After a rather stressful interview start, due to a series of incidents happening all at once, it’s a later Zoom start than expected with Steffi. She’s been waiting patiently for 20 minutes, and, thankfully, she’s very understanding while I apologise profusely. This warm greeting sets the tone for a lengthy chat that gets pretty deep at times, covering an array of topics relating to her life’s work, her forthcoming LP The Red Hunter, her mother’s death and much more. The interview develops into one of those open, mutually intimate conversations that leaves you feeling energised afterwards, with both of us sharing freely throughout.
Steffi’s reputation as an artist is pretty much flawless; a member of the Ostgut Ton family, a discography full of exemplary releases across house, techno and her recent less-easily-definable production style, an accomplished DJ, expert remixer and collaborator. Not to mention her label outlets, Klakson, Dolly et al, all of which maintain a consistently high quality throughout. Steffi is the driving force behind all of these creative channels and it’s her deep, unwavering commitment to stay true to herself and her core ethos that keeps them all so on point. To speak about Steffi’s staunch dedication to these ideals could maybe come across flippant, it’s the kind of language that appears in artist biographies all time: “In a class of their own”, “Has carved out their own lane” and so on… With Steffi though, this is not some PR-driven soundbite or self-created diehard image to perpetuate a superficial persona. She is as real as they come, and, as she admits herself, she simply couldn’t pretend to be anything else. As admirable as that may sound, it’s actually very difficult — “hard work” she says, as there’s a lot of injustice. “I’m focused on the reason why I’m on this planet and why I’m doing this and what I need to do for myself,” she says.
Her unpretentious nature and forthright way of being is refreshingly honest and sincere. Her partner Virginia will sometimes witness a Steffi tantrum, as her authentic self wrestles with the commerciality and superficial nature that drives some of the larger-scale events. Often, she’ll have a debate with herself and/or Virginia about whether to even take those types of bookings in the first place. “I can’t function in this superficial, fast way of doing things,” she admits of our very modern electronic world, before explaining how joyful it was to curate a night at Munich’s infamous Blitz, where she played the warm-up. “I think honestly, the opening act is the most important act of the night. It’s much more fulfilling than any massive stage with 30,000 people that probably don’t even have a clue what records you’re playing.”
This is partly why she has cultivated her own bubble, where she makes and plays music on her own terms with no desire or pressure to conform. Conformity for Steffi is an alien concept. She embodies a warrior spirit and pulls no punches, “I’ll tell people what the fuck is up”, she says. This spirit has been with her since her younger years when she formed the core of her identity, growing up in a time when going against the grain was what everyone of her generation wanted to do. “When we were young, we wanted to not fit in, not be liked. Now everything is about, “I want to be liked” or “It needs to look the same as what he, she, they are doing”,” she says. “But I’m from a generation, where I don’t want you to like me, because I want to go against the establishment, I want to do things differently. I want to look different.”
Born and raised in the Netherlands, she initially went into graphic design. However, she was not much of an office person. Unsurprisingly, settling down and being told what to do was not on the agenda for young Steffi. “I used to be a graphic designer and I think it was very clear for my dad, and for me, that I was not suitable for an office,” she explains. This baked-in independence and individual way of being is the antithesis to the Instagram generation, where all levels of homogenisation and mimicry are evident in how the majority of people behave. Understandably, Steffi avoided the gram for as long as humanly possible, before it became apparent that she would have to relent, for the benefit of giving younger artists on her labels a nice boost. So now, we get a little peek into her life on the road, forthcoming gigs and releases… and the books she likes to read — Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind On Plants and Signs: The Secret Language of the Universe by Laura Lynne Jackson, giving us some insight into what she’s feeding her mind with at the moment. Perhaps tellingly, both books touch on spirituality, the inner workings of our minds, and the universe itself. Certainly, Steffi has an open mind when it comes to the subject matter, and her move to Portugal has played a big part in reconnecting with nature and her own essence, too.
After spending much of the last couple of decades in Berlin, Steffi and Virginia moved to Portugal two years ago. They live north of Lisbon in a small village, with a population of around 200. When asked what she gets up to there, she laughs, “Nothing!”. “It was a big game changer for me living in nature and just being remote from everybody and chilled out,” Steffi tells me. “It’s been glorious. Really, I don’t miss the city at all.” In fact, she describes having to really steel herself to go back to the city, after becoming so accustomed to the tranquillity of village life. As a rebellious youngster she couldn’t wait to escape from her small Dutch hometown, but now, in her late 40s, Steffi finds solace in the quiet, laid back atmosphere of a small Portuguese village. A place to return to after the madness of a weekend on tour, a place to deepen her relationship with nature, her partner and herself. The often-touted mental health benefits of living in nature also come up in our conversation, Steffi citing the relaxed atmosphere as having an effect on her creativity. Though, she is quick to add, it hasn’t impacted the style of music she makes, “It’s more like the way you approach things that is different. It’s not that I’m gonna write different music because I’m watching a palm tree blowing in the breeze,” she says.
As someone who has followed Steffi’s musical career for the past decade or so, it’s been fascinating to watch her evolve from a “DJ/producer” to a fully-fledged artist. A key development has come from her deep dive into the more technical aspects of production, while also shifting away from genre-categorisation. What comes out of Steffi’s mind now cannot be classified as “techno”, or “house”, or “post-dubstep” or any other label. The music she makes has the foundation of her fiercely independent attitude, with absolutely no desire to jump on the trendy sound of the moment. This comes through loud and clear when you listen to Steffi’s new album The Red Hunter, where there’s a strong focus on the rhythmic elements of the music. This is what marks the difference between a “DJ/producer” and an artist — finding one’s own voice, a kind of creative truth. It’s authentic and free of the limitations imposed by genre categories. Though Steffi has always done her thing, in her formative years of making music she made tunes that were more in line with the sound of the time because she gravitated towards producing music inspired by what she was playing. When she was really getting established as a DJ, this was mostly house music — even though her pre-Ostgut DJing was a lot more experimental. So, cuts like “Reasons” and the classic “Yours” (both featuring Virginia) appear early on in her discography. Over time Steffi has established her own sound, and on The Red Hunter, this sonic fingerprint shifts into a different phase.
“It happened after co-producing Virginia’s album. In 2016, I wrote my third album, which was much more abstract than the second album,” she says, explaining that she didn’t want anyone singing on the album. “When the third album came out, it was such a breath of fresh air. If you can let go of the idea that [the music] needs to sound like anything in particular, something really, really interesting happens. By the fourth album, I really wanted to focus on what I can gain as a producer, in terms of technical stuff that I was really curious about. I was really eager to get into the deeper layers and put the focus on the rhythm not so much on the melody”.
This process of letting go, intrinsic to freeing the mind and expanding one’s creative field in many aspects of life, has allowed Steffi to transcend and find that elusive “sound” so many artists strive for. The Red Hunter epitomises this unclassifiable sound; merging breaks and beats with warped bass, and scant use of melody to really emphasise the rhythm sections. Unusually for one of her album projects, in fact a first for Steffi, the new album is a collection of music made over a period of a few years. Once the music had been gathered together and refined in the studio, a story formed. Most pertinent to the album’s overall message is the honouring of her late mother, who passed away in 2018. We discuss the complexity of grief. After her mother died, Steffi faced her anguish head on, rather than suppress it. “It’s unpredictable. It makes a broken heart over love look like a piece of piss,” she shares. “When I lost my mother, like, fucking hell, this is a pain that I really took in, like, ‘Okay, it needs to come to me, and I need the ride the wave, otherwise I’m going to make a mess out of myself, which is not the way I want to do this’. It comes in these waves that are really tough to sit through, and one wave is different from the other”.
Steffi’s parents would sometimes attend her shows, so memories of her mum being triggered while at a gig are not uncommon. The process of paying tribute to her mother through The Red Hunter was typically unorthodox: rather than sit and channel her grief into the music, she bundled the album tracks up and named them according to the memories or feelings they brought up. “I don’t need to constantly think of my grief or feel the pain when I’m writing, I can just also just bundle it up,” she explains. “When I’m just deciding the title of the album and choosing the track titles, and when I listened to the music [I thought] like, “What does it remind me of?” I can pick these things and say, “This is my homage to you. This is what I wanted to gift to honour my mother.”
Across the album’s 10 cuts, Steffi takes a deep dive into a diverse sound palette, drawing on various influences to cultivate a powerful collection of music that is emotionally mature, and impossible to classify. Although she didn’t consciously sit down and summon her grief for the creative process, it’s still very evident that some of those difficult emotions filtered into her work. Similarly, subtle shifts in the pace of the rhythm sections remind Steffi of her mother, who, she says, had an intensity to her character. “It’s very clear to me that my creative energy and part of this intense side of me… being a workaholic, having the fire, that’s from her,” she says.
We then touch on spirituality and the shift that has occurred in today’s generation, where a far more healthy and progressive attitude to death and grief is beginning to emerge. Steffi speaks about the old school mentality of death being so final, and something we want to “get rid of” or escape from. “Our generation is like, “Wait a minute, I’ve lost somebody, my fucking god, how does that feel?” My parents’ generation just moved on, like, ‘I’m okay, we’ll move on’”, she explains. “Whereas, for us, it’s like, “I would like to move on but I literally can’t walk because I’m so numb from what’s going on”.
Both Steffi’s mum, and her dad, were very supportive of her ambitions despite being from a generation that didn’t grow up with house and techno, or the non-linear freelance life of a DJ. “My dad was the one who said to me, ‘If you want to try to make a living off DJing and if that’s the direction that you want to take, I think you should do it’”.
Steffi moved to Berlin as things were developing with the Berghain family, and she was soon picking up international bookings. Eventually, her parents started synchronising their trips with her travels so they could attend her shows. “I think once they started to see things popping up internationally, it really triggered mum’s curiosity,” she quips. Steffi’s parents had cycled around Europe in their youth, and they’d take the chance to revisit some of their favourite places if she happened to be playing there. “She really started to jump on this opportunity train of Virginia and I, or me, playing somewhere nice and she would come along to join us”. Her dad still attends the odd festival, although he can’t stand for long. “I was really fortunate because I speak to a lot of people from my generation and they’re like, ‘Oh, my parents don’t understand’. My dad was also really interested in the music that was coming out and he actually listened to it,” she adds. “It’s really extraordinary for people their age, you know? That’s been a really nice extra level of support.”
Steffi herself has utilised her status to give support to others, passing on what her parents gave to her. Through her labels she has given new artists a leg up, and this is one of the core tenets of her latest venture, Candy Mountain. Not, I can confirm, inspired by the classic YouTube stoner’s animation Charlie The Unicorn, but named because the studio hub lies at the bottom of a mountain and it’s ‘like a candy store for musicians’ because of the equipment it contains. A dream spot, which Steffi and Virginia have set up as a base for themselves, with the idea of sharing it with local Portuguese artists, as a kind of support system to give back to the land they have migrated to. “I think it’s really important to give something back and that you’re not just there sucking the place dry,” she states. “You just have to make sure that you give something back by investing energy in artists, or be of service when somebody wants help in the scene. We thought it would be nice to have a place where we can just be and Portuguese artists can have a hub.”
The first release on Candy Mountain is Steffi’s new album, and the release will be supported by a live tour for which she has written dance floor friendly versions of the tracks. It’s been an intensive period of creating, preparing and promoting, now she’s on the cusp of the release and planning a month off at the beginning of next year. “I’m going to take a break, go away for a month and do absolutely nothing,” she explains. “It’s like you’re on maternity leave. I always need a time where I really disconnect from the album”. She is still driven by the fiery energy from her mother’s genes and utterly resolute in her sense of self. Independent, straight talking and anti-homogeny, Steffi’s mission remains the same — “It’s important that, if I am taken off the planet, what I’ve left behind, there’s nothing that I can look at and go, ‘What was I thinking?’,” she says emphatically. “There’s nothing that I regret, and there’s nothing that I’m embarrassed about. I wasn’t as experienced when I created my past work but it was done with the same intensity,” she concludes. “It’s just the knowledge, and me as a person, that has developed, so you can do much more. Then it’s about trying to keep that consistency. That’s my mission at the end of the day”.
Steffi’s fourth studio album The Red Hunter drops on October 24th via Candy Mountain. Buy it on Beatport.
Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.