Choice Mix: Willow

Lauren Martin speaks to the Manchester DJ and producer, as part of RBMA Radio’s Choice Mix series

Willow slams herself down on the sofa and scrapes her tumbles of hair back with paint- and dust-coated hands. She’s just got home from her volunteer job of making furniture, and she’s ready to get back to her usual chill self. “It’s good to get out the house, rather than sitting in and making tunes all day,” she says, while rolling a cigarette. “You feel me, sister?”

Willow is Manchester to the bone. With a droll smirk and laconic northern tone, she talks about how her parents were born in Manchester and that she currently lives in Whitefield, a town in the north of Greater Manchester. The triangle of record shops in the city center, though – Piccadilly Records, Eastern Bloc and the Vinyl Exchange – is her regular spot. “I can listen to 30 records and like maybe one of them, so when I go into the shops and they have a bag of records ready for me to listen to, I’m like, ‘Yes mate.’” Patting her hand over her heart, she sighs. “I love it here, man. It’s real, like.”

“It’s them, like, naughty basslines,” the word “naughty” rolling out as the smirk becomes a grin.

The identity of your home city can be worn as a badge of pride: the slang, humor and attitude, the fashions, politics and music. Manchester’s history with electronic music, from the birth of the Haçienda as a jackin’ house workout spot, and then for baggy-clothed and smiley-faced rave marathons, is worn by Willow, but with personal tweaks. She grew up dancing to scuzzy electro at the renowned Sankeys, but grime music is her true love.

“Grime now to me is a bit shit,” she admits. “The old stuff is the best stuff, and that still has an influence on me.” There are many classics to choose from, but right now she’s listening to Macabre Unit and Roadside Gs. Thinking of the minimalistic house that she’s becoming known for playing and producing, I wonder: what’s the grime influence in her own sound?

“It’s them, like, naughty basslines,” the word “naughty” rolling out as the smirk becomes a grin. “It’s them rough ways of working, and working quickly, with the vocals deep in the mix. I like that stripped back, sexy shit. When I got into house and techno, that’s the vibe I’ve always been looking for. I spend more time playing out and producing house music than I do listening to it on my own, though.”

Out of what she does listen to, Helena Hauff is a favorite. “She’s a dark bitch,” she says, “I love her.” From an outside perspective, it makes sense. While Helena focuses on a more industrial 4/4 style than Willow, they’re both all about bleak beats with a funky strut to them. It’s a style that she’s become known for at her monthly residency at Nottingham party, 808, which she’s helmed with DJ partner in crime Alex Lewis for the past four years. It was at 808 that she met German techno don Move D, who’s played a pivotal role in breaking her in the house scene. After both were booked to play at Gottwood Festival in 2013, Move D stumbled across her tent in the small hours and heard a peculiar beat bouncing around inside.

Willow - “Feel Me”

“I was playing ‘Feel Me’ off my phone, on these crappy little speakers. It was the second tune I’d ever made – right after I’d started messing around with Logic. When he came into the tent, I was mortified: ‘Oh my god, get that off now!’ He was like, ‘Whose track is this?’ and all my mates jumped, like, ‘It’s her! It’s Willow!’ and he was like, ‘This is beautiful.’” After chasing her for it, Move D played “Feel Me” during his Boiler Room set at Dimensions Festival and included it in his fabric 74 mix CD, both in 2014. So assured of the track’s subtle power, he pushed it onto Lowtec and Even Tuell’s Workshop label for their Workshop 21 release. “When he told me that Workshop was going to release it, I was proper buzzing. Mate, it was the best feeling ever.”

“Feel Me” is Willow’s only official release to date, so to pin her production style to it definitively would be premature at best. What “Feel Me” does do, though, is demonstrate a deftness of touch for layering, and for the space between the layers to be amplified. Together, it sounds naughty in a teasing way: switching between ardent basslines and tender machine-rinsed vocals; all choked up with sincerity. Perhaps the most fascinating part of “Feel Me,” though, is that the vocal isn’t a sample. It’s the voice of her sister’s friend, a singer called Natasha Davis, who Willow enlists for all of her vocal work. Natasha records a rough song with her own voice, a guitar and a loop pedal, and Willow “manipulates the fuck out of it. Natasha could be a synth, a bassline, or a more masculine sounding vocal - it just depends on how I work it. I make the beat and do the arrangement, and then work on the vocal in Logic.”

The reception to “Feel Me” has surprised but delighted Willow, and she’s making plans to take things further. She’s planning on moving to London, where she has a studio lined up to get to work in, and where she’ll play this summer’s Found Festival. It’s a gradual process, but that’s her pace. Apart from the move, what’s next? “I’ve written a new EP. Like, a few tracks. I’m not too sure what’s going on with it, like a label and a release date, but you know what? I just want to play gigs and spend money on bare records,” she says with a gnarly laugh. “I just want them records, man. Sexy, groovy shit that you can get down to, with a sick bassline.”

Listen to Willow’s Choice Mix on RBMA Radio here.

By Lauren Martin on April 12, 2016

On a different note