The question of creativity and culture is always something that’s been quite complex. When pondering what many consider to be the origins of creativity and culture, It’s always found to be somewhat of a grey area that can’t and shouldn’t be defined. The question of where creativity stems from contests the argument that culture and creativity come ostensibly from the location or immediate surroundings that someone spends the vulnerable and attaining years of their life in. While in the information age with the accessibility of equipment, information, social media and thus, different cultures, different cultures are giving life to countries that perhaps before were deprived of more fruitful and exciting cultures before. This is giving rise to a worryingly saturated industry of artists and acts with the realisation that our economy is finally almost in a position to support people and creativity in a way like never before. It seems to be a cyclical process with music over all, with underground cultures and subcultures growing into popular culture and then the cycle repeats again. Yet, sometimes it enables true passion and gives the chance to someone who truly deserves to have a platform to showcase their talents.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Holly Lester, one of Ireland’s most promising acts at the moment. Almost immediately you could sense her humbling and genuine approach to her career, music and more, all down to pure passion of wanting, and in fact as it seemed, needing to live and devote her life to the music that she loves.
First thing was first, I wanted to know how she got started.
“I’m from rural Armagh, in between Armagh and Newry. There wasn’t anyone into electronic music there, it was predominantly country and western. Well, there was also a bit of hardcore, there were quite a lot of people into that [laughs]. So yeah, there wasn’t really anything inspiring going on around that time. But my dad was a bit of a raver back in the day so I basically got all of my music taste from him; he was kind of indoctrinating me from a young age I suppose. My mother was really into disco too, so I had the electronic side from my dad and the disco side from my mother. It just started turning into a bit of an obsession I guess, probably at around age thirteen. I bought a book called ‘How to DJ Properly’ by Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton and read it cover to cover. After a year of pushing my parents for CDJs, they finally succumbed and bought me a set for Christmas. It was one of those all-in-one sets by Numark, and I taught myself the basics on them. That was kind of how it began. It wasn’t anything serious back then obviously, it was just a hobby. I literally never thought that I would be able to do this professionally. When I got a bit older I started looking into courses, I was going to go down the radio route and then try and get into the industry that way. It wasn’t until I actually moved to England for university in 2011 that the ball started rolling and I thought “Actually, I can do this on a serious scale”.”
For most people, their earliest memories of music will be those of old tapes or CDs played by parents during car journeys over and over again. Mostly your first point of contact with music that will hold long lasting importance to you will be through memories and nostalgia, youth, family and more. More and more often we’re seeing ‘superstar’ DJs owing their music tastes to their parents, with Ross From Friends dedicating his album to his father who heavily influenced his music.
“For me I guess the initial thing that got me really obsessed with dance music was trance. That was a big thing at home. My dad also introduced me to a lot of acid house and breaks and things like that. When I started DJing and I was learning to mix, it was actually more a progressive house sound, which at the time was very popular. I decided to start learning on house music simply because my CDJs were so bad that the buttons didn’t respond quick enough for anything faster. I stuck with it between all the fads that went on from 2007 up until a few years ago, when I really started to hone in on my sound and discover what I really wanted to play. I really loved everything when I was growing up. It took me a while to really realise that I can tie in different sounds and that it can sound good, and that’s how I kind of ended up sounding like I do today.”
I wanted to ponder the subject of music selection and set planning with Holly, with her Boiler Room debut proving as the perfect example of an upbeat and versatile house set that let influence of other genres and personality shine through.
“It’s super important to be versatile. When you’re playing the same stuff over and over again, it can become pretty boring. Even just for yourself, you want to mix it up and you do begin to start exploring different avenues and sounds. This changes anyway throughout different stages of your life, you’re always constantly evolving. I’ve been DJing for eleven years now, so it is interesting to look back and see how things have progressed.”
A question that often pops into my head is how DJs, as entertainers, balance the music that they enjoy listening to with music that they sense the crowd may want to hear. The argument of ‘let DJs just be DJs’ is constantly being brought up, and I wanted to know what the process behind deciding what to play was when it came to being honest to your tastes but also, acknowledging the dual function of DJs not just as artists, but people that are essentially at times entertainers too.
It’s definitely a balance. It’s really important to not forget that people pay to come to see you and they expect a certain standard from you. It depends where you are, the time of your set, the country you’re in…There’s all these things to think about. You can’t always be totally selfish – unless you’re super established, known for doing whatever you want and can get away with it. It’s really important to me that there’s that balance and that I’m keeping people happy. It’s very much a spiritual process for me. I want to give people that release and that happiness so I’m very aware of what I need to do to achieve that. I’ve been on the other side of the dance floor obviously and it’s important to remember being on that side.”
With countless DJs and producers rising from the forgotten or ignored corners of Ireland, they’re going on to make serious waves in the UK and beyond, sometimes dominating the scene making their home country prouder than ever. With this comes the support of the Irish, an unbeatable force. However, there’s always the argument that they’re forced abroad, that Ireland isn’t established enough creatively in modern ways to support all of the budding acts that it’s producing. With ridiculous closing hours, countless venues and clubs dropping to the ground, and more things continuously hindering the culture and industry from growing – I wanted to ask Holly how she felt about the constantly circulating Ireland vs UK debate.
“I totally get where people are coming from when they say that. As someone who’s lived on both islands though, and who’s experienced both things, it always seems like the grass is greener in the UK but we actually have a lot of the same problems. Especially here in Manchester. This venue problem is constantly happening over here. I think in Ireland we always feel like we’re very behind, and like we don’t have the same opportunities and things like that. I think the difference is when you’re an artist trying to ‘break through’ in Ireland or England, there’s just a lot more opportunity in England. Obviously being from the countryside, it made sense for me to go away and start things off. Things wouldn’t have happened for me if I stayed at home.”
Although some may have only come to know Holly’s name after her massive Boiler Room debut this year at AVA Festival in Belfast, Holly is no stranger to the scene. With several residencies under her belt before that and with plenty of projects in the working, I was intrigued to ask about her experiences in the build up to such pivotal moments in her career – and she only has more to come.
“Probably the most notable residency that kind of started things for me was Chibuku in Liverpool. I’d just come back from my second season in Ibiza and I’d been playing really small low key parties over there. I had residencies there but nothing huge. I came home to Liverpool and people had started to notice me so Chibuku offered me the residency. Things started to take off from there I guess, then Shine Belfast started to take notice and they booked me for the Feel My Bicep Boxing day party a few years ago. That’s when the association with Bicep started and it’s continued til this day of course. The Warehouse Project is something that I’ve also had a long running association with too – and I’ve just recently been announced as a resident for the final season at Store Street this year. The line ups have really been pulled out of the bag this year and I’m really really excited to be on them. It’s really nice to be a part of that and be recognised.”
With the recent announcement that this would be the final season of The Warehouse Project in the acclaimed Store Street venue, I asked Holly to weigh in on what she thinks the final season in that venue will bring.
“It’s going to be quite a big deal this season. It’ll be quite emotional in some respect. It’s been the starting point of The Warehouse Project for a lot of people and there’s a lot of memories there.”
The subject of the conversation veered to more human topics, with the acknowledgement that no matter how much you idolise your favourite DJs, they’re exactly human like you too. The emotion that goes into a set will almost always be genuine, especially with the doors opening for topics of mental health and more amongst the circuit of touring DJs, but Holly added that nerves are something that will always affect her, like many others – also adding that it’s a sign of truly caring about the whole thing. Musicians, DJs and performing acts in general are constantly caught up in the web of not being able to truly express their feelings for fear of their sentiments being misunderstood or their statements being misconstrued and interpreted as ungratefulness or otherwise, with Denis Sulta, probably one of the most successful DJs doing the rounds at the moment, taking to social media recently to declare just this.
“Boiler Room was incredible but I was extremely nervous. It’s a really daunting experience. I found out maybe two months before and for two months I was just absolutely petrified. When it came to the day, I was a complete bag of nerves. I thought, you know, normally the nerves go, but they actually continued with me right until the very end. It was such a surreal experience that I can’t really recall what was happening. I had tunnel vision. People were trying to talk to me during the set and I have no idea what was being said. It took me about 2 hours after the set to come down from the adrenaline. It really was an experience.”
Pondering the sentiments further, we delved into what may be the reasons for these feelings, contrary to what people may say about ‘practice making perfect’.
“No, I don’t think you ever really get used to it if you truly care about the art. There’s always going to be some event or party that you’ve never played at before that’s more important than the last one and it just keeps kind of growing. Since Boiler Room, things have really started to take off for me in that sense. I’m going to be playing in places that are – lets just say there’s a lot of great things coming up and it’s going to be super scary. It’s never going to stop for me because I care so much about it.”
Holly is due to support one of Ireland’s best live acts at their sold out landmark headline London dates in November. You can also catch her playing on home turf at Breeze Block, Belfast, alongside Peach and Bobby Analog this October 13.