In this ”Female Bosses” series, we speak to female creatives who are doing amazing things in their industry and chat to them about their journey, industry secrets and how they got to where they are. Ahead, Elle Holgate, a London-based South African Musician and DJ tells us why she would’t want to be a household name, her success and ‘sweet spot’ in the industry.
Music and singing has always been a part of my identity and experience of being alive. My earliest memory is of reaching up to what I thought was a sideboard to try and grab an object but instead to my delight pressing down, feeling keys and hearing a piano for the first time! I was hooked from that moment and as soon as I could walk and talk anytime my parents took me somewhere that had a piano I would sidle up to it and ask to play on it.
I was a natural show-off from a young age (my first ambitions were to be on screen as an Actress and also to make films and compose soundtracks…).
My first experience of singing in public was when I was about 8 when I did a spell singing in the church choir. My Father was the vicar of the church so I knew when the church was empty and I would roller-skate over there and sneak in. Being in a completely empty church is a really eery feeling and the amount of reverb when it’s just one little voice in those stone walls is really magical. I was a natural show-off from a young age (my first ambitions were to be on screen as an Actress and also to make films and compose soundtracks…). Despite this, I have always enjoyed the intimacy of playing music with no audience – it feels sacred, spiritual and now I understand what meditation is I realise being creative and getting in the zone is a meditation.
When I was 17 or 18 my Dad got me a guitar after years of asking. As soon as I knew three basic chords I put up ads to find a band but as it happened most of my teens were spent going to club nights idolising DJs or going to watch my boyfriends perform in their bands. Then in my first year studying at Goldsmiths I began singing with a psyche-rock group of guys who were studying at SAE at the time. They were called African Queen before I joined, which I thought was a sign. We spent a few years recording and playing the usual London live band circuit but it wasn’t meant to be. It was a learning curve for me, one where I learnt a lot about music, the process and myself all at once.What are you working on at the moment ?
Currently I’m working on an album’s worth of tracks with two incredible artists and producers who I love very much – SLF (Stephene Le Francois) and Bazaar (Tariq Ibrahim). Steph built a beautiful studio called Hoxton Docks which is one my favourite places in the world and is a place where many friends have spent many good times. I went into the studio with them over a year ago to jam out some vocals and it was one of those rare magical moments where something clicks and you’re like ‘Yeh I’m feeling this, we’re onto something.’ One of the early tracks we made together has been signed to KMS records (Detroit Techno godfather, Kevin Saunderson’s label) and is out on 22nd April. The tracks we’re working on at the moment all have a slightly esoteric and elevating vibe to tto them and I think they sit together as a set really well. We’re in touch with a few labels and just assessing what’s the best way to go with the material once it’s readying completion. Other than that I am working on an Afro-house project with dear friend, fellow South African and producer Michelle Cade together with a very talented Mozambican multinstrumentalist called Nelson. We’re working on an EP with plans for a live show. Michelle has also been instrumental in encouraging me to keep making music. She produced one of my solo tracks (Infinity’s End) and it felt natural to keep working together after that. I feel like she is my mentor and my musical sister – she is much more accomplished as a producer than I am but our skills compliment each other. We are musical kindred spirits in many ways.
What is your goal as an artist?
There’s a lot of ego in any creative industry but there’s also a lot of amazing people just doing their thing. Some people become recognized on a big scale and some remain under the radar – I don’t know what will become of me but all I hope is for people to connect with my music and be moved, uplifted and have some catharsis through me as a musical channel! I’m passionate that music is one of the most powerful forces we have on earth. My goal and dream as an artist has always been the same – to connect with people through music. I am not sure I would want to be a household name. I think that comes with a whole set of restrictions and downsides that people don’t really think about. As an artist you want to have freedom to change and grow and try new things. Being a household name is like being a brand, there’s a lot of money and people’s holiday homes riding on your creative output and I can totally see how that would be incredibly frustrating and make you burn out as many do. For me there’s a ‘sweet spot’ success wise which would be my personal aim: a point where people have heard your music, you have an audience and some industry and critical support or recognition where you’re funded to tour and put out records.
I can’t wait to finally have a full record out there that represents me creatively. I hope the music that I make transports people to a certain place in their mind or memory. Music is so powerful! In fact, I would love to study music and neuroscience some day – the effect of sounds on the body and brain are phenomenal and only now being understood.
Collecting vinyl and music equipment is an expensive business and not one I was able to keep going when studying but after I graduated I started DJing on the newly formed online radio station Hoxton FM.
How did you get into DJing ?
I always had an interest in DJing having been into sneaking into nightclubs from an early age with my older sister’s passport! When I was 16 I bought some second hand decks and vinyl and set about learning to beatmatch and the basics of DJing with vinyl. Collecting vinyl and music equipment is an expensive business and not one I was able to keep going when studying but after I graduated I started DJing on the newly formed online radio station Hoxton FM. I had a desert island discs type show – more of a daytime radio Disc Jockey affair where I’d chat to people about their creative projects and love of music. I made some amazing friends through that show because I’d go to parties, start chatting to someone and if we connected and I was inspired by their story I’d be like ‘Hey you seem cool, wanna come on my radio show and get to know each other better?!’ Through Hoxton FM I rediscovered my love of house, electronic music and DJing, which whilst being in the band I’d largely put on the back burner. Hoxton FM has and continues to support me so much and has been so beneficial in terms of giving me broader and more refined technical know how and visibility in the electronic scene.What have been the toughest things so far ?
The reality of being a creative in London is a struggle, it’s a grind and it can grind you down if you don’t have a strong support network. I’m lucky to have an amazing and ever expanding array of beautiful London friends, many of them like me following a creative path and we keep each other going. I’m really into the idea of sticking two fingers to the idea that creatives, or women or DJs or whatever are cliquey and competitive. I think it’s all about creating strong bonds with people, collaborating where it feels right and most of all supporting other artists as much as you’d like to be supported yourself.
London is hard – generally it can be hard to afford the ever rising rent and manage your time here. I sometimes have to fit in late night studio sessions or gigs around paid jobs that you don’t really care about but I get through it by pretending I’m an actress playing a role.
Ultimately my experiences of having to juggle work and music has given me such a broad view on the world, which can only be a good thing if you want to make music that people can relate to. So many incredible musicians I know will never be rich or known around the world and that’s just how it is.
The toughest time was starting out being a musician and working with Producers who sat on material, blocked projects from completion or just didn’t get me. It’s spurred me on to have the desire to be more autonomous and learn basic production skills myself so that I don’t have to rely on others to capture my sound. Artists that understand or can produce themselves have the upper hand these days – big time – otherwise it’s a bit like being a painter and trying to direct something else with the brush. Now I am lucky enough to be blessed with too many amazing producers and too little time to work with them all – a nice problem to have but one that is teaching me the power of saying ‘no’ so that you can focus.
I think it’s all about creating strong bonds with people, collaborating where it feels right and most of all supporting other artists as much as you’d like to be supported yourself.
What keeps you going when it get though ?
I have moments of doubt, moments of feeling like ‘what am I doing?’ Split seconds where I wonder if I should just get a steady job and save up for a mortgage but then I think ‘Fuck that!’. People’s encouragement has kept me going on a musical path because I have had to overcome extreme self doubt and low confidence in my abilities but there have been pivotal moments in my life where someone has popped up at the right time to say ‘You need to do this, we need you to do this’ and it’s been like a gift to hear that at times.
My parents weren’t keen initially when I said I wanted to pursue a life as a musician, they were worried that it would be a difficult, unstable life of a starving artist, but over time they saw that this is just how I am wired and it makes me happy more than a high powered job and money. I think they are proud of me for going after my passions and maybe even live vicariously through my creative adventures in London now.
I keep going by keeping myself focused on my desire to give something back in the end. I find that the lower regions of the media like to perpetuate the idea that creatives and artists are pretentious, overpaid, egotistical or even pointless and I think that’s a real travesty as who would want to live in a world without music or art or culture? It makes being a human being infinitely more meaningful and special, even if you’re not interested in being creative yourself. Everyone has a song or a book or a painting or a film that made them see themselves or the world differently and the arts and artists should be valued and supported in a civilized society and not made to feel their ambitions are unjustified. Chasing fame is another story altogether but all the musicians I know couldn’t care less about that – it’s communing with an audience and feeling that collective experience that is the drug that keeps a musician hooked for life. It’s like nothing in this world the feeling of being one with others through sound and I can only imagine what it must be like to play the Pyramid Stage hearing 200 thousand people singing along to your song must feel like in terms of the energy bouncing around.
What inspires you?
Struggle and the difficult times can be inspiring. I was violently mugged in my second year of Uni on the same night, I’d broken up with my long term boyfriend at the time. The concussion, shock and panic attacks afterwards was almost psychedelic – but what saved me was writing it all down. It poured out of me and ended up going into much of my previous band, African Queen,’s lyrics. Whether the songs were quite dark or upbeat and defiant there was something very cathartic in being able to turn a difficult time into a creative, and loud release! I love the image of a phoenix rising from the ashes – that primal, superhuman survival instinct and fire that we feel when we don’t allow our spirit to be extinguished.
Directors like Baz Luhrmann and Quentin Tarantino inspire me because their films are almost like extended music videos. Whereas classic score composers like Thomas Newman or James Horner also speak to me.
Artists who are blurring the boundaries of electronic and live are always inspiring, Howling (Frank Wiedemann & Rye X), Floating Points, Nils Frahm are all incredibly inspiring.
I was violently mugged in my second year of Uni on the same night I’d broken up with my long term boyfriend at the time. The concussion, shock and panic attacks afterwards were almost psychedelic – but what saved me was writing it all down. It poured out of me and ended up going into much of my previous band, African Queen,’s lyrics.
Making a difference!
I’m really into the idea of sticking two fingers to the idea that creatives, or women or DJs or whatever are cliquey and competitive. I think it’s all about creating strong bonds with people, collaborating where it feels right and most of all supporting other artists as much as you’d like to be supported yourself.
Ultimately my long term plan relates to the fact that my heart is in South Africa, my homeland. and my ultimate goal is to have the resources to set up a music-focused orphanage there. I’ve always loved children and have volunteered in Cape Town a few times in creches in the townships, but it’s the kids on the street that I can’t forget.You have an amazing sense of style, what is your take on fashion ?
To me fashion is about the joy of theater, performance dressing up and playing with identity.
I have always enjoyed how what you wear can transform your mood and how you see yourself. To me that’s more important than how it influences how the world sees you. I love vintage clothing partly because of how things used to be made and partly because I enjoy the fact that the item has a story and had adventures before reaching me. I have some pieces that make me wonder what their story is – like the vintage 1960s Italian gogo boots (pictured) I’m wearing – they look like someone with some great stories owned them once upon a time!
My style is quite French and influenced by the sixties, seventies and nineties – which correlates to a lot of my musical influences! My style changes so much each day some people don’t recognise me a lot of the time! I swing between quite feminine and mod-ish to other days when I enjoy dressing a little androgynous, grungy or sports luxe in the summer. I enjoy referencing a ‘look’ like occasionally I really enjoy embracing all the trappings of femininity and go into this very girly or womanly mode like a Lolita or a secretary from 1967 and then other days I’m all chipped dark nail polish, bed hair and a man’s shirt.
I’m not a label-snob and like what I like. Look wise I’m often drawn to pieces by Philip Lim if I’m feeling minimal and modern and the wannabe Italian sexbomb within me secretly loves a bit of Dolce and Gabbana. In my mind I’m going to age like Monica Belluci in a villa somewhere with a rose in my hair and perpetual red lipstick…On the high street Zadig and Voltaire and Zara often get that ‘sexy girl who might own a motorbike’ look just right and it’s obvious but TOPSHOP just nails my love of all things Birkin babe and a little 60s but I’d always rather go hunting in charity shops or for vintage online as for me it’s more ethical, original and fun.
Comfort is so important. Plus I always follow Coco Chanel’s advice and always remove an accessory before leaving the house – there’s so much to be said for less is more! I’d also say people watching is a great way to be inspired by fashion, I always compliment people when I see them wearing something that I love and have found some great boutiques and labels by doing so. Spread the love!
The best parts of being a musician, for me, are when you’ve been in the studio all day or all night and then you hear a bounce of a track that you’re really excited about. It’s the same feeling as when you meet someone who you feel you’ve known forever – You’re like ‘Oh there you are, I’ve been waiting for you!’ and it fills your heart with happiness and excitement. Performing to a responsive and happy crowd is such a rush too
Some people come into this world fearless and don’t let anyone stop them. For me, it’s taken me longer than I would have liked to get over the fears and doubts and ‘shoulds’ of life to get to the place where I am now, of knowing totally what my purpose is and that I will never be apologetic for following my heart or let anything stop me. No matter what happens, music and it’s power for catharsis and communal elevation is what my life is about. As told to us by Elle
Photography – Rachel Vogeleisen
Styling – Afua Abrafi
Hair and Makeup – Sarah Hubbauer