An Acclaimed D.J. Who Is Ready to Sing Again

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It was eleven o’clock, and Meadow Street, in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was just starting to wake up for the night when a Welsh woman named Emma Kirby approached some bouncers who were guarding the entrance to a converted warehouse. They asked if she was on the list, and in a sense she was. “I’m one of the d.j.s,” she said, and after a quick consultation this claim was validated: she performs as Elkka, and in fact she was one of the headliners, due onstage in about half an hour. A promoter appeared with an all-access wristband for her, and walked her across the dance floor, which was still empty, past some more checkpoints, and upstairs into the official backstage area, where Kirby requested some tequila and thought about what records she would play. She had a few hundred tracks loaded onto a USB drive, all of them with color-coded time cues to help her remember significant elements: green for synthesizers, orange for percussion, red for dramatic moments. “So I can see what’s coming in the track, in case I can’t remember,” she said. “That allows me to relax, and then be on the fly.”

Kirby portrays her musical story as a mutation of a childhood dream. As a girl, she was obsessed with Britney Spears and other pop stars, and convinced that she was destined to become one. She moved to London, from her native Cardiff, and began working as a singer and songwriter for hire; in 2013, she collaborated with a producer known as Kat Krazy on a dance-floor hit called “Siren,” which had a wistful lyric (“Together, we can break down the walls / Can you hear the siren call?”) and a pumping beat, and which might have been a significant step toward Britneyhood, except that Kirby was starting to feel like a glorified session musician, or a disembodied voice—a bit player, not a budding star. And so she put down her microphone, for a time, to embark on a new career as a producer and a d.j. In the world of electronic music, these vocations are distinct, but tightly linked. If you are going to create tracks for d.j.s to play, it helps to be a d.j., too, especially if you are hoping to earn a living. Compared with the punishing logistics of dragging a band from city to city, the life of a touring d.j. can be enviably simple, and accordingly lucrative: big crowds, no musicians or technical-support crew, a tote bag’s worth of equipment. The trade-off is that a d.j. must not merely perform but perform a service, sometimes for the benefit of revellers who don’t know or much care who, exactly, is making them dance.

Not so long ago, Kirby was one of those blissfully ignorant dancers. She was converted to electronic music soon after she arrived in London, when she attended a rave and found herself transported by the sound, despite having no idea, then or now, who was playing that night. As both a producer and a d.j., Kirby has been working hard to make sure that people know who she is. She founded a label, femme culture, and she began to hone a form of house music that felt buoyant and intimate—inviting people to move, rather than commanding them. In 2021, she was asked to contribute to BBC’s “Essential Mix” series, which began more than thirty years ago, and which remains probably the most prestigious showcase in the d.j. world. “This is the euphoric, harmonic sound of Elkka,” the host, Pete Tong, announced, and Elkka opened with a gentle, gurgling track by Jon Hopkins, then explored a wide range of gregarious dance music before alighting, at the end, on a transfigured version of the ballad “Everytime,” by her old hero Spears. “That’s it—I don’t ever think we’ve ended the ‘Essential Mix’ on Britney Spears,” Tong said. “But it was a quality move.” Listeners evidently agreed, because they voted Kirby’s creation the 2021 “Essential Mix” of the Year, beating out installments from much better-established d.j.s. She was in bed with COVID when her manager called with the news, and she broke down crying.

In June, the venturesome English label Ninja Tune plans to release Kirby’s début album, “Prism of Pleasure,” which will be pressed onto marble-pink vinyl, to underscore its theme, which Kirby says is “queer pleasure”; the cover captures her in what looks like a steamy and well-populated bathroom. In a sense, the album marks the rebirth of Kirby’s singing career, only now her voice is not an accompaniment to the music but part of it. One track, “I Just Want to Love You,” has a swift but nearly weightless beat, and it functions as a sort of digital duet, matching a few of Kirby’s own phrases with pleasingly disorienting snippets of “Small Hours,” a psychedelic love song from the nineteen-seventies by the singer-songwriter John Martyn. In “Make Me,” the lead single, she essentially samples herself, singing part of the chorus of “Touch Me (All Night Long),” a cult classic from 1984 by Wish, featuring Fonda Rae. (That song was revived, in 1990, by the British singer Cathy Dennis, who turned it into a worldwide dance hit—a sign of just how popular house music and its offshoots were then becoming.) This isn’t the kind of music that typically turns singers into Britney Spearses, or for that matter d.j.s into superstar d.j.s. But it should certainly appeal to anyone who likes Jamie xx, whose electronic concoctions helped inspire Kirby to start producing, or Fred again.., whose tuneful and bittersweet version of house music has made him a festival headliner. Elkka’s album is full of tracks that are idiosyncratic enough to lodge themselves in your memory, while also being sleek and contagious enough to earn spots on the playlists of thoughtful d.j.s around the world.

Starting, of course, with Kirby herself. She says she sometimes finds it awkward to have to work her own tracks into her d.j. sets, but she knows that people who come to see her might reasonably expect to hear her music. In Brooklyn, a few people whooped when she played “Your Skin,” another single, but no one seemed to notice when she played “Air Tight,” also from the album and as yet unreleased. In truth, this wasn’t really Kirby’s crowd—people seemed hungry for tougher, steadier tracks than the ones she typically favors. She sometimes ends her sets with pop songs, the way she ended her “Essential Mix,” as a way of giving the audience a warm hug. But in Brooklyn she ended, at one-thirty, with snarling techno instead. “I had to work, mate,” she told me, when it was over. She briefly conferred with one of the promoters and then headed out to hail an Uber to her hotel, near J.F.K. airport. She had landed at 4 P.M. and was due to fly back home to London, after a few hours’ sleep, at 9 A.M. To mark the release of her album, Kirby plans to play some live shows later this year—that is, singing, rather than d.j.’ing. But, although she says that she enjoys both kinds of performance equally, the truth is that they don’t pay equally, at least not for now. “D.j.’ing is the day job, essentially,” she says. “It’s a pretty great day job.” ♦


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