When the What They Say EP was released in September 2010, through Franck Roger's Real Tone Records, Coles was a moderately busy DJ with a small catalogue of strong, if unspectacular releases. According to RA's events database, she played 19 gigs across five countries that year. In the year following the EP, 2011, Coles performed 86 times and visited 16 different countries. By the end of the year, she'd been named DJ Mag's "Producer Of The Year," Mixmag's "Best Breakthrough DJ," Beatport's "Artist Of The Year," FACT's "Female Artist Of 2011," and she came ninth in RA's annual "Top DJ" poll. In the blurb for that feature, we described her ascent as "nothing short of incredible."
"I never in a million years expected the interest that it got," Coles says of the track. "My calendar just became ridiculous."
I met with Coles earlier this month in the type of East London coffee shop that displays its cakes on little wooden platforms. It had taken us several months to arrange the interview, which was mainly because of her commitment to spending as much time as possible making music. ("Studio time and the music very much come first and foremost," her PR, who arranged our meeting, had told me.) Although Coles, who speaks softly with a London accent, talked openly about her career, she said that she usually tends to avoid interviews. "I like being creative, I like making music in my own time and space. And when it comes to talking about what I do, that's not my strongest point."
Coles' internet presence has been far from non-existent since her career sky-rocketed, but in keeping at least some distance from her fans, her appeal has only intensified. She's featured in several print magazines, and quick-fire Q+As can be found online, but she's been very careful to avoid overexposure. "Sometimes when people go the other way and just post themselves on every blog and site and magazine it kind of works the opposite way and people start ignoring them," she says. "I might not have heard someone's music but I've heard their name so much that I automatically block it out because you're seeing it too much. And obviously I don't want that to happen."
Some interviews, however, became a means of measuring of her success—Coles' family, who watched her strive to build a career in music, were able to place her achievements in a context they understood. "It was only when they started seeing the press in the Independent or the Guardian or Time Out—the stuff that's accessible to everyone—that they started to realise the extent of what I'm doing," she says. "They realised how much I wanted it from a young age, because I was quite confident with what I was doing, so I think they saw that and believed that I would make it happen somehow."
At the age of 13, Coles, who is of mixed Japanese and English descent, became passionate about music. She started to seek out stuff away from mainstream radio, and by 15 she was experimenting with the production software Cubase. Her school offered free access to charity-funded studios, with mentors and tutors showing young people in the area of Northwest London where she grew up how to write music and play instruments. Coles was an enthusiastic student. She took the opportunity (which even now she is very grateful for) to learn as many instruments as possible, playing guitar, bass and cello, and dabbling in keys and drums. '90s hip-hop acts like The Pharcyde and Digable Planets, and R&B producers like Timbaland formed the backbone of her taste. "I used to work with a whole load of friends that were singers and rappers, and I used to MC as well," she says. "And I had a big circle of friends that all did that kind of stuff, and we used to all mess around and make tracks together."
that's just thrown around everywhere."
Coles disliked dance music for most of her childhood and teenage years. She describes herself as being "really anti four-to-the-floor music" at the time, but says this was because mainstream representation of the sound didn't click for her. "The more intelligent side of dance music is kind of hard to access unless you try and seek it out," she says. It wasn't until she started going to clubs, when she was 17, that dance music started to make sense. The garage and drum & bass raves she went to in London often played house music in the second room, and Coles became drawn to the style. She bought turntables, and was a regular at parties like secretsundaze. The prevalent tech house and minimal sound began to influence her productions, which until then had focussed on hip-hop, trip-hop and dub.
In 2008, Coles released her first club tracks through London label Dogmatik. The Sick Panda and Monochrome EPs were promising examples of the overcast minimal sound that was popular at the time, and on tracks like "Natsu," she also showed a firm grasp of traditional house tropes. Alex Arnout, the Dogmatik label boss, helped Coles secure some of her first gigs, at East London clubs like The Aquarium. She played her first overseas show that year, at the label's off-Sonar party and, as you can see from this RA photo gallery, she performed live rather than DJing. "To me, playing to people that have never heard what I've done before—I wanted to show that I was mainly a producer," she says.
Her other live outlet was She Is Danger, a short-lived collaboration between Coles and Lena Cullen that, despite its brevity, made a decent impact. They remixed "On Melancholy Hill" by Damon Albarn's animated band Gorillaz, and their re-rub of Massive Attack's "Girl I Love You" made it onto the deluxe version of the group's 2010 album Heligoland. The latter was a good fit for Coles. The trip-hop style that Massive Attack helped popularise during the '90s was an important influence on her early productions, and the She Is Danger remix was an inspired, dubwise take on the sound.
In understanding how Coles has handled her meteoric rise—which, in recent years at least, could only be rivalled by the likes of Nicolas Jaar or James Blake—it helps to know a bit about her personality. Although her voice sometimes quivers when she talks, she's always direct in her words and intentions. She appears to be a fastidious decision maker, which extends from the labels she works with, to the gigs she takes and how she spends her free time. Since the age of 16, she has insisted on doing her own mixdowns—"I never really wanted anyone else to do it, even if I knew someone else could do it better than me. I kind of took pride in wanting to do everything myself"—and says the experience was invaluable.
This streak of level-headedness seemed to help her in the madness that followed "What They Say." The release was her ninth solo EP overall, but suddenly "so many people were sending me random emails and Facebook messages about sending more tracks, or doing a remix or an interview," and her booking requests very quickly increased. "It didn't freak me out in any way, but it was just a bit surreal," she says. "It took me a while to adjust to it. I'd gone so long making music without anyone knowing who I was. Even for half a year after that, when so many people knew what I was doing, I was still expecting for them not to have heard of me."
"The first year was definitely not comfortable," she says on her new life spent largely on the road. "It's just adjusting. Before you're really established you just get messed around a lot. So much stuff happens that other people don't see, when they think you're on a luxury holiday—drivers not turning up, getting booked into awful hotels, doing a 6 AM set but getting forced to checkout of your hotel at 11 AM, or having a flight two hours after your set and then having to go to four gigs that you're playing consecutively afterwards on two hours of sleep.
"Now, it's not so much like that because I've done the circuit, I know where I want to play and how I want my travel to be booked. And you can just pick and choose and make sure that you don't have to go through all those bad first experiences all over again. I've got nothing to complain about, though, because what I've always wanted to do I'm being able to do as a career. So many people go through their whole life trying and never getting it, so I'm pretty lucky really."
The gig took place around the same time details of her debut album, Comfort, were announced. In the two years leading up to the record, as Coles left behind the more tech- and minimal-led sound of her earlier releases, you could hear her finding her voice. Tellingly, the tempo of her music began to fluctuate considerably, as she absorbed the full range of her influences. Don't Put Me In Your Box, which was released through Hypercolour at the end of 2011, featured bass-led, club-ready house next to warm, 112 BPM dub techno. "Watcher," her most recent appearance on Dogmatik, was at a similar tempo, and was the epitome of summery deep house. In 2012, she turned in an excellent DJ-Kicks that drew from house, techno and bass music. The mix had an exclusive, "Meant To Be," from her Nocturnal Sunshine alias, a bass music side project that first gained attention when Scuba included "Can't Hide The Way I Feel" on his RA podcast. There's been very little original music from Coles under the alias, but the transposition of her vibe to another genre has been impressive.
Work on Comfort has been on going for over two years. Through her EPs, Coles has introduced people to her range of styles, but it's obvious that she relishes the chance to make a bold statement in this regard. "I just wanted to make tracks where I wasn't thinking about the genre, or who it was aimed for," she says. "It was just purely sitting and making music that I really liked. I didn't want to worry too much about pleasing people that were only into music for the dance floor."
Coles sings on half of the album's tracks, a process she describes as reaching for an "additional instrument" rather than performing. She drafted in guest vocalists like Tricky, Miss Kittin and Kim Ann Foxman, sending them completed productions that she felt were a good fit for their type of delivery. In a broad sense, Comfort is a pop record. Were the playlists of mainstream radio more open-minded, you could see tracks like "Stranger," "Everything" or the Tricky collaboration "Wait For You" being widely popular. The album is stylistically diverse, but there's a sense of longing or melancholy colouring all of its tracks. "It's something that comes naturally with my music," she says. "There's some stuff you can't control."
An aspect Coles did retain control of was the label the album was released through. I/AM/ME, an imprint she established for this very purpose, put out Comfort, although it wasn't a decision she took lightly. "It was really hard, at first," she says. "Because when you've been trying to make things happen for so long, and then you're suddenly getting these ridiculous cheques from these labels to release your debut album with them, it's really hard to see past that. I think if I had gone down those routes I'd be in a very different place now, so I'm really happy to have taken the route of doing it myself."
Artistic integrity is a hot topic for Coles. Her rise to stardom has been back-dropped by an increasingly insatiable appetite for dance music and its related artists across the globe. Coles is young, talented and has a naturally strong personal brand—a marketing agent's dream, in other words. "I think a lot of young artists now are taken in now by management or a specific label, and taught that, as an artist, you've got to be marketed in a certain way," she says. "I don't think you should have to follow the rules. If you're an artist, you're an artist. I don't want to be a puppet that's just thrown around everywhere. I want to keep the option open, so that if my third album is some weird classical film score, then I want to be allowed to do that. Don't tell me that I can't do it, you know?"