Aurora Mitchell meets the artist who, in addition to developing her own burgeoning career in techno, is striving to bring more representative lineups to dance music.
WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download an exclusive track bundle from Umfang, which includes two cuts from her latest album, Symbolic Use Of Light.
I'm sitting opposite Emma Olson, the artist known as UMFANG, in a London café. There are often moments of silence during our chat, but these moments feel comfortable, not awkward. She has a collection of tattoos scattered across her body but one keeps catching my eye: a small black outline of a dog on her left hand, done by a friend who is a tattoo artist. Finishing pots of tea, we occasionally check our phones with no pressure to constantly engage in conversation.
The space between sounds is one of the most striking qualities of Olson's music. She makes techno with the texture of car tires buckling gravel stones. The voids she creates between loops and percussion feel like inhalations. "I like when you can meditatively break apart the song you're listening to and hear all the parts that are happening and how they work together," she says, motioning the act of teasing something apart with her hands. The title track of her 2015 album for 1080p, OK, is a good example of this, its metallic vocal sample ringing out the word "OK" between second-long pauses before building into a minimally arranged drum track.
"I like having a break that lasts more than a regular beat, because it makes people so nervous that you catch everyone's attention and then they're ready to get back into it," she says.
UMFANG's trajectory as a producer and DJ has soared this past year. She made her debut at Berghain in September of 2016, less than a year after quitting her job managing a thrift store to focus on music. She has toured the world, playing everywhere from Colombia to Porto's oldest club, Industria. And she's also a cofounder of the rapidly expanding collective and booking agency Discwoman, which highlights and amplifies female and non-binary artists. The initiative started in 2014 and they have since worked with festivals and venues across the globe to bring more representative lineups to dance music. In the past two years alone they've assembled a booking roster of eight closely connected artists, produced events in Mexico and Detroit and hosted their first Boiler Room with UNIIQU3, Shyboi, Bearcat and Juliana Huxtable in New York.
Olson has had less time to dedicate to Discwoman now that playing records is a full-time job. At this point, she sees herself as a representative of the collective, leaving the day-to-day running to fellow cofounders Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson and Christine McCharen-Tran. This rapid shift in recognition isn't something she anticipated. Our first conversation happens the day after the announcement of Symbolic Use Of Light, her album for Ninja Tune's sister label, Technicolour. She stares at her phone for a moment and looks up, overwhelmed by the volume of notifications.
The album's title was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon. Olson had watched the black-and-white film in an East Asian studies class, and there was a discussion about the symbolism with the use of light and dark textures. "There's weight in these decisions about where you place things," she says. "The presence of sound, and the absence of sound, is also like light and dark in a way."
Olson says the police brutality and simmering racial tensions in America before last year's presidential election are among the album's underlying themes. "That time was really intense and it was also after I came back from my biggest tour," she explains. "I felt really uprooted. Even though it was just a one-month tour, I felt really weird for months afterwards." Sometimes these themes are foregrounded. One of the album's tracks, "Sweep," is built around a sound that resembles a police siren.
Olson witnessed a widely publicised example of heavy-handed policing a couple of days before the 2016 US election. It happened in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Boiler Room had organised a weekender in Split Rock Resort with a lineup that included the Discwoman crew plus labels and collectives like Mixpak, GHE20G0TH1K and NON. Olson soon gauged the political leanings of the area, driving past pro-Trump signs in front yards on the way into the city. Many in attendance agreed that the actions of local authorities had racial undertones, with things escalating to the point of police brutality and the event shutting down.
"I think it was a wake-up call for everyone there," she says. "A reminder that there are so many parts of the country like this. It was obvious we weren't welcome."
Olson says she saw abuses of police power in her formative partying days in Kansas. "I remembered watching really horrendous police brutality. It was awful. It's really frustrating when you try and do everything right and you're still not given any respect by the authorities—it makes me really angry, and with good reason," she says. "When you're met with violence, it amplifies everything."
Kansas City's heritage as a centre for textile and hat manufacturing meant there were loads of warehouses in a zone called the West Bottoms. Two friends, Phillip Bireta and Craig Klein, had access to a disused factory, giving them a two-floor warehouse space to throw parties. "Not illegal technically," she says, "but we still got shut down all the time even though we had permits to throw parties."
Olson had her first contact with electronic music while growing up in Kansas City. She started out sharing tunes with friends in college on an online message board. She had her first exposure to soundsystems at the age of 19. "I connected with it, I wasn't into drinking or anything so I just liked going out and dancing a lot."
These days, Olson is using her position in the music industry, with Discwoman and as a solo DJ and producer, as a platform to encourage people "to think about things and not become numb and comfortable." She says: "I think a lot of Americans are clinging onto this idea of comfort that might not last for everyone for very long."
She says she's noticed this level of comfort within the music industry too—a general unwillingness to think deeply about dance music's history and politicisation and its function beyond the music itself. "It makes me hyper-aware that these themes need to be brought to attention constantly," she says "When I see that lose focus and it becomes about pretty melodies and silly samples or whatever, I feel really disconnected from that and I feel it's not really serving the greater good or something."
This idea of pushing people outside their comfort zone extends to Technofeminism, the party Olson has been running at Bossa Nova Civic Club in New York with her close friend and flatmate Beta Librae since 2013. (It went under a different name until 2014.) The party focuses on booking DJs who haven't had much exposure or are playing their first live or DJ set. "At the beginning it was just [me and Beta Librae] playing mostly to an empty room and a few people at the bar." As Technofeminism has become more established, and graduated from a weeknight party to a weekend slot, they've been able to book people outside their immediate circle.
Olson's face lights up when she talks about these parties. "It's so clear that that helps you out as well." Her desire to encourage others comes up again when we talk about her new album, which was made using a relatively spartan setup: a Boss DR-202 drum machine, an x0xb0x and a KORG Volca FM. One of her goals, she says, is to encourage others to make music with whatever software or hardware they have access to. "I want people to feel connected enough with my music and not feel it's this inaccessible rich-kid thing that it often becomes."
Technofeminism's beginners-welcome ethos is a reflection of Olson's belief that imperfections and mistakes can lead to unexpectedly great moments. "I like to throw people in, even when they don't feel like they're ready," Olson enthuses. "Like, 'play the first hour, no one will be there, it's fine.' It's cool to see how that changes people's path. If someone pushes you to do something you're a little uncomfortable with, like open a show at Bossa Nova, it makes you get ready so that you don't have any excuses and it really excites people when they pull it off.
"There's a human element to DJing, where people, especially other DJs, are worried that you're going to make a mistake," she continues. "So when the music stops for one second—every DJ in the room is like [gasps for breath]. I think that's kind of cool."