Anastasia Topolskaia opens up to Carlos Hawthorn about the pressures of life as a touring DJ.
I honestly wasn't sure what to expect from Topolskaia, a DJ who occupies a curious position between, for lack of better terms, the underground and the mainstream. It was my first time seeing her play. Up until then, my opinion was based on two excellent mixes—Boiler Room and the BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix—both of which show a DJ with broad tastes and a love of nerdy sounds. (The Essential Mix, from July 2017, runs the gamut from Luke Slater and Aleksi Perälä to golden-era Skream.)
Topolskaia rarely gets a chance to play this kind of music out, except at a few key places, like Closer, the Kyiv venue that's currently considered one of the world's best clubs. She plays there two or three times a year, including at the annual Strichka Festival, which she runs in partnership with the Closer team.
"I trust our people," she told me over a long lunch in Berlin. Sharp and with a dry sense of humour, she spoke with a constant twinkle in her eye. "They're so educated. So cool. So open-minded. They don't want you to play normal; they want you to play freaky and crazy and weird. I appreciate it. That's where I'm real. Maximum me."
Mostly, though, Topolskaia plays more functional techno and house to large crowds. Every year, the shows get bigger. A few weeks before the Watergate gig, she spent eight days on the road with Carl Cox in Australia and New Zealand, playing to thousands almost every night. More recently, she visited Japan to complete a run of Asia gigs for Ultra Music, arguably dance music's biggest promoter.
Topolskaia is far from the only artist occupying these two worlds, but she feels particularly uncomfortable doing so. During our three-hour conversation, she spoke candidly and at length about the stresses and pressures of playing large events. She feels most free at smaller shows, where she gets to play deeper music to intimate audiences.
"People always expect something from you," she said, piercing ravioli with her fork. "My favourite thing to do is to play dubstep or experimental tracks and watch people's reactions. They just stand and stare. Some of them I'm sure are thinking, 'What is this bullshit?' Some are probably like, 'Wow I never heard something like this.' I'm curious to see the faces, they change. Because if you play functional music, they talk to each other, they're having a normal party, but then you drop something weird and you get attention. It might be bad attention. But still you need to be strong, stronger than the audience to overcome the pressure from the dance floor and say, 'No guys, you gonna listen to this right now.' Otherwise I don't understand what I'm doing here."
Topolskaia feels especially conflicted about festivals, which, for better or worse, are a sizeable chunk of her current bookings. "I don't get this festival thing, honestly," she said. "People are too far away. How can you connect with them? How can you see what they like? You don't care about them, they don't care about you."
She continued: "But I do these shows because it's training. It's always a challenge. Big festival, big crowd. You really need to be good at playing big music, big sound. I actually came from house music, more micro house, minimal, and then I had to learn how to play bigger and bigger. I'm still learning. It's not easy for me. I still love minimalistic sounds. And I don't enjoy playing big tracks, one by one. In the end it's just noise. Just 'bam, bam, bam.' What is that? People come for this?"
Topolskaia's brutal honesty threw me a little, but it didn't come as a total surprise. Anyone with even a casual interest in her social media channels will know she's very active and often outspoken, writing long posts on Instagram about life on the road. Most shows get a detailed post-match report. Plenty, like this recent one from Ibiza, are glowing, but some are less so. A couple weeks after we spoke, she played Riverside Festival in Glasgow. "After @patricktopping I have killed the stage," she wrote. "I think it might be wrong set and wrong music, or I am just absolutely not popular in Glasgow."
You can trace this self-reflection all the way back to 2009, the year that everything changed for Topolskaia. At that point, she had been a professional DJ for four years, playing trance, tribal and prog house at clubs around Ukraine as DJ Beauty, a name given to her by an ex-boyfriend. ("I was so silly, 17 years old.") Before that, she was a go-go dancer in Donetsk, the city where she went to university and where, as a young teenager, she would travel regularly to visit her two older sisters, who would take her raving and to the local market to buy pirate CDs of movie soundtracks. (Her favourites were The Matrix and Frédéric Garson's The Dancer.)
When she stopped dancing and first took an interest in DJing, around 2004, she would source her tracks from a tech wizz in Donetsk, who had set up a business in his apartment selling pirated CDs of ripped or illegally downloaded dance music.
"You would spend the whole day there and listen to as much as you can, then he would burn the CDs in front of you," she said. "It's so crazy—I still remember I went once and the guy played "Bubblebath" by Baby Ford & Mark Broom. I was like, 'What is this?' I remember the moment. I was sitting next to my boyfriend. He told me the name and I was like, 'This one, this sound, this is mine.'"
Despite this epiphany, it would be another five years before Topolskaia could fully indulge her tastes for such stripped-back sounds. In the summer of 2009, after three years living in Kyiv, she split from her first husband, the DJ and promoter Anatoly Topolsky, who's considered the father of drum & bass in Ukraine. She moved with their one-year-old daughter to a flat in the city centre and, broke and gig-less, began calling all the promoters she knew, offering to play for half her usual fee.
"I had nothing," she said. "I remember breaking piggy banks so we could buy bread and noodles. Some of the promoters helped me, so I could at least pay for the car and the apartment. But it was minimum, minimum. That summer was the lowest point of my life, I think."