"You have to be really honest and vulnerable." Aurora Mitchell heads to Manchester to meet an artist crafting music that's dark and evocative.
"It's kind of like, basically saying, 'We're going to go into my world now,'" Smith-Rolla told me. "It actually is quite hard playing such emotional dark stuff in a club because, in some ways, I don't want to do that to people. It's like, 'I'm going to take you here, sorry about that but that's where I need to go.'"
Smith-Rolla finds it harder to create lighthearted music. Even in her attempts at music with a summer mood, there's still some darkness. "I'm not human by the way, I'm a replicant, just so you know," she deadpanned, referencing her favourite film, Blade Runner. "I shouldn't tell people because, you know, I might get caught."
For a replicant, she has some pretty human dreams, the kind any DJ could relate to. When she found out she would be playing at Berghain's Säule, she had a recurring vision in her sleep. "This nightmare was, you have four hours to play at Berghain and you've brought one record," she said. "I was coming up with different ways—speed it up, slow it down, elbow on the needle, doing all this different stuff on the mixer and shouting at people. I didn't live that dream, thank fuck."
The past couple of years have been an ecstatically surprising time for Smith-Rolla on a musical level. She runs a monthly radio show called Black Forest on NTS. Her debut album came out on pioneering UK label Skam in 2018, and she's released music with LuckyMe and Eclair Fifi's River Rapid label. (Her EP for River Rapid was the label's first release.) As a DJ, she's been invited to play with artists like DJ Stingray, Aphex Twin and Marie Davidson, and she made her Boiler Room debut at Dekmantel 2019. She went from being convinced Ableton was "some insane infinite thing which I definitely won't be able to do" years ago to now teaching masterclasses for the music software company.
At the age of 12, Smith-Rolla discovered her love of jungle. She had a double tape pack compilation called Jungle Mania 94. "I took it to church for show-and-tell," she said. "I was like, 'I'm going to show everyone the music I'm listening to.' And someone robbed it! It got nicked! Jungle Mania got nicked at church. Sorry mum."
Excited at finding the compilation on YouTube after many years, Smith-Rolla played me a formative Leviticus track, which opens with lush chords. The sound calls to mind her own emotive approach to electro. "I was thinking about it and I honestly think this is my first love of padded synths," she said. We were sitting on the floor of Smith-Rolla's flat in Manchester, facing a balcony that looks out onto hanging tree leaves. When she later showed me her bedroom, there were more plants than bedroom space.
"I always need water or green near me," said Smith-Rolla, who grew up surrounded by nature in Devon. "I think rural areas, when it came to parties and free parties, you'd have them in fields or on the beach or on the cliffs or in the woods. These spaces were just there and someone would find a generator. So I think that's had a massive impact on me, that space and that freedom."