Although Willikens is best known as an international DJ and dance music producer, music has always been woven into a larger mosaic of her artistic pursuits. She came to DJing through connections she made as a sculpture student at Düsseldorf's renowned art academy, Künstakademie Düsseldorf. Many of the city's most prominent cultural and artistic movements of the 20th century—including musical developments like krautrock and Neue Deutsche Welle—had ties to the university. It was there that Willikens met Detlef Weinrich, who played in the band Kreidler and more recently has released wavey club grooves as Tolouse Low Trax. He also cofounded the renowned cafe-slash-bar-slash-club Salon Des Amateurs, where Willikens and other local talents, like Vladimir Ivkovic and Jan Schulte, cut their teeth.
Willikens started DJing at Salon during her shifts as a barista/bartender, as that role also involved soundtracking the space between serving customers. When her first records appeared in the mid-2010s and her out-of-town bookings started to pick up, she became the venue's breakout star and a key ambassador for its distinct musical vision. The Salon vibe is a groovy and tripping outernational collage that often draws from non-club styles like krautrock, ambient, downtempo, avant-garde jazz or post-industrial. Its free spirit shaped Willikens' approach to DJing and guided the development of her taste.
That experience made her not just a DJ but a selector—someone whose sets inform as well as entertain. A selector isn't just a good DJ, but an artistic DJ, knowledgeable and adaptive, one whose very personal voice always asserts itself. They think outside the box and make connections between disparate styles of music. As Willikens explains in this feature, that approach often risks alienating the dance floor or fluffing a transition. But it's also the force that drives her passion for, and curiosity about, music.
You mentioned another development in the way you DJ since you started to play out more: you use CDJs now. When did you start the transition from vinyl to digital?
The transition was painful, I have to admit. It began when I started to travel with records. My first years touring I was only playing records, but as I got more and more experience, I realized I was having technical problems at every second gig. Usually bass feedback or skipping needles. I remember a festival that had a table that was shaking so much that I had to hold the record player down while I DJed. I was so devastated that I started to burn CDs and bring them as backup. I started to take more and more CDs, and it started to make less sense to bring a record if I had it on a CD as well. So over the course of two years the pile of records I brought to gigs shrunk to zero.
Could some of those technical weaknesses of vinyl—like, that they skip when a dancer knocks the table—be considered wabi-sabi for you?
Those moments still hurt me. It might be a wabi-sabi moment if you heard the DJ save the mix after that. A DJ can't save a perfect mix—it has to go a little out of time in order to be saved. I really love those moments. There's a certain energy or attention that comes from hearing someone work to save a mix. There has to be room for a fucked-up transition, there has to be room for the occasional inappropriate track at the wrong moment.
Are you still able to capture those moments in a recorded mix?
I really enjoy making radio mixes. I don't have to address someone, and that leads to a way more introverted approach for me. It's more about the research and choosing the tracks. I sometimes really don't like being so exposed on stage—everyone looking at me can be very irritating. Especially because there is not much to see, and I think it distracts from listening. An unsociable day preparing and recording a radio show can help balance things out.
How do you keep it cool during a mix that's going off the rails? When you're mixing poorly, half the battle is not beating yourself up about it and making it worse. Maybe one must learn to trainwreck properly.
I struggled with that a lot. Sometimes a bad mix just sticks in your head. As soon as you feel like the crowd isn't really with you, you start to wonder why, question and blame yourself. Sometimes I feel like people are just observing, looking at me, not moving at all. Why are they doing this? Are they judging, or what? The one thing I really depend on is good monitoring. It can really freak me out to have poor monitoring, because I can't enjoy the music I'm playing. I have to tell myself that it hopefully sounds better outside the booth. It also trips up my mixing.
Does that mean you listen to the monitors while mixing more than relying on the cue in the headphones?
Yeah, I don't like to only mix with headphones. I want to mix with one ear in headphones and the other listening to the monitors so I can hear what it sounds like on the dance floor. Eventually I take the headphones off and just listen to the monitors. But sometimes if the monitors are very bad I turn them off completely.
A lot of what you play isn't available digitally, right? So did you start to rip your records when you began to use CDJs?
I rip a lot, yeah. I record from the record player into an A/D converter and then into a soundcard, then into the computer. There's no mixer between the turntable and my computer, which is meant to be a cleaner signal unless you're using a really good mixer or you want to EQ the signal as you're recording it. Sometimes I do it very poorly, I have to say. I have some digitized records where I left the room for a minute, came back and everything was fine. I edited the file, cut the beginning and end. And when I played it in a club, suddenly I hear the sound of my cat jumping on the turntable and stopping the record with her paw while I was out of the room during the recording!
I feel like everyone feels they have to admit their rips are bad. Are you meticulous about the quality of yours?
That's the thing. I'm not that interested in the technical side. I'd like for my rips to sound better, but I also think there are more important factors on what will make a track sound good in a club. For instance, if there's a really good soundsystem, which is rare, then I'll be able to play not-mastered tracks from friends that I wouldn't risk playing on a festival stage. A really good system can make even a bad rip sound good.
It sounds like instinct and spontaneity are important to how you play. How much preparation do you do in rekordbox?
I make loops live, but that's about it. I don't prepare much in rekordbox—I just use it to organize my library by making playlists, so I don't have cue points or anything like that. I really appreciate creating something in and for the moment—if it worked out, then it's for that moment. I don't want to plan it for next time. That's why it never came to my mind to prepare too much. I think I'd lose a little bit the excitement and adrenaline of, "Is this working out?" I need the adrenaline to keep myself awake, so I leave more room for failures. That's what keeps me interested in DJing. If I prepared too much, it would start to bore me. Maybe it's selfish to think about how to keep myself interested in what I'm doing, but it's also about trying out new things and risking failure. I love those moments when you look at a record and realize it's running out—sometimes those are my most creative moments and when I surprise myself.