Name: Yulia Niko
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Nationality: Russian
Current event: Yulia Niko is one of the many outstanding DJs to grace the line-up of Epizode Albania which takes place across Rana e Hedhun beach in Shëngjin, Albania from September 23rd till 26th 2021. Get tickets directly from the official Epizode Albania homepage.
Recommendations: Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller; Any and all Deepak Chopra meditations or books

If you enjoyed this interview with Yulia Niko, stay up to date on her work through her pages on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.   

When did you start DJing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

It was in my early 20s. I bought my first vinyl when I was 15 years old and played my first gig when I was 16. It was more about sound in general. I was only listening to house and I felt a deep connection with it in my life.

House, to me, is intelligent music. To me it's more than just music, it's all my life and passion.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I was always the different one at school and university. When I first discovered my passion to play music, I found a way to be different. Back in 2005, there weren’t many female DJs so I naturally stood out anyway.

I learned a lot from classic Detroit and Chicago producers and began studying music production. Now, I am obsessed about making new tunes and making them special.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

I always stick by the saying ‘be yourself’. I strongly believe every person on this planet can be creative in their own way. When I hear someone tell me that I have a strong identity, that makes me really proud and feel like I’m doing the right thing.

What were your main creative challenges when starting out as a DJ and how have they changed over time?

When I started out DJing, I used to travel from gig to gig with a huge bag of CDs that I had burned myself on the PC, matched with printed out tracklists that I had written out. You can imagine, this was a total mess to deal with in a dark club. I still have nightmares about playing a gig and not knowing which CD is which. Before each show my hands would shake and my heart would be going mad.

Also, back then it was impossible to find people who knew about techno in my small hometown and now it’s this massive community that almost crosses over into the mainstream.

As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?

I went to a music production school in New York where I learned to make my first loop. It was an Ableton course and since then I’ve never really considered any other software.

Then, I bought my first Sound Interface Apollo Twin and Akai keyboard. I had come across the Minilogue by Korg which caught my attention because it seemed like a good and affordable place to start with using analogue synths. A friend of mine wanted me to share their studio with them and he had lots of drum machines and modulars. He taught me the basics and then let me explore on my own. That’s how my first tracks were made.

Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you perform?

Hmm, technology has definitely advanced the quality of my sets in terms of the various CDJs and mixers available these days. But to be honest starting out only playing vinyl definitely moulded me as an artist and influenced the sounds that I like.

DJing is a unique discipline at the border between presenting great music and creating something new with it, between composition and improvisation. How would you describe your approach to it? What do you start with, how do you develop a set, how does a form gradually manifest itself, what are good transitions between different tracks etc …

It’s hard to describe because I never plan my sets. It all depends on the crowd and the vibe in the room.

Generally, I love playing the opening set as it’s purely up to me to set the mood. If it’s a prime set, I’m not usually afraid of slowing things down and creating a story instead of forcibly trying to mimic what the previous DJ was doing.

How would you describe the relationship between your choices and goals as a DJ and the expectations, desires and feedback of the audience? Is there a sense of collaboration between you and the dancers?

Absolutely! When the pandemic hit and everyone started live streaming DJ sets, it was really hard for me to perform in front of a camera. The funnest part was when people would comment live as it felt like I was performing to a real life crowd.

I need to hear those claps and cheers - that’s super important to me. If I’m not getting a reaction after two or three tracks I know I’m doing the wrong thing and need to switch it up. There’s nothing quite like seeing all those happy faces.

In a song or classical composition, the building blocks are notes, but in a DJ set the building blocks are entire songs and their combinatory potential. Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening and perhaps also, if applicable, your work as a producer?

No matter what I’m working on, whether it's productions or finding music to play in a set, it has always got to be groovy and uplifting. That’s my #1 rule.

I find inspiration in so many different electronic sub-genres and then find a way to blend it all together. I like to keep it interesting and switch things up.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I’m always thinking about music and work 24/7. I’m probably not much fun to hang out with because I’m always thinking about work. Most of my day is spent putting energy into music.

I wake up, work out, eat breakfast and then straight into work. I’ll spend my time listening to new releases or working on a new project. I’m not very good at staying in one place for too long so I’m usually planning the next trip ASAP.  

Can you talk about a breakthrough DJ set or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

Recently I had a last minute gig in Novosibirsk in Siberia, Russia. I hadn’t played in my motherland for a while so this was a really special moment for me.

Replay Community were celebrating their 12th anniversary. The show was at an unused metro station deep in the centre of the city so it was a proper underground party. The sound system, lights and decorations were amazing. When I got to the venue I actually had goosebumps. The local DJs had been supporting my music so people actually knew who I was. When I jumped on the decks, the crowd were singing along to my music.

The feeling was so strong. I said to myself: “I’ve broken through Siberia, now I can break through to the world, I am ready”.

Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?

Music always motivates me to move forward and live my life. I don’t really listen to sad music or commercial music about heartbreak. I just want to focus on the happy records.

But - as a producer, I can tell you that music does hurt when you listen to it in the studio all day without a break. (laughs)

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

I love South American culture and you can hear the influences in my own tracks. I don’t think there is anything wrong with being inspired by different cultures so long as you credit them properly and support the community.

I try to do this by educating my followers on the roots and story behind the influences and music.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

I’m definitely not trying to influence anyone in a political way. I think my music is far from that and more connected to escapism. All I want to do is emulate positive vibes. If I do try to influence people in any way, it’s to be kind to nature.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

Music can make you feel more alive than ever. It can also make you feel worse (depending on what you listen to).