Willow: Word Around Town
The first time I heard Willow I didn’t know who she was. But I, along with around a hundred others, would be forced to take notice.
On the Saturday at Croatia’s Dimensions festival in 2013, overlooking the 19th century ruins of the festival’s Fort Punta Christo location, Boiler Room’s stage was reaching its peak. Under the setting sun, Move D sauntered into the booth in the centre of a shoe-less crowd to round off the party. A couple of tracks into his set, a deep and discombobulated tune came rolling through the speakers, pregnant with promise, before a pop, crackle and a dearth of sound. The system had cut off. The track was Feel Me, Willow’s gorgeously warbling, low-slung house gem, being played out for the first time.
When I bring this up during our meeting at Peckham’s Rye Wax, Willow laughs at the memory. Early on in our conversation, the Manchester DJ/producer had seemed a little reserved, partly due to a misquote in a previous interview, and partly because she left the familiarity of her glasses in an Airbnb in Berlin the previous weekend. She’s thawing as we warm up from the cold though, and over the gothic drone coming from the speakers I learn about her personal piece of festival folklore. “My friend was like: ‘The bass is so big it cut the system out!’” she remembers. “But I think the generator just went. It was the most surreal feeling. Obviously it was my first track, but hearing it being played out on a big system, especially by Move D, in a Boiler Room, at a festival… I’ll never forget it.”
She’s humble about the story, but the truth is she had to put plenty of work in. Willow was involved with Nottingham’s 808 parties, and her reputation as a DJ had built steadily from her residency there with her friend Alex Lewis. It was at these parties that they met Move D, when the German DJ played with Gerd Janson. “That was probably the one that sticks in the memory most,” she remembers. “We cooked them dinner first, they played and then came back after and it just felt as a night, like, really wholesome.”
That same summer, Willow and Alex were playing at Gottwood festival in Anglesey, where Willow’s career took a decisive turn. “David (Move D) came to our tent after playing to drink some wine and jam with us. My phone was plugged in to some crappy iPhone speakers and the track Feel Me came on, not mastered or anything. I was like: ‘Guys, turn it off, turn it off.’ He asked what it was and my friend’s shouting ‘It’s Willow! It’s Willow!’ Two weeks later, I got a message from him, saying ‘Send me that track it was beautiful’. I was like ‘shit, right,’ so I did.”
Move D passed the tune on to his friend Jens Kuhn, aka Lowtec, who wanted to release it on his Workshop imprint. The Workshop 21 EP was released in March 2015, with Feel Me widely regarded as the highlight: a quick glance at comment threads on Discogs will tell you Move D wasn’t alone in recognising a special tune. Then last year, Workshop finally released the first piece of wax devoted entirely to Willow. The four track Workshop 23 release, which was among Crack Magazine’s most highly-rated EPs of 2016, is a deep, dubby and emotive affair, at once doubling down on the sound palette he explored with her first release and exploring different avenues within her work process. Much of this stems from her use of vocals, supplied by long-time collaborator and friend Natasha Davies. The distinct style of Davies’ voice is no small contributor to the way her tracks feel. “I use her for all my vocals; only her,” Willow explains. “I’ve known her since we were little because of my sister, so it’s a good relationship.
The connections Willow built in Manchester have been instrumental in who she is as a DJ and producer. Like many people who have lived in that city (myself included) she’s forthcoming about her love for the place. “It’s in my heart man. When I first started going out clubbing I kind of lived in Sankeys. I was in there Friday night, Saturday night, from the beginning till the end. I remember just thinking: ‘how do they make you feel like this with music? I want to do that.’” It was at Sankeys, which sadly closed its doors in January, that Willow made many of those initial connections: gigging with Isherwood and Alex Lewis, and getting to know the owner Dave Vincent. Her first set playing out was upstairs at Spektrum, thanks to a hook-up from a friend who worked at the club.
“Manchester is in my heart”
Just as important was the triumvirate of legendary record shops in Manchester’s Northern Quarter: Piccadilly Records, Eastern Bloc and The Vinyl Exchange. “Matt Ward from Piccadilly Records is a good friend and he knew I was into the stripped-back, dubby, groovy stuff,” Willow explains. “I would go in and he would literally have a pile of records waiting for me. It was the same with Eastern Bloc – Jimmy, Ben and Kerry would pick me out stuff straight away that they thought I would like. I wouldn’t even have to flick through, they’d just say: ‘yo, listen to this.’”
With a distinct production sound and the DJ skills to back it up, Willow has found herself deservedly rubbing shoulders with vets like Kassem Mosse and Evan Tuell, and it looks as though 2017 will see her profile rise. In the past few months Willow has flown more than in the rest of her life combined, playing places like Bucharest, Antwerp and Berlin for the first time. By the time this article is published, she’ll have added Amsterdam and Milan to the list. I ask her what’s in store for the year and, much like the tracks she makes and runs, her answer taps into the best of what dance music is about: “I’m just excited about the gigs and going to new places,” she says. “Exploring, meeting new people, and making good music.
Willow appears at DGTL, Amsterdam, 15-16 April.