Octo Octa: Move On, Let Go

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Maya Bouldry-Morrison and I have what I’d characterise as a warm acquaintanceship. We’ve connected sporadically in Berlin over the years, during her off-duty stints between European tour dates. Each interaction features her charming mix of geniality, self-deprecation and Big Apple sarcasm. Her wheezy chuckle bubbles out at the end of almost every sentence, and almost every sentence of hers is genuinely funny.

A lot has changed in Maya’s world since we last saw each other. Back then, she had a different first name, and presented herself as a different gender. She had a day job in New York that she’s since had to quit, as an already busy touring schedule with her Octo Octa live sets became more demanding once she’d found the confidence to start DJing too. She’s also about to release a new LP, Where Are We Going? Four years since the last one, it’s her third album to date, but it nevertheless feels like a start-over debut.

A video chat with Maya gives us a chance to catch up on everything. But distractions come early courtesy of a sultry 12” record cover, displayed on the wall of her Bed-Stuy home studio. “It’s Meli’sa Morgan’s Still In Love With You,” Maya tells me, “I’ve been looking for that record for a long time. It’s my favourite Masters At Work remix. I always keep some records out to have nice things in the studio to look at, and I rarely get to find like an actual picture cover.”

After swivelling her screen around to show off her other studio totems, the camera settles on a bloat of ceramic hippopotamuses, crowded together on top of a monitor. “I get a bunch of them from an elderly relative who likes to buy everyone one animal thing,” she explains, “my wife’s brother once said he liked monkeys when he was seven, so for his entire life – he’s 19 now – monkeys are always purchased for him. Since my wife and I have been together 14 years I had to come up with an animal. I was like, ‘What animal do I actually like, but am also not going to receive giant things of, because they would be hard to find? Oh yeah, I like hippos!’”

I laugh, but Maya’s anecdote about quirky gifting strategies quickly turns into a black comedy vignette of the transgender experience. “Christmas last year was rough,” she continued, “she gave me a snack of cheddar-covered mealworms. I was like ‘Oh… thanks.’ She’s like, ‘I just thought that was such a unique gift. I thought you’d love it.’ Why would anyone ever love that? It was her passive aggressive gift, but this year I got a hippo again and fifty bucks. She was finally OK with me coming out, is what that means.”

© Christopher Olszewski

Maya acknowledges that day-to-day life as a transgender person is atypical, and her life as a full-time electronic music artist is also atypical, but she reserves particular ire for the public humiliations of extensive airport security pat downs (“It’s a ton of bullshit. It’s terrible. It’s garbage”), and the phenomenon of catching strangers in the act of taking surreptitious photos of her on the subway. “I’m not looking to get into a fight and have someone just fucking lose it at me,” she says. “I’m a vulnerable individual stuck in this tin can.”

But despite the dispiriting, terrifying rise of intolerant and discriminatory ideologies in the USA, there’s a feeling of strength in Maya’s outlook. “It’s funny, I’ve been having interviews now and in a couple of them we’ve been talking a lot about Trump,” she says. “And while doing it I wish I had some statement about supporting trans women in the States right now, but I don’t have that explicit thing, because talking about bathroom laws feels weirdly embarrassing and degrading to me. It’s about where you go to the toilet. I was talking to someone else about it and they were like, ‘Are you going to move to another country?’ And it’s like, ‘No.’ I’m gonna stay here. This is where I grew up and where I live. I don’t want to leave this space. As much as I love travelling and going to other places I’m always super happy, for better or worse, every time I come back to America.”

The stylish, retro beauty of that Meli’sa Morgan record cover takes on an extra significance given the imminent release of Where Are We Going? Octo Octa’s music signature – melody drenched, vocal-sampled house music, with generous pinches of 90s nostalgia and Balearic dreaminess – remains intact. However, Maya has graduated from cooler-than-thou nouveau house music imprint 100% Silk, to matriculate with San Francisco-based queer collective Honey Soundsystem. She’s shed the 100% Silk aesthetic entirely, where, curiously, the artwork for all but one of her releases depict the heads, limbs, torsos and inscrutable facial expressions of other people. The cover of Where Are We Going? finds her kneeling on a bed, directly facing the camera, dressed in a mini-dress and over-the-knee socks. An unseen wind machine tousles her bangs and long dark hair, while a screwball-style expression of bemusement has her looking out of frame through tortoiseshell rims.

“It‘s something that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with at first, but the more I thought about it the more I liked it,” Maya says of the album’s cover art. “That one was after six hours of taking photos, right at the very end, and we chose that picture because it’s one of the few where I didn’t look absolutely insane! There’s that weird idea of letting the music speak for itself, but I’m actually happy with how I look and how I am in the world now. That gave me strength to put myself out more. It’s nice to populate the internet with photos that are not from four years ago. I like having new images that I’m actually proud of, so I make a point to tie the picture of myself with the music as much as possible.”

As with Octo Octa’s previous releases, the tracks of Where Are We Going? are accessible and dancefloor-ready. But as a complete document, the album contains a new steely streak of boldness. Visually, there’s no space for the typically anonymous electronic music artist. Socially, it reclaims some of house music’s increasingly heteronormal real estate, to take up space centrestage (or better yet, centre bed) for a body that is resolutely queer and transgender. By extension, the album is musically bold as well, soundtracking a weighty four-year period where the artist stared down her personal demons, exposed herself publicly like never before, and pointedly sought out a record label that aligned more closely with the transformation that moved her beyond gender dysphoria. “The last record, Between Two Selves, was a coded queer statement,” she explains. “I wanted to be more overt with this one. As much as I like 100% Silk, it’s not necessarily a queer label.”

Two tracks at the middle of Where Are We Going? act as a caesura, retreating from the sparkling house productions on either side into classic chill-out room ambience, pensive piano lilts, slowed Amen breaks, and a notable Mariah Carey sample. The titles of those tracks – No More Pain (Promises To A Younger Self) and Move On (Let Go) (De-stress Mix) – and their retro audio markers seem to point to painful moments in her past, especially given her revelations about a lifelong struggle with severe anxiety, but the truth is much less predictable.

“Everything I make always has some event around it that affects why I’m titling it that way,” she says. “No More Pain references the IDM and breakcore I used to make, like a message to 14-year-old me, but I don’t remember why I called Move On that. I did two mixes of it, The De-stress Mix and the Stress Mix, which has like a drum’n’bass bassline over it. I don’t know, I was just being goofy! But I’m trying to make conscious choices about being less stressed anyways, and trying to deal with my anxiety more. I don’t do a lot of yoga. It always comes from music, or going out dancing. That’s about as close to self-care therapy as I get.”

Photography: Christopher Olszewski

Where Are We Going? is released 7 April via Honey Soundsystem
Octo Octa appears at Field Maneuvers, UK, 1-3 September

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