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Avalon Emerson: Back Down to Earth

© Jacq Harriet
Cardigan: Zankov
Tank top and trousers: Dion Lee
Shoes: Stylist's archive

14.10.20
Words by:

Photography: Jacq Harriet
Creative Director and Stylist: Dominick Barcelona
Assistant Stylist: Avery McQueen
Makeup: Rei Tajima
Set Design: Jenna Tedesco

For all the interpersonal nuance that is now flattened out through static screens and time lags, video calls do occasionally reward with their intriguing glimpses of domesticity. This is one of those calls, with clues indicating an unmistakable newness. There’s a cluster of upright suitcases tucked in next to a light-coloured sofa, a spice rack, a kitchen sink, and one large moving box with the top opened. Avalon Emerson swivels back and forth on her desk chair at the centre of this vignette and cracks a topical joke. “I always thought that I was going to be patient zero,” she says wryly.

Amid the prolonged horror of Covid-19 and the grinding sameness of doing everything from home, the international touring DJ circuit is just one of countless industries that has ground to a halt. While several of the scene’s highest profile figures have aggravated the dance music community with their blinkered obstinance – note the brazen disregard for safety at so-called ‘plague raves’ in Italy and Spain – Avalon Emerson is presumably one of a minority of top flight DJs for whom the present nightmare is a future they predicted.

© Jacq Harriet
Cardigan: Zankov
Tank top and trousers: Dion Lee

“Is how insanely connected we all are [globally] an orthogonal attribute of the same things that are contributing to climate change?” she asks. “It’s something I’ve thought about before, and I always thought it was going to be the fact that I’ve been in an international airport two, three times a week for the last five years straight. When this started kicking off, I was like, ‘OK! Here it goes!’” she exhales.

© Jacq Harriet
Sweater: Zankov
Pants: Dion Lee
Shoes: Gola

As a self-described overthinker, Emerson is reckoning with our current times from the intersection of anxiety, acceptance and gratitude. She’s in a unique position of privilege; after her school years spent in Arizona, she deferred college in the early 2010s to return to her birthplace, San Francisco, where she became equally enamoured with the city’s thriving tech industry and the proliferation of underground parties. Figuring her way through internships as a self-taught software programmer and warehouse parties with a taste for DFAesque dance-punk, she began making her own edits, then producing from scratch. In 2014 her first trio of records – featuring her chunky, sample-driven, leave-it-all-on-the-field sound at the time – were released via San Fran cohort labels Icee Hot and Spring Theory.

Emerson set about applying her geek tendencies towards methodology and technical finetuning in order to hone her musical identity more sharply. Within her mainframe, techno, new wave, synth pop and 90s rave signifiers were mathematically enhanced, and the output captured a thrilling lightning-in-a-bottle type of energy. By 2016, with co-signs from labels Whities (now AD 93) and Spectral Sound, and fuelled by expansive, mind-bending productions like The Frontier, Emerson was garnering enough momentum as an artist and DJ to pause her tech career, move to Berlin and focus on playing shows, such as her quarterly appearances at Berghain’s Panorama Bar.

© Jacq Harriet
Top: Dion Lee
Bags: Ratio Et Motus
Pants: Stylist’s archive
Shoes: Custom Dansko x Crocs

“I’m trying to be thankful for the security that I do have, instead of trying to focus on the fact that my job relies on large groups of people getting together and kind of being unsanitary with one another”

Emerson played in 33 countries and six continents in 2019 alone. She was also the focus of Resident Advisor’s The Art of DJing series, which featured an instantly quotable passage about her thoughts on the perpetually romanticised “vibeman” type of DJ versus her own cerebral, exacting and self-sufficient approach. “It got so weird that ‘vibeman’ became a thing,” she says. “It seemed like I was hating on so many people. I think that you can achieve vibes, but the idea that you either have it or you don’t, and that a good DJ is someone who just rolls up and defines the songs [with] perfect ability… that’s certainly not how I arrived at doing a good set. I’m still not a loosey-goosey vibeman. I still overthink everything. I think categorisation and rubric building is fun, too.”

© Jacq Harriet
Sweater: Zankov
Pants: Dion Lee
Shoes: Gola

Emerson is endlessly optimising, and her remix output over the last few years has indicated further expansion, with reworks for Slowdive, Christine and the Queens and Robyn pushing beyond the confines of club DJ tastemaker. Fatefully, Emerson had already decided towards the end of 2019 to reduce the amount of gigs she would commit to this year. “I was on tour, like, every single weekend,” she recalls. “It was just not the best way to have a life, and I wanted to be closer to family and whatnot.” With her partner she uprooted from Berlin – her adopted home of six years – to resettle in Los Angeles and switch focus towards more diverse studio work and collaborations. Two weeks after arriving, however, news reports about the increasing spread of coronavirus began to circulate. She wasn’t patient zero, but the pandemic pitched a wrench into her plans. It also brought the fear close to home. “My mom is a mail carrier in Arizona,” she explains. “And she hasn’t had a break. People are obviously ordering more shit online, and the volume that she’s had to deal with has more than doubled. Early on they were saying that you can get it off of just touching something that was in the same room with someone days earlier. That’s all my mom deals with, packages from all over the world, and the anxiety of that is crushing.”

 

As the pandemic began to take hold in the United States, Emerson and her girlfriend, a Manhattan native, decided to leave LA and cross the country to be nearer to her partner’s family. They drove from the west coast to the east – an experience Emerson describes as “really kind of uniting” – towards what was becoming the hotspot of the country’s deepening crisis. The journey allowed for some moments of respite however, with memorable stops in Utah, taking in the grandeur of Arches and Zion National Parks. “It looks like you’re on the surface of Mars,” says Emerson. “Around the time the monsoon seasons are starting you have these dark, dramatic clouds coming in and raining over the desert for a few hours in the morning. Connecting with nature and the open spaces in between these high concentrations of civilisation, which is where I’ve spent the last 10 years, was really cool to do.”

“I feel like DJing is just the professionalisation of the amateur slash folk relationship with listening to music. It’s like I’m a professional music consumer”

Now settling into her apartment in New York, Emerson is philosophical about the hiatus she planned evolving into something she has no control over. “I’m trying to be thankful for the security that I do have,” she says, “instead of trying to focus on the fact that my job, my source of income, relies on large groups of people getting together, usually inside, and kind of being unsanitary with one another. That is gonna be at the far end of things that are going to come back online. And that’s just how it is.”

Emerson utilised the autumnal months of 2020 to begin chipping away at her next project: her contribution to K7’s long-running DJ Kicks series. Interestingly, the DJ Kicks edition that Emerson credits as leaving a mark on her is Erlend Øye’s mix from 2004: a delicious swirl of maximalist pop, moody tech house rollers and indie dance, stitched together by The Kings of Convenience frontman’s charismatic presence as he speak-raps, croons hushed stanzas of unrelated pop songs and announces song titles like a goofy roller rink DJ. “That one was a very important record for me in general,” says Emerson. “I feel like I heard that mix before I really knew what a DJ was. It was weirdly defined when I first heard that record.” Each DJ Kicks edition includes some exclusive new material from the artist at the helm, and while Emerson does not share Øye’s instinct to hog the spotlight throughout, she does open with a tribute of sorts to his mix. The opening track is her endearing cover version of Magnetic Fields’ 1999 song Long Forgotten Fairytale, which marks the debut of her sung vocals. She first recorded a version of the song in Lisbon in 2019, at the behest of the producer Bullion, who released the covers compilation Covered in Gloria via his imprint label Deek Recordings. Emerson re-recorded the cover again in LA, and this version – which strips the song down to a more faithfully sparse synth pop take – sounds like it could have been recorded a full decade before the original version.

© Jacq Harriet
Cardigan: Zankov
Tank top and trousers: Dion Lee
Shoes: Stylist’s archive

Of course it’s coincidence that Emerson’s plan to slow down her touring DJ career somehow synced up with the progress of a virus with an unknowable end. It ultimately has allowed her the space to reconnect with what she’s done tirelessly over the last five years and create a vivid snapshot of a DJing style that has beguiled so many. “I feel like DJing is just the professionalisation of the amateur-slash-folk relationship with listening to music,” she says. “It’s like I’m a professional music consumer.” Speaking of that relationship, she hopes that the punters who will miss hearing her shut down Panorama Bar – or any other nightspot around the globe – will get a similar feeling from her DJ Kicks mix that she got from Øye’s. “When putting [this mix] together it kind of forced me to also imagine people who are listening to it recontextualising what dance music is,” she says. “And where it lives. And at what time. And who it’s for.”

DJ Kicks: Avalon Emerson is out now on !K7

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