Laura-Jane Lowther was 12 hours deep into a 20-hour trip when the worried messages from friends started to pour in. She was boarding a connecting flight bound for France and, just before gunmen stormed the Bataclan, she’d posted excitedly on Facebook about being on her way. So for the next eight hours, Laura found herself in the uncomfortable position of watching the Paris terror attacks unfold live on in-flight TV, while hurtling towards that very city at 885 kilometres per hour.
Lowther – who’s now well on her way to next-big-thing status as Kučka – was en route to Red Bull Music Academy, where she was due to start a two week intensive music experience like no other. But a few days into proceedings, with the city on lockdown, organisers pulled the plug and cancelled the remaining term of their 2015 event with the promise that they’d reschedule. She, along with the ten or so other artists who’d already started longhaul trips when the terror attacks happened, went back home.
So this year, Kučka came to Montreal for a do-over. That gives her – and the 29 others who made up 2015’s class of term two – the distinction of being the only participants to get into RBMA twice. Usually, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it’s one people fight for. Each year, thousands apply for one of 60 spots; Laura herself had applied to the Academy’s 2014 edition and not made the cut. For producers, RBMA the holy grail: it’s an all-expenses paid trip to a foreign city, where you get to learn from electronic music’s most esteemed names, collaborate with other artists, and go to shows every single night.
As I found in 2014, no expense is spared making the Academy every inch the dreamland it sells itself as. The building (this year it’s Montreal’s cultural hub, the Phi Centre) is decked out with a lecture hall, a cafeteria serving three meals per day, ten bedroom studios the participants can access 24 hours a day to make tracks, and decorated with carefully-selected works from local artists. The participants sleep at a ritzy hotel around the corner and at night, shuttle busses take them to the venue for that evening’s gig, which could be anywhere from a renowned club to an ice-skating rink. On any given day, you’re likely to share a meal with Theo Parrish or bump into Iggy Pop in the line for a coffee.
“RBMA doesn’t care how many people know your name, they’re only interested in finding the artists who have, without compromise, devoted their lives to making music”
The participants – which is what Red Bull calls the musicians it selects to take part in their annual academy – range from established names to those whose Facebook pages still have haven’t cracked 100 likes. RBMA doesn’t care how many people know your name, they’re only interested in talent and finding the artists who have, without compromise, devoted their lives to making music. (And they sure can pick ‘em – Nina Kraviz, Mano Le Tough and Ta-ku are among the Academy’s most high-profile alumni.)
Laura came to Montreal as one of RBMA’s better known participants. In the time between Red Bull jaunts, she’d landed herself not one but two spots on the Flume album and flown to Coachella to sing live on stage with Australia’s boy wonder, something of a coup for an artist from Perth who makes weird, underground electronica. In the past 12 months she’s also lent toplines to fellow Australians like Cosmo’s Midnight, Dro Carey and Paces – if you’ve heard Laura’s eerily hypnotic voice, you’ll know why she’s in such high demand.
It’s an impressive resume. And if there’s a theme I notice this year at RBMA, it’s one of impressive women: they’re telling their life stories on Red Bull’s hallowed couch (or conducting the interviews), they’re playing ballsy sets in opening slots, they’re mastering hardware in the bedroom studios, and they’re making it all look easy.
A standard day at the Academy goes something like this: participants wake up, arrive in time to eat breakfast, go to their first lecture, eat lunch, go to their second lecture, eat dinner and, later on, attend that night’s show. Stealing hours between that nonstop schedule to hit the studio can sometimes take a concerted effort, but it’s something all the participants do, staying up late and waking up early to work on tracks. (Often, the studio is the stop after a boozed-up poutine mission and before bed: “I came in here at 3am and was just jamming drunk,” a particularly dusty participant tells me one morning.)
On my second morning of the Academy, Laura is easing herself into the day on a grand piano. “This took me half an hour to write. I’m moving so slow,” she says while playing a lovely chord progression that, as she described, is both “happy and sad at once”.
Every participant plays a show at some stage during their time at the Academy and the night before, Laura had hers. The event’s headliner was Just Blaze, but the standout sets of the night came from Laura – who bewitchingly sang live while controlling the music from her laptop – the night’s opener Kidä and RayRay, a Redbull Thre3style champion who blew the roof off with a set that pretty much defines “real DJing”, and will spend the rest of this day listening to the other participants tell her how good she was. It wasn’t an early night for anyone.
RayRay – who Laura describes as “the Chinese Skrillex” – is the artist Kučka has been most psyched to work with. Together with Austrian name Mirac, Portuguese producer Branko and a handful of other participants, they’ve been working on a track that, it turns out, the real Skrillex has already given his seal of approval to. “Sonny heard the song on my Snapchat and was like ‘ooh, I love it!’” RayRay sings out as she and the others lock themselves in a studio for a four-hour stint that will (with the aid of a couple of bottles of wine nabbed from the Academy’s cafeteria) see the track gradually transform from Jersey club-esque to something darker and thicker.
Everyone wants to come out of RBMA with a track in the bag, but Laura’s particularly determined. In a big year of collaborating and globe-trotting, she’s struggled to find the time to work on her own music, which she creates every part of herself. “Last year everyone from my label was like, “you’ve got to stop doing collaborations!,” she recounts. “Everyone’s going to think that you’re just a topline artist, but you can produce and no one knows that.”
“Last year my label was like, “you’ve got to stop doing collaborations!” Everyone’s going to think that you’re just a topline artist, but you can produce and no one knows that”
Now, she says, “if someone approaches me I’m like, ‘Yeah I do want to work with you, but do you want to do it on my project?’ We’ve flipped it. Or if it’s someone I do really want to with, it’s ‘yes, but in a few months’. Or ‘yes, but when my album’s finished’”.
Laura, RayRay and Kida aren’t the only participants who grab me during my stay at RBMA – at other points during the Academy, I’m awed by Dutch singer-songwriter Sofie Winterson, UK jazz instrumentalist Emma Jean-Thackray and Malaysian bred experimental artist The Venopian Solitude (who, the Red Bull website boasts, “once made it past the infamously discerning doormen at Berlin’s Berghain nightclub while rocking a hijab.”) All of their music is radically different, but all of it’s jaw-droppingly impressive and more often than not, it’s full of the sort of gutsiness that stares you down.
At one point during my visit, we get to listen to Naive to the Bone, the new spoken word single from local Montreal participant Marie Davidson. Her words rings out like a battle cry: “Do you think I’m too soft? Is it that you feel superior behind a costume of indifference?… It’s 2016, get real,” she says cooly. “I’ve got nothing to prove.” If RBMA needed an anthem, this could be it.
For further evidence of the Academy’s women power, you just have to have to head to the lecture hall. Each day on RBMA’s couch, a cast of guests go deep on their own lifelong devotion to dance music, telling stories of starting out in times or places when being an electronic nerd wasn’t cool, or something you could make a living from, or even understood.
My first day at RBMA holds two lectures. First up is Mike Will Made-It, the rap super producer who talks about making the beat to Formation for Beyonce (“I told her this could be a female empowerment anthem,” he says, “she made it something more”.) The second is Tanya Tagaq, an indigenous Canadian artist who, the night prior, had played a show quite unlike any other on the Red Bull program.
Tagaq – who grew up in Cambridge Bay, a remote area of Canada’s northern arctic region – is a throat singer. Throat singing is usually done by two Inuit women who face off in a sort of good-natured competition, but during the years she spent away from her home studying, Tagaq developed her own solo style of the traditional practice. Eventually, she made a career out of it.
Ostensibly, Tagaq’s here to talk about music. But for much of her lecture, what gets an airing is the treatment of Canada’s first people today, especially their women. Midway through the lecture, Tagaq’s interviewer pulls up a video of her performance at 2014’s Polaris Music Prize, Canada’s national music award, which Tagaq won that year and which was most recently taken out by Kaytranada. In it, Tagaq growls into the mic, moving barefoot across the stage and staring down the camera with an intensity you can’t do anything but stare slack-jawed at. On a screen behind her, the names of over 1000 Inuit girls who’ve been murdered or gone missing since the 1980s scroll past.
The ferocity of the performer on screen is a stark contrast to the warm, smiling and softspoken woman who sits in front of us. (One participant’s question during Q+A time is just “can I give you a hug?” while another – Australian participant Beatrice – fights through tears to tell Tanaq how moved she was by the lecture.)
The next day, synth pioneer Suzanne Ciani is on the couch. Ciani built a career making electronic music in the 70s, a time, as she tells it, “before women were even considered people.” She lugged her Buchla synthesiser to New York and slept on composer Philip Glass’ floor, completely broke and cold calling advertising agencies to try and get a meeting, so that she could prove to them how she could use a computer to make scores for TV commercials.
Eventually Ciani fought her way to appointment where she promptly created the now-famous sound effect of bottle of Coca Cola bottle being opened and poured. In the years that would follow, she made sound effects for video games, the Star Wars soundtrack and recorded her own albums. DJ Mag, she would have made an excellent addition to your all-male pioneers issue.
But for Kučka, the best lecture of RBMA went to The Black Madonna, the selector who has become the closest thing dance music has to a compass that always points north (and who, in a classic case of Murphy’s law, spoke the day before my arrival). “She’s always been self-sufficient, and defiant, and done whatever she wanted to because she liked to do it and was good at it,” Laura gushes.
“I really liked how she made a conscious effort to champion diversity because she comes from this spot where she felt like she was an outsider and not really accepted into a certain scene, growing up in Kentucky…I was like, “Yes! I’m going to be fearless!” Her attitude was so inspiring, everyone in the room was like “fuck yeah, you can do whatever you want.” Even without witnessing the gospel of The Black Madonna, I know what she means – you don’t have to be one of the participants to leave RBMA feeling inspired.
Katie Cunningham travelled to Montreal as a guest of Red Bull Music Academy. She tweets @katiecunning.