In the ever-fluid world of dance music, it’s easy to spot the fakes. Honesty matters; even if you’re just going to play “four on the floor” beats all night, you’ll get away with it if you mean it.
Which is why most attempts to steer dance in a mainstream direction don’t work: The “Frankenstein effect” kicks in when you cobble together disparate parts. No wonder so many DJ albums that try for commercial success by sticking a vocal cut at the beginning end up sounding uncomfortably calculated.
But then there’s DJ Colette, who’s been singing since she’s been talking. It apparently never occurred to her that you couldn’t meld highly produced vocals and a pop sensibility with dance music, so she did. And it works because she’s real about it. The listener’s reward is music that exceeds the sum of its parts: More depth than the typical dance tune, and more shake-your-body quotient than pop. No wonder DJ Colette is the current “it” girl of the dance scene . . . and EQ couldn’t resist getting the story behind her latest recording, Hypnotized (Om Records).
EQ: When I heard the vocals on the first cut, I figured it for a single. But the vocals just kept coming, and the lush, multi-layered vocals were unusual in this genre.
DJ Colette: I’ve always been a singer first. Even before I was DJing, I was singing over other DJs. I started DJing 10 years ago mainly so I could sing more — it’s a lot easier to sing over records than to find a band, especially with electronic music.
But I’ve been playing out every weekend for years, so I was always immersed in new music. I was really impressed with Kaskade’s album, In the Moment, that had both dance songs and downtempo. I thought that it was beautiful. With an album, I want to hear a variety of music. I want to hear what you can do outside of the dance club.
So I did lots of collaboration: Drew K from Angel House Studios helped write and also produced a bunch of the tracks, Kaskade did about four of the songs, and I also worked with the Home and Garden production team based in NY and Chicago . . . Greenskeepers, Undercover Agency . . . a variety of people. I’ve sung on a lot of their albums over the years, so I called everyone up and scheduled some sessions. But I’ve never recorded any complete projects by myself. Nothing would ever get finished, I’d just continue working on it.
EQ: Given the geographical issues, did you do online collaboration?
DJC: Most of the writing happened in person — Drew K and I worked five days a week. But I did do projects with Kaskade over the internet; they’d send me MP3s of music I could write to, and I’d send an MP3 of vocals over that until we came to a final rough version we liked. The online preproduction saved us a lot of time before we met in the studio to record the song, and writing quality hasn’t suffered by doing things over the Net. One of my favorite songs, “The One,” was pretty much a product of Internet collaboration.
EQ: Are you producing your own vocals?
DJC: Yes and no. Drew K produced most of the vocals. Each song has 14 tracks dedicated to vocals, with three-part harmonies, all sung for real. No autotune, no electronic doubling, no synthesized harmonies. It took lots of time, but Drew never rushed the session because the vocals were the focus. We did add another singer on “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On,” otherwise it’s all me.
But we used Pro Tools on a Mac G4 with lots of TDM cards. We used a ton of plug-ins — all legal, by the way. With cracks, things are always crashing; who wants to take an hour out of their day to deal with that? I’ve never even downloaded music for free, I’m very adamant about that, especially with songs costing only 99 cents. People need to support the music industry.
DJC: The main ones were a Neumann U87, a RØDE NT2, and a RØDE Classic Tube with a pop screen. Whatever sounded the best. Drew usually keeps a few mics around, and we’d run through the songs with each mic to see which sounded best. The preamp of choice was a Requisite Audio Engineering PAL.
And one person in each production team I worked with could play just about any instrument. I’d think about lyrics, then work on a really basic track — just to decide if it was going to be more keyboard-driven, guitar-driven, or whatever. Later on, we’d add the layers. We’d try to structure things around rhythmic loops, but these were phrases people played that we would turn into loops. So many things change while writing a song, though . . . it’s just like painting, layers upon layers.
However, this was all actual humans playing actual instruments. One song even has live drums. A lot of the percussion is performed live; there were five different guitar players, and live bass. I really wanted to make an electronic dance album where it wouldn’t matter that it was dance music. I wanted to take it out of the clichés that people associate with the genre. So many people don’t respect dance music because they think it’s just a bunch of repetitive loops. But that’s a little naïve; much of this music is carefully composed.
We also had a lot of different people mixing the record. We tried to record so that while we were making it, we were mixing it. But you have to be careful; one dance track was mixed with “rock levels.” How the hi-hats were mixed was all wrong; for dance music everything is a little more lush, a little more glued together. Even though you want the kick to be heavy and feel it, you don’t want it to overpower the track. One thing we did do differently was put the vocals high in the mix, more like pop music, and really produce them.
We never had effects on my vocals while I was singing; I always recorded dry and we would add effects immediately after the vocal track was recorded. It took a little extra time, but it was nice for the song to have more of a finished feel even while it was developing.
I’m really particular about how I want to sound; I kept one version of the vocals dry for remixing, and another with all the plug-in effects. On the material I gave to the production teams, if I really liked the vocal effects, they stayed on. Others got all dry vocal parts, and on some tracks there was no premixing of the vocals so they could have some leeway when mixing harmonies.
The album was mastered by Henry Sarmiento at Sonic Vista Studio in Ibiza, Spain. He works a lot with Om records, and at Om, it’s all about the process. We sent over the final mixes, got the mastered versions back, then listened to them for a couple of days. There was only one song that everyone felt could have been done differently.
The mastering was really important, because a lot of the songs were recorded in different cities with different people. Henry made the record sound consistent. Even though the songs really fluctuate in terms of sound, it doesn’t sound like so many people worked on the project.
I spent about five years working on this record; the first couple of years were more casual, but the last two and a half years were really intense. You don’t realize how fast time goes by. Ultimately, I hope people who come see me play will be open to newer styles. A lot of the tunes are made for an audio experience, not just a physical one; it’s not just all for the dance floor.
EQ: Do you think interest in dance music is waning?
DJC: No. House music came out in the early ’80s, and it’s still here. People are always going to want to go to a party on Friday night. And the music is always changing, so it doesn’t get stale. Last year the Grammys introduced a best electronic album category; that’s significant. Dance music is definitely not dying.
EQ: I hear a lot of dance music in commercials here, but in Europe, it’s background music at airports. Why has dance music not hit in the US like it has in the rest of the world?
DJC: Because it’s primarily instrumental, and you can’t sing along. In other countries, electronic music is totally pop music. I think dance music has enough tunes and not enough singers. But there are more live electronic bands starting to tour, and that will push this genre more into the mainstream. Moby [May 2005, EQ] is the only one who’s really visible, but he has such an eclectic sound. He performs, plays, and sings — there needs to be more of that. I want to see musicians in videos, not some weird model.
I’m turning 30, and started when I was 16. I was lucky, I heard house music on the radio when I was 10. It wasn’t like I was so cool that I decided to get into dance music, it was just by default because that’s what I heard, and I liked it. As more people get exposed to good dance music, they’ll get hooked, too.