Freedom rings for Anja Schneider: U.S. cover feature
From Ibiza to Berlin to Oslo, Germany’s Anja Schneider is embracing her newfound freedom with a brand new label and her first solo album in nearly a decade – a deeply personal declaration of who she really is, and where she wants to go...
“Try this, it’s delicious.” Anja Schneider scoops a forkful of melon and cheese onto a plate, pushing it across the table with a nod. The soft patter of Balearic house beats drift across the whitewashed patio of an open-air beachside restaurant facing Ibiza’s sprawling salt flats. Weary patrons fan themselves with napkins, wiping sweat and the effects of the prior night’s partying from their brows.
It is unusually hot, even for mid-August, and the midday sun blazes through the leaves of flowered vines woven into a wooden lattice overhead, melting the ice in a bucket of sparkling wine beside us. Anja raises her glass for a toast, with a wide grin.
DJ Mag has joined one of Berlin’s most prolific DJ/producers for a weekend on the White Isle, on the verge of her biggest career announcement to date: after 12 successful years at the helm of Mobilee Records, Anja Schneider is leaving the label she birthed to found a brand new one, Sous Music, all on her own.
“Cheers!” we clink our cold drinks together, in homage to her new life-chapter.
Anja’s inaugural release on Sous this November will mark her first solo artist album in nine years. Aptly titled ‘SoMe’, it is a nine-track ode to melodic groove, the breed of house and techno Anja has always embraced, but now with the wide-eyed energy of newfound freedom.
From vocals and saxophones to rolling 4/4 kicks and the downtempo warbling of liquid drum & bass, Anja Schneider moves through the LP with greater musical dexterity than ever before. Her nervous excitement is palpable, bubbling over lunch like the bottle of rosé we share, as she twirls a chunky silver ring embossed with the Mobilee Records logo around her finger. “I need to get a Sous one now,” she confirms, raising her hand to flag down a passing waitress and request a bottle of hot sauce.
“After 12 years with Mobilee, I realized it can’t get any better – ” Anja pauses to point at a plate of ceviche on the table, “ – do you mind if I put some sauce on this? I'm really bad with the Tabasco!” She sprinkles the condiment on the dish, offers some to us and continues, “It’s like in a marriage, where you sometimes develop different ways. I have a completely different musical vision now.”
In between bites, Anja speaks as quickly as she thinks and moves; her thoughts change direction abruptly, but always return to the right juncture, continuing to fly forward at breakneck pace in a German accent. She’s been dubbed “a perpetual motion machine” for reasons well beyond the dancefloor.
Her multitasking skills are as evident in our lunch conversation as they are in her career; she orders food, describes life-changing choices, lights cigarettes and serves everyone at the table without missing a beat. Success with Mobilee came quick and steady, often keeping Anja, the mother of a young son and globetrotting DJ, too busy to think about what it was she truly desired to cull from the label or her own productions.
And while abandoning a sure thing is never easy, when it came to producing her new album for Sous Music, “I had to come to the studio this time and say, ‘I really have to think about where I want to go with my music, what I want to say to the world’.”
What she wants to say is captured in ‘SoMe’ by rhythm and timbre, texture and lyrics, looking ahead to the future while paying homage to the past: she knows who she is, and where she’s going. The album’s content draws from pivotal moments in Anja’s life – the early ‘90s house and techno that inspired her to pursue a musical career can be heard in tracks like ‘Got Me With A Bang’ and ‘Night Out’; the old Friday night jungle residencies at Berlin clubbing institution WMF get a namesake nod in ‘WMF’; the iconic vocals of British hip-hop/electronic group Stereo MCs are resurrected in ‘Sanctuary’. Throughout ‘SoMe’, Anja brings memories to life and sets them free, spun into forward-thinking cuts.
A photographer greets us at the table as we finish lunch, ready to do an outdoor photoshoot on the adjacent salt flats with Anja for her DJ Mag cover debut. Anja excuses herself to freshen up – an exercise in futility given the scorching, cloudless sky. The heat hangs thick in the air, and we resolve to make a trip back to the hotel for cold showers before the long evening continues. Tonight, Anja will play at Pacha Ibiza, with a stop at the infamous Cafe Mambo beforehand for a sunset b2b with fellow Berliner, Matthias Meyer. She plans to head straight to the airport just a few hours after her Pacha set to catch a 7am flight to Germany.
“I want to have a few days of rest at home,” she explains, as she simultaneously checks her email, smokes a cigarette, and takes a photo with our waitress. “Okay! Ready! Let’s go!” Anja gathers her things and marches us forward, woman on a nonstop mission.
Sous Music grounds the perpetually-in-motion Anja Schneider, connecting her firmly to her roots. Sous is her mother’s maiden name – “A French name, even though they are German,” she explains, adding that the family comes from an area near Cologne, where Anja lived until relocating to Berlin in 1993. The moniker represents the very thing that has provided the foundation for her successful, long-running career: family.
“My family has supported me at every stage of my career and I would not be here without them.Likewise, every single key relationship in my life has come about through music. This simple connection is what the label is about." She uses the word family often, referring to both her immediate family – her son Rio, her partner Jan-Eric Scholz, her parents – and her music family.
“I'm a really family collective kind of person; it was always important for me to talk with everyone,” Anja says of working with her former team at Mobilee, “to see what they think, whether we should do this or that.” Despite Anja’s sharply honed business acumen, she always viewed Mobilee’s artists as belonging to part of that family, rather than as a means to an economic end.
For an only child, Anja Schneider’s commitment to being inclusive through “family collective” is strong. It’s evident in her graciousness throughout our stay with her in Ibiza, and later, during a visit to her studio in Berlin. She is always eager to share what she loves; food and music, places and friends. Growing up in a financially comfortable household, her mother made sure to expose her to plenty of children with diverse backgrounds, including sending young Anja away to summer camp programs with kids from lower income brackets – “it was like a social program with some government support… It was amazing! I learned how to break into a car and smoke, kissed my first boy,” she laughs fondly at the memories.
“It’s typical cliché, but I had the time of my life!” Anja wants to ensure that her six-year-old son Rio, also an only child, benefits from the same type of exposure. “I want to show my son that he doesn’t just have this privileged life. He’s surrounded all the time by different people and is quite open to everyone.”
Little Rio is also surrounded by music – though, he doesn’t always share his mother’s taste for classic house and techno. Nor do his six-year-old companions, apparently. “It’s funny, kids at this age, they love this EDM stuff,” Anja shakes her head in exasperation. “For example, my son’s favorite song is ‘Ain't Nobody (Loves Me Better)’, the 2015 version from Felix Jaehn. I played the original for him [Chaka Khan’s classic 1983 hit] and he’s like, ‘It’s bad, mama!’” she wrinkles her nose, imitating a disgusted six-year-old, and laughs heartily. “These kids, they like the steel drums and all this Robin Schulz stuff, they’re loving it. ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ by Gotye, my son can sing completely, beginning to end.”
Anja’s son enjoys joining her in the studio and at radio stations, playing with a small guitar she gifted him for his birthday, and singing into the mic. Sometimes, Rio imitates his mother’s voice announcing a show: “‘Hallooo, this is Anja Schneiderrrr!’” Anja sings the words in a child’s voice, smiling affectionately as she imitates him pretending to be her. We imagine a determined blond-haired boy straining to reach the studio mic on his toes, eyes glinting mischievously as he fills his mother’s on-air role. Already working hard; apples don’t fall far from trees.
Growing up in Berlin has its benefits. Anja lives and works in the city’s centrally located Mitte district, which is sanitized and staid, noticeably absent of the colorful graffiti scrawled across the crumbling concrete surfaces of other neighborhoods – “Berlin is quite open, but it’s still Mitte, which is a bit conservative.” It’s also where her son Rio attends school. A few months back, Anja learned that Rio’s kindergarten class was doing a show-and-tell program with parents, where students invite a parent into the classroom who demonstrates what they do for a living.
According to Anja, “the kids weren’t so satisfied with the violin” that one violinist father brought to play for the class. She decided a DJ set might be better entertainment, and the schoolteachers were all for it – Berliners appreciate a good club night – turning the kindergarten classroom into a darkened dancefloor replete with lighting, ready and waiting for the famous Anja Schneider. “So I said, 'Scheisse, okay, I guess I have to do it,'” she grins. “But honestly, I was so fucking nervous.”
The woman who has played to massive crowds in the most respected venues across the world, hesitantly brought her CDJs and monitors to her son’s school. She expected just a few kids from the older grades to show up. Instead, the entire primary school piled into the room, teachers and all.
“Everyone in this school was sitting there and waiting!” Anja exclaims with a laugh. “And my son was completely proud,” she beams as she recalls the memory. “He never is proud – like when mama goes to work and shows him videos [of gigs] he’s like, ‘ugh, boring.’ But this time he was so proud. All the music was selected by him the night before.”
As the story goes, all of the children took to the makeshift dancefloor, dancing and asking Anja if they could take turns playing on the CDJs, which inspired a few of them to declare new career goals. “Afterwards, there were some other parents coming to me, saying, ‘I don’t know what you did to my son; now he wants to be a DJ’.”
Dance music has that effect on people, causing them to pivot and march head-on toward the sound they love. It’s what happened to Anja, in 1993. “I was a raver from the very first moment I heard the first tracks and I heard the first DJ mixing.” But she was still living and working in Dusseldorf, in a successful career with renowned international advertising agency BBDO – a far cry from the racy counterculture of Berlin, where Detroit techno was rapidly infiltrating the club scene and seeping through fresh cracks in the recently fallen Wall.
“One day, I put everything into my little Citroen and drove seven hours to Berlin. My plan was to go to the Tresor club; I heard that there was this Detroit connection, that there was techno there.” Anja describes the moment of impact like a true raver: “I had the same feeling that you have when you enter Berghain for the first time. Like, ‘Aahhhhh!’” she inhales sharply, mouth agape and eyes wide, placing a hand to her chest, “like you can't breathe and you’re entering a different world. I felt the sweat, the bass, the stroboscopes. And there were just all these people like me. Everyone was cool, talking and hugging each other even though we didn't know each other.”
She lights a cigarette and exhales smoothly, reliving the moment. “And then I knew, there’s something going on here and I want to be a part of it. So after this one weekend of visiting Berlin, I decided to move.”
The rest is oft-repeated history: Anja Schneider, as resolute and driven then as she is now, settled in Berlin and made her way up the ranks of dance music radio through the years, before breaking out as a DJ/producer in her own right. Throughout the ‘90s and early ‘00s, she leveraged her marketing background in the role of station program director at Berlin’s Kiss FM and later, as show producer and host, to excel at the business-based tasks most creative artists struggle with or choose to avoid.
“It’s funny, at Kiss FM, everyone who worked there went on to have a huge career. Ellen Allien had her first techno show there; Paul van Dyk had his morning show there and it had nothing to do with techno. And I was the girl who coordinated everything, telling them to get out of bed and come do their shows,” she chuckles. Once she stepped out from behind the radio mic, began DJing herself and founded Mobilee in 2005, things took off at dizzying speed. “Honestly, for me, I’m super happy that I started DJing really late in my career. If all of this had happened in my ‘20s, I couldn’t get it – I would have been one of those really crazy ones.”
We meet with Anja at her studio space in Berlin’s Mitte neighborhood on a breezy summer morning, a week after our sweltering Ibiza rendezvous. Her blond hair is tucked behind one ear, and she is rested and bright-eyed, buzzing with excitement. Neat stacks of vinyl sit in wood shelves that line clean white walls and a few pieces of modern furniture are carefully arranged across the floor. Light pours in through large windows, giving the high-ceilinged space an airy feel.
Anja happily guides us down a hallway, pointing into studio rooms and waving at the people inside: her life partner and co-producer, Jan-Eric Scholz, is bent over a soundboard and raises his hand with a smile; her friend and talented Finnish producer Klas Lindblad, aka Sasse, is in another suite, surrounded by analog synths and towering Genelec monitors, engineering the final masters for Anja’s upcoming ‘SoMe’ album. Klas greets DJ Mag with a warm handshake and is kind enough to indulge our childlike gushing over the studio's assortment of high-end hardware.
Anja smiles at our reaction and gestures around the room. “You know, we want to offer young people to come and take a production workshop here in this place,” she announces. “There's so many young DJs and producers. They're not on this level. They need some help on the final touches. So, they can come for a weekend in Berlin to go out, but they can book also like five hours in our production studio. Then they go home, having had a wonderful rave weekend and a new record with them.”
Anja is the first to admit that she isn’t a natural producer, but she is creative, and knows how to translate her sense of rhythm, melody and mood into a song with the help of a skilled engineer. “I need a technical hand, a hint. But from someone who understands my ideas, how I feel and what I want. This is quite good because with [my partner and co-producer] Jan-Eric it’s intimate; he knows me already, and he knows me exactly.”
FREEDOM TO BE
Jan-Eric Scholz once told Anja Schneider that she shouldn’t be a DJ. She recalls struggling during a rehearsal for her first big DJ gig, early on in her career, with Jan-Eric sitting on her living room sofa. “He says, ‘Anja, I don’t think that this career will ever work for you!'” Anja throws her head back with a loud laugh and claps her hands together. “We were really good friends; I always had a boyfriend, he always had a girlfriend, but we’d always had a little crush on each other.”
She blushes at the admission, and her love for him is obvious. “He always says that I tried to kiss him during one of these first sessions, but it’s absolutely not true! Because I am way too shy to do this. I said, ‘Actually no, probably it was you.’”
Today, the two are partners in life and in music, with Jan-Eric working closely alongside Anja in the studio on her new album. He even provides the vocals for the album’s closing track, ‘Shadows’ – an expansive, atmospheric swath of retro electronica. Anja has left Mobilee safely in the hands of label partner and DJ, Ralf Kollmann, and feels comfortable moving on without any hard feelings. She is eager to shed the constraints that come along with maintaining status quo as a big league imprint these days, forgoing Beatport chart placement for creative freedom.
And while signing chart toppers doesn’t always preclude artistic innovation, in the end, it often does. Anja explains that keeping a label like Mobilee going, with a staff and other fiscal obligations, means releasing a record every two weeks that makes it into the Beatport charts. “There’s a contradiction there between that and my DJing. And I always want to be honest and authentic. If I release a record, I want to play this record.”
With Sous Music, it’s just Anja on her own. There is no office to manage, no employees to support, no obligations to sell more records or hit top 10 slots – “this is probably the wrong way of thinking and really stops my creativity. It’s backwards,” Anja confesses, referencing the latter constraints. “I want a place where I have the freedom to present myself, artistically, the way that I want.”
Her ‘SoMe’ album release will be followed by a slate of remixes from lesser known, younger artists to whom she can offer a platform, free from the pressure of marketing strategy. There will be no pursuing Beatport charts, and while Anja admits that a small part of her feels bothered when a track doesn’t make the top 10, “I just don’t want to work to please someone else anymore. I did this for all my years before, and now I just want to be myself… Everyone wants to be himself.”
The next time DJ Mag sees Anja Schneider, she is in Oslo, Norway, playing to a packed crowd of ravers at Sommerøya festival. And she is decidedly herself. Her album is finally mastered and the artwork is done, photoshoots are wrapped and press releases written, quietly waiting to reveal the news of her boldest career move to date. Ever the gracious host, she spots us on the side of the stage and excitedly waves us over, pointing at an open bottle of champagne and imploring us to partake as she cues up the next song.
The woman in perpetual motion is in her element, pumping out high-energy, melodic techno as she dances behind the decks while ensuring everyone around her is comfortable, moving between tracks with ease and smiling back at the audience when they holler and whistle their appreciation. Anja has never played the role of a manufactured superstar. Instead, she continues her quest for the freedom to be her authentic self and be rewarded for it. “I think the desire every human being has is that you want to be accepted as you are. You want to be loved, in the end. We are always searching for this acceptance, this respect, and ultimately, this love.”
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