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JC Verona

HoneyLuv: smooth operator

Some people know exactly what direction their life will take from an early age. Then there are the rest of us, feeling our way through existence until we hit upon the right course of action. The Cleveland-born Taylor Character, better known as HoneyLuv, falls firmly in the latter camp, with years in basketball (with dreams of going pro) and a stint in the Navy before finally finding her true calling: DJing and production. Ria Hylton catches up with the rising house music star in London to find out more.

Something’s missing. It’s a week after Taylor Character’s ADE debut, days before she’s due in Naples, and DJ Mag has just realised our mistake. After reading the transcript of last week’s phone call, it’s clear that there are still so many gaps in her story, crucial questions that we failed to follow up on. We message her, asking if she’ll be free for a face-to-face chat in the coming days. “Should be good,” she writes. “I just have a studio sesh in the afternoon, so can play it by ear for dinner.” Follow-up interviews are hard to come by, especially with an artist as busy as Character, so the most we hope for is a quick phone call. “Hey I just finished up, I’m starving haha,” she messages a day later. “Let’s meet in Soho, I’ll find a place.” We breathe a sigh of relief.

Character, aka HoneyLuv, selects an open-fire restaurant just off Oxford Street and suggests a time at a quarter to the hour. When we arrive, she’s already set up in the furthermost corner of the room, sporting a round-neck jumper, dark parachute pants and blonde braids. This low-key, tomboy charm is punctured somewhat by her signature nail extensions, this evening coated in clouds and blue sky. She may be a fresh face but, musically speaking, Character plays with an old soul. Her sets are flush with affirming vocals, classic stomping kick drums and burly basslines, all in keeping with the spirit of early house. And it’s something she’s been thinking about more lately, how to build out a community that reflects the sonic and social world she wants to be a part of. We thank her for the last-minute meet, and ask how the studio session went. “I’ve always been a planner,” she tells DJ Mag, “but when I go into the studio, I’ll forget to do everything I need to. My mind is focused on getting stuff done, so I don’t worry about anything else — but then, when I’m finished, that’s when everything hits me and I’m like, ‘oh I’m starving!’”

We quickly select a few starters and mains for the table, and Character gets talking about her plans this coming weekend — a low-profile London gig on Friday, then off to Italy on Saturday. “I’ll be celebrating my birthday there, but also playing — I’m so excited,” she relays warmly. Does she remember how she celebrated three years ago? “Three years ago?” She looks upwards, bemused at the question. “What year was that? 2020 — I was still in the military, I was just getting out.”

Photo of HoneyLuv under spotlight wearing a black turtleneck and vertical braids in her hair
JC Verona

It can take a while for a DJ’s career to get going — most spend years building a reliable roster of work, allowing them to steadily segue into their passion full-time. Character is not quite a bolt from the blue, but her star has risen far more quickly than she, and many of those around her, imagined. Having emerged as a house selector during the pandemic, in the space of three years she’s gone from being a bedroom DJ based out of LA to an international headliner. At the start of this year. she was tipped as the next big thing, making BBC Radio 1’s Dance Future Stars, The New York Times’ ‘Up Next’ talent and Beatport’s One To Watch lists. In August, she took home DJ Mag’s Breakthrough Producer award.

But it wasn’t just the critics who spotted her talents early — HoneyLuv was lauded by many of her house heroes, who quickly embraced her as a peer. Having collaborated with Seth Troxler, Will Clarke, and Cakes da Killa, and played alongside the likes of Dennis Ferrer and Jamie Jones — not to mention two impromptu b2bs with Idris Elba — Character is being championed by artists as varied as Maya Jane Coles, Felix Da Housecat, Cassy and Heidi Lawden. And then there are her productions: groove-laden, vocally-driven cuts. Tracks like ‘Your Tongue’, ‘365 (Thr33 6ix 5ive)’, and ‘Sex & The City', a Seth Troxler collab, have brought her new audiences, at home and abroad.

Her first release was in early 2021, but it’s only this year that Character has begun to hit her production stride. “I feel like I’m at the point of where I want my music to be — it’s a little deeper, it’s got that Chicago house sound, very groovy, but also very broad. I love Green Velvet, Honey Dijon, The Martinez Brothers, Tedd Patterson — and I like what Seth’s doing,” she says, almost to herself. “He’s respected in every region he goes to. He can play everywhere. It’s the versatility and longevity he has, I definitely want that.”

The ‘Sex & The City’ project came together a year ago. “That was in Dec 2022, I was working on this track that had a New York vibe,” she says, diving into her main course. “I was watching Sex And The City at the time, and I wanted it to be something that could play in the show. I’d just met Seth at his San Diego show a few months prior. I sent him the song and was like, ‘I just want your feedback, what do you think?’ And he said, ‘This sounds like a younger MK, I really dig it,’ and I was like, ‘Oh say less’ [laughter], and me being the person I am, I asked if he wanted to collab — and he was like, ‘Yeah sure’. I was like, ‘Wait — what?’ And that’s how ‘Sex & The City’ came to be.”

Taking Paul Johnson’s ‘So Much’ as its starting point, ‘SATC’ lays a three-note bassline and staccato organ keys over a dirty kick drum, reminding us of tracks by an early Todd Terry. MK offers a dub and extended remix to the project, both speeding up and beefing up the production. Curious, we ask what SATC episodes she was watching at the time. “I’d only ever seen bits and pieces of it,” she claims. “I’d never watched it fully, so it was early on in the season. Carrie pissed me off — she just kept messing up with good guys. I was so pissed when she cheated on Aidan with Big. You know who I did love?” she asks, without missing a beat. “Samantha — she made the show for me, she lived her life.”

Photo of HoneyLuv under a spotlight wearing a black puffer and vertical braids in her hair
JC Verona

“The universe is very weird, like if you just constantly focus on something and work towards it, it’ll eventually happen. I manifested this whole career, and I’m in.”

We find Character in full Luv mode two days later, this time spinning at a private club 10 minutes from our face-to-face meet. She plays a deep, haunting set for the basement crowd, all decked out for Halloween. ‘Thriller’, ‘I Feel Love', and Madonna’s ‘Music’ remixes all make the cut, as well as Johnson’s ‘So Much’ vocal, and what sounds like Roland Clark’s ‘House Music’ vocal over Steve Angello’s re-edit of Shinedoe’s ‘Phunk’. Character pitches down the last track, the vocals slowed to a slurry drag, so that when Clark proclaims ‘you hear this beat right here, hold on now, this is house music!’ it feels all the more stirring. “Roland Clark has been putting in the work for years,” she tells us days earlier over the phone. “Sometimes, when I meet these longstanding artists, I feel for their journey — they’ve been doing it for years and only now they’re being recognised.”

When we first make contact with Character, she’s just landed in London after playing Savaya Bali over the weekend. The daytime club venue in Uluwatu’s limestone region is as picturesque a place as you can get, a world away from the military life she left in 2020. “It’s this really dope place on a cliff,” she explains. “Vacation crowd, really lively — it was my first time playing in Asia.” She’s had a several firsts this year, which explains why she’s moved from LA to London. “This summer was my first European tour. I absolutely love it here, the city is thriving,” she enthuses. “It’s just a better way of life; the food’s cleaner, there’s a lot going on, it reminds me of New York. I have to go back to LA next month, to try and get my ducks in a row, because I want to be in London full-time, or just anywhere in Europe.”

By all appearances, the accolades have come thick and fast, but as far as Character is concerned, she’s been working toward this for a while. Her mantra is: The universe is listening, so be careful what you say. “The universe is very weird, like if you just constantly focus on something and work towards it, it’ll eventually happen. I manifested this whole career and I’m in.” Has she read The Secret? “Yes,” she laughs. What’s it about, for those who haven’t? “The laws of attraction — putting out what you want, knowing that the words you say, the things you write down and the thoughts you think are all being listened to, so you have to be mindful of what you’re thinking and saying.”

Character is big on committing all goals to paper. When asked about future plans, she consults a list — which includes people she wants to collaborate with, artists she’d like to have on her upcoming label, and even the name of her debut album — which, she cautions, isn’t on the cards anytime soon. But it’s clear Character’s keen to keep the momentum. “I never really take time to take it all in, I’m always on the go,” she says when we ask how she’s feeling about this year’s run of success. “If anything, my motivation has changed — I’m more hungry. Compared to the life I was living before, this is literally a dream come true.”

Photo of HoneyLuv wearing blue shimmery eyeshadow and a pearlescent puffer jacket
JC Verona

Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Character never knew of the dangers of her surroundings growing up. “My grandparents were always taking us to plays, amusement parks, typical stuff you do in the Midwest,” she recalls. “I didn’t really see the other side of Cleveland until later — my parents kept me and my sisters close.” The city, a birthplace of rock & roll, was more of a hip-hop town by the time Character came around, home to rap acts like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Kid Cudi, and Machine Gun Kelly. Her first musical memory, however, was in her father’s purple Mustang, parked outside her nursery, playing his then go-to track ‘It Never Rains (In Southern California)’ by Tony! Toni! Tone! “That memory is so vivid for me, like it happened yesterday,” she says. “I was definitely in the back seat, in a car seat actually. The Mustang had a drop top, and the top was off.”

While dad was schooling baby Taylor in '80s and '90s R&B, her mom, the house head, spun all the classic vocal cuts (Frankie Knuckles, CeCe Peniston, Crystal Waters) at home — Jamie Principle and Knuckles’ ‘Your Love’ was on heavy rotation. When she was 16, her mother moved the family out to Virginia, where Character began making connections between the music of her early years and a real-life scene. “It wasn’t until I got to the DMV, where I started to hear house music, that and go-go,” she explains. “I was going to hip-hop and go-go clubs — I would sneak in when I was 16.”

It was around the same time that she began rapping poems over beats, fashioned on a Casio keyboard she’d cajoled her mum into buying. But these early musical ambitions were side-tracked by basketball, a hobby she took up at the age of six. Her talents on the court got her recruited to two private high school teams, which got her thinking about the WNBA. “At that point, it was getting really serious, so I put music to the side,” she says. “I never really thought about it again till I moved to LA and I was just around it all the time.”

She made the National Collegiate Athletic Association draft, which covered college costs, and was firming up plans to go professional, but after tearing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) for the second time — and on the same knee — Character put that career to rest. Back at the restaurant, she demonstrates the injury, mimicking the movement of the knee with her knuckles, one placed above the other. “There are ligaments right in here, so your knee goes like —” she explains as she motions the tear, pulling her knuckles apart. We wince, and her eyes beam at our response. “It was tough, but it happens — I’ve had friends who’ve torn it three times.” Pain aside, ACL injuries have a long recovery time; they can take a player out of the game for easily over half a year. After the second ACL tear at the age of 18, Character quit the court. “I just fell out of love with the game.”

Character’s family tree spans three generations of military, police, and civil service. Her paternal grandfather was the first Black motorcycle police officer in Cleveland, her father had a brief stint in the army before deciding to start his own company, and her mother worked for the federal government throughout her childhood. On graduating high school, and already thinking long-term, 18-year-old Taylor looked close to home for career inspiration. Her cousin and his wife, in the CIA at the time, seemed to be living an interesting enough life. “I thought, ‘ok, I’ll go into the military so when I apply for the CIA I’ll be at the top of the list,’ because they prioritize people with a military background,” she says.

Photo of HoneyLuv wearing a camo puffer and yellow sunglasses with vertical braids in her hair
JC Verona

“I feel like I’m at the point of where I want my music to be — it’s a little deeper, it’s got that Chicago house sound, very groovy, but also very broad.”

She started her Navy service in 2016 on a four-year contract at a naval base in Oxnard, California. While there, she underwent weeks of training and took part in a 24-hour boot camp before being assigned a role. “They built this fake ship for the boot camp,” she recalls. “You’re on the ship doing different tasks throughout the day and throughout the night, and when I was on the ship I thought, ‘oh, this is not for me.’” Luckily, she was assigned a desk job as a drone mechanic while others were sent out to sea. What did the mechanics do? “We would check the gas levels, change the gas, check the engines, what else? I tried to block out as much as I could,” she laughs. “We were just testing, making sure everything was good to go — if there were any faults you’d log them, nothing too crazy.”

She also began studying criminology at the University of La Verne, all lectures taking place on the naval base, and established a strict routine — up at 5am, a gym session, shower and then to work at 6am. But halfway through the contract, Character realised her mistake. “Year two, I was like, ‘yeah, this is not going to be for me.’ I saw what it was, I didn’t really agree with it and I just felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again, like a rat on the wheel,” she says. Her upbeat tone becomes more laboured. “I didn’t have to think, everything was taken care of, and for some people they’re okay with that stability, but I’ve never been the type to settle. It started feeling like a prison.” Trump’s election to the presidency didn’t help either. “I was like, ‘yeah I definitely need to get out — there’s no way I’m fighting any war for this man.’”

She doesn’t go into too much detail, but Character fell into a depression and even began suffering panic attacks. The few friends she did confide in suggested DJing as an outlet, a way to stay focused for the remainder of her time. “They were just like, ‘Well, why don’t you DJ? You love picking music when we go out, you should do that.’”

One friend even gifted her first controller (they are still in touch, and they go to see Character perform whenever possible). After much persuasion, Character agreed to the idea, putting all the day’s remaining energy into DJing. “I just became a robot in order to make it through. I literally shut down to get through those last two years,” she recalls. “After I was done with my shift, I would go back to the barracks, play around, record myself and be on the decks for hours — sometimes till 1am, knowing I had to wake up at 5am to go to work. I put my full self into that. So over those last two years, I was just DJing in my barracks, learning the craft.”

Photo of HoneyLuv under a blue spotlight wearing a black puffer and vertical braids in her hair
JC Verona

Four months in, and she was playing R&B and hip-hop brunch parties in Hollywood. It was far from the dream, music-wise, but a firm step in the right direction. “At the same time,” she says, “I’m seeing these house parties and festivals, and I’m like, ‘I want to be there, how can I get there?’ “It was just a whole different world,” she tells us. “I didn’t see people who looked like me playing those festivals — that’s why Twitch helped me a lot, just to get my face out there.”

The pandemic put a hold on many DJ careers, but while others struggled to adapt, Character reached for all the opportunities she could find. As soon as she moved off the naval base, she began live-streaming her sets, regular Twitch sessions on her own channel, as well as LP Giobbi’s Femme House sessions, a weekly show platforming women DJs. She also appeared on the House Nation, Groove Cruise, and Desert Hearts Twitch channels, and began presenting her own show, ‘House of Honey', on Ill Donuts Radio, building a fan base wherever anyone would invite her. It was the first time Character was playing on her terms, with sounds inspired by her early musical memories, as well as a moment of discovery of the roots of house.

By Dec 2020, service time was up. Character had decided to turn DJing and production into a full- time gig, and enrolled in a production course in Los Angeles the following month. As the world eased out of a final lockdown, she reached out to several promoters, landing a billing at San Diego’s Flamingo Deck, alongside VNSSA — her first gig post-pandemic. VNSSA and her agent spotted Character and made a beeline. “When they arrived, they were like, ‘who is this?’” she remembers. “They thought I was from Europe — they had never heard my name, and the agent asked the promoter if I could play at the after-party so they could see me.” Two weeks later, she had bookings all over.

Character was also starting to release her productions around the same time. Her debut single dropped on POPGANG Records, an LA imprint specialising in pop-inspired dance tracks. ‘F R E E’ had a shuffling rhythm section, bluesy chord stabs, and mantra-like vocals — is it true she no longer likes the track? “I don’t,” she admits, letting out a sheepish laugh. “It wasn’t fully me, I was just exploring, still in the process of learning. If I could, I would have made it a little deeper, groovier. It was too poppy for me, but the message was dope.” What would she change if she could go back? “I wish I could take it and make it a little bit more grimier and harder — that would have been sick.”

Tracks like ‘PAIN’ and ‘Paradise’ with Hugo Cantarra followed not long after — music that went a little deeper, slowing the groove, but with similar vocal deliveries. It was, however, 2022’s ‘Your Tongue’ that really took HoneyLuv to the next level. Released in February, the track’s music video took inspiration from a TikTok craze at the time, where content creators used Renaissance painting filters to merge faces with well-known paintings. “We were just following the trend,” she says. “We just took that concept and made it into a music video, brought it to life. I thought it was pretty dope, and it was popular at the time.” The track was a hit, clocking up over 123,000 YouTube views and more than three million streams on Spotify.

Photo of HoneyLuv DJing in a club
JC Verona

“[Idris] texted me the morning of Coachella and was like, ‘hey I want you to go b2b with me?’ I was in bed, in LA, just waking up, and saw the text message from him, I guess he was on the plane.”

The invitation to open up for Chris Lake at Brooklyn Mirage was another major turning point. “That was the first time I’d ever played for a huge crowd like that, and that’s when I was like, ‘okay, I can definitely do this,’” she remembers. “At the same time, I was still trying to figure out what kind of artist I wanted to be. I had to figure that out quick, because you do one thing and they stick it to you — I had to find myself quick. And that’s where the Seth Troxlers and Jamie Joneses come in — I felt more at home in that space.”

If ‘Your Tongue’ was HoneyLuv’s breakthrough moment, ‘365 (Thr33 6ix 5ive)’ was, by all comparisons, a quantum leap. Released on Lake’s Black Book imprint, the track did the rounds at BBC Radio 1 — Danny Howard, Charlie Hedges, and Pete Tong played it throughout the summer — and it remains her most successful track to date, having clocked up 14 million streams and counting on Spotify alone.

She quickly followed up the success with Dope Earth Alien collab ‘Sway’, another shuffling cut with an ever-so-slightly off-grid bassline, Dope’s earworm delivery bringing back memories of early Azealia Banks. Character has continued the collabs — ‘Inside My Mind’ with Harry Romero, ‘Move Your Body’ with Will Clarke, ‘Bring It Back’ with Cakes da Killa and, more recently, ‘Let’s Get Sexy’ with NEZ — and has even been on remix duties, including a rework of Diplo & Seth Troxler’s ‘Waiting For You’ and Lizzo’s ‘Everybody’s Gay’ which, though not out yet, is ready to go.

Character has a calm, down-to-earth way about her, especially when reflecting on key moments in her career. From finding an agent at her first post-pandemic set to her first international gig supporting Calvin Harris in his residency at Ushuaïa, she relays those highlights as matters-of- fact, rather than career-defining forks in the road. She recounts how she met Harris, who was playing at the Dolby Theatre, in downtown LA as though it were any other moment in her day. “I introduced myself and his team wanted me to fly out there because they really liked what I was doing,” she says. The same goes for her two b2bs with Elba — the first one at London’s KOKO and the second at Coachella. “He texted me the morning of Coachella and was like, ‘hey I want you to go b2b with me?’ I was in bed, in LA, just waking up, and saw the text message from him, I guess he was on the plane.”

Where does this cool self-possession come from? Maybe it’s her unassuming Midwest upbringing. Or perhaps the four years spent working on a naval base. “I’ve always told myself anything is possible, as long as you work for it,” she shares. “I didn’t think this would go as far as it did, but in my mind I was like, ‘I’m going to try.’ Everything I said came true, it’s crazy.

Photo of HoneyLuv under a blue spotlight with vertical braids in her hair
JC Verona

Other highlights include going on an Australian tour with Fisher and Loco Dice, and bringing her father and sister out to her performance in Brazil. But of all the moments since that fateful Flamingo evening, one stands out most: Her b2b with Ferrer. “I love me some Dennis,” she smiles, visibly loosening up at the memory. “He just brought a whole new energy out of me, brought things to another level. It was crazy. Even when we met face-to-face for the first time, it was just jokes after jokes, he’s a really good time.” Stay tuned for their b2b early next year, this time in Brazil.

As encouraged as Character is by all the attention, there’s a hint of worry at the disconnect between her generation of house DJs and the roots of the genre. For this reason, she will launch 4 Tha Luv, a label and party series in Mexico this month. Part remedy, part creative outlet, she plans to showcase the women and queer BIPOC artists on her radar. “I want to do as much as I can to bring in newer people,” she explains. “Most of the parties I play I’m the only one, the only Black American female DJ on a lineup — and there’s a lot of us.”

Character seems to be as organised as when she was in the military, rising 6:30am most days for pilates, followed by weight lifting sessions at the gym. “That’s probably the one thing that hasn’t changed,” she says. “I can go to bed late too, and still wake up at the same time.” She decides against dessert and finishes her water, before leaning in for a hug and heading out. It’s the end of 2023 and HoneyLuv has delivered on the early hype, but her journey is just beginning — having realised her dreams, her sights are set on building a legacy, a community that reflects her world.