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Lau.ra: a light-bulb moment

Having cut her teeth as part of the alternative rock group Ultraísta, and as solo artist FEMME, Lau.ra is now making waves as a dance music DJ and producer. With her tracks getting regular play on radio, and with gigs in Ibiza and elsewhere internationally on the agenda, she shares her journey from rock to rave with Niamh O’Connor

When DJ Mag speaks to Laura Bettinson, it’s a few weeks before her ‘Volume 1 - The Mixtape’ record drops on London-based label Needwant. “I started releasing Lau.ra stuff in 2020, which is crazy,” she says. “Now we’re in 2022, and every year, [Lau.ra] has been getting more and more support. I really feel fully loaded right now! It just suddenly seems to have come together — it’s got a lot of momentum, and it’s going in the right direction, which is refreshing.” 

Today, the producer, DJ, vocalist and songwriter has come full circle, in the sense that she is video calling from her parents’ house in Rugby — where she grew up — while her home in East Sussex is under renovation. It’s been a busy period for the 34-year-old, who welcomed her newborn son into the world last summer, and has gradually begun touring again after her DC10 debut with the Circo Loco crew on New Year’s Day. “I was handed an almost empty room because I was on quite early,” she recalls. “But by the end of it, it was packed, there were about 1,500 people in the room, and they were loving it. It was brilliant.” 

Having developed her Lau.ra alias in 2019, Bettinson had already accumulated a decade’s worth of experience performing live in front of thousands of people, as part of the alternative rock group Ultraísta, and as  solo pop artist FEMME. “I’d always sung from a very early age,” she says. “I taught myself to sing by imitating pop music. That’s how I trained my ear. I’d just sing along to everything and imitate pop singers.”

Growing up in Rugby, there was no dance music scene. “It was really band-focused,” she says. “I spent a couple of years in a band when I was 16, but other than that, I didn’t engage in that scene at all. I didn’t come across any electronic or dance music until I moved to London when I was 18.”

 

“I realised then that it’s the same thrill for me to make a tune in the studio and then play it that evening, and see people connect with it. And I guess that was what I loved instantly about switching allegiance.”

In 2008, Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich spotted her performing in a pub. Bettinson’s powerful vocals left an impression, so he invited her to join his new experimental project with Beck and R.E.M drummer Joey Waronker. The trio toured the globe and released two albums, but the dynamic of three highly creative individuals working together did prove challenging at times.

“I love Ultraísta, don’t get me wrong,” says Bettinson. “It holds a really dear place in my heart, but having never been in a band as a teenager… the dynamic of being in a band is really hardcore. You know, three different inspirations and three different people bringing their life experiences and influences to the table.” 

Bettinson’s initiation into dance music occurred when Four Tet remixed ‘Small Talk’ by Ultraísta in 2012. But when she decided to pursue FEMME a year later, Bettinson’s sound started to tilt towards club-led tones, and house producers picked up on this too. Justin Martin sampled her vocal on ‘Hello Clouds’, but her full pivot into dance music happened when she hung out with the Dirtybird crew at Miami Music Week in 2019. “I just saw these guys DJing, and they’d literally turn up with a backpack and a set of headphones and a USB stick, and just like, BAM — play to thousands of people,” she says. “And I was like, ‘What the fuck have I been sweating for, rehearsing for three months with a live band to go and like, basically earn no money?’ I was just gobsmacked!” 

As soon as she returned to London, Bettinson secured a Friday night DJ residency in The Four Quarters in Peckham, to road test bass-heavy tracks she’d created in her studio earlier that day. “I realised then that it’s the same thrill for me to make a tune in the studio and then play it that evening, and see people connect with it. And I guess that was what I loved instantly about switching allegiance.”

 

As the sound of Lau.ra began to take shape in bright melodies and wonky basslines, her studio setup remained the same. “I’ve literally got my laptop, a tiny little octave keyboard and a set of speakers,” she says. “I do better work with less gear.” Even the flute melody on the track ‘Chengdu’ stems from audio stored on Bettinson’s phone, recorded live during an impromptu session by a traditional Chinese instrumentalist. Bettinson named it after the eponymous city in China, when she was based there as an artist in residence for PRS and the British Arts Council. But as Lau.ra, her technical and mental approach has evolved.

“I’m cutting up other people’s vocals,” she explains, “so I can be way more ruthless, because I’m not personally attached to the idea. I had this song, ‘Wicked’, and it’s one of my favourite tracks I ever made, because it’s so fucking bold. There’s nothing to it, just a banging bassline and a lot of personality in those weird little vocals. But it could have been a very different song, because I had so much vocal from Eliza [Legzdina]. I’m proud that I honed in on these simple bits to create what ended up being a very hooky tune. I’d never have done that if I was singing it, because I’d have been like, ‘I love that lyric, that needs to be in there’, whereas because I’m not attached, I’m like,” — she makes a swift chopping motion — “‘great, done!’”

Producing and DJing as Lau.ra, Bettinson feels she’s nailed her sonic identity, but admits that the validation from the industry — her first single ‘Sideways’ gained early support from BBC 6 Music and Radio 1 — bolstered her confidence, and helped to create a signature style. “If you listen to a lot of the ‘Volume 1’ sounds, I’m using the same drum samples in different ways on every single track,” she says. “I really love that, it gave me a template of sounds and samples to develop and manipulate. Essentially, it was really important to me for the audience to be able to hear a track and 30 seconds in feel like ‘this sounds like Lau.ra!’ and I think I’ve achieved that.”

Next up, Lau.ra will play Radio 1’s Big Weekend and a slew of summer shows in Ibiza, among other international and UK-based gigs. While motherhood and DJing are worlds apart, Bettinson is feeling inspired by other women doing the same thing, citing Jamz Supernova, Logic 1000 and Annie Mac. “It’s really nice seeing a few more people being open about this on social media,” she says. “It’s like, ‘OK, we got this’. Even though it’s really hard, I feel between us, there’s visibility, and we’re going in the right direction.”

Niamh O'Connor is a freelance writer and founder of NYXXX, which you can follow on Instagram

Want more? Read our 2021 cover interview with Jamz Supernova here

Photo credit: Ella Mitchell