Shortly after coming out as transgender, Brooklyn’s Octo Octa released ‘Where Are We Going’ on Honey Soundsystem, an exceptionally classy piano-led house/techno album on which she embraces her true identity for the first time in public.
Words: SIRIN KALE
Before we speak over Skype one February evening, we follow Octo Octa — real name Maya Bouldry-Morrison — on Instagram. In one picture Bouldry-Morrison poses with her pet rabbit. In another she wears her favourite animal-print shift dress and looks coyly at the ceiling. In all the photos she radiates happiness and security — but it wasn’t always like this for the Brooklyn-based house DJ and producer.
“I don’t need to code or hide feelings that I had before,” Bouldry-Morrison explains. We’re talking about her critically-acclaimed 2013 album ‘Between Two Selves’. Subsequently, Bouldry-Morrison came out as trans and began living as a woman. While ‘Between Two Selves’ hinted at this process of transition, it was never explicit. “‘Between Two Selves’ was a coded message about coming out,” she explains, “but I think at the time I was too scared. I originally wanted to call that album ‘Trans’, but I wasn’t ready.”
Now, Bouldry-Morrison is ready. And she’s back with ‘Where Are We Going’, a new album full of her signature piano-led classic house cuts that feel both fresh and somehow familiar. In standout track ‘Where Are We Going? Pt. 2’, Bouldry-Morrison repeats the line “do you feel better?” like a mantra. We ask her if she feels better now she’s living her true gender identity. “I’m much more jubilant than I was at the time,” she replies. “I feel more free and open. But for me, the question ‘do you feel better?’ isn’t about me personally, but about all the scary unanswered questions about what the future will hold now Trump’s been elected.”
The day before we speak, President Trump revoked the Obama-era transgender bathroom protections in a stunning blow to America’s transgender community. For a politically conscious artist like Bouldry-Morrison, it’s hard not to be disheartened. “I feel like a ton of people got tricked,” she says, describing Trump voters. In the course of our wide-ranging hour-long conversation, we discuss various topics — European dance music snobbery, Boiler Room sets, cult film Paris Is Burning. DJ Mag is concerned, we explain to Bouldry-Morrison, that we’re situating her within a trans narrative she doesn’t want to be part of.
For plenty of trans artists, their gender identity is irrelevant to their music — just like many female DJs bridle at constantly being asked about industry sexism. “Right now, I don’t really mind talking about being trans,” she responds, citing DJ Sprinkles’ seminal album ‘Midtown 120 Blues’ as a major inspiration for her speaking out. “It was the first album that I identified with that has an explicitly trans narrative. I was so hungry for those narratives back then — when I got them I could hear or see myself in them.” Now, she feels a responsibility to create new trans narratives and boost trans visibility within the dance music community.
Bouldry-Morrison has always been something of an outsider artist: Entirely self-taught, she plugged away for years working in a coffee store in New York while sending out demos to any record label that would take them. Eventually success came on the 100% Silk label, but Bouldry-Morrison encountered her share of haters along the way — some viewed 100% Silk as amateurish, or not ‘proper’ house music. We ask her about the backlash. “I feel like a lot of people wanted to be gatekeepers,” she responds, “and they were frustrated by a DIY aesthetic coming into their spaces. They wanted power, and they thought that their taste was the best taste.”
Talking about ‘Where Are We Going’ (out now on Honey Soundsystem), we tell Bouldry-Morrison that DJ Mag felt like we’d heard the album before — in a good way. (It continues her signature sound of slightly sad, beautifully arranged piano-led house tracks.) Did she consider experimenting with a new sound? “I feel like this is the only thing that comes out!” she laughs. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it makes my brain feel good.”
Her formula is working: she’s been booked to play at both Field Maneuvers and Movement festivals this year. We ask about the challenges of playing to larger crowds — she strikes us as the sort of artist who’d prefer smaller, more intimate spaces. “I played Sonar once,” she explains, “and that was such an enormous space that was super-fun, but I only looked up once during my set because I got super freaked out. A room with 200 people? That’s the best.”
So what about her DJing horror stories? After all, the backlash against the commercialisation of underground dance music, particularly in the USA, where the influence of EDM is being more and more felt, has caused many high-profile artists to lambast the current state of the scene. “I’ve had one guy leaning over the booth, yelling at me to borrow a phone charger,” she laughs.
Now, Bouldry-Morrison is achieving the crossover appeal that for a while eluded her. We ask about her fellow label-mates on 100% Silk who were caught up in the tragic Oakland warehouse fire. Like her, they were using the DIY scene to cut through in the crowded and competitive dance music landscape — and they paid for their hustle, tragically, with their lives.
“Chelsea [Faith Dolan, aka Cherushii, who died in the fire] played with me a bunch of times, and my friend Joel was a headliner at that party,” says Bouldry-Morrison, growing sombre. “I was texting people and finding out what was going down on the night, and it was awful.”
For her, the Oakland warehouse fire is a tragic consequence of the chronic lack of affordable arts spaces across the USA. “There were a bunch of people on that bill who weren’t going to do big ticket sales at a club in the city,” she explains. “But if you have eight performers and only two have records out, and they’re all locals, where are you going to play? We need more funding for DIY spaces so that you can accommodate parties for 60 people, as opposed to needing to have 500 people show up at your party.”
Despite the tragedy, Bouldry-Morrison is upbeat about the future. “I played in Denmark a while back with DJ Sprinkles and we both did interviews afterwards with groups of kids at this music conference. And I was like, ‘Everything’s great, it’s so wonderful!’”
So what about the future of the scene? “Where the scene’s heading more generally? I don’t know if it’s the parties I’ve played lately, but I’ve seen a whole lot of people dancing.”
And with that, we bid farewell — but we expect to see much more from Octo Octa in years to come.