Recognise: Ariel Zetina
Ariel Zetina’s DJ sets and productions have earned her a residency at Chicago's legendary Smart Bar, and seen her release EPs on labels like itsfemmeculture and Majia. Alongside her electrifying Recognise mix, she chats to Sophie McNulty about her theatre background, the importance of storytelling, and how her gender transition inspired her to pursue music
Pacing around her apartment in Chicago, Ariel Zetina’s direct, open energy is tangible as we speak over Skype: “I feel like Ariel Zetina is a process, who knows? I feel like I’m changing everyday,” she tells us, continuing to tinker. Mugs clink, the kettle ticks off boil. Ariel has always been creating — or as she puts it, “in verb mode”. This constant motion flows into her music, which dynamically jostles between snappy techno and punta-style percussion, with lush, squiggly textures and sassy melodies. “I’m happiest when I’m fully investing myself in what I’m doing,” she says.
Ariel grew up in Florida surrounded by music. Her mother is from the Central American country of Belize, and Ariel spent almost every summer there as a child. Many of her early musical experiences were with Belizean and Carribean sounds such as punta and soca, and the high tempos, dazzling synth work, and layered walls of percussion in her own music pay tribute to these memories; in 2019’s ‘Organism’ EP on Majia, the oceanic themes draw parallels between Belize and coastal Florida.
Coming of age to the soundtrack of VH1 and MTV, Ariel reminisces about the early ’00s intersections of R&B, pop, and rap. “I feel thankful that I heard Timbaland and Darkchild’s beats the first time round!” she beams. She loved video game soundtracks, like the drum & bass backdrop of snowboarding game SSX Tricky, and her aunt’s late ’90s-to-early ’00s trance collection. “I was obsessed,” she says, grinning. “I would burn CDs all the time, making all the artwork for them.” And although friends would compliment her on her music discoveries, music wasn’t her main focus at first.
Starting with theatre aged 10, Ariel immersed herself in new characters and worlds on stage, writing her own poetry and plays for the better part of a decade. (She’s still engaged with writing today.) At 18, she moved to Chicago and she studied theatre at college. The city’s club scene might have seemed like an obvious draw, but she lived in Chicago for three years before she went to a club.
The electronics of mid-’00s indie music gave her a way into clubbing, particularly through bands like Bloc Party and Goldfrapp. When she found UK styles of club music, she was hooked. “Discovering Night Slugs was so important to me. I was getting into club music that still felt theatrical — I just never really had a grasp on it because I wasn’t going out and hearing DJs playing tracks together,” she explains. “Being as artsy-fartsy, avant-garde as possible was my goal for a long time.”
Feeling restricted by traditional theatre roles and methods, she wanted to incorporate her electronic music discoveries into her performances. “I was directing a lot of plays and I always got critique that things were too overpowering, that the music couldn’t be the main event.” Avant-garde theatre and performance art introduced Ariel to new ways of using music in performance. In sourcing music for her shows, she explored it in a way that was devoid of genre. “At one point I felt like ‘fuck the narrative’; I wanted to do stuff that could take you on a journey, but one you didn’t completely understand.” Eventually, her performance group began picking up bookings in clubs. The music was well suited to the dancefloor; music production wasn’t something she’d even considered.
With theatre and performance being so important in her life, it’s no surprise that Ariel’s music is built around storytelling. “I always need something really concrete to connect with, in order to work in the abstract,” she says of her process. 2020’s EP, ‘MUAs At The End Of The World’, released through Femme Culture, formed a powerful exploration of Ariel’s relationship with make-up as a trans woman.
Much of Ariel’s work focuses on creating visibility for herself and her peers in the LGBTQIA+, Black, and POC community. Pre-COVID, line-ups for her Diamond Formation party at Chicago club Smartbar saw Midwestern US artists like Mistervacation, ASL Princess, and Miss Twink USA hosted with international artists. Ariel’s Party, which she describes as “a three-hour, whistle-stop high school dance at The Hideout Inn”, is similarly framed, and her collaborative project RUMORS brings together DJs and producers with rappers, vocalists, drag queens, and other performers.
Ariel feels that her transition helped her break new ground in her creative work. “I always talk about my transition as being not just a gender transition for me. Transitioning allowed me to be like, ‘Oh, I want to make music. I want to DJ’,” she explains. “I began to see how different art forms related to each other and felt able to embrace all sorts of processes, so making my own music came at a necessary point for me. Writing is very personal, and that point in my life became too much to write about. With music, I was able to express what I needed to without using words. DJing gave me a place to be in this spiralling world, and I really appreciate that.”
Within society’s narrow beauty standards of how women should look and behave, the expectation of trans women to “present” or “pass” as “cis” is keenly felt. On her ‘MUAs At The End Of The World’ EP, Ariel zooms in on make-up as a point of survival and armour for this reason. “The EP was inspired by being able to get through spaces, but also how make-up helps me to see myself clearly,” she says, dipping into her relationship with what it means to be, or be read as, “femme”. “The more I did it — make-up — the more I realised that when I took off my face I was the same person... I feel as femme when I’m in no make-up, a hoodie and sweatpants. Sometimes that’s when I’m feeling the most femme.” Throughout her journey with make-up, Ariel points to friendships with drag queens as an important entry-point.
“A lot of the things I know about make-up are from learning tricks through them, then adapting it so it’s softer.” YouTube tutorials provided a safe space for her to learn about make-up on her own terms, but also how they introduced her to a whole new world of sound. This world drew a lot of parallels to the video games she loved as a kid, laced with cartoon-esque sound effects: samples of these pop up in her recent EP, and she credits transgender vloggers such as NikkieTutorials and Antonio Garza as inspirations; her friend Daphne a.k.a. Imp Kid did the make-up for the EP’s cover art. “There’s this video of Daphne that features a cartoon punch noise, which was the inspiration for the whole EP.”
At the start of the year, Ariel released her latest mixtape, for the Local Action label’s Mixtape Club series, and she feels like she’s entering a new creative phase. “I’ve been lucky that I have this strong inner voice saying ‘do whatever you want’... I want to take time with whatever I release next,” she says. “I want to do an album but I want to give it time. It’s all preparing underground at the moment.”
Ariel Zetina’s Recognise mix is an electrifying ode to the club, recorded in her new home, where she’s been busy building her studio. Alongside tracks from the likes of Cristina, Cassius Select, INVT & Nick León, DJ Girl, Chippy Nonstop & dj genderfluid, and herself, there’s a section dedicated to the late Ballroom icon Vjuan Allure, one of Ariel’s production idols. Check it out below.