Nora En Pure: Force of nature
South African-Swiss DJ and producer Nora En Pure has managed to maintain her organic house sound, despite playing some of the biggest commercial venues in the world. DJ Mag catches her between gigs to find out how she's done it, and why the great outdoors is her biggest inspiration
Daniela Di Lillo is an accidental trailblazer. She is someone who has managed to rise to the top but still play her own brand of cultured house music to large and more commercial crowds. Often booked at places associated with maximal EDM DJs or hyperactive new school names, she brings class and cool to the party and never fails to win people over with her organic blends, melodic grooves and tropical sounds. Who else has held a residency at fancy Las Vegas spot Wynn for the last three years, but will also play Tobacco Dock in London or Coda in Toronto?
“I’m not 100 percent sure if I fit in,” she says on a flight from Vegas to Montréal, where she’ll get a connecting flight home to Zürich. “I know not everyone will understand or like my music at these places, but I always try to stay true to myself. When I play music that I don’t really love, it’s not authentic, it doesn’t translate. I’m quite proud that I managed to keep my style and grow as much as I did.”
Sticking to her guns in this way over the course of the last 10 years has quietly made Nora En Pure one of house music’s most internationally visible and in-demand stars. Along the way, she has clocked up a number of Beatport hits that stayed in the charts for up to nine months, has played three-hour sets at Tomorrowland, and remixed Faithless and Dirty Vegas. When asked about her ascension over the last few years, she admits there are only occasional moments when she actually stops and contemplates where she stands. “It’s split seconds, maybe during sets or when people describe what my music means to them.” She pauses, then comes again. “Yeah, actually, it’s freaking mind-blowing!”
What makes her story even more remarkable is its unlikely beginning. She was born to a South African mother and a Swiss father in Johannesburg in summer 1990. While still an infant, her family moved her to a tranquil village in Switzerland. She spent plenty of time playing outside with older brothers, enjoying the natural beauty and clean mountain air of her surrounds. Dance music was not on her radar. In fact, she thought it was “pretty boring and repetitive, I really didn’t understand it at first,” and instead listened to rock, metal, and classical.
She was a quiet, introverted child who didn’t immediately open up, and had a small group of close friends. She grew up with “strong rules and principles, which I’m very grateful for” but even at a young age was mindful that Switzerland was quite different from South Africa. “It is an extremely well kept, organized and super-safe country,” she says, “but also the mindset is never as free spirited as in South Africa. There is no better place for me than the African bush, being surrounded by animal sounds, away from normal civilization.”
That means that frequent family holidays back to South Africa were always a huge highlight of her childhood. “The African nature and wildlife have always played a big role in my life,” she says from a window seat, tens of thousands of feet in the air. She always asks for one, so she can watch the world go by as she flies back and forth across it each and every weekend. “Nature and wildlife are still my absolute passion. Among them is where I feel most at home.”
Di Lillo says she feels as much a South African as she does Swiss, and reckons traits from both countries and cultures define her as a person, as well as her music. “When I am playing, I’m always very composed and I like to be in control of things, as well as having things go perfectly.” After recognizing all those traits are “quite Swiss,” she explains that the natural beauty of South Africa is super inspiring. Tracks of hers like ‘Saltwalter’ and ‘Zambia’ have sampled sounds of nature, which remind her of home, but also make them perfect for the open-air parties she likes playing, which in turn reminds her of a childhood spent outdoors.
“I don’t find much inspiration in the cities,” she says. “Cities are too busy and noisy for me, and often represent stress, competition, and hectic lives. Nature is tranquil, and I guess you can feel all those chilled-out vibes in my music. It is just what I connect with. At times I try to soundtrack a place I have seen, and try to take the listener away from daily stress. It is about escaping, but not in a super-emotional way, more that I feel our lives nowadays are too full of meaningless and unnecessary stress that we get caught up in. If my music can break you out of that for those few minutes and remind you of more important things in life, I’m more than happy.”
She breaks out of her own stress by heading out with a camera to work on her photography, diving in the ocean or discovering new places, but says she “rarely finds time for these things.” On a more daily basis she gets outdoors with her dog as much as possible, and indulges in simple things like “good food and Netflix.”
“My ideal day off in Switzerland would be to take my dog on a hike in the mountains during summer. She never gets tired and up there is a lot to discover, she can roam around quite freely, and I can have some fun with my camera as well. In South Africa it would be to just spend a day in the Kruger Park or somewhere else in the bush, feel the calmness and hear the animal sounds around me.”
Although Daniela makes a conscious choice not to engage with news and politics, she wonders if she should be better informed. “I prefer to occupy my mind with more cheerful or lighter things, and I have to admit, I’m quite deep in my own world of music and touring.”
Her breakthrough came back in 2013 with ‘Come With Me.’ By then she had got into dance music thanks to her older siblings’ collections and by traveling to clubs in Zürich, and meeting friends that had their own studios.
“I was blown away by how creative one can be,” she says. “Club music began to grow on me and I couldn’t resist that great energy that electronic music brings. With that background, I always wanted to combine organic instruments and sounds with club music.” That approach has resulted in a discography that includes thoughtful house music that works as well outside the club as it does on the dancefloor.
“When you release a track to the public,” she reckons, “it’s a bit like publishing a book or a painting: Something that tells a story or evokes feelings in someone else that you have never met, and might even live on another continent. In 100 years it will still be there when you are gone, and might still touch someone, so there will always be a bit of you on this planet. I know it’s a bit weird, but I love that thought.”
Di Lillo’s earliest musical experiments were “just for fun,” because she was completing a degree in Criminal Psychology. Once her studies were over, however, she allowed herself to get deep into music making. It soon paid off, the bookings began flying in, and she became part of a group of Swiss-based artists called Helvectic Nerds that built up a couple of labels together for different genres. It led to her heading out on a North American bus tour, but these days she goes it alone with her own brand, Purified. Its name comes from Di Lillo’s love of nature, and was initially a party series, then a radio show, and now a label.
The imprint has been two years in the making, with lots of meetings fitted around a busy touring and studio schedule. Until now most of her music has come on Enormous Tunes, and it will continue to do so — but increasingly, her deep, melodic style is at odds with that label’s MO. In future, she will make more “funky” tunes for Enormous, and keep her headier fare for herself. “I want to feature emotional or melodic music that still has a lot of energy or groove,” she explains.
“It shall be a platform for music and producers I want to support, because people often tell me with astonishment how I feature quite unknown but amazing music in the radio show, which surprises me. Is that not what we are supposed to do if we have such a platform?”
In future, there will also be label showcases featuring the acts that release on the label. “Like all my projects I tend to get a little obsessed with them, and want to make sure they are as good as possible," says Di Lillo, who has final say on all the details for her events, from the venues to the production.
“We always try to make it a nice setting with a stylish and beautiful stage, and mainly set our focus on the music and lights. No flashy visuals, it’s all about a natural vibe.”
Purified parties are also a chance for her to dig into deep and melodic grooves in the face of more and more headline shows that require her to go a little bigger, such as Ultra, Tomorrowland, and Coachella, where she played this summer. “In the end I try to stick to my style, as I strongly believe we need variety these days, and a lot of DJs tend to play the same crowd-pleasing stuff.”
Next year she plans to focus on the label and taking some extended breaks from touring. “I tend to get quite negative when I haven’t slept much and when on my own,” she says. “I’m also sick way more often than I used to be before touring. I can’t deal well with air-conditioned spaces. I have always thought it’s exaggerated to use sanitizers the whole time, and breathing masks on planes, but I’m changing my mind and might possibly become the biggest germaphobe ever!”
If that keeps her on the road, and busy in the studio, we’re all for it.