At the 2021 edition of DJ Mag’s Best of British awards, the public voted Or:la the UK’s Best DJ from a shortlist of DJ Mag nominees. She now joins the ranks of other Best DJ winners, named alongside heavy hitters like Andy C, SHERELLE, Eats Everything and DJ EZ. Considering that Or:la won the Breakthrough DJ category at Best of British just five years ago, it’s a testament to just how brightly her star is shining right now.
Or:la is thoughtful and particular. She speaks in a gentle Derry lilt, her steady gaze peering out from a shock of curly brown hair. Dooley has recently relocated to London, which she’s enjoying — if it wasn’t for the mysterious banging noise coming from the flat below, which has been disturbing her sleep. Somewhat unnervingly, during our conversation over tea and biscuits, we’re informed by the landlady that the flat has been vacant for quite some time, leaving Or:la looking horror-struck.
Perhaps fittingly for someone attuned to the spiritual, Or:la grew up in Inch, a tiny island on the Irish border in County Donegal, on a wild, cinematic stretch of coastline known as the Wild Atlantic Way. Unsurprisingly for an island with a population of fewer than 500 people, she grew up surrounded by “wild birds, grassland, marshes and lakes”, and her closest neighbours were a wildfowl sanctuary. Dooley credits her remote upbringing with activating her imagination at a young age.
“It really allowed me to be creative,” she says. “I guess boredom is important in that sense? I feel sorry for today’s teenagers who can’t reach that place of utter boredom, because they’re constantly being entertained by TikTok, or whatever — because a lot of creativity can come from that place.”
Starved of entertainment, she and her siblings turned to music to keep themselves occupied. Their first creations were heavily influenced by “country and western vibes” — an enduringly popular genre in rural Ireland — but her first musical love came in the form of the 1999 UK garage hit ‘Sweet Like Chocolate’, by short-lived musical duo Shanks & Bigfoot. She recalls hearing it on the radio and riding her bike round and round her yard in excitement.
“I remember thinking that it sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before,” Dooley says. “After that, I forgot about that song for a long time, and then the whole garage revival thing came back; it made me realise that I can really join the dots between that song and the type of music and sounds I enjoy at the moment. Like, it’s always been there.”
Age 13, Dooley moved from the idyllic Inch back to the more urban Derry, to attend school. In Northern Ireland, schooling is still largely segregated along religious and cultural lines, with 93% of Northern Irish children attending faith-based schools. Moving to an area with more schools which align with your family background is a pretty common experience.
Dooley attended a Catholic convent school, which she loathed. As a young, then-closeted queer woman, she was frustrated by the Church’s outspoken antagonism of the LGBTQ+ community, and as someone from a non-religious family, her school’s religious bent left her feeling isolated. Coming into school on Monday mornings, she was drilled by her teachers on the contents of the sermon from the Sunday Mass; her friends would whisper the answers to her.
In later years, as Or:la, she would channel that rebellious spirit into programming her own queer-friendly club nights, an endeavour she describes, poignantly, as “an antidote to the shame and programming I developed while in the closet, and a way to release the power of that shame.”