Maya Jane Coles emerges from the gloom of her hotel lobby like a tiny beacon. She instinctively reaches her slim arms out for a hello hug. Her pixie-cut bleached hair, which has hints of pink, is Coles's main noticeable physical characteristic.
But that is only at first glance. Once she is settled at a table, much like a butterfly landing, there is so much more to notice. The only make-up she is wearing is a smidgeon of eyeliner, which makes her look like a teenager. Her small ears have appropriately-sized black stretchers in them, she has a hoop-and-ball septum ring and many tattoos.
Her cape-like wrap is covered with a pattern that while repeating, keeps changing at the same time. Underneath, she is wearing shorts of amazing shimmery material that she purchased in Japan — the birthplace of her mother and a place she returns to often.
Her hometown, and where she currently resides, is London. But at 27, Coles seems globally omnipresent. Considering she conducts minimal press, this is an admirable feat. And she has a lot to talk about, the most recent being a self-titled full-length album under the moniker Nocturnal Sunshine, a banner she reserves for darker, more bass-driven original productions.
Nocturnal Sunshine is a name Coles went under early on in her career, but shelved it when she decided to release material under her own name. After a couple of releases in 2010, Coles resurrected Nocturnal Sunshine every so often for a remix, so an entire album isn’t springing entirely from nowhere. Like Coles’ 2013 house album, ‘Comfort’, ‘Nocturnal Sunshine’ is also released on her own I/AM/ME label.
As she describes the label and her music, Coles speaks with her very expressive hands as much as with her tongue. And when the recording of her words begins, she shrinks back nervously, saying, “This is where I get awkward,” which is quite endearing.
But there is nothing awkward about Coles’s original productions, her remixes, her mixed compilations (‘DJ Kicks’, ‘Fabric 75’), or her DJing. She just headlined a sold-out night at The Exchange in Downtown Los Angeles a couple of evenings ago. Two weeks before that, she was at the top of the bill for Insomniac’s Beyond Wonderland. She has so many gigs in the US over the next couple of months, she has temporarily set up camp in New York City until this run of dates is over.
“It’s a completely different thing to what I do,” says Coles of the EDM scene Stateside. “But it’s interesting to be put in the middle of it all. It’s good for artists like myself to be embraced by EDM fans because when these kids start raving, all they know is what’s pushed in their faces, and the commercial EDM stuff is the first thing they hear. You need to step in through some kind of platform because those kids eventually branch out and pick up slightly more leftfield music, and we’re right there.”
What you will hear a lot in Coles’s sets are her own tracks. She is known for making every aspect of her music herself, from songwriting to production to engineering to—in some cases—singing. There are only a few vocal numbers on ‘Nocturnal Sunshine’.
One of them, ‘Believe’, sung by Chelou; one, ‘The River’, by Catnapp; the other, ‘It’s Alright’, by Coles. Both Chelou and Catnapp are working on full-length albums of their own alongside Coles as producer and songwriter.
Coles will be the first to tell you she doesn’t classify herself as a singer, although she sounds good on ‘It’s Alright’. What she is known for doing instead of sampling hooks is writing them herself, recording them, then sampling her own voice.
But if it came to a full song, she has someone else sing it. This sampling technique is also what she uses on traditional instruments. Searching for an organic sound that will resonate with human ears, she then samples and manipulates that in Logic, resulting in a much more pleasing—yet still hard hitting—effect.
“When I got into it, I assumed that everyone did all their own music so that’s what I did,” says Coles. “I found out down the line that people have engineers and others stepping in and helping out. The thing is, even if somebody has said, ‘Why don’t you get someone in to help?'
I wouldn’t know who to get onboard or who to trust as a second pair of ears. I’m so particular with the way I work. By not having anyone involved from the very beginning, I know all my mistakes and improve from them. If I had someone involved, I wouldn’t know where I went wrong or where someone else did. I’ve learned so much more than I would have if I’d relied on another person.”
Coles is not one to churn out a never-ending train of dancefloor singles. She sees herself as an album artist, and for the first release on I/AM/ME that is not her own music, it is an album from a duo called Gaps. Coles has worked on an EP with Gaps and they are featured on her upcoming Maya Jane Coles album.
I/AM/ME was not originally set up with the intention of developing artists, only as a vehicle for Coles’s own work, and as a way for her to be her own boss. There have been major record label deals on the table, which she almost took, but being her own boss overrode any offer.
Having control over all aspects of her product includes the artwork, which Coles does herself. Drawing from when she could hold a pen, she was encouraged by her parents to pursue whatever she wanted with the sentiment, “If that’s what you want to do, make it happen”.
Her father, a graphic designer (also the head of the independent Malicious Damage record label), created the artwork for Killing Joke and The Orb. Dark and weird, Coles sees some of his influence in her own illustrations. She starts with a pen and paper sketch that she then digitizes and polishes up. She is quick to point out the artwork is not necessarily a reflection of the music it is adorning.
“When I make music, I don’t really see visuals. With sound, I see colours and textures,” she explains. “I do a lot of my artwork when I’m traveling in hotel rooms or on a plane. I have certain visuals in my head but it’s not like I sit there and listen to the track and do artwork specifically to go with a certain track. Some things don’t match at all. Other things could work.”
When she’s not illustrating in her hotel room, you’ll find Coles watching episodes of Portlandia over and over again, all of which she knows by heart. She’ll break those up with some Bob’s Burgers or Family Guy or a dark British comedy like Nighty Night.
You’ll also find her dragging a massive piece of luggage around with at least 10 outfits for a three-day DJ stretch. “You never know what you’re going to feel like wearing,” she says matter-of-factly.
In her free time — which she makes for herself so as not to go crazy — she spends “normal chill time” with her partner, her friends, her family trying to only be away for gigs for three days at a time as she says, “I love my London life so much I don’t like leaving it for too long”.
She does venture out for non-DJ-related trips on occasion. Antigua for a friend’s wedding, Iceland for an actual holiday, and Japan as regularly as she can to visit her grandmother in Osaka.
She spent a lot of time there growing up, and Japan has a creative influence on her. Fashion, food, and when she was younger, games and cartoons left a mark on her, more so as she speaks Japanese fluently and is able to delve into the culture.
There is quite a bit of culture in her immediate vicinity in East London, near Shoreditch. Coles collects art from the pop-up galleries and small exhibitions in the neighborhood, as well as from her travels, with the overriding theme being “weird stuff”.
“It’s inspiring,” she says of the area. “Even though I work on music all the time, I have those days where I can’t get anything out. Can’t draw, can’t write. I’ll walk outside and come back and have loads of inspiration.”
Coles’ 2010 club hit ‘What They Say’ inspired Nicki Minaj, who sampled it on her Drake and Lil Wayne-featured 2014 smash, ‘Truffle Butter’, with Coles’s blessing. But it started an avalanche of self-righteous opinions from self-appointed pundits on social media. Coles put a stop to the chatter via her Facebook page with a post containing her eloquent yet concise thoughts on the matter.
“People were acting like I’d gone and sold my soul,” says Coles. “They were so passionately hateful about the fact that I’d let them sample the track. Who in their right mind would not allow that? Now that it has been milked in the pop world, they see that as a bad thing.
They were saying I had ‘ruined a classic house track’. For me, it’s a really good thing because it’s massive exposure. That kind of dance music very rarely gets linked in with the pop or hip-hop world. So many people have heard that track and taken the route into discovering what the original track was.
I didn’t start making music as a house producer or a dance music producer. I grew up with ‘90s hip-hop and R&B and that was the first type of music I was making. I love a lot of different styles so when two worlds collide like that, it’s cool for me.”
Other people’s views—particularly if they are negative—shrug off Coles’ shoulders much like her wrap is doing right now as she gets up from the table to meet a waiting car. If she were going to worry about the chatter in the universe, she would have never gone past go.
“Nocturnalness,” Coles says shyly when asked, in parting, about the significance of the owl tattoos on her chest. These come from a drawing she did years ago that she had a favored tattoo artist redesign. When asked why there are two, she ducks her head exhibiting further shyness when she responds—with a little giggle, “They’re watching out for each other. They’re my protection”.
words: LILY MOAYERI