In the Middle with Aquamae

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Stepping up to the decks with a saxophone in hand, DJ Hannah-Mae Birtwell is an exciting presence on the Leeds music scene. We asked her about what its like as a female DJ and her plans for the future.

What inspired you to first pick up a pair of headphones and try your skills on the decks? 

Lots of different things really. Before coming to Leeds to study jazz, I’d always been interested in such a wide genre of music. My parents had a big influence on what I listened to and would often lend me their CDs and records; so I grew up listening to anything from Fleetwood Mac to Stan Getz. It was Disco music that actually got me interested in mixing myself. When I came to study at Leeds College of Music, lots of my friends who were often on the production course would set up their decks in my first year kitchen flat. I remember being so interested and excited by it, and would always watch them mixing. But, it was all so overwhelming as I knew so little about music technology then and had no idea what everything did. I also didn’t know any female DJs on the scene then either so it took me a while to actually play with the idea of starting to learn myself and get the confidence to have a go. 

You studied the Jazz Saxophone at Leeds College of Music; so how was the change onto the DJ scene at the beginning? Do you like combining the two? 

Image: Aquamae

Very different! I loved studying jazz at LCoM; it definitely gave me a great basis to start experimenting with DJing as I feel like my tempo and sense of rhythm was pretty solid even before I began mixing. I started playing the saxophone alongside DJs around Leeds in my second year of college, but it wasn’t until my third year that I actually tried DJing myself. I learnt a lot being around DJs for two years and picked up more than I thought when playing the saxophone alongside them. I love combining the two! The excitement of mixing a tune and then picking up my sax to play a solo over the top is so fun. No one really expects it to happen, especially if they haven’t heard me play before, so I especially love seeing their reactions! 

Have you found it particularly hard and intimidating or has everyone been quite welcoming? 

I’ve got a really supportive group of friends who come to my gigs (especially at the beginning) and spur me on, and I’m really lucky to have them. I’ve also met so many fellow DJs who have been really generous and shared their knowledge. For example, the ‘LCoM Rotation’ DJ society gave me my first proper public gig on a club set up, and I remember being so nervous. Even though it was just in the college bar, it was the first time I’d ever played out to people. They were so supportive and helped me set up and answered any questions I had. They would also be at hand if ever anything went wrong in my first couple of sets. I’ve always been grateful for that, as it gave me the confidence and basis to start attending open deck nights around the city myself and start connecting with a wider audience. I have had a lot of people tell me how ‘difficult’ it’s going to be to get DJ gigs and get noticed. But like it is with everything else; nothing in life is just given to you! If you have a real passion for something and a positive attitude, there’s no reason why anything should stop you!

And how did you come up with your stage name Aquamae? 

Well anyone that knows me well will know how completely obsessed I am with the colour blue – hence the aqua! It’s like my statement colour I guess. And ‘Mae’ is actually part of my first name ‘Hannah-Mae’, but most people just call me Hannah. So I thought it’d be quite nice to use that in my stage name, kind of like a little alter-ego! I also love wearing glitter and dressing in mermaid/sea influenced clothing/make-up. 

What’s it like being a female DJ in a male-heavy dominated industry? 

It has its pros and cons. Often, when I tell people I’m a working musician, their first question is mostly always, “so are you a singer?”. I didn’t really think about the whole ‘female dj’ thing until I started getting gigs. Obviously, I knew I was in a minority group, but I started mixing purely because I was so interested in it. After gigs, some people congratulate me on my sets and talk about my mixes/playing etc. without even mentioning my gender. Whereas others would do the same, but then add that little statement on the end “but I guess it helps you to get gigs being female.” Any big gigs I’ve got, I’ve had to send in mixes and provide footage of me playing at previous events, so when I hear this after someone compliments my mixing, it kind of makes everything that person has said to me previously meaningless in a way, which is a shame. No one has ever hired me or asked me to gig purely on my appearance. I think that goes to show that yes, appearance does have an influence on artists being chosen for events, but that alone can’t get them gigs. Ultimately, it’s practise, determination and drive that get you places. Also, being a nice person and always being pleasant and thankful goes a long way.

In Leeds especially, how do you feel the representation in the scene is? Do you think it’s quite diverse and equal or still quite limited and could be improved? 

Even though there’s definitely fewer female DJs about, I’d say the Leeds scene is doing a pretty ace job of changing that. ‘Equaliser’ is definitely a big part of that, they’re a group of kick ass female DJs who provide free workshops for cis women, trans women, non-binary and trans people. It was in one of their workshops that I had a try at vinyl mixing which was a really special moment for me, and I’m really thankful for the opportunity. They give workshops for all abilities and are so supportive and encouraging. 

‘Girl Gang’ are also a really cool collective of female DJs who also encourage and support the work of women and non-binary people in Leeds. I’d thoroughly recommend anyone wanting to start out to hit both of them up! They put all sorts on; learning how to mix, open deck nights, talks from inspiring women. There’s always room for improvement but the more people that know about ace collective’s like this, the quicker things will start changing. 

You’re just starting out your DJing career. How is that process going, starting off as a female DJ in Leeds? 

It’s so exciting! Leeds is such a great place to start DJing as there’s so many awesome venues about with really renowned DJs. One of my favourite nights at the moment are the ‘Natural Selection’ events at Headrow House!  They’ve already had some huge DJs playing, some of my favourites being Mall Grab and Late Nite Tuff Guy, to name a few. These guys are showcasing some BIG NAMES at the moment and are definitely worth following. So yeah, having the opportunity to go and watch these ace DJs play live is really inspiring, and combined with the limitless open deck events around the city I’d say Leeds is a great place to start up as a DJ. I’ve met so many great players at open decks and it’s always really exciting to go b2b with someone you’ve never even met before. Initially, I was a little nervous turning up to open decks alone, but eventually you get to know more and more people and see them more frequently as they’re all interested in the same events, it’s really cool! 

Have you come across any positive discrimination?

Not really. I’ve had people be surprised that I’m a female DJ, but as I said earlier, I’ve never gotten a gig based on just that and never want to! Every event or gig I’ve played at, I’ve either been recommended by someone that has heard me play before, been seen playing somewhere else or I’ve had someone like one of my mixes. No promoter has ever been like ‘oh hey, you’re a female DJ, do you want to play at my event?’ and I’m really glad that hasn’t ever happened. 

2019 has just started. Do you have any plans for the rest of the year?

So my plan for the next year is to stay in Leeds and keep on building up my gig diary. I’ve actually just started working on producing my first EP which is really exciting! After graduating, I was a little lost in what direction I wanted to take with my music. I loved jazz and playing that on sax, but I also loved DJing and EDM… then I realised there was nothing stopping me from doing both, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment and it’s so exciting! I’ve been writing quite a bit recently, and the aim is to get a live set together this year, so definitely keep your eyes and ears peeled! Aside from my Aquamae stuff, I’m in quite a few other Leeds bands with some absolutely mega musicians! I play sax in ‘Mamilah’ which is an original 8-piece soul outfit – these guys are some of the loveliest and most talented musician’s you’ll ever meet! We’ll actually be playing a gig as part of International Women’s Day. Also check out ‘TC & The Groove Family’, a HUGE band that just keeps growing. We play a fusion of highlife, afrobeat and UK electronic beats including garage, drum & bass and broken beats. The first gig is Saturday 9th March at the Wardrobe, supporting the mighty KOG & The Zongo Brigade.

You’ve recently played at Good Life at Beaver Works, but what would be your ultimate venue to DJ at in Leeds? 

Yeah, Good Life is always a fun night with awesome line-ups and I’m really lucky to be a part of that. To be honest, Beaver Works is such a vibe and the people there always put on an incredible night! When I started DJing a year ago, one of my aims was to play there… I just didn’t realise it’d happen this quickly so I’m pretty over the moon about that. The other two venues I’d absolutely love to play at are Canal Mills and Mint Warehouse! Since moving to Leeds in 2015, going to some of their events had such a big influence of my journey into EDM. It’d be mad to get a DJ slot of my own there sometime… I’m working on it! 

If you could play a set before any DJ in the world, who would it be and why?

I think my ultimate DJ warm-up slot would be for The Black Madonna! I remember being at Parklife in 2017 before I started DJing. I’d heard of her briefly but never really listen to any of her tunes or mixes and didn’t know that much about her. I just so happened to be in the tent when she came on stage and remember just being completely captivated by her! Her mixes were impeccable and she had the crowd going crazy from start to finish – plus she also looked bad ass! That was one of the first times I’d ever seen a woman DJ live too and she absolutely smashed it – it definitely planted the seed in my head to start DJing myself!

Finally, how have you seen the DJ industry progress since you first took an interest? And what are your hopes for its future? 

I really hope that more women are inspired to start DJing, and I’m definitely going to keep encouraging them especially to start doing so. The industry is definitely changing; there are so many more female DJs around than there were 50 years ago, but it still has a long way to go! 

(Main image: Aquamae/Ross Burns)