'Some of the best DJs in the country right now are female’

Ahead of the Townlands Carnival ELLIE O'BYRNE talks to promoter, DJ and blogger Siobhán Brosnan and DJ Aoife O'Neill
'Some of the best DJs in the country right now are female’
DJ Aoife O'Neill

FOR the last couple of years, as Irish festival line-ups have been announced, you may have seen infographics appearing with titles like ‘This is what this year’s Irish festival line-ups would look like without men’.

The results are often stark; the stripped-back line-ups display just how few bands with female core members are doing the rounds on the Irish festival scene; just 33% of Electric Picnic acts this year have female core members, while Forbidden Fruit featured just four female-centred acts.

Electronic music doesn’t have a reputation for faring much better. With notable exceptions on the Irish scene like Kelly-Ann Byrne, Sally Cinnamon, Joni Kelly and Cork-based rising star Ellen King, AKA Elll, the landscape for Irish dance DJs and producers has largely been a sea of male names.

But a host of up and coming young women are challenging the norm and there’s no better place to go to see some top emerging female dance acts than Cork’s growing music and arts festival Townlands Carnival, which is held at Leades Farm outside Macroom annually.

This year, promoter, DJ and music blogger Siobhán Brosnan has been helping out with booking the Subatomic stage, the area at Townlands Carnival for lovers of electronica. With a line-up including a take-over by the all-female Irish movement GASH Collective and experimental UK DJ and record label owner Kirsti, Townlands is helping put Cork on the map for Irish female DJs.

Siobhán says the lack of female names on line-ups isn’t because of an absence of talented women.

“They are 100% out there,” she says. ““I know girls who collect records and practice at home who don’t go looking for gigs, and I know bedroom producers who are showing me their music and I’m like, ‘Do something with this, please!’”

But getting ahead in a male-dominated business can feel intimidating; GASH Collective, headed up by some formidable Irish grande dames of dance, arranges free workshops in conjunction with Smirnoff, under the title of ‘Move the needle’, where budding female left-field DJs and producers can work on their skills in a supportive environment.

Siobhán, who as well as hosting an online radio show with London station Future Music, writing for Irish electronic music blog Skirmish and DJing with Cork’s Cuttin’ Heads Collective, books and arrange gigs for hip hop and electronic acts, has taken part in GASH Collective workshops.

“It’s not that there haven’t been women making electronic music, but when it seems like a bit of a boy’s club it can be a bit daunting to get stuck in, or to ask questions,” she says. “So GASH Collective are doing really great work.”

A budding producer herself, 28-year-old Siobhán has just finished one track of what she hopes will become an EP, but is kept very busy with her freelance work as a promoter, booker and DJ; she also has ambitious plans to launch a one-stop-shop for music promotion, management and PR.

From one-off events to festivals is a big leap in terms of booking and organising gigs, Siobhán says, but the reward is in seeing the event come together and the crowds enjoying themselves.

For DJ Aoife O’Neill, originally from Tralee but now based in Cork, growing up with seven brothers was good practice for the male-dominated world of Irish DJing. Following two sets at Body and Soul festival, the classically-trained musician turned DJ will be bringing her eclectic blend of afro, soul, acid and techno to the Goat Shed stage at Townlands Carnival, a curious corner of the woods where art installations meet dance music and pop-up performances.

“It sounds really cool, and I can’t wait,” she says. Aoife thinks GASH Collective is doing important work and that the number of female DJs is definitely on the rise.

“There are some really talented girls involved in GASH and it’s great to see them supporting females and giving them the opportunity to get involved in the music industry,” she says.

“In my opinion, some of the best DJs in the country are female right now. Girls like Cáit and Cailín are absolutely killing the game and it won’t be long before they take over.”

Aoife landed on her feet as a DJ almost by chance when the manager of the bar where she was working in Tralee heard she was practising on the decks at home and offered to let her play as a DJ instead of work behind the bar.

She may not initially have felt the barriers faced by many female DJs, but she hasn’t been immune to a culture that can be quick to judge female performers.

“When I moved to Cork and started getting gigs, there were a lot of male DJs, but if anything I think being a female was an advantage and it made me stand out a bit more,” she says. “But I think that some people thought the fact that I was a girl was the reason I was getting gigs; I’d hear little comments.”

Aoife has reservations about appearing on all-female line-ups, and believes over-emphasising the gender of the acts can sometimes be counter-productive: “For me and many people that I know, the gender of the DJ has absolutely nothing to do with their gigs; you should be booked purely on your talent, and nothing else.

“Sometimes I’ve felt really uneasy when clubs or festivals have booked me and then told me I’m playing as part of an all-female line-up; sometimes I think it makes it worse; I know they mean well, but it draws attention to gender instead of allowing all DJs to be seen as the same and judged on talent.”

Aoife still holds down a Monday to Friday job, while gigging an average of three nights a week. But the 29-year-old has plenty of ambitions for the future: “Every evening when I come back from work I’m on my laptop finding new music, or on the decks practising, or I have a couple of mixes I need to record for people and a good few gigs coming up. It’s very time-consuming, but it doesn’t feel like work because I love it and it’s my life.

“I want to get into producing... I think if you’re going to be a DJ nowadays you need to be producing your own stuff as well. And ideally, I’d like to be able to give up work and DJ full time, and travel the world with it.”

Townlands Carnival takes place from July 21-23. For tickets and a full line-up see www.townlandscarnival.com

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