Remember when you volunteered to individually handwrite thank-you letters to everyone who gave you a birthday present one year, only to instantly regret your decision when you realised just how much work it entailed? B.Traits feels a bit like that today.
Our lunchtime interview is a break from her task of hand-stamping purple smiley faces onto limited purple vinyl editions of her new single (on-brand with her trademark purple hair). She’s 50 down with 100 to go. Four hours after we finish, she Instagrams a picture of her still slogging away, surrounded by records on an appropriately purple floor.
But this inky conveyor belt is part and parcel of what’s making 2016 the most exciting year of the DJ and producer’s career to date. She’s fresh off her third Amsterdam Dance Event, the annual Dutch festival, and B.Traits – born Brianna Price in Nelson, British Columbia – is positively glowing. “It was the best yet,” she affirms. “It was extremely productive, I wasn’t just partying.” Her new single, “Still Point”/”North Shore”, which dropped last month, is her first release since 2012, and the sleek, evocative melodies of the double A-side are illustrative of how much her sound has evolved. The rising chords of “North Shore” were written following a sunrise set in Ibiza this May, but B.Traits went even further back to her childhood home for inspiration: “Nelson is the most beautiful place, it’s the perfect picture. Two beautiful mountains and this lake; the north shore is one side of it, past this big orange bridge, and that’s where I grew up.”
I was always kind of socially awkward – at house parties I would prefer being in charge of the music so I didn’t have to interact with people
Even more importantly, it’s the debut release on her own new label, In Toto. “It’s an outlet for me to express myself 100% creatively as an artist, as a DJ, as a curator, as a producer, and I don’t have to write music that sounds any certain way or is any certain style,” she explains. “It’s the best feeling in the entire world. I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner.”
The explanation for that turns out to be the speed with which B.Traits’ career took off four years ago. It took just one song: the anthemic “Fever”, which captured the spirit of several generations of UK rave culture in one huge tune – drum’n’bass, pop-house, even a vocalist, Elisabeth Troy, best known for her work on UK garage classics such as MJ Cole’s “Crazy Love”. It cracked the top 40 as well as dominating 2012’s dancefloors; and, two years after upending her life in British Columbia, Canada to move to London and start over from scratch, B.Traits found herself courted by big beasts from Polydor to Radio 1.
That’s not what I wanted to do! – I wanted to be a DJ, I wanted to be a producer, I wanted to play underground music. No one knew how eclectic I actually am, and I felt like I wasn’t being fully creative by writing the same kind of stuff
The former wanted her to cash in on “Fever” by replicating it, with her then management seeing this as a route to big bucks as a pop producer. The problem? “That’s not what I wanted to do!” she exclaims. “I wanted to be a DJ, I wanted to be a producer, I wanted to play underground music.” B.Traits had written “Fever” within the first few months of arriving in London; it had less been a reflection of her sound and more a homage to the British dance music that she’d fallen in love with as a kid. “No one knew how eclectic I actually am, and I felt like I wasn’t being fully creative by writing the same kind of stuff.” Still under contract, B.Traits simply sent Polydor “music that sounded nothing like ‘Fever’” until they realised they hadn’t signed a big pop artist after all.
Meanwhile, she had ended up on something of a fast track at Radio 1: an initial invitation to host the pilot of the In New DJs We Trust show turned into hosting it every month despite her lack of broadcast experience. (Laughing, she remembers that her biggest challenge was “speaking… fluidly…over… the top of music”.) Within half a year, another weekly show had been added; in 2013, she provided maternity cover for Annie Mac’s big Friday and Sunday evening shows; and since 2014, her own weekly show has found a home on Friday nights – prime dancing time and the ideal venue for B.Traits to indulge her eclectic tastes, with recent playlists ranging from Bristolian Shanti Celeste’s warm analogue vibes to Helena Hauff’s pounding industrial techno. As a result of these opportunities – and the steep learning curve involved – her own production was forced to take a back seat; only this year, with a like-minded production team and enough experience of her own, has she had the time to refocus on music-making.
When B.Traits described the childhood that moulded her wide-ranging tastes, it’s startling to remember a world where the entire history of recorded music wasn’t a click or two away; where discovering new music involved actual commitment. Growing up in Nelson, a town full of “hicks and hippies” with only one record shop in an era when Canadian radio only played alternative rock, it was a late-night music show on MuchMusic – Canada’s MTV equivalent – that first turned B.Traits on to acts such as The Prodigy, Goldie and LTJ Bukem. “That was my gateway,” she remembers. “I was like, this is insane, this is awesome. I kept looking for more and more of it.” Her hunger took her to the nascent internet, where enterprising fans would make a quick buck flogging bootleg cassettes of Radio 1 Essential Mixes (“I’d be this 14-year-old in a lot of compromising chatrooms going, ‘Can you send me this Essential Mix tape?’”), via a default stint as her high school’s resident DJ (“I was always kind of socially awkward, and at house parties I would much prefer being in charge of the music so I didn’t have to interact with people – I’m still incredibly socially awkward, but it’s more acceptable as an adult”) and thence to Vancouver, where she “completely coincidentally” got a job directly opposite the city’s best record shop and swiftly immersed herself in the local club scene.
I’ll never forget the time [Shy FX] asked me if I was making music. I’d been making loop-heavy tracks in Reason and FruityLoops, and he forced me to play him them – it was the most embarrassing thing ever
The B.Traits story could have ended there: by her early 20s, she had a long-term boyfriend, a dog, a house, a day job and regular DJ gigs. “I’d been seeing my boyfriend for six years,” she says. “I knew he thought I was his soulmate and we were probably going to get married, settle down, move to the country and have kids. I was very comfortable.” But she was also frustrated: she wasn’t sure whether that lifestyle was what she wanted, her music-making was going nowhere with no mentors to ask for advice, and at the back of her mind the dream she’d had of making it to London still hadn’t died.
And doors were opening: running a night in ski resort Whistler, B.Traits caught the ear of English tourists who couldn’t believe a Canadian girl was playing their favourite drum’n’bass tunes; and a supporting slot on Leicester drum’n’bass DJ SS’s North American tour brought her together with the legendary Shy FX. “I’ll never forget the time when he asked me if I was making music,” she recalls. “I’d been making loop-heavy tracks in Reason and FruityLoops, and he forced me to play him them – it was the most embarrassing thing ever.” B.Traits’ early work couldn’t have been that bad, though: Shy FX offered to help her find her feet should she ever move to London, and that’s exactly how it panned out when she became the first woman to join his Digital Soundboy roster.
Abandoning her comfortable life and future wasn’t as dramatic as it could have been. B.Traits moved to London for a month, to see if she could handle it; it turned into six months. “I found I was on this mission to go out every single night – not just to party, but to go to different venues and hear music I’d never heard before. And it was similar to the feeling I’d had as a kid when I discovered dance music. It felt right to me, it was exciting, it was inspiring.” This didn’t leave much room for a relationship. “About three months in I discovered that I wasn’t even calling my boyfriend on a weekly basis, let alone talking every day. It sounds so weird and robotic, but there was just no room in my brain or emotional capacity – I couldn’t even allow myself to be upset that we were growing apart, I put my feelings on hold because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.” The split, when it eventually happened, was simple and natural. “We’re still friends, we chat a few times a year. He’s married and has a kid now.”
It’s been six years since London reawakened the joy at discovering music that B.Traits felt as a teenager, and much has changed since – not all of it positive. B.Traits has been a leading figure in the #SaveFabric campaign, and she sighs when she talks about the capital’s current clubbing landscape: “Clubbing in London has halved in the last few years and that’s so scary.
It’s really disappointing because London is such a hub for culture – there are so many different cultural institutions, and it drives me nuts that Fabric is not recognised as such. When I was 12 and heard about it, I was like, that’s the best club in the world. But now, no one up high is protecting it.”
Even more dangerous is the overall effect on London’s reputation and cultural climate. “We’re risking becoming a very grey, boring city,” asserts B.Traits: in other words, exactly the kind of environment from which she escaped to London. “There was so much happening here,” she says of her arrival. “So many artists living in Shoreditch, so many parties in small venues you’d never heard of. It’s so hard to find something like that now – everyone’s been pushed further and further out. I don’t think it’ll ever be gone completely, but we will lose young, creative people’s desire to come here and strive.”
Young people are dying because they don’t understand how to take drugs – If Fabric bring drug testing in, they’re admitting to the cops that drugs are being used on the premises – and they get shut down. It’s incredibly frustrating
In the meantime, a cause B.Traits is keen to push is to have a more open conversation about drugs in club culture – an issue brought to the forefront by the deaths of two young clubbers in Fabric that ostensibly triggered its closure. Having already investigated the subject in the 2014 BBC3 documentary How Safe Are My Drugs?, B.Traits is keen to promote both better education in schools and the introduction of drug testing in clubs – both of which acknowledge that clubbers do take recreational substances, and in so doing are more effective in reducing their potential harm. “Young people are dying because they don’t understand how to take drugs,” she points out. “If Fabric bring drug testing in, they’re admitting to the cops that drugs are being used on the premises – and they get shut down. It’s incredibly frustrating. But in Amsterdam, they’re really progressive, 10 steps ahead of us. They have ‘take a quarter and one glass of water’ signs all over the place. We have signs warning people to look after their phones because of thieves, so why not that? Or testing drugs that were confiscated behind the scenes so they’d know what was in circulation that week, with photos of the pills on posters in the toilets showing all the different strengths and information on where to go if you think you’ve taken a bad one.”
If London clubbing is to remain innovative and exciting, it’s people like B.Traits who will make it happen: she’s passionate about the club scene, unafraid to talk about the subjects too many shy away from and willing to fight for things to get better. As her career goes from strength to strength – she’s already planning the first In Toto compilation for next year, featuring hand-selected up-and-coming artists who have caught her ear – it’s hard not to feel as though this is one of the few rays of hope for the city.
Hear B.Traits, Friday nights, 1-4am on BBC Radio 1
Words Alex Macpherson
Photography Danny Craven
Stylist Ellie McWhan
Make-up Shaz Massey
Hair Tommy Taylor
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