It’s a brightly lit mid-week afternoon in DTLA and Anabel Englund is waving from a couch in Soho Warehouse. The chart-topper singer/songwriter/DJ, who earlier this year was nominated for an iHeartRadio Music Award for Dance Artist of the Year, is not wearing a speck of makeup, and she is luminous.
What she does have on is layers upon layers of clothing and electric-blue cowboy boots. She is friendly and confident, listening, but not always agreeing, asserting her opinions based on her experiences, rather than keeping the status quo… which makes her all that much more appealing.
Over the last decade, Englund has become a favorite among dance-music fans with her many collaborations, most notably with Jamie Jones, MK and Lee Foss, and as part of Pleasure State with the latter two. Englund is a familiar face on the microphone, performing her hits, four of which have hit the No. 1 spot for U.S. Dance Radio over the last year – “Underwater” with MK, “So Hot (MK & Nightlapse Remix),” “Picture Us,” and “Waiting for You.” All four songs are from Englund’s debut album, Messing with Magic (and its Deluxxe Edition) released on MK’s AREA10 label through Ultra Records.
In recent years, Englund has added DJing to her repertoire of talents. She took over the live-stream space in a big way with appearances at EDC Orlando Virtual Rave-A-Thon, Higher Ground with Diplo and SiriusXM’s Empowered Festival. Since the return of live events, Englund’s has DJed at a variety of festivals, including HARD Summer, Day Trip, Alesso Presents: Together Again, and Life Is Beautiful, as well as clubs, including Space in Miami, Bang in San Diego, Bauhaus in Houston, and Tempo Ultra Lounge in Las Vegas.
In between gulping down glasses of milk to dissipate the impact of a shishito pepper so fiery it has brought her to tears and turned her face the color of a tomato, Englund brings us up to date on how the pandemic has turned into an exceptionally productive time of her life.
DJ Times: After all the years of performing onstage as a vocalist alongside some of the top DJs in dance music, why make the transition to spinning behind the decks?
Anabel Englund: I started DJing a little before quarantine, but I didn’t take it seriously because I figured there were enough DJs. When COVID happened, all the live-streams started happening, so Ultra Records asked me if I could start doing them. I knew how to mix tracks here and there, but I was not a professional DJ. I’ve grown up with DJs. I’ve seen how they play. I’m a perfectionist and if I don’t know it perfectly, then I feel like I’m not good enough yet. I got decks at home and started playing and really preparing a lot.
DJ Times: What was your DJ education?
Englund: My friend Matt Ossentjuk, who does a lot of my artwork, is a DJ, too. Years ago, I called Kobi Danan at Sound Nightclub. We went there and Matt gave me a DJ tutorial. I picked it up pretty fast because I’ve been touring with DJs for so many years I already got the gist, and I’m musical as it is. Once I got the technicalities of mixing and then COVID and live-streams happened, my fiancé started looking up decks online and we got some [Pioneer DJ CDJ-2000NXS Limited Edition CDJs and Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS-M mixer]. I started practicing at home. When I had a high-profile live-stream, I recorded it at Lee Foss’ house. I showed up four hours prior to filming, so I could run through the set over and over and over and over again to make sure I was getting it right. Every show I do, I learn so much. Little by little, that stuff starts adding up.
DJ Times: It sounds like it wasn’t as much of an active decision on your part to get into DJing.
Englund: I started DJing was because I was requested to do so… but I think I did want to. Now that I’ve been DJing more and more festivals, it feels so good to be self-sufficient, to not rely on someone to play my music for me. It’s nice to add a bit of my style to a festival or club and spread that around.
DJ Times: When did you start to take DJing seriously?
Englund: I say that I didn’t want to DJ, but I think it was coming more from a place of fear than a place of me not wanting to do it. After quarantine, when I first DJed to real people, I was so nervous, so much more nervous than I would be singing. I think maybe I wasn’t “taking it seriously” because I was afraid of not being good. To DJ is to hold court for an hour, two hours of playing music that people are going to enjoy and dance to. What if you fuck up? The thing is, you have fun when you mess up. There were a couple times where train-wrecked. I just fixed the track and went with it. That’s when the crowd knows you’re a human being, and it’s fine. So, it’s all fun, not as scary as I thought it was.
DJ Times: When did your initial fear fall away?
Englund: After I played my set at Space. Lee booked me for a two-hour set at Space in Miami at the start of summer. I was pretty nervous. I wanted to have substance and taste, and take the crowd on a journey. After I did that gig, I felt OK. It’s not supposed to be something big and scary. It’s supposed to be fun. The crowd had so much fun, and I really enjoyed the energy and the vibe, and that’s when my perspective changed.
DJ Times: How would you describe your DJing style?
Englund: My style is very sexy and funky and bouncy. It’s like me in music form. The only thing I don’t like is when things get predictable… other than that, I’m down with any genre.
DJ Times: How much of your set is your original material?
Englund: If it’s an hour, it’s 30 minutes my own music, 30 minutes not. If I’m doing a two-hour set, I’ve learned to start with music that’s not my own because everyone’s waiting for me to sing. I started off singing a couple songs in the beginning and then playing other music, then singing again. But I realized once I’m done singing the first couple songs everyone thinks I’m done. Now, for a two-hour set, it’ll be an hour of other people’s music and then a 15- to 20-minute section of my music and a few songs that go with that, and then finish the set with my music again.
DJ Times: So, you’re also performing your songs during your DJ sets?
Englund: If it’s a song, for instance, like “Don’t Say Goodbye,” that starts with the vocal and then ends with the vocal, I’m going to sing that. But if it’s a song that’s more beats and minimal vocal, I’m not going to sing that. I can get on the mic and do fun things with the song. It’s still me playing my music, but I don’t need to perform it. It’s fun because if the label doesn’t love a song that I love, it doesn’t matter because I can still play it in all my DJ sets and get it in front of people’s ears. I get to work my way into it.
DJ Times: How do you organize your sets for clubs versus festivals?
Englund: It depends on the time more so than where I’m playing. If I’m playing a slot at 12 to 2 a.m., it’s going to be a lot different than 4 p.m. I like to go with the flow of the moment. I don’t want to just bang it out. It’s never a good look, even if you are playing songs that everyone likes and that they’re really enjoying – it just looks really like you’re trying too hard.
DJ Times: Do you have a preferred DJ set up?
Englund: Four Pioneer CDJ-2000NXS players or better and a Pioneer DJM 800 Nexus mixer or better. I understand when people use the Allen & Heath Xone and things like that, but, for me, it’s not really about like channeling every little sound and crevice; it’s more about mixing well, so that I can perform my next song because a lot of it is vocal-based. That seems to work for me and that’s what I like to use. I can plug my mic in the Pioneer mixer and put reverb and stuff on it.
DJ Times: What makes for a good DJ set?
Englund: It’s reading the room. It’s being authentic to yourself. When I see that the DJ is having fun, even if they’re playing ridiculous music, I’m also having fun. The biggest thing is just being yourself, but also being aware of your surroundings.
DJ Times: Who are some DJs you respect or look up to?
Englund: I definitely look up to Nina Kravitz and Peggy Gou. They’re crushing it and they really inspire me. I follow Nina Kravitz on Instagram and from when I first got into the scene and knowing how she stayed in the scene so long and how she totally vibes and is totally herself – and the same thing for Peggy Gou. They take everything that that is the essence of them and magnify that to the highest degree. Nina Kravitz has her crazy dance moves and Peggy Gou has really cool style, and she’s tapping into everything that she can. They’re both totally themselves, which I think is so important because they’re not to be someone or something else, and they’re totally in line with who they are. That is attractive to me and that’s something I want to do.
DJ Times: Do you think you will end up going the way Nina Kravitz and Peggy Gou have gone or more in a pop direction?
Englund: Pop, for sure. That’s why DJ-wise, they’re the ones who inspire me. I DJ so I can play my music. I DJ so that I can do other things. I DJ, but that’s not the thing that’s forever going to be first and foremost. I’m a performer. I’m a singer. I’m a songwriter. I’m meant to be touring and performing. I will always do underground house music, but moving forward, it’s important for me to start transitioning into the pop realm. It’s the only place I see myself going. I love DJing and it’s so much fun – why not be able to do it all?
DJ Times: At the current time, how important is the DJ in breaking music?
Englund: So important… especially the DJ who’s playing the music I was listening to. They can break a song in one set. It’s everything.
DJ Times: Are you also involved in the production side of your music?
Englund: No, I’m not. That’s something I just don’t give a fuck about. I’m not going to stare at a screen. I already hate staring at my phone all day; the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a screen. But, I just had a really intense month in London, writing. There were things I wanted to say about certain songs or certain moments or sounds in the track, and the producer would change them a little bit in the way that I was thinking, but I had no idea how to articulate it. I know it needs to be different, but I don’t know exactly how. In that sense, I want to be able to learn a little bit more, so that I can say what I’m thinking and get it across.
DJ Times: What were those songwriting sessions in London like?
Englund: They were about immersing myself back into the U.K. culture. I had spent so much time there from 2012 to 2015. It’s been a few years since I spent lots of time there. I was doing sessions every day. Some people I knew, but mostly it was with people I didn’t know, who have made really successful music in the U.K. scene. It’s different out there than it is here. It was a really good experience, and I learned a lot. Writing music, I like to see what comes out. When I am meant to go in and write every day, it takes the magic out of what songwriting is for me. It’s a little tiring to write something every single day. I would like to be with certain people and have some more time off, days in between where I can just chill and get inspired and go with the flow. There’s nothing left to chance when you’re in the studio every day. It makes it like more work, and it is work – but I want it to stay special, too.
DJ Times: How does your creative input come into play during these sessions?
Englund: I like to let my subconscious take over and write whatever needs to be written. I have no idea what that is until after I’ve written the song and, even after that, it won’t be until months later that I realize I was singing about a relationship I had or something like that. It always has this deeper meaning months later when I listen back and that’s why I think it’s so important to trust myself, and let it flow. I love interesting melodies. I love writing. I love collaborating with other writers and creating our own language together.
DJ Times: What is it like when you’re in the studio with the artists you’ve been most associated with such as Lee Foss or Jamie Jones or MK?
Englund: It’s different every time. Sometimes a producer has an idea that they want me to go off of, and I’ll just do that. But a lot of the time it’s just free rein to just do something creative. With Lee, for instance, we did a song called “Warm Disco.” He had the idea, the sample “warm disco,” and the hook. I went over to his place, and we wrote the verses and everything else and I recorded there. The track was done for the most part, the bones were there. I was writing to fit with what he had, which is what I like to do. I like to have the chords there. I work much better with chords and a track versus starting an idea a cappella. I love creating the cadence around the beat. It’s like a puzzle. I like making the words fit within the beat. But, a few summers ago, I was writing with Jamie a lot because he was living in L.A. It was open to do whatever we want to do. That’s how our song “Messing with Magic” came about.
DJ Times: That song is the title track for your album, which was released December 2020 with the Deluxxe Edition being released May of this year. Was it completed pre-pandemic?
Englund: No, not necessarily. It originally started with an EP, then we put out singles and then it was… let’s make it an album because it is a body of work. Some of my favorite songs I’ve ever put out are in the Deluxxe section of the album and those songs were written during the pandemic. “Don’t Say Goodbye” and “Boogie All Night” were written on Zoom sessions. “Waiting For You” with Yotto, we did that two years ago. I write so many songs, but who knows when they’re going to come out? They all have their own time in place, though… so it all happens when it’s supposed to happen.
DJ Times: Did you do a lot of songwriting during quarantine?
Englund: I feel like a lot of people in quarantine either had a glow up, or they completely lost themselves. I think the only way to have a glow up is to crumble. I consider myself to have had a glow up during quarantine because I completely lost most of my main source of income which was shows. I was super-depressed for a bit, but at the same time, I really soaked in the moment that the world was standing still. I feel like people were so anxious to get it over with and get everything started again. For me, it was like, this will never happen again. This is the only time that we’re going to have in our whole lives where the whole world is going to be stopped. We get to be home and get to know ourselves, get to know what you want, recalibrate all the things that you’re doing. Was your life before working? What wasn’t working? I thought there were people who weren’t really appreciating that, and because they didn’t appreciate that, there was so much more addiction and depression happening. But there was so much light within it as well. I really enjoyed all the time at home. I knew that it wouldn’t last, which is why I was really soaking it in, and I learned how to DJ, was doing lots of live-streams, a lot of songwriting sessions. Most importantly to me, I was spending time with my grandma Cloris [Leachman] who passed away in January. I am so grateful because, if COVID hadn’t have happened, I would have been touring all over. I wouldn’t have had the time to stop. She was 94 and every time I got to see her it might have been the last time. I saw her as much as I could and I had one of the best summers of my life with her. I value my relationships with my family and my friends so much. I feel like the only thing that matters is the love that I have in my life.
DJ Times: Did you feel like you were in a good place prior to the pandemic?
Englund: I wasn’t OK. I didn’t come from money. In my experience, when you don’t come from money and you start making money, for me at least, before COVID, I said yes to every opportunity that I had. In my mind, every show offer I had, I just couldn’t say no. I was working myself tirelessly, while not focusing on the music as much. I was really depressed, and I didn’t realize just how depressed I was until the world stopped. I had the time to look back and be like, “Whoa, that was not OK. I was not OK. How do I fix this?” And I was able to fix it. But I don’t know where I would be right now if the world didn’t stop because I really needed that. But I’m doing so much better now. I’m saying yes to what I want to say yes to, and I don’t need to say yes to everything. When I was in London writing all month, and everyone else was on tour and posting tour photos; I was OK not doing shows because I was working on my craft and honing in on that and getting my music perfect. I’m OK following my own path and doing what I need to.
DJ Times: It feels like over the last year a lot of DJs have realized they don’t need to take every gig they’re offered and tour as much as they do.
Englund: It’s not worth it for mental health. When I do a show, I’m charged for an hour, but then I need to be home and chill afterwards. I need my hair in a high bun. I need to shower. I need to get makeup off me. I need to get into comfy pants. I’m sober. I used to stay out forever. After I would do that, I would get really depressed. I was already pushing myself to the limit. I was getting sad afterwards because I was giving so much of myself and I really needed time to collect myself and regain my energy. When I’m constantly getting on a flight, it’s too much for me.
DJ Times: How do you see yourself moving forward?
Englund: I was putting out music consistently in 2020, and I’ve had really good success with that. My goal and my plan is to continue doing releases like that, put out another body of work, and keep bringing my artistry to the game.
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