Dance music’s status as a “boy’s club” is notorious, but that hasn’t changed patriarchy in the industry.
We see it in Forbes’ annual list of the world’s highest-paid DJs, consistently dominated by white males, in the lack of female acts on EDM labels, and just take a look at a the roster for any electronic music festival—nearly all of them have staggering male-to-female ratios and, most likely, no women as headliners.
With such prevalent male bias in the industry, women in electronic music are often relegated to the shadows, their disembodied voices lifted for catchy hooks of the songs that make their male counterparts famous.
In the past few years alone, we’ve seen plenty of male DJs and producers gain success by using unknown female singers on tracks that achieved chart-topping ranks—cue up any Chainsmokers single—but we’re also seeing these women carve out their own successful paths.
Enter Anna Straker, one new dance artist who is refusing to feed the industry machine.
The 19-year-old London-based producer, songwriter and singer takes full creative control on her debut EP Serious, a polished self-made work of vibrant retro synths and dancey chord progressions that echoes through idiosyncratic themes of youthful rebellion (“How We Are”) and industry dissatisfaction (“Serious”).
“I love having control over everything. I don’t want to just be told to sing this line,” says Straker, who exudes of confidence that translates well through her production skills. “I want to write the line and make all the music around it.”
Currently unsigned, Straker has employed a grassroots-meets-new industry approach to her career.
First playing piano at 6 years old, after begging her mother, songwriting came naturally to her when she received classical training. She dropped out of her final year of school at 17, moving from her small English town to London in order to peruse music, after being discovered by producers in what she calls her Justin Bieber moment of home YouTube videos.
“There are a lot of people that are just getting their success out of singing on the top of a song made by a DJ guy. I really want to be careful not to be seen like that,” she says.
Straker recently spoke with the Observer about her excellent new EP, navigating blatant sexism in the industry and her desire to bring more meaningful messages to dance music and inspire young girls to become producers.
I saw some of your old YouTube videos of you playing the piano and singing. You seem so young, how old were you?
Yeah I was 13 or 14. I was wearing my school uniform as well. Oh God, I cringe so bad when I look at those videos.
I hear you’re also a big Alicia Keys fan?
The first CD I ever bought was her live Unplugged album, and I would listen to it on my CD Walkman and pretend I was her performing. I love her so much.
What made you want to play piano at such a young age?
My granddad had a piano in his house. I’m one of six children and my parents tried to force one of my siblings to play the piano. I think that probably gave me more motivation to do it, because I was the best at it out of all my siblings. Bit of a competitive vibe going on.
I feel like some of the the best producers out there have this classical training and I can see that translate in your music, too.
You have much more depths of knowing what’s going on. Even just the chord progressions in my songs are not your average, they’re unexpected things. But that is because I’ve always listened to such various amounts of music since I was really little. So it really paid off, I totally agree with you.
What made you want to go into dance music?
I love all different kinds of music and especially when I turned 18 I started going to nightclubs. I played the piano and it was easy to sit down and write a piano piece. But I always want a bass line and a drumbeat. I might as well write the whole instrumentation. It wasn’t like one day, “Oh, I should produce as well.” That’s what I thought writing songs was, was doing all of it.
I like that you seem to be very sure of yourself as an artist, and at such an early point in your career, too.
It’s been a gradual process of not knowing who I am and then being sure of that, it doesn’t happen over night. It’s just a hard thing to understand when you’re 17 and you want to be a singer. I think you just have to be and don’t think about it too much. Just let it come out like you would naturally. People could always tell if it’s fake, I think.
Did you write these EP songs when you moved to London?
I wrote “How We Are” when I maybe 16 or 17. I wrote loads of songs, and then this year was when I was definitely surer of myself. I went back to them and took out the bits I thought were really cool. The only new one was “Serious,” that was a big one that really felt like me now. I liked the fact that I was taking parts from before and dressing them up as the new me.
Were you inspired by the ’90s nostalgia for the “Serious” video?
Yeah, definitely, I love it. With the video I really wanted these low camera angles that ’90s rappers used to use. I think they make you look very powerful. I reference through the video TLC and Destiny’s Child, I grew up on all that stuff.
Is “Serious” about a particular person? The lyrics remind of every pretentious guy you meet in the music industry.
Yeah, exactly, that’s what it is. In the first verse it was directly at a guy, or a record company, who’s releasing music that he knows is shit. And he doesn’t like it but he knows he’s going to make a lot of money. Then the second verse is directed to the girl, the singer. I’m not naming names but there’s a lot of singers that think, “If I take my top off in this song then I know I’m going to get a million views on it,” and I hate that.
There are so many successful singers where you can tell they’re not doing it for the music. They’re not writing their own music. They’re doing it for money and I think that’s so sad. Music is one of these things that we have that’s so emotional. Everyone in the world can feel something through music and those people are exploiting that and using sex to sell it, or just not caring. And I think, “C’mon, be serious about it. I can’t take you seriously.” There’s so many people like that in every industry. It upsets me when I’m here working so hard every day and I see people not even trying.
And I think it’s really cool to release a song like that, with a really powerful message. I love being able to say something through my music.
I love that kind of commentary.
I wrote that really quickly as well, it came to me as an epiphany. Dance music is so popular at the minute and to have a dance track that’s got quite a strong opinionated message in it, you don’t normally hear that in a lot of dance records.
How did you feel about doing these backup features for other dance or electronic acts?
That was a good thing to do for experience and to know how records are made. That kind of also brought me into the dance music scene as well. I would get in a taxi and that [Years & Years] song would come on. Still now I could hear an ad on TV and I’m like, “Oh, that’s me!” I want to be in the taxi and go, “Hey, that is my song.” But I always wanted to be a solo singer. I don’t think I’d be happy just doing backing vocals.
Which kind of makes sense why you want to produce your own work too. It’s important for you to do it.
And I think it’s even more important ‘cause I’m a girl. When I show someone a track and they ask who produced it and I say me, they’re like, “What, but you’re a teenage girl.” Even when I play live I’m doing a lot of things at once; I’ve got my synths and I’m doing a delay on my vocals or I’m playing a song pad.
When I’m setting up for my gigs all the guys who help set up are directing all their questions to my [male] drummer. You can ask me, this is my whole setup. I know where to plug things in. Everyone thinks it’s a boy’s job. No one ever says male producer, they say female producer and it shouldn’t be that way. So I’m trying to inspire more girls to not let the boys do the job.
That’s awesome and that’s unfortunately true. I’ve heard other women in music say that growing up they didn’t know of any female producers or DJs. They didn’t know girls could do it too.
They don’t hear about them so they assume that’s not a job for them. When I did that feature on the Fono record a lot of people thought, “Oh, you’re a girl you just sing the top line of the song,” which is kind of annoying.
Loads of them, male DJs and producers, ask me that and I don’t want to. Fono is my good friend and I really liked that track, but I didn’t want to be a feature artist. Loads of female solo singers are doing right now.
I can definitely agree with you on that and it makes sense even more why you want this control. You want to show “Hey, I can do this, too.”
Yeah, 100 percent. It’s such a stereotype that I really don’t want to conform to. I always felt comfort in being in control of everything I’m doing and not relying on someone else. It makes me feel really powerful. I get a real sense of achievement after I’ve done something, and done it all correctly.
Did you collaborate with anyone on the EP?
Some of the songs are collaborative but it’s mostly me. I wrote “Desert Floor” with a friend of mine. He has a pedal board for his guitar and he played these chords, I recorded them. He didn’t even write anything, he just played the chords and left. Then the next day I wrote “Desert Floor” and it felt so easy to do that song.
That one has a different feel from the rest, it has kind of an eerie tone.
It’s more like an apocalyptic vibe to it. I think that’s because it was with someone who plays the guitar, so it has a different vibe in that sense. Someone said to me it sounds like Kasabian on MDMA.
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In songwriting do you tend to do the music first and then you do the lyrics?
It depends but I normally write the music first. I always go on my synths and play simple chords or a chord melody, and I write around that. The last thing I’ll do is lyrics. Not that I didn’t like doing lyrics, but I find that’s the hardest thing to come up with right away.
That’s interesting, and very much a producer kind of mindset.
Yeah that’s just because I play piano. Instrument was my first thing to do, but I can even do a beat first. That’s always really fun, getting a beat and then writing on the rest.
Are you looking to be singed with a label?
I think if the right label comes along and I feel like it’s going to do something really amazing for me, then that will be great. But if it’s not then I’m not going to. Loads of artists are doing so well independently. I don’t sit and worry that I’m not in a record deal. I’m not going to let that stop me from working.