In the lead up to Sister Bliss' long awaited return Down Under, Rave Reviewz' Mazen Al-Khozaie caught up with the force behind iconic dance group Faithless to talk about her creating longevity, mental health challenges in the industry and more...
RR: Great to meet you Ayalah. It's been a while since you last played in Australia...
Sister Bliss: It was about 7 years ago for Good Vibes, fantastic festival. First time I came over was in 1995 when the scene was still very, very young. It's quite incredible to think I'm coming back after all this time... really looking forward to it!
RR: Well, the reactions on social media when the tour was announced and the way the tickets have sold show how strong your music still is.
Sister Bliss: That’s amazing, well now that people have grown up and had children, it’s time to get the babysitter in and the old school will come out with the new school!
What was mad was that we did a couple of years of touring off the back of our last album, Faithless 2.0 and the reactions we saw from the people made us think - 'oh my goodness, these people really are the next generation' and we got a chance to really show them how it’s done properly and for them to have this cross-generational experience. They were coming up to us afterwards and telling us how much they love Faithless and how their mums and dads had the CDs. We told them “you’ve got some really cool parents"!
RR: Definitely. What can people expect from your Faithless DJ set this weekend?
Sister Bliss: Well you know, of course I’ll be playing the Faithless classics but I’ve got a radio show that helps me keep up to speed with new artists and music every week. So it’s important for me to look back and have this amazing catalogue of music of my own - of ‘dance heritage’ as I like to call it, which is timeless and fresh, but also to look forward and incorporate those two elements together. I don’t want to be seen as a retro DJ, that doesn’t interest me. Pushing forward interests me.
It’s amazing to see kids dancing to music that we danced to 20 odd years ago, so there is a natural lineage in there I think. And people now recognise a Sister Bliss set as one that weaves in the past and the future all in one night, which is quite a compliment and something I wasn’t actually aware that I was doing. It’s interesting to see how music organically grows... certain pieces that you think will become hits straight away actually take a long time. Tracks that I was playing last summer are finally getting exposure now.
I guess that’s always been the way with Faithless as well, our records were always slow-growing. It took at least a year before tracks like Insomnia for example, really connected and became the peak of people’s sets. We even had to re-release it a couple of times before it became a hit. But in unsafe and uncertain times, there is something deeply reassuring that connects us to old music that takes us back to a different time and point in our lives, and I understand the power that has on people.
RR: You have your own record label as well - Junkdog records. How do you go about finding and selecting new music to release on there? Are you planning to release any new music over the next year?
Sister Bliss: I always look for something fresh, something honest and a sound that I haven’t heard that particular take on. But, I do have to say, at the moment I’ve put the record label on pause because of my busy schedule and also because it requires a lot of money and time. I really believed in the artists I had and unfortunately I’ve been disappointed by their work ethic and lack of commitment to releasing new music.
They’ve hit a wall for whatever reason, and I want to make sure my label is about more than just one-off dance tracks because that’s what Faithless is about. I want to guide others in more of an album scenario so they can become fully fledged artists.
RR: You talk about longevity a lot around Faithless and your career in general, but were there any times where you felt pressured to change your sound to make it more pop-friendly?
Sister Bliss: That’s a good question... we started on a very small label, we were pleasing ourselves during that time and we were making sure we didn’t pigeonhole ourselves sonically, so the doors were wide open for us to be whatever we wanted to be. Now there is an audience with people asking all the time, ‘when are you going to release new music, when are you going to come on tour?’ because they recognise that we create something quite special.
But at the end of the day, we have to like the music that we are playing, and we created our own label to have the ability to do so and not have someone breathing down our necks telling us things like “oh that needs to be 3 minutes long” or “that needs to have a bigger chorus”.
When we took Insomnia to Radio 1 in the UK, we were told it didn’t have a hook, it didn’t have a chorus, and to go away and stop being so silly, and it wasn’t until it became a massive hit across the world that we were able to bring it back to the UK to re-release it. During that time there was a youth culture around underground dance music which was becoming massive and so it became harder for the radio stations and labels to ignore the growing trend.
Another good example is the band, Scissor Sisters. They were ignored but the stations were forced to play a record that went to number 1 and became massive, because it was number 1 everywhere else. Today is also a very different landscape for releasing new music... there are artists that exist purely on the internet and get their start that way.
So I feel particularly blessed that I have been able to forge my own path with no one telling me what to do apart from the voices in my own head, which can be very critical and very loud at times. That perfectionism really drives me - you know the show has to be the best show or the music has to be the best we can do. I would feel like I was cheating myself and our audiences if it was anything less than amazing.
RR: Interesting. With your duties as a parent, have you found that juggling your personal and professional life changes how you approach selecting musical projects that you want to do?
Sister Bliss: I mean, I do have less time to spend in the studio late at night, you know, staying up till 2 in the morning just isn’t possible when I have to do school runs and all that in the mornings! I would say I’ve just had to find a different way to work, there’s not just one way of doing things, it’s about time management, and not getting lost in things. I do say no a lot more... if a tour doesn’t really work with what’s happening in my family life I wouldn’t be able to do it, such as getting asked to do some tours down in Australia which didn’t really work at that time because of having a young family.
And you know this is part of the challenge that women all over the world face, there is a glass ceiling for women in music and other industries. Their incomes take a hit, they can’t continue working in professions they started in... at times it feels like more of a concrete ceiling than a glass one. I’ve been spectacularly lucky to do what I love and be my own boss, of course that comes with big risks - if I don’t work I don’t earn, there is no protection, or a pension plan, or holiday pay for that matter. I wouldn’t exchange my life for another but there are physical limitations to what I can do now, I’m not that free-ranging DJ that can say yes to everything and do everything.
I do find a bit of solace in going into the studio after putting my son to bed, and tinkering with things in there till midnight, with no interruptions from phone calls or other commitments that can take away from my focused creativity.
Creative progress, something out of nothing is the ultimate enjoyment, especially when you find that particular line in a vocal or a melody that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, that’s the moment we are all waiting for. Because if it can excite us, then it can definitely excite other people.
RR: It’s interesting that you mention saying no to a lot of things and understanding your own limits. We ran a recent campaign for mental health awareness, what are some of the mental health challenges you face in the industry today?
Sister Bliss: I think loneliness is a massive one, I can’t tell you how miserable and lonely I’ve felt in a hotel room. Especially when you’ve had a lack of sleep, it can lead to some really dark thoughts. If you are not sleeping properly you are in a state of constant jet lag.
For people looking from the outside in, they think “oh look there’s that successful DJ complaining about being able to travel the world” but in reality, it’s a really physically taxing job... DJing and touring takes it out of you for sure. It’s also emotionally demanding - I can’t tell you how many parties, weddings and other family events I’ve had to miss because I’m just not here. You are mainly providing entertainment for people over a weekend and that’s usually the time that other people have their leisure time, which can also impact on relationships unless your partner comes with you or is part of your touring entourage.
There’s this pressure to also be bloody great, with a lot of competition out there, so you want to give your best. The biggest pressure for me is my own head, and trying to live well in a particular environment is a challenge especially when you have things thrown at you to entice you to drink more and whatever else. When you are young and first starting off, you are also looking for affirmation if your sense of self isn’t that strong. That’s when things can get really wonky.
The other side of it is, when you are a performer, you come off that stage and you are pumped! My God, full of adrenaline and coming down off of that is quite intense and so people look to drugs and alcohol to prolong that high. It’s quite spiritual, because you’ve just made ten thousand people really happy, you’ve danced as one - “We Come 1”, that’s why we wrote that song, because it came from a specific experience of feeling that deep connection between ourselves and the audience. Coming off of that and back into reality is quite hard to deal sometimes.
RR: What advice would you give to new DJs or producers?
Sister Bliss: It’s not about just releasing one record these days, it’s about a body of work. Especially in these times, where there are thousands upon thousands of new tracks every week, and that’s just in dance music alone. You have to think about how you get your head above the parapet, especially with the really good quality stuff being put out there.
I get sent hundreds of promos every week, and that’s not even with me jumping onto Beatport or Bandcamp, so to be an artist in this day and age is tough. It’s brilliant because you have the internet and can market yourself to a certain extent, but so can everybody else. You have to have something that strikes a chord with people, you know, connects with an emotion or does something new, different and unusual. But you can’t do that with one track... it might be the breakout track, but people are always going to look for more than just that, especially as a label owner.
RR: Great advice. Thanks for the chat, looking forward to your set in Sydney!
Catch Sister Bliss playing a Faithless DJ set at the Ivy this Sunday, tickets here.