Virginia: On A Wave Of Inspiration
The multi-talented artist reveals her intimate story leading up to her first LP on Ostgut Ton.
Virginia: On A Wave Of Inspiration
The multi-talented artist reveals her intimate story leading up to her first LP on Ostgut Ton.
Fresh off the release of her first LP with Ostgut Ton and subsequent summer touring, Virginia joins André Baum over a piece of cherry pie and a few cups of coffee in the Ostgut Ton offices to delve into her journey as a singer and DJ, and all the fateful twists that have brought her to this crest in her career.
While the press is quick to label her new song-structured album Fierce For The Night as an anomaly in Ostgut Ton’s notoriously clubby catalog, it’s an interesting point at which to trace how Virginia has evolved as an artist to a place where such an artistic statement could be made and agreed upon. To understand Virginia’s story, it is important to peel back the curtain on her early years, back to when Virginia was still known as Virginia Nascimento; to when you might find her singing to Michael Jackson records in stage-clothes from her father’s work, or dancing to Brazilian music over breakfast with her family.
Virginia’s mother was a singer, her brother a sound engineer, and her father was often found recording in Munich studios. Growing up in a musical family meant that a young Virginia found herself settling effortlessly into a world of sound. “My parents never said, ‘Hey, you need to learn something real in life!’ But they told me if I was serious about going for music, I’d have to take vocal or piano lessons.” Though initially enrolled in classical piano, life as a teenager in the ‘90s resulted in Virginia being drawn into the world of grunge, rock, and R&B. She cites Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers (“back when they were cool”) as primary contributors to becoming bored with her classical lessons.
If it was her parents that got her thinking professionally, it was certainly her older sister—well-established in music publishing and tightly linked to local artists—who helped plant the seeds that Virginia still sows today. Eight years her elder, Virginia’s sister and her friends were pioneers of the Munich scene and introduced Virginia to their world. A crucial first impression was made by the Partisan collective—a group that threw parties, released a small format magazine, and gave a platform for all genres of club music. At the time, she says, the club scene wasn’t as discerning about house and techno separations. Everything was honored as electronic music. “Later it became more divided. But at the time, you could have had Luke Slater play the same party as Tom Novy and no one would have bothered to think it wasn’t cool.”
Asked if there was a defining moment in her story, Virginia smiles and leans back in her chair. The turning point, she says, came during a set with Underworld’s “Born Slippy.” She stood in awe, watching the people and the DJ together, and thought, “Wow, there’s so much emotion in electronic music!” From that moment on, Virginia started collecting records—and subsequently trying to mix them using an old consumer mixer from her father and two basic turntables: one from Sony with a slow mechanical arm; the other a Marantz from her parents with little tempo dials.
In order to learn to beat-match, Virginia often visited a friend who was connected to Disco B, DJ Hell, Posse, and Gigolo Records. It was through this connection that she had her first chances to spin a record or two during her friend’s bathroom breaks. It wasn’t long before she began playing more frequently; firstly in cafés with friends in return for a free meal, and then at a football tournament in Munich. At the end of this set, a man came up to her and offered her a residency—whenever he opened a club. A lofty proposition, but the man in question was Tobi Neumann. “He put his money where his mouth was,” Virginia says, smiling. “He invited me to play with Lester Jones as the first residents at his Flokati night at Ultraschall.” Virginia’s next chapter as both a singer and DJ had begun.
“I think I disappointed some of the more underground people. But everyone wants to be underground until they’re overground.”
It was during this time, in 1997, that Virginia met Tom Novy, a local hero on a more commercial plain. He invited Virginia to sing on an EP for Kosmo Records, which resulted in Novy vs. Eniac’s “Someday > Somehow.” He then called her back to feature in the commercial French filter-house hit “I Rock.” The video, a fun-loving slice of ‘90s cheese, was also featured on MTV. At only 20-years old, it was a point of celebration and reflection. “I think I disappointed some of the more underground people. But everyone wants to be underground until they’re overground,” Virginia says. From this, she learned that if you want to live from your music, you need to sell a certain amount of records. She subsequently racked up collaborations with Steve Bug, Abe Duque and Butch in the early ‘00s; however, her strongest creative ally had yet to cross her path, and wouldn’t do so for the best part of a decade.
In 2005, after years playing tech-house and minimal techno, Virginia found herself en route to a new life in Berlin. Through a disconnection from the minimal scene there, she soon fell back in love with songwriting. “I was a little bit sick of this minimalistic music. The Poker Flat stuff had a bit more melody at the time, and the first stuff that came out on Perlon was really, really interesting. But the rest of the minimal scene I couldn’t relate to,” she says. Though she relied on DJing to pay the bills, Virginia became less interested in the music that she was expected to play, to the point where she stopped listening to electronic music at home. Instead, singer-songwriters filled her headspace, where she found inspiration in the likes of India Arie, Sade, and Tina Dico. “It was feel-good music to me, with real instruments and good lyrics,” she says.
During this time, incidentally, Virginia started writing with a team of former hard-house producers and musicians from Frankfurt’s Mosaic Studios through Stevie B-Zet. But counter to their reputations, the group started making pop and film music through jams. “To be sitting in a room and playing with a live drummer, keys, and bass, it gave me so much more than all this quantized music,” Virginia recalls. Owing to a recent heartbreak, these sessions also became her space of healing. The recording process would become her debut LP, Twisted Mind—a personal and emotive record, marked by its release under her mother’s maiden name, Virginia Nascimento. If her earlier work laid the foundation for Virginia as a DJ who could sing, this album further established her as a singer-songwriter.
“I almost gave up. I was doing the live tour but also I had all these shit records to play at these shit gigs. I thought I needed to stop. It just wasn’t where my heart was.”
After the Twisted Mind tour in the late ‘00s, Virginia reached a point of major despondence: she was performing in the wrong venues, a situation that prevented her from playing the kinds of records that she really loved. Ironically, Virginia’s trust in working with her immediate community, which had been unquestionably rewarding, had brought her to a place of disenchantment. “I quit working with my agency,” she says. “I almost gave up. I was doing the live tour but also I had all these shit records to play at these shit gigs. I thought I needed to stop. It just wasn’t where my heart was.” It was at this moment that Virginia was introduced to Steffie Doms.
The pair met at a dinner and soon discovered that they shared a mutual love for Sade. Doms had just released Kill Me, her first EP on Ostgut Ton. The two exchanged music and decided to meet in the studio to try writing together. Steffi was putting together a release for Jus-Ed’s Underground Quality label and sent it to Virginia for her thoughts. She heard “Reasons,” immediately started singing and recording on it, and replied with a couple of different ideas. Steffi loved her work and asked Jus-Ed if it was cool to add vocals, to which he responded enthusiastically. Thus began a creative partnership that has spanned six years, three LPs, five EPs, and continuous input on all their individual material since then.
Their first big record together was Doms’ “Yours.” Doms subsequently invited Virginia to play the release party of her first LP, despite having never actually seen her spin. “Steffi saw all these great records in my collection and asked why I didn’t play them if I had them,” Virginia recalls. “I said, ‘Show me the place where I can play them and I’ll be more than happy to do it.’ She trusted my taste in music and told me to get my ass into gear.” About eight months later, Ostgut invited her onboard to the agency in all capacities.
Between 2012 and 2016, Virginia released two successful EPs—Loch & Hill and My Fantasy—with the former featuring her voice as an instrument, as well as continuing to feature on Steffi’s records. Eventually, the time came to create a Virginia LP.
For the album, Virginia enlisted an Ostgut dream-team of Steffi, Dexter and Martyn; however, though the production side was highly collaborative, it was always to be a Virginia album. “Bally Linny” was co-written with Steffi in Ireland; “Believe In Time” was developed out of a sketch from years back; and “Funkert” was a sketch from Steffi as a follow-up to “Yours” (which was passed to Martyn, who injected it with a heavy UK shuffle). The effectiveness of the release is largely due to this collaborative spirit. The credits on the songs are almost all shared between Virginia, Steffi, Dexter, and Martyn, and it’s near impossible to tell where specific inputs lay. “I got “1977” back from Dexter and he had put these great Roland D50 stabs on it. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s great, but where’s my arpeggiator?’ On one hand it’s sad, but on the other hand it’s how it goes: sometimes you need to let go so it can reach the next level. In the end, it’s all of us cooking the stew,” Virginia says.
While all the chefs were preparing the same meal, they weren’t necessarily cooking in the same kitchen. Virginia and Steffi are based in Berlin, but with Martyn in Washington D.C. and Dexter near Amsterdam, they worked nearly the entire time via Dropbox, Facetime, and Skype. “It’s great because often the three of us were working here in Berlin and if we needed some nice keys, we’d hop on Facetime, send over the files, and in like half an hour, we open the Dropbox and have this new sound,” Virginia recalls. Consequently, they also became privy to watching the growth of Martyn’s daughter, seeing things she learned and witnessing her second birthday. “There are so many little things like this that are a big part of the process: when you wake up in the morning and you have this little girl smiling in your face, you know it’s going to be a good day,” Virginia says. “It’s the human side that’s such a big part of it. It’s friends. It’s sharing everything, not just the music.”
Naturally, the process was not without it’s hurdles. “Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s really messy,” Virginia says. “Sometimes you’re in a fight because someone’s not getting their shit together; sometimes that’s me. Everyone had to find their place in the process.” Virginia elaborates empathetically that it could be strange for the others to put so much work into an album that ultimately has only her name on the cover. It’s something, perhaps the biggest thing, that they had to overcome as a musical group. She assured them, if they ever felt uncomfortable, to think of Mocky, Feist, Chilly Gonzales, and Jamie Lidell. “They’re writing together a lot: sometimes it’s for Feist, sometimes for Jamie, but it’s always that team.”
“Personally, I’m tired of a lot of techno right now. It can be fast or slow, it can be drone, but it needs to have soul. That’s what I feel is missing these days.”
It could be thought that Fierce For The Night marks the opening of a new frontier for Ostgut Ton. People were not expecting this album, and there’s no denying that the label behind it has garnered FFTN considerably more attention. It is, as Virginia points out, the most “poppy” thing that the imprint has released—but she also points out that “Prosumer and Murat Tepeli did something Chicago house style with pop vocals some years ago.” Following Virginia’s two EPs, Ostgut suggested she use her voice more on the LP. They saw it as a positive. With the freedom to do so, Virginia and her team worked in private and presented the album when it was near the end. They also put great consideration into the tracklisting, knowing how wide ranging the genres and moods were on the release. “Personally, I’m tired of a lot of techno right now. It can be fast or slow, it can be drone, but it needs to have soul. That’s what I feel is missing these days,” she says. “When it’s just drums and a little arpeggio, I think, ‘Boring! Bring back some story! Say something!’ You don’t need a singer to tell a story. But just fucking tell a story!”
Virginia’s delivery as she tells me this is passionate yet collected, much like her voice on Fierce For The Night: one simultaneously driven and nonchalant. While her voice on Twisted Mind often felt overly emotive or dramatic, the delivery on Fierce For The Night is grounded, focused, and ready for a seriously good time. Behind the production, there’s a disaffected coolness that turns otherwise saccharine lyrics into something subversive. Since many of the lyrics revolved around love, Virginia and her team considered whether some lyrics were too cheesy. But owing to the quality of Virginia’s voice, something of blue nature, the team tossed out any worries.
The team’s trust was well justified. It seems Fierce For The Night arrived at the perfect time, given the public’s reaction to its release. The album received a wide range of positive press, and brought in new fans for both Virginia and the label. They made a savvy choice to include a lyric book, emphasizing the album as a body of songs, which yielded flattering results. “I always think who’s gonna sing along? Then I have people come up and sing my songs at me!” As it turns out, Ostgut has sold many more CDs than vinyl of FFTN. It’s usually the other way around with Ostgut: a lot of DJs or collectors buying vinyl. Virginia’s LP has become one more for the music consumer than for her colleagues. The truth is, Virginia has found an aesthetic that draws on club nostalgia while delivering a unique and accessible vision of the present and future.
Virginia is not merely a singer or DJ; she is a life-lover through and through. If anything binds the eclecticism of her tastes and artistic habits—the “red thread” as she calls it—it’s a distinct sense of humanity. Take for instance her methodology for DJing: Virginia opts to challenge the Berlin norm of seamless, long-style mixes, keeping her audience entwined in her improvised energy. She prefers to embrace the full dynamics of a set. “There are cats that can play in one flow and one kick drum the whole time. And that can be nice, too. But I want to hear that someone is actually mixing,” she says. “You don’t need to train-wreck all the time, but I like to hear when there’s new music coming in, that someone is working and there’s a change occurring.”
Nowhere does this sensibility show more than in FFTN’s live show, which consists of Steffi and Dexter on electronics, with Virginia out front, singing and dancing. Five years after her debut at Panorama Bar for Steffi’s LP release, Virginia unleashed her new songs in the same space. Unsure about how the crowd would respond to the many stops, starts, and dynamic changes of their new material, Virginia, Dexter, and Steffi were amazed to find the dancefloor pulsing to every part. It appeared to be a perfect full-circle moment in the club that had shaped her sound and honed her skills as a DJ.
As a Panorama Bar resident for almost half a decade, Virginia is well-versed in taking a crowd on a journey. Her particular recipe traces a path through the worlds of disco, Chicago house, New York house, techno, and funk. If you’re lucky, you’ll see her, gripped by inspiration, pull out a microphone and sing improvised melodies over an instrumental. After multiple times of performing her ad libs over a specific track, they start to become one. “Sometimes if I’m playing that song and I don’t feel like singing, people in the audience tell me it feels weird to hear the original without my voice,” Virginia says.
“I’m happy there are more and more women coming up, but there are definitely females whose production doesn’t balance with their media attention, and I think it must be the tits. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s obvious.”
It’s evident, after sitting for nearly two hours in a spirited conversation with Virginia, that I am speaking with a person of tremendous soul and vision, an artist dedicated to balancing herself within tenderness and power. While this could translate in other artists to a self-effacing perfectionism, the person in front of me is clearly one well-versed in pacing and acceptance. It may seem cliché to address the matter, but while Berghain is a forward-thinking epicenter for gender and sexuality, the DJ world at large is not as progressive. I ask Virginia if she feels the electronic music world to be one that caters to males. “To be honest, for years I was sick of that question. But in the end, I have to admit that it is,” she says. “I’m happy there are more and more women coming up, but there are definitely females whose production doesn’t balance with their media attention, and I think it must be the tits. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s obvious.”
Virginia concedes that she dressed up and used her “feminine advantages,” but over the years she’s learned the best thing for her sets are trainers and a comfortable shirt. She would rather work on music than be on Twitter and Facebook. “You just need to know what’s more important to yourself,” she says. “I just don’t want to play that game. Not to sound arrogant, but I could play along. But why? I’d rather listen to more records than go through my closet.” This attitude comes as no surprise when you recall Virginia’s evolution. Like everything she’s done, her philosophy remains true: a commitment to building herself in an organic way. “I want to do something that’s more long-lasting. It took me 17 years to be on Groove magazine’s cover. But then, bam, I’m there with three double pages, and I get to be there with one of my favorite, most important creative people,” she recalls. Seeing how easily faces are disposed of and refreshed, it’s a testament to Virginia’s artistry that she is where she is currently.
Virginia’s way of being has carried her through to this noteworthy moment. While reflecting back on her career, it’s evident that everything has come through a state of sustained grace. “I have to learn every day to work on myself and reflect. I’m interested in the things that happen when you just open up,” she says. From her musical family, to her initial successes, to the life she’s found within the walls of Berghain, it’s safe to say Virginia has found her groove. Where this will take her next is unknown, but wherever it is, it would surprise me to hear that it isn’t a place of growth. As it turns out, it’s not Fierce For The Night that’s the anomaly, it’s the artist herself.
Photos: Stephan Redel