DJ iona on developing her style and keeping it fun

The first guest to grace the booth at Redstone Press's new party series at Sneaky Pete's is London-based DJ iona, going B2B with label co-founder Lewis Lowe. She tells us about getting into DJing, sourcing music, and the importance of the element of fun

Feature by Nadia Younes | 04 Nov 2021
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London-based DJ iona made a name for herself DJing at the much-loved (and now sadly closed) Dalston nightclub Dance Tunnel, and as a resident at secret location festival Field Maneuvers. This month, she’s going B2B with Redstone Press co-founder Lewis Lowe for the launch of their new party series at Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh, so we caught up with her ahead of the show to discuss her career so far and what we can expect on the night.

You’ve said that you credit working at Dance Tunnel and Field Maneuvers as formative experiences in your career as a DJ. How did you get into your roles at each of them and what is so special about them to you?

I got my job working at Dance Tunnel after fortuitously meeting a woman on the bus after a night out. I started working at a few other venues in the area but then settled at Dance Tunnel as I really liked the people working there, the promoters, and the kind of nights they were doing. I hadn’t been part of an institution or group of people who had such similar musical interests before, so it felt like it suddenly got a lot easier to casually have the kinds of night out that I wanted to, and my working life was almost always soundtracked by great music.

I made good friends with my manager at the time and Field Maneuvers is the festival he runs with close friends, so I started volunteering to do the driving/artist liaison for them as I was already doing it occasionally for Dance Tunnel. Field Maneuvers became a special place to me because it was so different to any festival I’d been to before at that time. It’s so small it feels like a community and you really make lasting connections with people. Everyone there seems to be on top form. The people on the dancefloors are really engaged and open-minded, which encourages DJs to play their best sets and in those small dance tents that kind of mutual energy gets really electric.

Your dad seems to have played an important role in introducing you to music, or at least surrounding you with music, at quite an early age before you went on to study at Hackney’s Centre for Young Musicians. What were you listening to growing up and how much do you think having some sort of formal musical training has aided your DJing?

Yeah, my dad’s very musical. He was always playing instruments and had a lot of interesting records, but in my teenage years growing up I really liked garage, grime, R’n’B, hip-hop, pop and bashment, as that’s what my friends and others at school were all into, and I definitely feel the influence of these genres on me now as a DJ. It’s hard to say if going to the CYM has had much effect on me in the long term as I didn’t take it very seriously, which I regret now! I did learn to read music, to a degree, which helps if I want to pick up an instrument, but I think learning percussion was probably the most helpful element of that experience and would have helped instil a sense of rhythm, if it wasn’t there already.

Your mixes and DJ sets are generally described as uptempo and lots of fun, and you often incorporate comedic elements within them. How did you go about developing your style and has the element of fun always been important to you?

I haven’t consciously tried to develop a particular style, but the element of fun has definitely always been a central theme to orbit my selections around. I play music to make people dance; to try and provide an environment where people can have a release. I don’t see it as my role to challenge anyone, I just play the things that make me screw up my face when I first hear them; the stuff I immediately can’t wait to play to a room full of people.

Some of the tracks I play might be seen as comical or as curveballs, but they are always things I listen to in my own time that make me want to move. It’s not my agenda to unsettle anyone; my sets are just an invitation to come and dance to the music I enjoy personally, and that’s what informs any style I might be perceived to have.

You seem to have a knack for sourcing funny and/or interesting reworks of popular songs. Where do you source your music and do you ever worry about the kind of reaction a track is going to get?

I usually feel quite confident when I play a rework of something popular. It’s usually popular for good reason and I think people enjoy hearing a new spin on something they like already. I don’t indiscriminately play any pop edit I can find, I put a lot of care into choosing the ones I think will really go off. If it doesn’t hit me in the sweet spot, it doesn’t get airtime! So I don’t worry about the reaction; if I like it I expect that the crowd will probably like it too, and if not no harm done. I find most of my music by subscribing to Bandcamp email updates from artists and labels I like and filtering them into a separate inbox to comb through at a convenient time. That’s not very rock and roll, but it’s what I do! I also get sent lots of cool stuff over email.

How are you finding DJing in clubs post-pandemic? Have you had to adapt your DJ style at all, or have you made any kind of natural progressions in that time?

I definitely had trepidation reentering the club environment as I really couldn’t visualise what the landscape would be like. Everyone went through such a massive life event which, for most, was very isolating, and I wasn’t sure if what I was enjoying musically would resonate with people anymore.

I think I leaned on my fancy for reworks of familiar anthems in those first weeks back and they went down well, maybe reassuring people with a singalong and reminding everyone we speak pop as a common language. I was playing it quite safe then, keeping things light, wanting to make sure everyone had a really fun time, but I’m starting to get back to a pre-pandemic level of self-assuredness where I can weave those familiar elements into a set which is a bit more varied and interesting. I think everyone's ready for that now, including me.

You’re going to be playing B2B with Lewis Lowe of Redstone Press at the launch of the label’s new party series at Sneaky Pete’s this month. How do you approach a B2B differently from a solo set and can we still expect the same uptempo, niche selections filtered through?

I’ve never done an all-night B2B at a club before so I am approaching this with a little more planning than usual. Normally if it’s just a two-hour set or so playing B2B I just bring my best tunes and see what happens as I like the surprise element, but this time we’ve discussed a rough plan BPM-wise. Even if we deviate from this it’s good to have that discussion, otherwise we could have really different visions and prepare completely different sets of music which would be difficult to pull off for that length of time.

Lewis and I established that we have similar music tastes after playing together at a party in Swindon and agreed that we’d like to play together one day. Luckily the opportunity came up when they started the Redstone Press night, as I’ve wanted to play at Sneaky Pete’s for ages! On the night you can expect the full vibe spectrum from me, from cumbia and beats, bass, amapiano and kwaito, through funky house and edits, breaks and hardcore, rounding off with a healthy dose of 160 bpm+ nonsense!

Redstone Press & Friends: iona B2B Lewis Lowe, Sneaky Pete's, Edinburgh, 5 Nov – tickets here