'Take Flight' With Maya Jane Coles: Producer Reflects on Her Career, New Double LP

Maya Jane Coles
Courtesy of Liason Artists

Maya Jane Coles

The genre-defying Brit remains resolutely DIY on ambitious release.

Since bursting onto the scene seven years ago, British producer Maya Jane Coles has maintained her title as one of house music’s brightest international stars. Truth be told, though, she didn't even like house music growing up.

"My first musical passion or love was ‘90s hip-hop and R&B," she says, sipping on a water in trendy Shoreditch House hotel in east London. She speaks softly and is diminutive but distinctive: pink-streaked long black hair, backwards baseball cap and black mesh top.

"I first got into production wanting to be the female Timbaland and that whole world of music got me into creating stuff." The creating stuff started pretty early: as a 14 year old, she began fooling around with trip-hop, R&B and dub sounds on Cubase production software.

But it wasn’t until attending east London hipster raves like Mulletover and Secretsundaze in the mid-'00s that she began to develop an interest in what was playing in the side rooms, what she describes as "left-field house music." She couldn't even tell you who the DJs were half the time, but her DIY instincts kicked in.

"If I saw something I liked, I wanted to make it, or have a go at doing my own thing in that kind of genre," she says. She started performing with Lena Cullen as dubby-electro duo She Is Danger -- they’d get booked to play fetish nights and other alternative gigs -- but after releasing a couple of mildly successful EPs on her own, it was Coles’ 2010 EP, What They Say, that got people talking.

"There was no specific reason this one blew up," she says of the title track, a jacking, soulful tune that got rinsed by just about everyone upon release. "It stayed in the Beatport top 100 for ages. It was one of those tracks that took me half a day to put together."

Her new double LP, Take Flight, wasn't quite as effortless. Coming four years after her acclaimed Comfort LP and two years after she released a dubbier record under her Nocturnal Sunshine alias, Take Flight feels like a more in-depth exploration of some of the ideas that were nascent on Comfort, from the tense, rubbery echo of opener "Weak" to the warped, waterlogged chords of “Won’t Let You Down” to the rousing house keys and metronomic pulse of "Go On and Make It Through," all stamped with Coles’ signature melancholic chill.

Commercially, there might be less incentive than ever for producers to put out full-length records, but Coles was never dissuaded from the idea of doing a double. She had a build-up of tracks she was yet to release and felt two discs were necessary for a cohesive listen. "I would have felt like I was kind of compromising it by taking stuff off it," she says. "I also didn't want any fillers at all."

She had to add around eight tracks to an existing 18 to fill both discs, a process that took around two years. The effects of perfectionism are magnified when you’re in charge of pretty much everything -- Coles writes, produces, engineers, mixes, plays instruments, sings on tracks and even did the artwork on her last two albums.

"When you do stuff yourself … there's never ever a cutoff point," she admits, though she wouldn't have it any other way. The one time she relinquished control, she was so unhappy with the way a track was mixed she vowed to never do it again.

"You learn better if you make mistakes yourself," she says. "If you hand stuff over to other people you’re like, 'Don’t like it, it’s shit,' but you never really learn why stuff isn’t right."

Coles’ parents are both creative: her mother made clothes and jewelry and her father was a graphic designer who ran an independent record label and designed album artwork for the likes of Killing Joke and The Orb (Alex Paterson is still a close family friend).

"I was really lucky because my dad was a role model for me of being a stubborn artist and putting full-time into something [like that] and being told that was ok," she says.

By 16, Coles had moved on from Cubase to Logic Pro music production software. There was external encouragement, too: At the age of 17, Coles won a grant of around £10,0000 from Nesta global innovation foundation. "The other winners were young inventors," she says. "A girl invented a self-cooling fridge to send to all these families in Africa. I was like, ‘I'm a music producer,'" she laughs. 

"This was before net tutorials. I sat there and tried to do things and figured stuff out eventually," she says. "I used to learn guitar, classical guitar from primary school. I’d sit and record guitar loops and percussion and programmed drum beats and stuff." After eight months of studying music technology and visual arts at university, she ditched the course. "It was super beginners level for what I was doing. I was showing everyone else what to do all the time," she says.

Her dropping out of uni caused minor worry for her liberal parents, but by 2011, Coles was crowned artist of the year by Beatport staff, DJ Mag’s producer of the year and Mixmag’s Best Breakthrough Act. In 2012, she released her much-admired DJ-Kicks compilation, then her solo debut LP, Comfort, the following year, and in 2014 she put out a mix for Fabric, all the while traveling the globe playing gigs.

Now, seven years after "What They Say" exploded, Coles is enjoying her biggest year to date with the release of Take Flight, appearances at Glastonbury, Creamfields and Coachella, and a support slot for Depeche Mode on the European leg of their tour this year, hand-picked by the synth-pop legends themselves.

"If you think about playing in front of 50,000 people that haven't come to see you, it’s really nerve-wracking," she says. "I was so nervous, if I’d stuffed up that first show I would have been a mess but I was kind of surprised how much the crowd seemed to get the music."

Coles has no desire to be cast as an entertainer. She sees DJing as a backseat kind of role and it’s where she’s comfortable, which is why you’re unlikely to see her singing live onstage (“Maybe if it was an electronic live set and I was just doing a couple of tracks,” she says, unconvincingly). She’s also just signed with EMI as a producer, unsurprising given the huge success of Nicki Minaj’s "Truffle Butter" which heavily sampled "What They Say."

Coles was a fan of the Drake/Minaj collaboration, for the record. "I hear from people who've heard "Truffle Butter" and listen to my other stuff and then say, ‘I never even knew this music existed,' and that track put them onto a whole other world of music," she says. "That’s the reason I said yes, and I mean, they didn't destroy the track. I got a lot of haters. But a lot of the time it’s old white men complaining."

It's about the only time you’ll hear Coles complaining about old white men; she says she’d never even thought about the gender issue until "every journalist ever" would bring it up in interviews. "I've probably experienced the same amount of discrimination being a woman as I have for being gay or Japanese or small," she says, assigning the dearth of women on festival bills to plain laziness.

"When people put these lineups together, they don’t do a lot of research sometimes. But if people keep booking the same bills as the year before, it takes years and years to change."

What has changed, she says, is the amount of credible electronic music getting radio airplay and seeing chart success -- it’s been normalized to the point where Take Flight posters are currently plastered all over London.

"I never in a million years thought my music would be advertised on billboards and the underground and stuff, like it’s a dream, it’s pretty cool," she says. "I don’t think it would have been possible 10 years ago, really."

Coles has just moved house. Once the album release dies down, she’s looking forward to chilling out and spending more time with her partner -- though she’s already got some tracks for the next Nocturnal Sunshine release in the bag.

"My fully soundproof home studio’s just been finished. Tomorrow I’ll be able to start working in it," she says, with a grin. "It’s going to be a life-changer being able to work on music til like 3 a.m., as loud as I want."

Take Flight is out now through I/AM/ME via Skint Records/BMG.