Sports analogies are often cheesy but it’s hard not to compare electronic music DJ Laura Jones to Serena Williams, a.k.a. the greatest athlete of all time.
Like Williams, Jones is currently at the top of her game. Despite being diagnosed with Stargadt’s disease (a rare genetic condition that results in progressive vision loss) in 2008, the house and techno DJ has been playing top clubs in London, Leeds, New York City and Ibiza for years. More recently, she wrapped up a string of shows in New York City back in March, is set to drop the third release of her year-old label Sensoramic and another remix on fellow label Constant Sound. It should also be mentioned that Jones was 32 weeks pregnant at the time of our interview.
We caught up with Jones to talk about her classical music background, the many musical phases she went through growing up, playing an iconic New York City venue, spending a season out in Ibiza and the challenges of DJ-ing with Stargadt’s disease.
“I started playing the piano when I was four years old so, I would imagine that would be one of my earliest accounts of music now that I could think of it. I think I was four, sitting on my piano stool with my legs dangling down, trying to learn classical piano.
“I played cello and the clarinet in primary school and I picked up singing in secondary school. I did all four probably until I came into my late teens. Because I had a background in classical instruments, I went into my singing lessons at a quite high [level] because I just had a good ear for tune and for melody.
“[I also remember] sitting on my parents’ living room floor with their amp and their speaker system with these massive headphones over my head, going through their like sixties CD collection, like Eric Clapton and all these [artists] like the Bee Gees and Elton John and E.L.O… discovering what I liked and didn’t like.
“When I was a teenager, my oldest sister was into dance music but more of the progressive end stuff which led me to sort of have a bit of curious ear towards it. I also went through an indie phase —typical Blur, Oasis— then it evolved into trance and progressive house. I then got into hip-hop—probably through a guy I was going out with at the time. I’ve literally been through them all [of the genres] to be honest, with the exception of rock and heavy metal. I started to develop my ear for electronic music when I was a student in Leeds.
“Just like my musical tastes sort of wavered around quite a bit, my decisions on what to do career-wise did as well. I wanted to do music but then I thought my parents might frown upon me doing music. I don’t know why. I thought they’d prefer for me to do something more academic and I went through [the idea] of doing medicine, then I was going to be a dietician, and then I considered law and all these different things. And then finally I settled on actually doing something that didn’t require any previous experience studying, which is business. I also loved Spanish so I did a business and Spanish degree. Those four years were quite pivotal really in me getting into the house and techno side of things.
“I was going to a nightclub called Back to Basics [in Leeds], which I’m a resident of now actually, which is quite funny. I used to go there a lot on weekends and the resident DJ at the time used to play ‘Make It Hot’ by DJ Buck. I was in the habit of going up to DJs at the time and asking them for the names of all the tracks that I liked and annoying the hell out of them. That was one I really liked at the time, and so I remember going out and buying it off eBay or something for like £14.
“My first trip to Ibiza was in 2004. It was a just a trip with my best friend and sisters. My best friend had been before so she was showing us the ropes on where to go and things. She and I did another trip the following year, after we basically finished school.
“When we came to Leeds and were like, ‘What the hell are we doing? We should totally go back!’ So we went back on a bit of a whim and spent the season out there. We thought, ‘we graduated. Why not?’
“It was during that season that I really got into the music, and the scene but I was also working a lot. My best friend and I managed to land PR roles at two different bars in San Antonio, and were both working six days of every week but we obviously made sure to make the most of the time we had. We’d go down to Amnesia, to Cocoon and we’d go to DC10… It was just like this perfect storm of going out, meeting new people, and listening to amazing music at the time.
“It was just like a penny dropping when [I realised] I wanted to maybe try and do the DJ-ing thing myself. It’s funny, because I had a desire to do music all along and it’s almost like things had come back full circle and telling me to go back to that. Maybe I’ve should’ve just done that from the get-go…
“After that season in Ibiza, I signed up to do a crash course at a music college in Sheffield. I had loads of friends who offered to teach me, but I don’t know. It was something that I felt so seriously about that I just wanted to go off and do myself.
“But even when you do these courses, the real learning is when you’re on the job. There’s something new about every gig and every set up and every party you play that actually you can learn what you learn in these courses but actually the real learning is through the real experience of playing out to an audience on a particular set up.
“I’ve always been a DJ that very much tries to work in the moment. I’ve never been one to plan a set from start to finish. I’ll always have a playlist from which to work from and that playlist will tend to change from show to show depending which country it’s in, or what time of the night I’m playing and what the vibe of the setting is going to be.
“Developing Stargardt’s disease has been something that has been the biggest challenge. It’s progressive so you continually have to adapt and mentally adapt to the changes. I’m also not really able to play outdoors through the day any more as Stargardt’s affects the photoreceptors in the retina, which means your eyes aren’t able to adapt to contrast and different light environments. That’s partly why I wear the orange tinted glasses, to stabilise different light environments and also to protect my eyes from blue light, something that is said to make the condition progress more rapidly.
“The diagnosis actually came a few years earlier in 2008. I was working a 9-5 in Leeds but trying to pursue the music career in my spare time. I’d recently bought myself a Macbook and Logic Pro and was teaching myself to produce and I had a residency for a night called Louche at a club called Mint Club in Leeds where I was playing once a month. The diagnosis came as a result of a regular yearly check-up at a high street optician that noticed the irregularity across the back of both eyes so referred me to an eye hospital and told I was losing my sight due to an inherited eye disease known as Stargardt’s Macular Dystrophy. It was a big shock to the system as I’d had almost perfect sight up to that point.
“The main obstacle I’ve had to face has been the loss of my independence. I was only 25 when diagnosed and so I’d spent 25 years learning and knowing how to use my sight, depending on it in everyday life to get me from A to B. Even though, they say the progression is slow, my condition went through a pretty fast degenerative stage and I was no longer able to drive within two years of the diagnosis. The medical industry had left it up to me to notify them when I thought it was time. I clung on for a good while, buying yellow-tinted glasses that helped me to see better at night, then I had a car accident. I knew it was time, I knew next time it would be more serious and I’d end up killing someone. I told the authorities, they sent me for tests which I failed and my license was revoked instantly. I’m no longer able to read text, recognise faces, follow TV or film or take part in certain sports, anything that requires fine detailed vision; things you completely take for granted. The body is amazing however and has helped me naturally adapt over the years then it’s really been a matter of keeping my mind as healthy as possible.
“It’s had a pretty profound impact on how I’m able to create and experience DJing. I learnt to play with vinyl which I’m no longer able to do but I still love to collect it and have to digitise anything I buy so I can play it on a USB. The CDJs I’m still able to use due to their illuminated LCD display. I’m also not really able to play outdoors through the day any more as Stargardt’s affects the photoreceptors in the retina which means your eyes aren’t able to adapt to contrast and different light environments.
“I can’t see the people and I can’t see how they’re reacting and I rely on audio stimuli, like shouts and whistles. But not everyone does that, you know. Some parties you may not get that.
“I remember playing in Fabric [in London] and it was one of my earlier sets. I spent the whole set thinking I was playing to like an empty room. My boyfriend was there and when I came off and I was like, ‘it wasn’t very busy, was it?’ He was like, ‘Are you crazy? It was absolutely full!’
“Usually whenever I play somewhere, I’m in and straight out again but I always try and stay a few extra days when I visit. New York is my favourite city in the world so it’s always a pleasure to be back there. I’d played the venue Schimanski [in New York City] a couple of times when it was formerly Verboten so I kind of knew what to expect. The crowd were great and it was fun to play alongside Loco Dice.
“[New York City] was absolutely freeeeeeezing when we were there. A big storm was about to hit so this time round I spent lot of time camping out in some new bars and restaurants in and around our hotel in Williamsburg that we hadn’t tried before. We ate sushi at Zenkichi, my favourite meal of the day brunch at Allswell and Rabbithole and managed a little bit of boutique shopping too. We spent the day in a snowy Manhattan, had a quick look in the magical winter wonderland that was Central Park and I made my regular trips to Barney Greengrass in upper west for a proper NYC bagel and to my favourite piercing and tattoo studio NY Adorned downtown.
“[For any New York City first-timer], wow, where to start. There are too many amazing spots to mention. One thing I do always say to those who haven’t been before, is to try and go for as long as possible as there’s so much to see and do and a weekend is such a tease and just isn’t enough. Start with the the obvious places. Don’t be too cool for school! This is New York, everywhere feels like a movie set and is worth a visit, even the tourist traps. Central Park, boutique shopping in Soho, the Museum of Modern Art, Halcyon for record shopping, Schimanski, Output, Blackmarket and ReSolute for partying; all of these are a good start.
“I’d always known I’d wanted to have my own creative outlet one day, it was just a matter of when. Even though I can’t see to play vinyl any more, it’s where I’ve come from and although digital music has been an incredible leap forward in the evolution of electronic music making everything more readily available and affordable for young and aspiring musicians, you really still can’t beat the feel and sound of vinyl. I came across a Native American artist whose work I fell in love with who happened to be called Sarah Sense and that coupled with my other half making an incredible piece of music felt like the perfect storm of things I needed to get the label off the ground. Before that point, I had always seen the label as being an outlet for my own productions but hearing Arrakis which later turned out to be the A1 on the first release changed that.
“I’ve learnt that I’m not the easiest to please. I never intended for Sensoramic to be the next big label topping all the charts and actually having a label these days is a real labour of love. Particularly if you want to invest in special artwork and touches that make it what it is. [In fact], my third release is from a New York-based minimalist producer Kamran Sadeghi which has been a long time coming so really excited to get that out there in the summer.
“I’m also having a baby in eight weeks and it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. I’m sort of passed the point of being actually being able to reach the DJ booth now. [laughs] I’m going to be off for a few months but I’ll be back at the controls around the autumn time.”
Photography by: R Kelly Photography
Bliss out to Laura’s live set from iconic New York City venue, Schimanski at the top of the feature.