Holding space & creating opportunity with Luen
Women in electronic music have been an empowering force; a notion on the up with a roaring voice as the battle for an equal future is fought. Luminary LUEN FREE (known in her work mononymously as Luen) is a creative we’ve previously profiled, and yet so vigorously works to the bone that there is always more to say about her.
Using her platform as a prolific DJ, Luen has been touring nation-wide after an extensive period of travelling overseas. Shaking the walls and floors of many a venue and festival, she’s taken the opportunity to run a series of DJ masterclasses during her spare time interstate; which has allowed really positive outcomes both for her students and for herself.
We sat down with Luen over a chai to catch up on her busy life, and to hear about the success of these highly engaging workshops.
You’ve worked both as an artist and in the business within the music industry. Has being on both sides of the coin been of any benefit towards your DJ career?
I think so, I think having managed artists before makes me realise that you need to put a lot of work in to not just creating art, but showing people that you’ve made that art. When I used to manage bands, I would help take the song that they’ve made or the mix that they’ve made and find interesting ways to market it in the artwork or doing merch, or touring.
I think being in the industry has certainly helped me. Anything that I’ve done in the past, and anything that anyone has done ever leading up to the point in who you are right now, you can pick – like a pick’n’mix, everything you’ve done in the past to help you understand who you are.
You’re one of the Beats Of No Nation podcast hosts. What makes a good radio show?
I think a good radio show is honestly when the person who’s presenting loves the music they’re playing to you, and when you can tell that they’re really excited to show you this little secret that they have. You can really tell that someone’s excited when they’ve got something that they’re really eager to bring forth and show you, then you can feel that excitement and you can get excited about it too.
You’ve since teamed up with Melbourne’s Skylab Radio for a monthly TAXX show. What is it like being associated with multiple stations and podcast series? Have you found a tilt in audience?
I have to say, I don’t know if the TAXX show has really taken off yet. Genie [Stuart] and I are in this period right now where we’re just trying to understand what TAXX means to us and what kind of music represents what the TAXX brand is in a radio format. Seeing as we’ve done the mixtapes in the past and we’ve done parties in the past, this is the first time we’re doing a radio show.
One thing that is certainly different is bringing Genie into the project. She had this idea that we should theme each show. Even though I’ve done themed shows in the past, I’ve always kind of come about them quite naturally; like I’ve been in a city and I’ve gone “Oh I’ve just found five new songs from producers in this city, I’m gonna make a show and find another seven songs from producers of the same city” and then it’ll be a theme of where I am right now. Coming from a new direction with the TAXX show on Skylab though, they’re all themed in advance. Like the theme that I’m doing for this month, for example, is 90s Australian dance music, and I’ve got Andy Rantzen from Itch-E and Scratch-E to do an hour of Australian dance music from the 90s, and then I’m going to do it too.
Coming from that direction means that from the get-go you’re researching. It almost feels slightly less natural to me, but that’s because I haven’t done it in that way before, so that’s the level that the show is at right now. So, in terms of where the audience is going to come from, I’m guessing that the TAXX show is going to have more of my own audience who already know who I am, whereas the Beats Of No Nation show is an audience that’s not mine, they belong to Jad and Dom from Beats Of No Nation, and I’m kind of coming in trying to fit to their label which is really fun, it means I get to expand on my audience.
So you’re more comfortable with what you’re inspired by in the spur of the moment, rather than fitting to someone else’s brief?
I’m definitely a whatever-I’m-interested-in-right-now, it’s what takes priority.
TAXX has adopted “music label” under its umbrella, with the first release from Patch Free. What caused the itch to release music?
I feel like at my fingertips, I have all of this amazing music in front of me, and it didn’t seem like a very hard job to release it. It felt like it would have been a waste not to, it just felt like a very natural progression.
One thing that I have always wanted to do is release something physical, and I still haven’t done that in terms of the label; I have released a zine. The first physical release will be coming up with the next zine, so that will be a tape. I’ll have myself and Genie on it, and Andy Rantzen will be on there, as well as Patch and another producer who’s only had one release so far. I think we’ve got a couple of people we’re waiting to hear from, so a few secrets in there. It’ll be out some time this year.
Is it kind of like one of the TAXX mixtape compilations in tangible form, except they’re all originals?
Yeah so a compilation all with originals, where the TAXX compilations were releasing music that I love, but have already been put out by other people.
You’ve also started making your own music. How long have you been honing into that for?
I’ve been trying to make music for years and years and years, and when I say “trying”, I guess it’s not that I’m trying I’m just looking to have fun and learn about it. Now I feel like I’ve reached this position where the music I’m making represents the music that I’m also playing out, so it makes sense now to release it; whereas in the past, some of the music that I was making and the music I was playing out didn’t really connect, and also, I wasn’t very good back then.
I’ve made a couple of songs that I like, and I’m still working on more, I’m just kind of seeing how it feels and how to release it.
Do you think that when you do release it, it will be through TAXX or someone external?
I don’t think it’ll be through TAXX. I’ve had a few label offers but I also want to make some more music before I start releasing.
You’ve began a women / trans / non-binary DJ workshop series. How did this series come to fruition?
I just noticed that I had a lot more guys at my shows in the front row, and I remember when I used to go out when I was younger, and if for any reason I did have a friend who was DJing or a promoter and I was standing in the DJ booth, I didn’t understand – when I look at someone playing the guitar or playing the piano, I understand what they’re doing, but when I started going out watching DJs, I honestly just looked at the decks and saw a hundred buttons and knobs and just felt a bit overwhelmed. I felt like I was enjoying the music that was coming out, but there was a disconnect between me and the DJ, because they knew something so very different from what I could understand.
As well as wanting to teach women how to DJ, I also feel like doing the beginners lessons has helped girls feel like, “Ohh that’s what it does! Oh now I understand. Oh that makes a bit more sense now.” So, maybe they would feel more comfortable standing at the front of a crowd, or going up and talking to the DJ after about what music they were playing.
I think it’s about 50/50 in terms of girls coming to the workshops to learn how to DJ and some of them just being interested and wanting to understand it a little bit more.
Also, I have to say – and you know this, that I’m an extrovert and I love talking, but with DJing you don’t actually get to talk to people all that much. You just walk into a club, and you set up, and you are interacting with people but it’s not on a conversational level.
You’re constantly busy, too.
Yeah! If someone tries to talk to you while you’re DJing, it’s like, “Ahh this ain’t the time for a conversation”. The workshops are this really fun way for me to have conversations with people who are coming to my shows in a face-to-face way, while we’re also being able to swap music and get a bit nerdy.
Has there been a particularly rewarding moment through teaching these workshops?
I think the thing that has been really rewarding is the messages I’ve gotten from the girls after, saying that they’ve gone out and bought their own gear, or that they’ve started getting together playlists and that they’ve continued. What I’ve taught them hasn’t just been a, “well that was a fun thing that I did one night”, it’s sparked something in them that’s put them on a new path, that’s been pretty cool.
Have you learnt anything about yourself from the workshops that you maybe weren’t expecting to?
I’ve learnt how to be a teacher. I knew I wasn’t a great teacher when I started doing the workshops, but I’ve thought that with persistence and by doing a hell of a lot of them I’d become a better teacher, and that has happened. I’ve tried and tested different methods of teaching and found ways to get the teaching across better.
I really like teaching in a group format, and I teach in groups of eight as I’ve found it’s a really nice number. When you get below four, I feel like people almost don’t take it as seriously, and when you get more than eight people, there’s too many in the group, and it gets a little crowded. Between like six and eight people is perfect – everybody’s asking questions, everyone’s having a go. You get to see the person in front of you have a turn and you can learn over and over again while you’re not actually doing the movement, and you still get a chance to have a mix.
What I do in the workshops is teach a really basic mix, and then we move around in a circle and everybody gets a go. Every time we get back to the first person, we add a little bit more on and start to go a bit deeper, and learn how to use everything in the mixer, all the different knobs, all the different filters and different ways of dropping tracks, and it slowly gets harder through the lesson. That’s cool because I get to see how people are dealing with it.
I feel like when someone tried teaching me how to DJ, I’d known some basics but – if someone tries to teach you too quickly, you can get a bit overwhelmed. So, it’s fast, it’s only an hour, but I feel like people catch on pretty well with the method I’m currently teaching in the workshops.
How do you predict the future for female-identifying people in music?
It’s hard to say exactly, I feel like there’s more girls DJing now but it might be more that I’m interested in finding more girls DJing? It’s like when you buy a car, and then all of a sudden you see that car everywhere. I’m a female DJ so now maybe I’m seeing female DJs everywhere.
I think it’s definitely happening, and there’s different groups and communities trying to implement it. For example, Dance Class at FBi Radio – an all girls DJ intensive course, or like what you’re doing, or girls just getting out there and doing it themselves, maybe because there’s safety in numbers?
I think it’s so much more possible for everyone to do whatever they set their mind to, and that message is getting across a bit more as well now. There’s support for you, if you have a goal in mind, no matter who you are, you are in the best position in history to reach it.
You’ve spent a lot of the past year travelling, and spend a lot of time in nature. Has this had any impact on your DJing?
I think it’s just made me less career-motivated and more life-motivated. I want to have a good life rather than have a good career. I can’t go a week without getting into nature now, I feel like my natural state is being somewhere where I’m not plugging into other people’s perceptions of who I am, and that can be either on social media or DJing, or being on email, or being at gigs and seeing people who you don’t know that well and you just see every now and then.
I feel like who I really am is who I am alone or with someone who knows me really well, and my DJ career is something that I can have fun with, which makes me enjoy it more because although it’s my career, it’s something I’m grateful for instead of being like, “what’s the next move?”. Everything feels a bit more natural. I’ve definitely matured more in my life and in my mental health over the past two years, and I think nature has something to do with that.
What has been your mantra on this current Luen tour?
There’s a certain type of music that I’ve been playing more, and that’s a faster, glitchier style of music that’s been inspired by this album that came out on Red Embers called Embers Only by Justin Zerbst and Ewan Jansen.
As much as this isn’t a mantra, It’s kind of like playing music that you love, and this album has inspired me and I think it’s inspiring the music that I’ve chosen to play on this tour.
Photo by Daisy Hofstetter
Words by Hannah Galvin.