Tone Glow 074: Laila Sakini
An interview with the London-based, Melbourne-born producer Laila Sakini
Laila Sakini is a London-based producer and DJ originally from Melbourne. Her work dabbles in trip-hop and ambient, reminiscent of other Melbourne artists such as HTRK and CS + Kreme. While having DJ’d and written music for years, 2020 proved to be notable for Sakini, as she released multiple records, including Vivienne, Into the Traffic, and Under the Moonlight, and Strada. Prior to this, she released the collaborative album Figures with poet Lucy Van in 2017. Joshua Minsoo Kim and Laila Sakini conversed via Zoom on May 27th, 2021 via Zoom, discussing her upbringing, her relationship with the piano, and her various works.
A few days ago, when we were initially going to have the interview, you mentioned that you had a physio appointment. What’s going on there?
I often get back pain so I go in every now and again just to get new exercises, and they do a semi-massage thing. It’s not that exciting, really, but it is expensive and hard to get out of—I can’t really reschedule. I think it’s a lot of time spent in front of the laptop. Whenever I go to physio they say that they have all types of people coming in now because everyone works from home and isn’t monitoring their posture or exercising enough. But for me it’s something I’ve done for years; I did it even before the pandemic.
Last year my hands and fingers were in a lot of pain just because I was always at home typing. I was like, I guess I gotta do finger stretches now.
That’s part of the gig, I guess.
You were born in Melbourne. What was it like, growing up there?
My upbringing wasn’t typical because my dad was from overseas. My older brother was born overseas and my mom was a second-generation Italian [immigrant]. I was born maybe the year they first got to Melbourne. And we grew up about an hour out of the city where it was very Dutch and a mostly white, middle-class vibe of people in a New Age-y area. When I was young, because my parents would speak Italian, one of my first thoughts was, “Why aren’t we in Europe? Why are we here? We’re so far out of everything that you’re doing and everything you represent, we have to eat pasta for dinner every night,” or, my dad’s from Morocco and we’d eat tajine.
Did you feel out of place in Melbourne?
No, I mean, our next door neighbors for a time were French. And then most of the interactions when you’re young are with your cousins and they’re all Italian. And so at first I was like, I guess everyone’s like this. And then, going through the motions of going to kindergarten and realizing, wait a second.
Even though everybody looks different and sort of had a different backstory, as a kid I was pretty enthusiastic and trusting in the community of people or just people in general. My parents are very nice and never taught me about too many of the bad things in the world. So I just was like, “Hey, why wouldn’t we get along?” Sometimes people would say something about what I look like and the fact that I was a bit different, but I never embraced it too much. I did get confused by it, but I didn’t sort of go out there feeling different; I expected that it should be fine. I felt estranged at points, but probably not so different from the kid with red hair at school.
You mentioned that the community was sort of New Age?
It’s a small town by the edge of the forest. The town is called Belgrave. It’s part of a large area called Dandenong Ranges. All the signs were there, Joshua. It was like, there’s murals on every second shop, they’re all health food stands or health food shops, there’s a wizard that spends his days on the main street offering Reiki healings, everybody sells crystals, and there’s a witch and she did all the horoscopes for the local paper. Everyone wore crushed velvet for a sec. You know, it just felt like everything was tied. And there was a cult up there. But I had nothing to do with that, that’s just part of the history. It was an alternative and it’s still like that. There are a lot of people with a bit more land than in central Melbourne so they grow their own organic food and animals.
Were you ever into all that sort of stuff?
Well, no, because my parents were into it (laughter). I still kind of have that attitude. I get it, but I’m not like them. I wouldn’t say that I am New Age, but that is the vibe down there.
You also mentioned that you were very enthusiastic and trusting of people as a kid. Would you say you’re like that now?
I mean, as you get older, you get jaded, but I think it always ends up settling back into “everything will be okay” if you can make things okay for yourself and within your small circle, and sort of [take things] one step at a time. I think I do have a weirdly strange, sort of trusting… I’ll talk to people, you know? If you do have that kind of attitude, you can change the dynamic of things a bit. I would say I’m outgoing or whatever.
I feel like I’m that way with people. I’ve gotten burned several times throughout my life, but I’d rather be this way than extremely apprehensive about engaging with others. You gotta weigh the pros and cons, I suppose.
Yeah. And I sometimes think we can become foreign to each other if we maintain our place in the line, like with the people you see at the grocery store or something. You know, you can sometimes turn around and go, “Ah, doesn’t that stink in here?” And then it breaks the social code of not talking in the line. I don’t know. I think we’re all often thinking similar things.
I know you played piano growing up. How has your relationship with that instrument changed over the years?
I guess I’ve accepted my weaknesses to the point where they’ve become a feature. I learned classical piano and I was not good. I was going into class and feeling bad about not having practiced enough or not being able to play or read something fast enough, skating my way through classes, still loving music, but just not having the correct aptitude. I felt bad about that, but now it’s kind of like very few people I know who actually are producers or composers are trained musicians.
My relationship to the piano is tenuous now because I use so many other instruments. Learning piano more intuitively, as a bad student, helped me to learn other instruments on my own because I was not completely hinged to the technique and one sort of process. It was more about the sounds than it was about the technique and the sheet music.
It’s now a matter of, I’m assuming, figuring out what sounds would make sense for the piece of music you want to make.
Yeah, exactly. Very simply trusting in your abilities and your own ideas, just knowing how sound feels and works. I mean, I still love it. If I see a piano somewhere, I can’t help but want to sit down and play it and touch it and feel it but I haven’t been using it much lately at all. I don’t even have a piano yet—I have a MIDI keyboard.
When I first started working on electronic music, I was like, “Ooh, get that away.” It’s not cool to play piano or know chords and stuff. And then now, you can have some of that in there. Me and the piano, we’re okay. We’re getting along (laughter).
You studied criminal justice and then you studied sociology. What about those two fields are alluring for you?
I wanted to study law. My mom wanted me to be a musician, but I was like, I want to be a lawyer (laughter).
Whoa, this is the opposite of every single person’s life story.
Yeah, “No mom, that’s not a sustainable course.” “We put all that money into you learning piano and singing and stuff!” I was like, yeah, but you know, law, I can go places with law… I obviously didn’t get the grades because I did classes in music and drama and media studies. In Australia, they grade you down for all of the creative classes you do, so your chances of getting into top tier universities are pretty low if you’re not doing advanced maths and stuff.
So I opted to do criminal justice, which was a criminology-type social sciences course. And I found that really interesting. It was just a necessary component of something I would have to do if I wanted to work my way into a law degree. And then, obviously, criminology is a substrata of sociology. So when I looked to transfer to my next step, I looked at sociology as an option. I guess the plan was to graduate with honors and then go to do a juris doctor—like post-graduate law—but I just got too busy with music, so I didn’t do it. Yet.
Was the decision to go from that into music a tough one at all?
No, because it just happened gradually. I was always doing music things on the side. There wasn’t a watershed moment. I was DJing—that’s how I was dipping my toes into music. At a time actually early on, when I was still studying, one of my best friends who got me into DJing, he was studying law. He now works on Wall Street. I think he was a little bit disappointed—I think he wanted to actually do music but the lawyer inside of him said no.
I found it oddly compelling to do music. After doing some DJ stuff, I realized it could be something beyond my own fun, that it was an actual sort of useful, meaningful thing to do for people. I guess maybe as someone who thinks they’re going to go into public service, you need that kind of preface before you can fully commit. I remember feeling, wait a second, this actually aligns with things I had read and studied at school, economically, socially—this makes sense. This isn’t a trivial pursuit, or all about me indulging in a hobby and going overboard. I convinced myself that it was okay.
I’m sure your mother was happy.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, it’s taken me a while to even get records and stuff out, but I think she was always happy that I was doing it. But she’s happiest now that I’m doing it more than I have done it for awhile, or in the last five years or so. But anyway, who cares what she thinks? (laughter). It’s not like I have to report back. Should probably stop worrying about what she thinks.
Was there a reason why it took a bit of time for you to release recorded music?
Oh, I was writing music for years and years and years and was never sure what was quite right, and I was nervous. I went through all the motions of “what kind of musician am I”—all the writer’s block and overthinking. And I think I just exhausted all of those trails of thought; they all end up at the same place, which is nowhere (laughter). So I thought, I’m pretty exhausted from doing all this stuff and then ending up at pretty much this exact place, so maybe I should try just a little twist to the left and put something out. Maybe I’ll just rejig this a tiny bit, see how that feels. And then I was like, oh, that’s not that bad.
And [when I say that], I’m thinking mostly of early last year, when I put out a self-released CD on Bandcamp. This is before Bandcamp day. I was like, has anyone ever done this before? And like, yes, everybody is fine to do that. You don’t really need a record label, come on Laila. Flash-forward two months and everyone’s doing it. I was like, wow, I’m going out on my own. I was happy with the work. I’d been tinkering with it for ages. I cold-emailed some magazines. I don’t think it would even happen these days, now that Bandcamp is so used, but I must have got in just in time. And then I felt much more comfortable with the idea of just releasing stuff. I had a lot to get off my chest.
I remember when I first heard your 2017 release with Lucy [Van], Figures. How did that collaboration come about and what was it like? A lot of the other stuff is more of a solo endeavor.
Well, it was great. She’s one of my best friends and I’ve known her since we were teenagers– a long time. She had to do a talk, to read one of her poems at a noise event, something where she asked, “Do you mind putting a couple of minutes of music together for a poem?” I’d been writing a lot of music then, and then I was at her house that day or the next day. I came over with the microphone, set up in her kitchen, which had a nice natural reverb. I put a click or something in there and then just let her roll and we took a few takes.
I wasn’t attached enough to say too much about my identity or where I was in music at that stage, so that freed me up to just do the job. It wasn’t about me, you know? I was building stuff around her stories. It was about coloring it in, illuminating what was already there. It was just super fun. I had the skills ’cause I’d been producing all this music—I could do it quite quickly. I look back, and Lucy’s stuff is these very succinct poems with visual themes. Perfect song length—they almost had a natural chorus element to them. I think she thought I was just gonna make noise, like, put some white noise and chimes in the background, but I came back with an actual pop-formula song. She said, “I love it. I love it so much.” And one of us leaned into the other and said, “You wanna do another one?”
And so we ended up just making a whole bunch of them. Just for fun, as a good way to spend time with your friend. We’ve still got a few other recorded ones we did from that time. And we sit back sometimes and laugh, “We actually seriously made songs that are cool!” It was very innocent fun.
Last year felt like a pretty big year for you. You had several releases. Earlier you said that with the music you were making, you had a lot of stuff to get off your chest. Is there a song from the ones that were released last year that you feel were very important for you?
I’d say the whole Vivienne album. I didn’t spend that long making it but [it’s] a complete piece of work. “Important” is a good word for it, I guess, cause it wasn’t necessarily the coolest thing I’ve ever done, but I was owning who I am and what I got. Writing it was a dream. I worked with my strengths with piano, a really gentle palette. And even just in writing it, I really, really took care of myself. That the process has integrity is important to me. So each morning, I had lots of breaks. I never obsessed over it at nighttime or anything like that. I did it quite quickly.
Well now what I’m hearing is you saying it wasn’t cool. And that this album was you owning who you are. So first, I got to say you seem like a very cool person, and second, I want to ask, who are you and how is that coming out in these songs?
I mean, I think that when I say it’s not cool, I think it was at that point I stopped caring if other people thought it was cool—I knew people that didn’t think it was cool (laughter). They’re like, “Oh yeah, that unicorn record you’re making.” Whatever. It’s just something I had to do. I think that was like, all right, “I’ll go down this road now it’s going to be okay. It’s not going to be awesome. But it’s the right way to go.” It felt right in my deep inside, beyond all the cool clothes and graphics and all that stuff. I felt like that was something. It doesn’t have too many hallmarks of whatever is cool at the moment and it’s very much a personal thing. It felt like something I had to do despite knowing that it may not be okay, like it may not go down that well.
I was known within Melbourne as a dance music DJ, drum ‘n’ bass. So people were a bit like, “Say what? Where does this come from?” I’d say, “Well, you don’t want to go home and listen to Dillinja on repeat!” There’s other sides to me. So yeah, I guess it was just the reason for the apprehension. I was like, “I think I’m going to lose a lot of DJ gigs.”
But then you’re not painting yourself into a corner with your DJ stuff.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, and that’s the thing. Who I am and associate with in Melbourne, we have all been DJing for a while. The difference between us and some other DJs is that we generally are involved in lots of different types of music. And we’re always, always looking for new music. We’re always revisiting old music—it’s always about refreshment. You’d never want to just work with one field of music, one sound, one era. No way.
What sort of things do you foresee yourself creating, from here on out? Is it important for you to be constantly doing new things, to be working in different types of music?
Yes. I think it’s important. It’s also required of me in this moment. I’ve said yes to a lot of things, so I’ve got to do it. I made a lot of crazy promises (laughter). I like doing it, I like being busy and this is what the business is now, ’cause the pandemic kind of erased the possibility of me doing any other type of work except for being at home writing music.
What is important for me to be working on next? I’ve got bare-bones concept sketches in my head of the next records that need to come out. I wouldn’t be able to say sound-wise what that is or means ’cause I kind of figure it out in the studio. But I’m finishing up something now, which is important to me. I didn’t expect that I’d be doing what I’ve just done, this next thing.
“Important” is a difficult word. Is it important for me or important for the community? I guess what’s needed next is some good old fashioned entertainment, isn’t it? So I think, let me get back on the road and prepare for that. Reworking stuff so that it’s enjoyable for me and acceptable for an audience. For a long time, it’s just been survival, not so much music, music, music. But since putting all that stuff out last year, I get a lot more inquiries.
You’ve blown up, I guess.
Yeah. I want to blow up, you know, that’s fine. You know, like media-wise it’s fine. I don’t want to internally blow up (laughter). I don’t want to combust.
Do you have gigs lined up? How do you approach presenting your music in that sort of setting?
I do have live shows. I don’t even want to look at my phone because my friend, who’s doing my bookings for me—he’s an agent, a real agent, but he is my friend—sent me a whole bunch of texts. I announced a gig yesterday. I’ll be playing at Cafe OTO, which is just up the road from me. And now I’ve been asked to play some other things.
I have played live before, but none of this material, because there hasn’t been the opportunity to. I have never really arranged a live set. How am I going to do it? I’ll have to figure it out. I don’t have a budget to have a band or something and it wouldn’t be that useful anyway, because I use a variety of instruments and none too heavily. I’m not going to fly my friend Brian over to play two saxophone solos. But that’d be nice, wouldn’t it?
I imagine I’ll be recreating songs to be live versions, longer, more improvisational pieces that are based off the music, but not exactly the same as the [recorded] songs. Probably focus more on ones where there are vocals because my hands are going to be busy. But I want to DJ as well. So we’re trying to work out those two. I DJ’d a month ago or so, when everything first opened again.
How was that? Where was it at?
I played an outdoor space, a place in Hackney Wick, which is this converted warehouse in East London. There is a club, but they have a big outside area with tables and chairs and stuff ’cause you’re not supposed to stand up, you’re not supposed to dance. It was great. It was fresh air, it was sunny, which is weird for London. All my friends got to come. I went in there a tiny bit nervous ’cause it’s the longest break I’ve ever had from DJing—like a year—and then 20 minutes in I was looking at my watch like, oh right, yeah, still got a while to go (laughter). It quickly became the same. All the same thought processes crept in and before I knew it, I was just having a great time and everybody else was having a great time. It was a good reunion.
I have one more question. Do you mind sharing one thing you love about yourself?
Mmm! Hmm. (Jokingly) I do mind sharing! I do mind, Joshua! (laughter). No, I don’t. Something I love... not like, but love about myself. It’s a tough one... love?
And maybe if love is too strong a word it can just be something you like about yourself.
It’s a little less sharp. Um, I… (shows hesitation). Hmm. It’s probably not a good thing that I can’t think of something. Maybe just my sense of humor. My ability to roll over things when things get really tough. It’s a coping mechanism, I’m sure, but it helps me cope. That engenders confidence and it allows me to get around the world and move about in different circles and meet people. Being a girl in the industry, I used to have to enter some situations which may have been perceived as intimidating, but I’ve always been able to go with it. I don’t know if it’s something I love about myself, but it’s something I’ve found useful about myself, this adaptive, social non-seriousness. Something like that. “Springiness.” These are really horrible words.
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