Olivia Dawn is a British-Hong Kong DJ, violinist, vocalist, producer and performer who’s been bridging the gap between live instrumental music and electronic sets. Her distinctive sound builds cinematic melodies and isn’t a tune you’d forget. Now performing all over the world, we caught up with her to chat life, sound and beyond.
Tell us about your journey into music, how did this all begin?
I’ve pretty much been building up to where I am, subconsciously, my whole life. I grew up playing violin and piano since the age of five. My mom was a big fan of opera and classical music, so she sent me and my brother to lessons. When I went to the US for boarding school, I started writing poems and melodies in my dorm room and taught myself guitar..singing..my first cover was Hallelujah. That helped me gain confidence, and I thought maybe I could try applying for music school. After my childhood violin teacher passed away, I went to a professor he had previously recommended, in Bloomington Indiana. I spent an entire summer at Indiana University, taking lessons every day. It was like learning violin from scratch again, I had to play just open strings every day and no notes, just to get the sound right. But it worked and I got into almost every conservatory that I applied for, including Juilliard…which at the beginning was nearly impossible so everyone was shocked, but when I got there, I realised that I wasn’t as competitive as the other kids in school… instead of practising my scales, I was more interested in writing my own music and learning how to improvise from the jazz kids.
I was the first person in my school to have a hybrid classical and jazz graduation recital. When I graduated, my mom and brother told me they found the perfect place for me to learn contemporary music – this place they found online called Berklee – not the one in Boston, but the master’s campus in Valencia, Spain. I said, “no way, I don’t speak Spanish, why would I go there?!” but they convinced me. It was there that I found myself. Berklee opened me up to all the possibilities in world and electronic music and gave me the tools to make it happen. I discovered Ableton and DJing there. After that, things started happening and it became clear to me that my calling was to become a DJ and now I’ve played at Tomorrowland twice with my DJ duo. Life is crazy.
So, with your mixing of genres, how would you describe your music?
It’s very difficult to put music in genres nowadays… even “house” has over 20 kinds, but I would say I make “funky techno” or “housey techno”). My productions are deep but uplifting, minimal but melodic, fun with emotional moments. I use a lot of dirty basslines and cinematic chords for the builds, with sprinkles of funk and groove in the drops. I also like the clean rhythms from techno, with a little swing and acid. As for my DJ music, I always play differently depending on the vibe or the crowd, but generally, I want people to feel joy and warmth and sexiness, nothing too dark. I want them to close their eyes and sway and feel that life is beautiful.
When did the idea strike for blending violin and vocals into your set?
This idea was completely random and out of the blue, it wasn’t like I researched and tried to imitate other people doing it. Not at all! In fact, I was taking a DJ class at Berklee, and like 2 months after my first class, I already got my first “DJ gig” doing B2B with a friend. I had no idea what I was doing, so my friend took over most of the time. Then I said, “maybe it’s better that I play my violin or something while you’re mixing so at least I have something to do!” So I started playing the violin with DJs. By the time I figured out how to mix properly, I already knew how to improvise over a mix. So it just kinda happened – took a while to get the timing right but it’s all about knowing when to give space.
What would you say fuels your music?
People inspire me the most – whether it’s listening to other DJ’s mixes or hearing about other people’s stories, it always motivates me. I also really enjoy being alone in nature, particularly near water, because that gives me space to think about why I do what I do. And of course, the sunrise and sunset. I always get good ideas when running outside during sunset. Running is a way to guarantee a good day for me.
What’s the reaction you get when performing?
Mostly people look really shocked whenever I bust out the violin, then they start to take videos. I wish they would put the phones away and just dance! I put a lot of effort into preparing a fresh selection each time but in the end, people just remember the violin parts.. but understandably so… those parts are quite awesome haha. I don’t play the violin throughout my entire set though, because I want people to dance to my mix. I keep it to maximum 5 tracks of violin within a 1.5-hour set.
So would you say the audience is the best thing about the industry?
Definitely the people. This industry is so unique, just with one single person onstage you can rock a stadium of thousands. It takes a lot of creativity and determination to stay afloat in this industry, so the people who come out on top are usually really inspiring, regardless of what genre it is. Each artist has their own story to tell, and it shines through in their music selection and production. It’s not just about talent either, it’s about luck and determination and street smarts.
Beyond music, what are your passions?
I LOVE food. I cannot describe to you the joy that I feel when having a good bowl of ramen. I also love running and sports, so I guess that cancels out the food, luckily! Hahahaha. When I have time, which is almost never, I like to read books about psychology because the human brain fascinates me, learning why people think the way they think and how that affects their actions.
What’s something people don’t know about you but should?
First, I have a weird obsession with elephants. They are kind of my spirit animals. As a kid, I used to love the Disney movie Dumbo. Now I have a collection of toy elephants at home. They strike me as a very kind, patient and intelligent creature, with great social awareness. I wish I could be more patient like them! Second, I am absolutely in love with Tintin the cartoon and especially Snowy. I have every Tintin book in my collection! Third, I just learned how to bike this year…embarrassing I know…but now I kind of like it!
Is Hong Kong home?
Hong Kong is an awesome city, I feel lucky to have been born in it. My parents are both from here, but because Hong Kong was a colony, I was born with a British passport. I stayed here till I was 14, then I went to boarding school and didn’t move back until 2 years ago. Now I’m about to move to Europe again, probably London or Berlin, because of the touring and gigs. I will always love my hometown, my bed, the food and the people in it, but the underground electronic scene here is not big enough for me, I’m ready for a new challenge. I don’t regret being here for these past two years because I kickstarted my career by opening for international DJs passing through. I would never have had this opportunity anywhere else. I want to go out there and be the first Hong Kong woman to tour internationally as a DJ.
Now that you’re moving, what’s next?
What’s next? I guess that would be to move to Europe. Don’t know what to expect, but I have a few fun bookings to look forward to – opening for Jasper James tomorrow, Amsterdam Dance Event in Oct and Babylon Festival next Feb…my first solo festival booking, and in Australia! I think I’m playing after Damian Lazarus.. so that should be a tough act to follow. I can’t believe I’m listed in the same lineup as a lot of my fav DJs…Nina Kraviz, Amelie Lens, Eagles & Butterflies, Undercatt, Woo York, Stimming, Behrouz, Damian Lazarus, Butch…So really excited for this! This is just the beginning. Must stay calm! Oh, and I will be working on my debut EP, hoping to release by end of this year.
You can find Oliva on SoundCloud and catch her upcoming shows via Instagram