Charlotte de Witte on her intellectual bond with music, perseverance, and wisdom gained along the way [Interview]
“My goal at that stage [of my career] was just to be happy with what I do . . . and to feel satisfaction in what I’m doing right now,” mused Charlotte de Witte on her earlier days. Little did she know when taking up the art of producing and DJing at the age of 17 that years later, she’d climb the ranks to earn a reputation as one of the top talents of the new generation of techno elite. “Music made me happy, and it still does,” she continued.
This simple, yet strong feeling that music she describes is one that drives many people’s musical ambitions. She grew up in Belgium, a place with electronic music running through its veins. Though often overlooked, the country played a major role in electronic’s development and integration into the mainstream in the earlier rave days, and remains home to some of the world’s most reputable festivals. Before “discovering the music [techno] on a more intellectual level,” de Witte enjoyed what she heard while going out with friends. She started her journey in electro, before “going out more and digging deeper into the music, and music culture/history.”
What sets this budding musician, who is just hitting her stride, apart from others is her keen ear for arrangement. In her research and experimentation, de Witte has found her way into cooler, subtly industrial shades of techno. Her music is minimal in nature, but it’s through clever arrangement of each element that she is able to move her audiences. Her no-frills approach thus becomes purposeful. “…A couple elements like a kick, some percussion, and maybe a vocal…grabs your attention so well,” she explains about her appreciation for this sound. “That’s what I really love about [this] music — I can actually get lost in the emptiness of the track, you know?”
She had a solid methodology in place as well when it comes to forging pieces that fit her preferred aesthetic: “For me, it’s really important to have a good and functional low end. All the rest of it is kind of easy to make.” Her creativity flows afterward, lending itself to ear-catching vocal bits, and sparse, yet impactful synthwork. Audiences lap up each each output, indicating her profound understanding of her art, and her relatability to listeners.
Moreover, de Witte’s persistence is a prime driver of her success today. At the beginning of her journey, she was vastly underestimated; not only in the sense of being a woman in a male-dominated realm, but also for her young age. After all, many instinctively discount young people at times due to the difference in life experience and perceived wisdom. Charlotte has turned a blind eye toward naysayers since the start, simply aiming to reach a satisfactory level by her standards and learn as much about her new scene of choice as she could. Eight years later, and we now see her set to host a stage at Tomorrowland (where she will be hosting a stage), and earn a top slot at the techno mecca itself: Movement.
Due to take over Movement’s Underground Stage for the penultimate set of the night, we sat down with de Witte for an interview, where we gathered her thoughts on the festival and dove deep into her growth and evolution as an artist.
Let’s start with you getting rid of your Raving George alias and showing the world that you were a kick-ass female artist. What are your words on deciding to make this change, and on women being respected adequately in the industry?
To be honest…I first started playing when I was 17, so I was very young. So I was both the only female in the underground industry, and I was also very young. Those two aspects didn’t make it very easy for me in the beginning. I do have the feeling that a lot of people tend to narrow it down on just the sex or the gender, especially. In my situation, [this] was not the case; it was both being a woman, and also my age. People love to talk about gender, and gender inequality in the music business, so to me this is an important side note because especially nowadays I feel like female artists are getting much more respect, and are being taken [more] seriously when they start compared to well, eight years ago.
Ah, you make a good point, that ageism is also an issue as well. Do you ever still find yourself having to prove that you have as much knowledge as other people, despite your age, then?
Not nowadays, but when I started because I was only seventeen. I was very, very young, which made it very difficult for me to be taken seriously. Combined with my sex, of course, that was also very tricky for me in the beginning. But now I’ve been DJing for 8 years, so that’s quite a long time. I mean I’m still very young — I’m 25 now — but, I don’t feel as insecure and new to the scene now as I did back in the day, so I think that’s what I’m trying to say there.
Yeah. So, how did you work to push through those negative assumptions at the beginning of your career? Or did you just persevere and have faith that one day people would take you seriously?
It wasn’t really my goal for people to take me seriously. My goal at that stage just to be happy with what I do . . . and to feel satisfaction in what I’m doing right now. I’m not really a person who gives up easily on herself, so that wasn’t the case in the beginning. But yeah — you should just stick through, and don’t give up when others try to shoot you down in any case. I try to look at things in a positive way. Music made me happy, and it still does, so I will not let people get me down that way. After all those years, people have tried to bring me down . . . they shut their mouth nowadays. I proved them wrong! [But] I was not necessarily thinking, “What should I do to convince these people, to prove them wrong?” It was just like, “Okay, I really love what I do, so I’m not going to stop in any case, whether they believe me or not.” You know?
When you were 17, did you realize you wanted to do this full time? When did that moment really arrive?
Not at all. I never expected this to be my life. It sort of happened, and throughout the years, I kind of discovered and found out that I really loved doing it and that it makes me happy, and that I must have some sort of talent in this because things were going really well. So yeah, things just happened, and you just go with the flow, and then at some point, you end up with a manager and you can play all your first festivals and really nice clubs, and you can start travelling. So yeah — you just go with it. Now this is my full time job, and my life! I’ve never had another job.
You’re a lucky one! It feels like over the past few years you’ve really blown up and reached ‘full speed’ in terms of touring and such. What has been the hardest part of adjusting to this new lifestyle so far, and what lessons have you learned along the way in terms of balance, self care, maintaining inspiration, etc?
[Over the past] two years I’ve started touring multiple countries in one weekend, and it’s really amazing to meet and get to know new people, their culture, and their food. Because I’m a massive food lover, I love trying new foods, local foods, and food cultures. But I did underestimate the impact it would have on my life. First of all, the lack of sleep is something that’s not easy on your body, though you can get used to it. I haven’t woken up next to my boyfriend on a weekend day for over two years now . . . but I’m kind of used to it in a way. I [also] underestimated the fact that I don’t see my friends and family as much as I would love to, and that’s one of the downsides, but you get so much in return. So that’s something that’s kind of hard — not necessarily the loneliness, but not seeing your loved ones as much as you want to.
I did kind of balance out my health — I’m not getting drunk at every single gig anymore, I try to drink some water, and I try to eat healthy in between — which is not easy, especially when all you have is airport food. I try to sleep as much as I can, too. I’m an easy sleeper; I can sleep wherever, whenever, so that’s a good thing.
That’s cool — you’ve basically learned to avoid the burnout before it happens.
Yeah — I mean, people talk about the burnout, but you never really know when it will hit you, right?
Well it seems like it’s far off for now, yes?
Yeah — so far so good! I’m feeling pretty good, so I’m feeling pretty happy. My voice is completely gone, but aside from that, I’m feeling okay.
We can imagine because you’re losing it every weekend! Let’s switch gears to your comeup and development of your sound. You began with electro, but now you’re kind of putting out cooler, almost industrial shades of techno. How did you get from point A to B?
Well, it’s just like evolution. That was 8 years ago, and I was only seventeen. I grew up and became an adult first, and now I know what I want in life. I think just by going out more and digging deeper into music and music culture history, it really was a logical step that you discover what you really like. Everything that’s happened so far is what’s gotten me to this point, if that makes sense.
Speaking of, you use a lot of classic trance in your work from fellow Belgians. Did you ever listen to that growing up, and did it help play a role in what you like today, or did you just discover it during your evolution?
Bonzai was a label from the 90s, so I was too young to be alive during this period of time — which is a shame, because I think I was born too late. Since I started going out, me and my friends always went to parties and even afterparties where I got in touch with that music. But it wasn’t until around five years or so ago that I really started digging deeper into Belgian music history and got to learn stuff about Bonzai and the rave scene. So I discovered it on more of an intellectual level than when I did when I was going out with my friends and just having fun.
It seems like Belgium is underrated when it comes to electronic music!
Well it is! It didn’t used to be. In the 80s and 90s we were huge, but we’re surrounded by really important countries for electronic music and cities like Berlin and London and Paris, so I we have quite a lot of competition going on. But Belgium is definitely underrated, because we make up a big part of dance music history.
Another thing you’ve said is you’re drawn to darker music because it touches deeper on emotion. We feel like another big factor is the cathartic, heartbeat factor of the drums. Do you think that might part of it too?
Kind of! I really love techno music because you can get into a trance by listening to a few elements. You’ll only have a couple things like a kick, some percussion, and maybe a vocal, and it grabs your attention so well . . . you know? It just feels simple and really simplifies everything. That’s what I really love about music — I can actually get lost in the emptiness of the track, and the purity of the track sometimes.
Less is more; you can interpret the music your own way! Yuu had trouble DJing at first, but now you’re feeling more comfortable with performing, and taking on longer sets. Where do you see yourself taking your DJ art next, and how do you deal with stage fright?
When it comes to DJing, for now I’ve just been focusing on what I’ll be playing through North America…I have Movement coming up, and that’s a big thing to take off my wishlist. I always wanted to travel as a kid, so I’m very satisfied that I get to do that and I get to do music. I will try to do this as much as I can and see the world.
I am thinking of doing an album, but I need some more life experience and I need to tour a little bit more. That’s not something you really want to rush, so I am taking my time with that. I’d like to start a label in the following years as well, so it’s all really vague [at this point], but I’m just focused on touring a lot and making time for production. It has been really difficult to find time in the studio because I’m constantly away, so that’s something I’ll probably have to take into account for next year.
On stage fright, you don’t lose it. Every single gig I’m always nervous. Depending on the gig, I’m more or less nervous, but that’s not something I think goes away if you’re a musician. You’re not a performer, you don’t have to stand up on stage holding a microphone, and you don’t have to put your hands up in the air, you don’t make the people follow you. You’re a DJ; your job is to just play the good music and make flawless mixes. So that’s why you don’t see me being very crazy behind the decks and drawing unnecessary attention to me. That helps when it comes to stage fright, because you’re not really performing. You’re just doing an intellectual performance with music.
You’re getting into your bubble when you’re playing every time; If I’m at a really big festival, after my set is done I often just stand there and I don’t really know what’s really going on because it’s all so overwhelming and crazy to be standing in front of thousands of people and see them dancing and going crazy to my music. It’s absolutely crazy, and I cannot get my head around it. It’s really intense. It’s amazing and beautiful, but it’s really intense. So you don’t really realize what’s going on in the moment, but instead, afterwards.
It must be crazy; sometimes it’s easy to pretend people don’t exist, but we can’t imagine this on such a grand scale.
Yeah! You can’t really pay full attention to what’s happening. I try to get in touch with the crowd and build a relationship with them. But to fully realize the amount of people standing there to see YOU is something I try not to do, because it’s too crazy!
When it comes to preparing for a set like that, what’s your process? Do you pick things on the fly, do you have a rotation of tunes, etc?
That’s kind of a hard one because I have a weekly radio show, and there I make a brand new set every week. I use entirely new tracks and do lots of research, but I think when it comes to playing clubs, especially at festivals, people that come to watch you are quite a broad audience — your goal as a DJ is to make people dance. So it’s really hard for me to pick a track for a festival, because you don’t want to go too commercial or too underground. And you want to play your own tracks. It’s really difficult, and that’s why I find it logical to plan a festival set because you want to keep everything in balance, and you want to keep the people dancing. It’s not easy!
And you have to figure out how to fit it all in a couple hours too.
Exactly. I have a lot of music. It depends on the day, what I’ve played in before sets, but actually if you think of it, you don’t have so many tracks that fit into that one moment when you’re standing on stage at a festival and people expect to be dancing, having the time of their lives. So you don’t really have that many tracks to choose from.
You make a good point! So we see you’re hosting a stage at TL. How did that come about, and who are you hosting/what ethos are you looking to build with your artist selection?
Well I played at Tomorrowland for the first time in 2011, and I’ve returned there ever since so we’ve developed kind of a working relationship. And then this year they hit me up and said, “Hey, let’s do a little KNTXT stage!” KNTXT is the name of my party that I host in Fuse, a club in Brussels that’s been open for over twenty years. My party is now about three years old, so to host a stage at Tomorrowland is really cool. Music and artist-wise, we want to keep it in the same line as KNTXT in keeping it fairly underground. We won’t be hosting big artists like Ben Klock or Nina Kraviz at our stage, but we do have DVS1, and there will be the fresh new generation of the techno underground.
This is your first Movement, right? How does it feel to be playing at the techno birthplace?
It’s crazy. I’m really excited for that one, especially because I will be around for two nights, so I get to explore Detroit. I can’t imagine the place; it must be so incredibly amazing, so I’m really looking forward to that one. When I was in the US recently for my tour, everyone was telling me that I would love Detroit, the people, and the clubs.
What is your process for writing music? What inspires you?
For me, it’s really important to have a good and functional low end. All the rest of it is kind of easy to make. For example, vocals — I can get really creative with those. I think that if your low end doesn’t sound just right, it could really ruin your track. It could be a make-it-or-break-it type of deal, so I always try to work really hard on my basslines, percussion, and background noise because that’s all really important when it comes to making techno.
That’s definitely a theme in your music; there’s a lot of white noise in the background. Final pressing question: We need an update on your life as DJ Nina (context here). Did you ever get a dog named Tiësto?
No! I haven’t had a dog in a really long time, actually. I would love to have another dog again — even if his name has to be Tiësto — but that’s not going to happen anytime soon because I am too busy.
Featured image credit: Marie Wynants
Grab last-minute tickets to Movement here