Toronto-born techno artist Shelley Johannson's musical DNA was constructed by her two raver brothers. Her earliest musical memories are of swiping house and trance CDs from them and stealing moments to hop in their car because they had the best driving music.
Her obsession with dance music fandom bubbles up in her dynamic DJ sets and brilliant production work. The hypnotic thump of a kick drum is part of who she is. Her roots are planted in a storied time in the rave movement with a network of branches reaching skyward toward the future.
“Even before I knew who the artists were, I knew that I loved that sound,” she says. “As far back as I can remember I’ve always listened to dance music. I've always been inspired by it.”
She remembers moments in her life that are attached to music with brilliant clarity. The moment she first realized she wanted to be a DJ happened on a dancefloor. She was dancing at the Toronto venue The Warehouse when her brother turned to her and told her that she should be the one DJing.
“He really planted the seed in my head and then it just felt like I should, it just felt like the right thing to do. And at that point, I was burning CDs for my friends."
She was already a collector and curator, she just needed the gear to get her going.
"I had a 98 Honda Civic hatchback. And I had this subwoofer, it took up the whole trunk, it took up the whole hatch back part of it. And people would come, like my friends, and sit in my car just to like, listen to music. And I would always have these really obscure tracks that weren't typical radio songs.” She ended selling that car to get her first set of CDJs.
Looking back is important to Johannson. Her Instagram feed is full of throwback trance and house records. And stories of visceral musical memories. Her musical history is part of the reason she created her mix series One-Eighty. The podcast is approaching 100 episodes and is a chance to showcase forward-thinking and innovative techno without forgetting where she came from.
“Every once in a while, I like to turn back 180 degrees and kind of see what my musical upbringing was and how it influenced me today. It's almost like paying respect to it. And you know, I draw lots of inspiration when I'm making music or any sort of art, from the music I used to listen to.”
She spent her childhood preparing for life as a DJ. And she doesn’t go a day without touching the decks, even if for only 10 minutes.
“I would still DJ every night if I never played in front of a crowd ever again.”
As a producer, she’s aligned with some of the best in the game. Johannson has released on labels that would have been a dream to her as a young raver. She’s found a home in John Digweed’s Bedrock and Adam Beyer’s Drumcode. But her story of hooking up with the seminal techno label Octopus Recordings is one that every young producer should hear.
“I think it's very important to align yourself with labels that you agree with their marketing, that you play their music, and that you can also see yourself releasing on that label,” she explains.
With that in mind, she showed up at a Toronto Octopus Records showcase with an EP tailor-made for the label ready to hand over to label head, Sian. She handed it to him directly. He didn’t end up releasing that EP, but she’d made an important first step in joining the label.
“The important part was that, I had taken an initiative to show that I was interested in the music. I went to the party, I stayed at the party all night, And I actually had the opportunity to be able to introduce myself, which is always going to help a lot more than just sending a demo and having this faceless email. Sian turned turned on my first EP down. But you know, I was like, Okay, well, that's good, because every no is closer to a yes.”
She’s found another way to turn the no into a yes through her label Turn Recordings. Another nod to the 180 approach, Turn lets Johannson play by her own rules.
The debut release, "Eternity" is a diverse three-track EP that traverses her diversity as an artist. The title track is a blistering run through high-intensity techno. "Say Again" takes the producer back to her roots with a peak time melodic breakdown. And "Do You Believe" finds the perfect balance between house sensibilities and funky techno.
Johannson is a self-professed, “creature of absolute routine.” So, her process of making records hasn't changed. However, her sound has come full circle.
“I find that the past year I was making some tougher sounds. I don't think it was particularly because of the pandemic or being in lockdown or anything like that. Maybe it was a bit of a reflection of how I was feeling and it just ended up being a little bit tougher, a little bit darker, a bit faster.”
When she mentions that she’s begun to push the tempo a bit faster, she brings the conversation around to reflecting on the music that made her fall in love with dance music.
“So it's kind of funny, because I am pushing it a little bit faster. But I feel like I'm going back to my roots playing that fast. Because that's what I initially got. How I was introduced to it. That's just what the BPM was at the time.”
As much as Johannson likes to reflect on the past, the future of dance music is just as compelling. Dance music is released at a lightning-fast rate. And as more new artists enter the arena, Johansson is excited at how technology has made discovery and connection more fluid than ever.
“That's the thing about dance music, it is changing. It's always evolving. There's always something that's new about it.” She explains. “There's new technology, there's new ways that we're making music. We're more interactive with each other now than ever. And yeah, that's really exciting to me.”
Listen on SoundCloud
Listen on Spotify