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Dancing In The Woods: Octo Octa Interviewed
Aimee Armstrong , October 15th, 2019 12:16

Maya Bouldry-Morrison, the producer otherwise known as Octo Octa, speaks to Aimee Armstrong about how moving to the New Hampshire woodland inspired the sound of her new record

“The forest is weird,” Maya Bouldry-Morrison, AKA Octo Octa, tells me over a phone connection. “It’s dope; when you’re walking around the woods it feels like communication in a way. You’re looking at things and it’s showing you things back.” Regrettably, with our interview taking place via phone call, her vivid description is all I have to set the scene save for the background sound of chirping crickets.

She paints the woodland as a place of harmony, magic, and awe. “Behind our property, there’s a marsh. During the spring we have a spring peeper [frog]. We get this call; it’s weird. It’s not like a bullfrog or any other frog ribbit. It’s like this high-pitched whooping. We hear a ton of them going at once. When all the lights are out in the house it’s totally dark essentially, so you open a door and you can just hear hundreds of alien-sounding frogs whaling the entire evening.”

The life she’s describing encapsulates New Hampshire. Maya grew up there and recently returned after a long stint in Brooklyn. The painting which graces the cover of her latest record, Resonant Body, depicts this beautifully. It’s the work of one of her two partners, Brooke, and its lush orange and green landscape is enough to make one yearn for an escape from inner-city life. This is exactly what Maya did in recording Resonant Body.

Since the turn of the decade, she’s been producing, mixing and releasing her distinctive brand of vibrant dance music on labels such as 100% Silk and San Francisco-based queer collective Honey Soundsystem’s HNYTRX. A frequent tourer and now label head of T4T LUV NRG, the imprint she founded with her other partner, Eris Drew, earlier this year, Maya has often worked in claustrophobic environments. “I’d set up small studios, always in the corner of the living room. In my last apartment there was one extra small side-room that I set everything up in. But it only had one tiny window, on a busy street, and it would get super hot in there in the summer. It was really cramped, and not in a fun way. It was just uncomfortable.”

Migrating from the city to a log cabin in the woods has had a profound effect on Maya’s music. Resonant Body is spacious, multifaceted, alive. Brimming with rave-y piano stabs and infectious vocal samples and hooks, the record takes the aesthetic from her previous LP, 2017’s Where Are We Going?, and amplifies the euphoria tenfold. This burgeoning ecstasy is encapsulated in the tracklist alone with names like ‘Imminent Spiritual Arrival’, ‘My Body is Powerful’ and ‘Power to the People’. But the sound of the record - unapologetically upbeat, warm and colourful - furthers that feeling. She describes it herself as “dance floor-ready emotional music”.

Honing in on some of the album’s tracks, we touch on ‘Move Your Body’, a standout cut which has all the makings of a ‘90s rave-ready Trax classic. “It’s not about nostalgia in 1996,” she tells me, noting that she was only nine years old at that point. “I wasn't going out to parties so I have no reverence for that time. It’s more about recontextualising that music for now. A lot of the sound materials from ‘90s and ‘80s breakbeat, house and rave music is stuff I’ll play out and that’s, of course, all filtered back into this record.”

Maya’s work has long had a deeply autobiographical hue and this became wholly apparent by the release of her last full-length record. The cover of Where are We Going? depicted her kneeling on the bed of a hotel room that she stayed in one night after playing a party for Honey Soundsystem. As a trans artist, she says, this was a brave move. “I was opening myself up to scrutiny, but at the same time I thought, ‘well, that’s me’. I don’t want to work in anonymity. So why not just have that be part of it. It felt like a good thing, because visibility is a really important step in trying to equalise society, at least to some degree. Nothing ever feels good about people saying ‘that’s just who you are, but don’t put it in front of my face!’” The idea for the cover had come from Honey Soundsystem’s Jacob Sperber (AKA Jackie House), with the pair ultimately agreeing that it would resonate for the reasons Maya laid out. She’s part of an ever-growing wave of trans and gender non-conforming electronic music artists who are confidently stepping out and pushing for visibility and diversity within the scene.

“Coming out gave me a lot of freedom,” Maya goes on to say. “Of course, being a trans woman, I deal with a whole lot of stuff, in airports and hotels, phone calls and going to the store - harassment and sexual harassment. It’s more than I’ve ever had to deal with before. But at least I get to deal with it in a way that means I’m not lying about myself or feeling that I have to lie about myself. I get to just deal with it as the person I am - which is a huge relief.”

While a change in location has certainly given Maya more physical space to work, it hasn't freed up her busy schedule and she is quick to bring up that leaving the city can be a double-edged sword. It’s no secret that small-town folks aren't renowned for their progressive views: “It’s strange being a bunch of queer people in New Hampshire, it’s a quiet small state,” she tells me. “We got our house cheap but it’s, like, hyper libertarian and I’m not a libertarian but there’s the social aspect of people just letting you do what you wanna do.”

Queer positivity, support, and comradery are all essential to Maya’s work. 50% of the proceeds from sales of Resonant Body are to be donated to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a vital organisation which helps people self-determine their gender identity and expression free from harassment, discrimination, or violence. “They have a lot of information available there, such as how to get your name changed, how you change your gender marker... and also just the messaging of the project itself all feels really wonderful.”

Maya goes on to detail the “government bullshit” she faced in order to be recognised as trans. “I had to be legalised by the fucking government for being the person I am,” she says. Proceeds from many works on the aforementioned T4T LUV NRG will go to the SRLP, as was the case with the label’s debut release, a mixtape by Eris Drew. And there’s more to come: “The next release will be two of Eris’ archival tapes. We went through a box of her cassettes and we pulled one out that had a date on it from 23 years ago and 23 is her number. So we listened back to it and it’s a really good mix; it has a lot of elements of how she DJs now, but 23 years ago. We’re gonna do a double pack of that and one other mixtape.”

She and Eris also have plans to release other people’s music. “There are various plans for compilations,” Maya says. “We eventually want to start looking at other people’s work; we’re just trying to find time to actually respect that. I can say ‘give me demos’ but I don’t have time to go through demos right now. I wouldn't want someone to give me something that I can't listen to for six months. We want to find time to sit down and find stuff that is for us.”

Whether it be in the music of Bronski Beat escaping a small town, Joe Smooth pining for equality or Fingers Inc. waving goodbye to a toxic relationship, dance music, at its core, is a tool for liberation in its escapism. This is exactly what the forest provides for Octo Octa. Resonant Body encapsulates this and whether it’s New Hampshire, the south of England or anywhere else, the queer clubs and forests will always be a place for queer folks to escape to untamed by overbearing scrutiny and “government bullshit.”

Octo Octa's Resonant Body is out now and can be purchased here. You can follow she and Eris Drew's label, T4T LUV NRG, here