“Early in the pandemic, I was anticipating that things wouldn't open up again in the fall of 2020, as people were talking about. So I sat down with my manager, and I was like, ‘are we gonna do this?’” says Najaaraq Vestbirk, better known as Courtesy. “I had this dream about finally finishing a release and doing a live show. I gambled everything on my music career, and said, 'Okay, we'll do this,’” she affirms, speaking in her studio on the second floor of her Berlin apartment. The balcony window is wide open behind her, as the lush May breeze gently blows on the papers next to her synth. There is an unoccupied playmat on the floor.
After years of successful career as a DJ and label head, and after two years of the pandemic, Courtesy released her debut EP ‘Night Journeys’ in March 2022 on her label Kulør. However, her first EP was not the only thing she birthed during the pandemic — she also had her first child, Frances, last year. “Leading up to the day that I gave birth, I was working on finishing the record. The first months of the pregnancy, I felt horrible. I was really, really sick. But I had taken on this teaching gig with the [Rhythmic Music] Conservatory in Copenhagen, so I was teaching a class in performance music and contemporary art, showing research I had done on musicians that collaborate with artists or visual artists that have music as a part of their practice. The actual teaching was nice, but it was also horrible because I was so sick. That was very stressful. At the same time, I was trying to finish this record, and I was planning these live shows. And then I had Frances, and I had committed to all these live shows, which were only eight months away. I didn't really have an hour of music – I only finished 20 minutes. So that was obviously also insanely stressful because, you know, you can't work with a small baby. I took a couple of months off. And then I slowly started properly being productive in the studio after six months.”
At the same time as her first EP was announced, so was her first live tour taking place across May and June 2022, starting at Berghain, Berlin, and ending at Primavera Sound, Barcelona. As we sat down for the interview, she was about halfway through her live tour plans. “I'm getting more rest now than during the pandemic. When I go on tour weekends as a DJ, I don't bring Frances, so I get to sleep before the gig. I also get to do all the admin that I didn't have time to do during the week. To be honest, the pandemic was a very good period for my creative output, but it was also super uncomfortable. Now, the fun part began."
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It was an uncommon choice for someone who’s been a well-known DJ and label head for many years, as well as an alumna of Red Bull Music Academy, to not have released her own music for the first decade of her career. As the trademark of Courtesy, and her label Kulør, has been colourful and euphoric trance and techno, it was easy to expect her first release to also be happy stompers. However, contrary to the expectations, ‘Night Journeys’ was an ambient EP, but still layered with the euphoria and nostalgia familiar to her fans.
“Before Kulør, there were some years where the techno was really dark—there was barely any melody on it. In that period, I started playing around with writing little ambient melody parts that I could play on top of techno tracks. I started thinking a lot about it back then, and the idea lingered since,” recalls Courtesy, when asked when she first got the idea of making ambient music for her first release. “But at the time I didn't have the time or the mental capacity to really dig into the project, and I also didn't have the skills. I started playing the piano a couple of years ago, just to learn music theory and to be able to write slightly more interesting chord progressions. And after two years of lessons, I came to a place where it was a lot easier for me to play around with the instrument. When the pandemic hit, I was at a sweet spot where technically, I already had the music equipment in the house for what I needed to make, and obviously the time as well. I could spend a lot of time with the piano and the synthesizer, which is what I used to write the music for the EP, driving my neighbour insane.”
But what was perhaps even more of an uncommon choice, was the decision to have a baby in the prime of her career in dance music. “I wanted kids, but I was really scared about how that would affect my career. You see less of it now, but before, there were these negative stereotypes about famous DJs that had to be either fucked up or fuckable, and I never really saw myself fitting into those stereotypes. Even with the DJs that I looked up to–for example people from Hessle Audio–although I respect them musically and intellectually, they weren't really dads either, so I felt like I had very few real role models to go for the decision of having a child. But I just wanted children — I think for me, that was a part of my story of having a meaningful life.”
Of course, though, when a baby is added to the equation of the touring life, it is not made easier. “Last week, both my husband Reece and I played HÖR sets on Monday. We then both played the Kulør night at Berghain that I had organised on Friday. Plus, I had a concert and a DJ gig abroad on the weekend. So essentially, it was kind of a four-gig week for me, and that week was crazy for both of us. But every time when we as partners get through a week like that, we're like, 'we still love each other! We made it through the pandemic and we made it through this crazy week!’” She grins as she recalls her week. “We have a really chill, healthy child, and that is not something everyone is blessed with, so that makes it a lot easier.”
I was one of the lucky ones who attended the first show of the live tour at Berghain that was sold-out. Although I’ve been to the venue many times before, how it was set up for the concert, compared to a regular club night, felt almost foreign to me. It was surreal to have euphoric ambient music flow out of the enormous soundsystem, as opposed to the usual relentless four-on-the-floor kick drums. As I was mesmerised by the music played by Courtesy and the guitarist Luka Aaron, I saw people looking behind and smiling. There were dreamy, technicoloured graphics projected onto the ceilings and walls of Berghain, served by Emmanuel Biard.
“One of the main interests I had when I was teaching at the Conservatory was the alternative takes on the topic 'what is a concert experience?' I leaned much more into wanting that to have more of an aura of what you would experience in an exhibition space. I've thought a lot about the presentation: 'how is it to be in the room?', not just about 'what does it sound like?'” explains Courtesy, on how she approached designing her live shows. “I also find club spaces and club lighting quite beautiful. It's not about making the venue something else, but rather, how do we use elements that are already there, and add this extra element to it. You come in, you step into a world and then you leave.” Her live show at Berghain was as ephemeral as it was tightly-crafted — partially thanks to the venue’s no-photo policy, the experience only remains in the memories of people that shared the experience then and there.
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“I consider myself an artist,” explains Courtesy. “I consider myself an artist that has DJing as a part of my art practice, in the same way I also work with performance and composition. Of course, there are a lot of technical skills I've had to learn to make this variety of artistic outputs — as an artistic director for Kulør, as a DJ, as a composer, and running a live band. There are all these different hats I have, but essentially it's all about an art practice where I'm creating these spaces for people.”
As creating a concert experience is an interdisciplinary art, Courtesy put together a team of artists to manifest her vision into life, including the aforementioned guitarist Luka Aaron and visual artist Emmanuel Biard, and Bona Lynch, a sound engineer who she swears is one of the best in the world. “In order to make things really high scale, you have to be able to let go. I have very direct instructions about what I want in the room. I dictate what the vibe is. How dark it is. How light it is. And then I give a lot of artistic freedom within the framework that I want, because I'm focusing on people's experience. The first step is knowing what you want, and I spent a very long time researching and figuring out what I wanted for this project. Then the second step is finding people, and being able to communicate that. And then they can do what they're good at. You have to be very informative and very direct about what kind of experiences you are building, and then you also have to trust the team that you have put together.”
But the way Courtesy values the team she has put together goes way beyond the art they create together. “When you're touring as a DJ, you spend a lot of time on your phone. You know, because you're alone in a hotel room. I also think that's one of the reasons why there's so much activity in DJ culture and club culture online compared to live music, because bands literally don't have the time. We were in Copenhagen for the live show, and all this water started dripping from the ceiling on all of my gear. Because of this, we were doing soundcheck until a minute before they let people in the venue, and it was really intense. There was no time to just stare at my phone. I think my relationship to online culture is definitely much healthier with the concerts, because then you use it more resourcefully, not just because you're lonely,” explains Courtesy. She has also been vocal about the impact of touring on mental health, prior to the pandemic. “If you're going to spend a lot of time with people, it has to be someone you want to talk to during dinner. Some people have maybe a more professional distance to the people that they are going on tour with. But I feel like I've spent so many years being alone in hotel rooms, touring as a DJ. And with the live tour with the team I've put together, I'm looking forward to every gig, and spending time with these people.”
Not only as a live musician, but also as the artistic director of Kulør, the way Courtesy connects the dots of people together has been central to the artistic output she achieves with her team. The remix EP of ‘Night Journeys’ is scheduled to be released in August, featuring artists like IBON, Ornography & Marie Malarie, Jessy Lanza, KMRU, and Schacke. I asked what inspires her to ask an artist to remix her music. “I think a lot about what the energy of the person is like. Is this an energy that I want on my music? Not just aesthetically, but also how are they in the world? How do they interact with people? It's been very important for me to work with people that would be worth spending all this time writing something with, and doing a project.”
And connecting people is not just something she considers when creating her art, but also the desired outcome of the art itself. “A really important point in the music I play, whether it's DJ sets or production, is that it is social music. That's why a lot of people consider it cheesy, because you can't just be the introverted music nerd. At my DJ sets, you just have to surrender to the sound and to the vibe of the room. I've given up thinking about what other DJs think of the music I play, and just go more with the music that I find meaningful. And luckily, that works really well, and I can see that from the energy on the floor.” At London's GALA Festival this month, she inspired the best moment of the weekend by dropping Vengaboys' ‘We Like To Party! (The Vengabus)’ to a rapturous response. “I don't see the kind of aggressive bros anymore, that used to stand in the front line of my gigs. I think it's either because they're softened up by the sounds, or it feels a little bit like the second summer of love when I would read books about how these football hooligans would go and take ecstasy and then they would be really nice to each other for a moment. I feel that when I'm looking at the people during my DJ sets, that people are happy, and there's just this positive energy in the room. Given how fucked up the world is right now, I see that as a really nice space to create, even if it's just for a couple hours,” remarks Courtesy. Anyone who has had the experience of healing through the euphoria on the dancefloor, together with smiling strangers, would be able to easily confirm her hypothesis on the impact of her music on people.
Courtesy's ‘Night Journeys Remixes’ EP comes out via Kulør on August 26
Agathe Blume is a freelance writer, follow her on Instagram