“Telling my story”: Gabriella Vergilov is the Bulgarian techno DJ pouring herself into music - Music - Mixmag

“Telling my story”: Gabriella Vergilov is the Bulgarian techno DJ pouring herself into music

Gabriella Vergilov shares a thrilling mix and speaks to Annabel Ross about turning down dream gigs, trusting intution, and sharing her life through music

  • Words: Annabel Ross | Photos: Björgvin Hjartarson
  • 27 October 2023

Bulgarian-born, Copenhagen-based producer and DJ Gabriella Vergilov has flown curiously under the radar considering her achievements. She was the first female Bulgarian DJ to play a Boiler Room (in 2019) and since 2016 has had support from techno titans including Ben Klock, Ben Sims, who has released her music on his Symbolism label, and DVS1, who included Vergilov’s track 'Boring Shit' on his 'fabric 96' mix CD. She has been remixed by artists such as Cosmin TRG, DJ T-1000, Truncate and Luke Hess, has provided remixes for the likes of Myles Sergé, and most recently B from E, and is currently readying the release of her debut album.

She spoke to Mixmag about the difficulty of breaking through in Bulgaria, finding acceptance and expanded musical horizons in Copenhagen, and the role of mental health and self-esteem in her musical journey. Her Impact mix is typical of her personality-rich DJing, a multi-faceted thrill ride through atmospheric mood pieces, hammering techno cuts and brooding post-punk.

I have to say I can only name a couple of Bulgarian producers by name off the top of my head. KiNK, and you. Why do you think it is that Bulgarian producers don’t have as much of a profile on the world stage?

It has definitely taken me a rather long time to get to where I am and this is partly due to the Bulgarian mentality. We are taught from a very early age that art doesn't put food on the table and, basically, that you can’t make it as an artist. The fall of Communism created a highly competitive environment and Bulgarians became extremely jealous and generally not happy to see their neighbour thriving. The macho culture is also still present and an element of intimidation exists. A young woman who has worked hard and who knows what she wants doesn't sit well with the cultural narrative. Things are slowly changing though.

How does that element of jealousy in the culture typically manifest, in your experience?

For example, there might be local artists who haven’t had a record out themselves, so they might refuse to support your record because they feel threatened. Even if they’re bigger than you, they might not play it because they feel threatened, and some promoters feel threatened too, and might be less inclined to book you. I understand that, it comes from a place of not really feeling confident in yourself. But that is not my problem, you have to figure out who you are by yourself. That's what I did and it took me some nerve. Don't get me wrong, it’s not like I go back to Sofia and am getting eggs thrown at me, it’s the opposite actually. It’s taken me many years to get to this point but I’m being received really well, especially in the last couple of years, and I go back whenever I can. There are also fresh new collectives who understand the importance of supporting artists who raise the profile of Bulgarian musicians globally. I like to think that we do have a scene in Bulgaria, but because of the harsh competitiveness, things happen slowly and the community is not there yet. In contrast to Sofia, there is a serious and solid community here in Copenhagen where I live. And whether you’re making techno, business techno, ambient, house, trance or whatever, everyone supports each other and that makes for a great ecosystem to share content and collaborate. That’s why I started my GAMA label — both to release my own music and so I could support other Bulgarian and Danish artists by creating a bridge between my two favourite cities, Copenhagen and Sofia.

What are your first memories of coming across electronic music?

There was this talk show on TV when I was growing up, kind of like the Bulgarian Larry King. During a break, they announced “new music from Jean-Michel Jarre,” and these crazy, very trancey synthesiser sounds started playing while the visuals on the television were displaying the universe. I got so crazy fascinated with this sound, and the visual representation of it. To me, that was the beginning, and I think I was slowly trying to find my way to that type of music after that. My father listened to it too, he introduced me to tons of other genres. So it was a lot of rock, psychedelic, electronica, jazz, disco, classical.

Then I discovered hip hop and pop. Vangelis, The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, Madonna’s 'Ray Of Light', Björk, Alan Parsons Project's 'Mammagamma', etc. The sound of the ‘90s followed — so mainstream classics by Snap! and 2 Unlimited, rave music and Eurodance, and a lot of music from Holland and Sweden too. It was very different to everything else I had heard before and it made me move my body. I’m a former professional dancer — I cannot survive without dancing just like I can’t survive without music. I dance to escape my thoughts, and I make and perform music to maintain harmony. I remember watching Sofia’s iconic Street Parade — a local version of Berlin’s Love Parade — on TV when I was a little girl and seeing all these people, so free in their expression, wearing neon colours so bright they were almost blinding. I dreamt that one day I would be feeling that freedom, that sense of belonging that people were talking about on the TV when they were being interviewed.

Read this next: Pictures capture the colourful 00s heyday of Bulgarian raving

This was all happening when you were still in your hometown of Ruse?

Yeah, up until I was 16 I was in Ruse. My family was very strict with me and I was not allowed to do many things. Sometimes I would actually lie to go out and would tell my parents I was staying at my friend’s house. I'd wait until my parents fell asleep and at midnight I would sneak out. I’d go to the local discotheque and the moment I put my foot on the dancefloor, that performative part of me started to shine. I was kind of popular In my hometown because I had something to say and especially because of how I dressed and how I danced. It was very expressive. I believe that this overall energy came from feeling like I was being held back by my parents who didn't allow me to go out much. For me, going out was all about music, so once I was in the club I was like, “Yes! it's my time now.”

Then you moved to Sofia three years later, right?

Yes, and I was absolutely blown away to hear music that was totally new to me in clubs. It was a lot of progressive house, minimal, trance and a bit of techno. Clubs would book artists like Victor Calderone, Hernán Cattáneo, Marc Romboy, Guy J, Adam Beyer. I think even Jeff Mills. As well as Luke Slater, Sven Väth, and minimal DJs like Richie Hawtin, Matador, Guy Pearce, Magda, Tania Vulcano…I still sometimes listen to some of these artists, and I used to look up the tracklists from their sets. That's how I started to collect names of producers and started to dig deeper. I slowly got into this sound that was a little bit alternative to the progressive and minimal that was the hit at the time. I refused to go to mainstream clubs and hear mainstream music, I wanted something more mysterious, obscure and abstract. I fell in love with techno during a METROPOLIS rave. This was when I discovered the sounds of Marco Bailey, Heiko Laux, Levon Vincent…I've studied the tracklists from that night more than I have studied my history of art lectures!

I loved feeling like I could be anyone on the dancefloor. Nobody was going to judge me and I would feel accepted and have a sense of belonging in a sea of complete strangers. This is still my favourite thing to do, to go out and immerse myself in nightlife through raving and to be a butterfly on the dancefloor. It’s a sense of freedom I can't explain that no other genre gives me. I'm able to find silence within electronic music. It’s obviously noisy and not relaxing by any means but for some reason I’m able to get into a meditative state and connect to myself, to my source.

How long did you live in Sofia before you moved to Copenhagen, and what inspired that move?

A friend of mine in the creative field who knew me well lived here. She said, “Copenhagen is very open-minded towards artistic and creative people like yourself, you’re going to be accepted here, come”, and I was sold. I had a job offer in London, but I just didn't want to drown in the 9-5 system. I wanted something entirely different. And I had no idea what to expect from Scandinavia. I worked as a stylist, a model on the side, an animator, a nightclub host and an editor for a pretty big media company back in Bulgaria before moving to Denmark. Through all of that I would go to arts and music events and get to know a lot of people in Sofia. The plan was to continue my creative endeavours in fashion and lifestyle in Copenhagen. But soon after I started my fashion design studies I realised I wanted to continue pursuing my true passion, music. I was completely spellbound by this new musical universe in Copenhagen — the proper underground where clubs played Detroit techno, Chicago house and lots of acid. I got to know Dutch labels, Manchester influences, and the whole Berghain sound that I was obsessed with at the time. Hearing all this in Copenhagen made me feel like I was at home. After 18 months of studying fashion design I was like, nope. I got a 9-5 job and saved some money to buy my turntables and my studio gear and started collecting vinyl records.

What triggered you to make the leap of trying DJing and producing for yourself?

I was inspired to buy gear after visiting a friend of mine in Berlin. I was staying with him and it was the first time I saw his studio, which looked like a spaceship with all kinds of classic amazing instruments. He had the 808, 909, 707, 303 and at least 10 keyboard synths, tons of pedals and some modular synths. Just a couple of hours before I arrived on his doorstep, a Roland TR-8 had been delivered and he was one of the first people in Germany to have it. So we were sitting on the sofa in the living room. He brought his laptop, connected the drum machine to it, added the Roland 303, put it in my lap and said: “Come on, give it a go” so I started jamming. And I was like, I want to have this at my home! A couple of months later I ordered my instruments and I pretty much copied his mini setup. I bought a microKORG with a little microphone, the Roland TR-8 drum machine, and a replica of the Roland 303 acid machine. It looks exactly the same, the sound is pretty nasty like the real one, it’s just a budget version. I instantly fell in love with the synths and the ability to create any kind of sound you wanted…I was obsessed. It was actually one of the happiest times in my life, I see it now as the pillar for my growth as a musician and as a music producer. Music has given me so much and I’m grateful for these moments and the people who introduced me to all of this.

Would you say that you took more naturally to DJing or producing?

I procrastinated with DJing. I wanted to be a vinyl-only DJ and do things properly. And for me “properly” meant knowing the technicalities and being trained to the highest level. I still have only turntables at home and no CDJs. I learned how to play digitally in clubs, I never practised, but the switch was super easy because I had already been playing records for three years. But it took me a whole year to say yes to a gig. The producing part was quite natural, because knowing theory, rhythm, harmony and having played piano previously helped immensely. I'm self-taught. I literally had two people come over, one of whom was Bjarki, to show me how to connect my machines, connect my sound card, make a loop, and use EQ, that was it. I have never watched a single tutorial, I like to learn through trial and error. I’m very intuitive and I approach music production like composing. I rely heavily on what feels good in the moment and aim for a cinematic feel. The technical part I just leave to the mixing and mastering engineers. So producing was really organic and a lot of fun.

How long after buying the equipment did you put out your first release?

I don't remember the year but I remember the month — it was June when my gear arrived, and in October I already started sending music to people. The New York label Thema Recordings picked a few tracks and said, “let's release you.” I had tears in my eyes when they asked me. I couldn’t believe that I “deserved” the recognition. That’s connected to my depression and battling with low self-esteem for many years. Low self-esteem is very common in people who have melancholia, depression or ADHD, I just didn't know that at the time. I would often hear from my peers “you should believe in yourself a little bit more, cut yourself some slack”. I didn't know what that meant until I started therapy. My self-worth has improved in a healthy way and I am grateful I am finally healing. It’s been a journey though.

When would you say your depression started?

I think it was in my childhood, but I only just realised that I was not aligned with my emotions around six or seven years ago when I started DJing and producing. I made choices regarding my career that weren’t even aligned with what I actually wanted. I was not able to say no, because when you are kind of emotionally challenged, you feel these extremes, like, “Oh, if it's a no then it's the end of the world.” Impostor syndrome plays into it too, and that prevents you from manifesting your full potential. It's only recently I’ve realised that the choices we make really define who we are. I made a track about it.

Read this next: The Third Wave: Economic recovery has reignited Sofia's party scene

You put out your first release in 2016. Were you already starting to play DJ gigs at that time?

Yes. In 2017 I moved to Berlin for a year. The plan was to make the most out of being in the city and play as much as possible. While I lived in Copenhagen, I would take the bus, an eight hour trip, on Friday night or Saturday morning depending on when I was finishing work, and I’d have the full weekend in Berlin. I got to know a lot of people. Also I’d always be dancing front row when artists from Berlin came to play in Copenhagen. I’ve watched Ben Klock DJ in front of me at least 50 times. One day I got this offer, “Do you want to play the Culture Box in Copenhagen?” Ben Klock was playing the main room and it would be me and someone else in the other room. But I said no to that first gig because I didn’t feel quite ready yet. I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. I was still doing vinyl-only sets and the promoter wanted me to play a digital set. He was convinced I needed just a single session to be ready for the gig. I was happy he believed in me, but I didn’t want the pressure of trying to be perfect without the time to prepare. A lot of people from the scene were like, “Are you fucking crazy?!” It wasn't long after that I got booked to play a major festival in Belgium together with three of my favourites on the same stage on the same day — Ben Klock, Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin. That was my way of saying, “Look, I know what I’m doing.” It was actually Ben Klock who supported me early and was playing my productions. He dropped my track 'Her Beginning' in his set at Berghain. It’s not a standard techno tune at all, more of a sensual, mellow house track. This was massive for me, I cried on that dancefloor. It felt like the universe was telling me that it’s good to take your time, put in the work and trust your intuition.

What would you say has been like a career highlight for you production wise and also as a DJ?

As a DJ, definitely my two Boiler Rooms. When I did the one in 2019 I was the first female from Bulgaria to be booked with the platform and only the second artist from my homeland. The other one was in 2021 in Sofia. It was crazy, I was like the Bulgarian ambassador for Boiler Room at this point and they were really excited to see me. It was the first edition in Bulgaria, so it felt like a big deal for the whole scene, not only for me. Production-wise, I think the support of DVS1 has been really important. Ever since I've been releasing music, he's been playing it constantly. Ben Klock and Ben Sims have supported me too. When some of your heroes actually acknowledge your talent it feels like you’re on the right path.

What’s next for you?

I just came back from Sofia. I did the closing rave for KvARTal festival celebrating the oldest art district of the city and its culture. It was emotional, I was brought back for three encores which resulted in a four-hour set instead of two-and-a-half-hours as planned. I was a guest of honour for the second year running. I’ve also just confirmed my first big conceptual event series called GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS. It’s a two-day event at the end of October, entirely focused on female empowerment and mental health. There’ll be a rave with all-women DJs, an interactive brunch for those who identify as women, an open discussion, readings of love poetry, a fashion-beauty-cocktail corner, live music, a drag queen show, and more. There is a big problem with toxic masculinity, violence against women and also LGBTQI rights in Bulgaria. It is not particularly safe for drag queens either. But this will be a safe and fun haven for all. I started developing the idea in 2020 and now I’m finally doing it. The support has already been immense.

So now that you’ve reached a certain profile in Bulgaria, you feel like you’re in the position to give back.

I was bullied when I was a teenager and ever since then I’ve tried to stick up for others who are the victim of bullies. I know what it feels like to be excluded and made fun of. It’s sad, but I still feel people are heavily intimidated by women full of pure energy. I’ve always been true to myself and I feel like I'm finally in a position where my voice is being credited more and more, both in Copenhagen and Sofia. That's what I want to share with people; I haven’t had much help, but you can still get there in the end. I want to tell people that even when you feel like the world is against you, you have to put yourself out there. Nobody else is going to do it for you. I'm a child of the hustle culture — not just the global hustle culture, but having to battle with the mentality of where I come from.

The geopolitics in the Balkans are turbulent and that can make your life unpredictable. Living in unpredictability and in a dysfunctional society can be very discouraging for creative people. Combine that with battling depression from a very early age, which evolved into complex PTSD… and this is even tougher if you're a woman, especially if you’ve experienced abuse. This is what my upcoming album is about, all the things that shape our perception of who we are and our sense of love and acceptance.

So we can look forward to hearing a more personal side of you on the album?

Yes! I respect colleagues who want to stay away from the spotlight and don't want to talk about what's inside of them. But when I’m doing a DJ set and people love the tracks I play, they’re loving the story that I’m telling and not just the tracks. And that story wouldn't be possible if I hadn’t gotten through what I’ve gotten through in my life, if I hadn’t experienced what I've experienced. That includes the people I meet, the people I fall in and out of love with, the difficulties in my family, friendships, career, everything. All of that makes me hunt for a certain type of music that reflects both my mood and my taste, and this is what I bring to the DJ booth as well. In my opinion, people connect with DJs, and with performers generally because we base our musical performance on our personal story in a way. But sharing it can be quite frightening. I had a panic attack a couple of months ago. I said to my friend, “I’m very scared about releasing the album and it's not a fear of failure, it's something else I can’t define.” He said, “You've made a very private, personal piece of music. You're scared because you're about to reveal a part of yourself that hasn't been seen before, and that's a big step.” And he was right. I believe in the album more than anything else in the world. It’s me, telling my story.

GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS is happening on October 27 in Sofia

Annabel Ross is a freelance writer, follow her on Twitter

Fraxinus - Overland
B FROM E - In My Hive feat. Soho Rezanejad (Gabriella Vergilov Remix) upcoming
Paul Mitchell - Recharge
David Löhlein -I Just Want
Andy Martin - Vision Extra Ocular
Marhu - The Awakening
Sebastian Voigt - Omega15
Gabriella Vergilov - Relaxation Sexsion
TESST - Deadline
SAMA - Gentle Reminder
Antic Soul - Atlas (Ackermann Remix)
Truncate - Savage
Gabriella Vergilov - Kristalen
Gabriella Vergilov - Systema Is Doomed (upcoming)
Alan Fitzpatrick - Envisions
Josh Wink - Talking to You (Marc Romboy & André Winter Remix)
Gabriella Vergilov - The Choices We Make (Cyberpunk Remix)
DJ T-1000 - Blue Matter
The Chemical Brothers - Out Of Control

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