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Living in the moment: Jayda G dances to her own tune

As Jayda G drops her debut LP and begins a Radio 1 residency, she's dancing on her own terms

  • Words: Sirin Kale | Photography: Rhys Frampton | Styling: Karen Binns | Hair: Louis Souvestre | Make-up: Adam de Cruz
  • 27 March 2019

The problem with having a preternaturally sunny disposition, Jayda G is rapidly learning, is that the minute your smile falters, even for a second, people just fucking go for you. Once, she was DJing – she can’t recall which club, they all blur together after a while – and a woman came up to her and demanded to know why she wasn’t dancing. Jayda’s eyes narrow in irritation at the memory: “I looked her square in the eye and said, ‘I dance when I want to dance!’”

We’re sitting in the cafe of London’s Horniman Museum, refuelling on caffeine after an afternoon spent visiting first the butterfly exhibit, then the aquarium, before a quick stop to pay our respects to the museum’s most famous exhibit: a grotesquely overstuffed walrus that presides over the main room like the obese Sultan of some medieval court (“This is the walrus they told me about!” she exclaims excitedly, as it hoves into view). Around us, exhausted parents drink coffee, while their overtired children punch each other in the head and whoop.

Canada’s Jayda G – full name Jayda Guy – is talking about the problem of being pigeonholed as “Someone who’s very exuberant, very energetic, dances a lot, all those things.” Long respected by her peers in the industry, she exploded into wider consciousness after a now-legendary appearance at Dekmantel in 2017. In the set, which has been viewed over 690,000 times on YouTube (comparable sets receive a quarter as many views), she delivered concentrated bursts of joy to a whooping, hollering crowd. And no-one appeared to be having more fun than Jayda herself. In an industry where po-faced DJs often look like they’ve just been told by their doctor to prepare for a post-set colonoscopy, she was euphoric: her beaming smile as she brought in a rare River Plate Samba Orchestra cut would melt even the stoniest heart. Privately, industry heads tell us they believe things changed for Jayda G after that set, an assessment she agrees with. “All sorts of things happened that I never dreamed of,” she acknowledges.

Since that fateful appearance, she’s been pegged as the DJ equivalent of the perpetually sweet and happy Miss Honey from Roald Dahl classic Matilda. Problem is, no-one – let alone a constantly gigging artist in the midst of album promotion for her forthcoming debut – can be Miss Honey all the time. Sometimes you’re not feeling it, or you’re jet-lagged, or your feet hurt. Hence her chagrin at being berated for not showing sufficient Vibes™ during a DJ set.

Thing is, the 30-year-old Jayda Guy really is the upbeat, positive person you expect her to be. When we meet she’s on cheery form,despite being tired: she’s currently in the midst of a sold-out four-week residency at Brixton’s Phonox. After years spent honing her craft around parties in Vancouver, she rose to prominence after co-founding label Freakout Cult with DJ Fett Burger in 2015. Even in her earliest releases, like 2016’s ‘Sixth Spirit Of The Bay’, her balmy, funk-infused house sound felt fully formed and distinctively her own.

After years spent releasing EPs independently, partly through choice and partly from necessity (“I didn’t know anyone who would have given me the chance to release on an actual record label,”) Jayda G is about to release her debut album on Ninja Tune. ‘Significant Changes’ sounds like a window thrown open on the first day of spring, or finding a crumpled fiver in the pocket of a coat you hardly wear. It’s a jubilant and accomplished debut, and a loving, modern homage to the sensibilities and ethos of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage. In standout track ‘Stanley’s Get Down (No Parking On the DF)’, Guy pays tribute to the disco tradition of spoken word vocals, using 2019 vernacular. “I see you, with your phone, looking at Instagram!” her tongue-in-cheek lyrics admonish social media-using clubbers. “I really wanted to pull in that disco reference of being sassy and talking to people,” she laughs.

We tell her our favourite track is ‘Orca’s Reprise’ which features whale noises and stirring string instrumentals over a mid-tempo soundtrack. “That’s my mom’s favourite track!” she beams. Incorporating wildlife sounds into her productions is rapidly becoming Guy’s signature move. ‘Cascabel’ (2016) was a Balearic-inspired number featuring ghostly birdsong, while ‘Sound Of Fuca’, from 2016 EP ‘Jaydaisms’, refers to the Juan de Fuca Strait between Vancouver Island and Vancouver where, while doing a master’s degree in Resource and Environmental Management with a specialism in environmental toxicology, she did research on killer whales.

A love of nature is everywhere in her work, which is unsurprising given her studies. In ‘Missy Knows What’s Up’ from ‘Significant Changes’, she samples the voice of eminent biologist Misty MacDuffee talking about a landmark court case against the Canadian government for failing to protect their native killer whale population. It was this case which directly aided Jayda’s academic career: following it, funding was set aside for a master’s student to help monitor the whale population. “That was me!” she laughs. Even the album’s title is an academic in-joke: “significant changes” was the most-used phrase in her master’s thesis. She’s also launched JMG Talks, a series of intimate interviews with rising young scientists, where they discuss their recent academic work with her in front of an audience.

Walking around the Horniman with Jayda G is a bit like being on school trip, in the nicest possible way: she fills us in all sorts of obscure aspects of animal behaviour, and her enthusiasm is infectious. In front of a tank of bobbing goldfish, Guy explains that the tips of their mouths are white, from bashing into the glass. In the butterfly house, she discourses on the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, and identifies the various stages of a butterfly’s life cycle, from larva to pupa and adult. We discuss the merits of Arc’teryx brand jackets, what to wear when you go seal-wrangling and our mutual love for phosphorescence. In the butterfly room she picks up a huge scarlet mormon with practiced ease. “You look like you’ve done that before,” Mixmag observes. She has, of course.

Science was Jayda’s first love, and original plan. DJing and production? They were hobbies that she got really good at. She comes from a music-loving, close-knit family, but it was a serendiptious 2012 conversation with a friend which set her off on this path. “I happened to mention to her I’d been thinking of buying DJ equipment, and she said, ‘Really? I’ve been wanting to sell my decks’.” So Jayda learned to DJ on some “shitty old Numarks”. But it was a formative friendship with an older crew of Vancouver music-lovers who helped take her DJing on to the next level. “They had decks in the living room and we had pillows and blankets, and everyone would lie around with beers and chill,” she tells us. “Each person in the house had a time-slot, and it was really about you practising Djing for an audience. It was a one hundred per cent safe space.” After being invited to hone her craft with them, she began by feeling “so nervous. It was my first small stepping stone to playing a wider audience, and I remember they all clapped at the end. Someone said, ‘You know, nobody usually claps at the end’.” She pauses, and breaks off. “Gosh, I haven’t thought about that in many years.”

“It [DJing] was never a goal of mine,” she continues. She didn’t spend her teens mastering expert blends on the decks, and of all the DJs we’ve met, she’s the most disconnected from club culture, freely admitting that she doesn’t particularly love living in Berlin, has only been to Berghain twice, and effectively “lives under a rock”. A common theme that emerges in our wide-ranging chat is of her succeeding almost in spite of her own attempts at self-sabotage. That barnstorming Dekmantel set? She initially turned it down because she hates live streams, and only relented after her agent wrote her a long email explaining why it was a huge opportunity for her career. “I don’t know what the cool festivals are,” she explains, “because I keep to myself, which I think is important. I keep in my own lane and don’t pay too much attention to the other stuff. So I didn’t know about Dekmantel.”

But it’s this single-minded determination to plough her own path that is largely responsible for Jayda G’s success. “She really cares about making and enjoying good music, not just ‘making it’, says her friend and collaborator, Alexa Dash. “This all started from a place of fun, release and sincerity, and I know she tries really hard to keep that at the forefront of what she does.” For all that Jayda is a warm, friendly, engaging presence, there’s also a steeliness there. Because she’s not driven by a lifelong desire to be the world’s most successful DJ, she simply won’t do things that make her uncomfortable, or uneasy: like live-streaming. “It makes me really uncomfortable,” she explains gently. “It’s not something I enjoy doing. This [music] is a career I chose because it makes me happy. Why would I put myself in a situation that blatantly makes me unhappy, when I don’t have to?”

We ask her whether her decision to stop doing live streams is partly motivated by the misogynistic feedback she endures in comments sections online. To a certain type of entitled, Ableton-obsessed techno bro, Guy’s freewheeling sets represent the nadir of modern dance music. Check out the comments underneath her videos and you’ll see unpleasant comments about everything from her physical attractiveness to her perceived lack of technical skills. Her supporters characterise her as a talented selector in the style of the great DJs of the Paradise Garage, and a technically proficient mixer. As one fan wrote in the comments under a 2016 Boiler Room set: “[I] can’t really understand people that actively come to hate, calling themselves DJs while putting down an obviously talented selector. Groove on Jayda baby, just groove on”.

Jayda’s smile gets tighter when I ask about the online haters. “I don’t read the comments, I don’t look that stuff up. I have a no-bullshit policy on my Instagram: if you’re talking smack you get blocked and deleted.” Later, we return to the subject when discussing a 2017 interview she gave to Vogue about hair-care. “I got reamed out for doing it,” she says, shaking her head, “but it’s a thing, especially if you’re a black woman who wears natural hair. You know, it’s taken us a long time and [a lot of] self-discovery and effort to get to a point where we can wear our hair natural. It’s a real thing, and there’s a pride in that.” She recalls talking to Hunee after the furore died down. “I was upset all the heads were like, ‘Oh, she sold out! She’s in Vogue now, what the hell’. All this shit. And Hunee was like, ‘You know, Jayda, when they start saying bad things about you, that’s when you’re doing well.’”

Although she might give the impression of someone whose success is accidental, she’s much, much more than a talented amateur. What keeps people flocking to her sets and clamouring for her to do more live streams comes down to two things: her authenticity, and her rare skill at reading a dancefloor. “I think her love for music – for soul, disco, and r’n’b – really comes through when she’s playing,” says Ninja Tune’s Vidhi Gandhi. “People can feel her energy, so it’s a really personal experience for a lot of her fans.”

The Black Madonna concurs, telling us, “There’s something, and it goes past music, that is just kind of radiant about her. She’s very in touch with joy and kindness. It’s unmissable, and it makes you want to hear what she has to say.”

And that radiance is fully on display when we catch Jayda G at Phonox for one night of her month-long residency. Normally, when you go to see a DJ play, you remember the tracks that crushed the dancefloor. But for Mixmag, the stand-out moment comes when she excuses herself from the booth to groove on the dancefloor as Natasha Diggs (sharing the decks with her that night) drops Michael Wycoff’s ‘Still Got the Magic (Sweet Delight)’. Dancing on her own? It’s a signature Jayda move. “When you see her looking hot as hell and dancing up there,” says Dash, “it’s because that’s what she would be doing, even if no-one was watching.” Dash, a childhood friend from Canada, remembers walking in on her as she practiced with her first Numarks. “She was dancing hard then, too!”

When her musical career took off, Jayda made a promise to herself. “I’m the one in control, because I’m not afraid to lose it, as I did something else.” The something else, of course, was her scientific career. Since making that promise her life has changed beyond recognition: ‘Significant Changes’ isn’t just a clever scientific pun but a reflection “on a period where I grew up,” she explains. “I was talking about it with Fett Burger yesterday. He was asking me, ‘How have things been going?’ And I said, ‘I feel so much like I’m on the outside, looking in’.” With rapid success can come the feeling that “things are happening so fast, at a rate you can’t quite internalise or assess. I kind of feel like a year down the line I’ll be sitting on a beach thinking, ‘Wow, that happened!”

It’s been a wild, breakneck ride. But as we step out into the frigid February air and bid each other goodbye, something tells us that Guy will keep dancing on her own terms, to her own tunes, for as long as it feels good. And if the music eventually stops, it’ll be her choice – and no-one else’s.

Jayda G ‘Significant Changes’ is out now on Ninja Tune

Sirin Kale is Associate Editor at Broadly and a regular contributor to Mixmag. Follow her on Twitter

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