Octo Octa | Resonant Body
Maya Bouldry-Morrison has already experienced several years of heavy touring. Now the house music DJ, who goes by the name Octo Octa, is gearing up for another round. In September alone that means stops in Canada, the U.S., Britain and Spain. She's left New York City and moved in to a log cabin in New Hampshire. She's been saving up her energy, taking time to process important moments and to reconnect with nature.
I catch Maya Bouldry-Morrison over the phone on a drive to Boston, where she's headed to work on travel plans for the upcoming global trek. She's now in the throes of dealing with a million tiny details in preparation. Maybe it's time to get an intern?
And there's something even more terrifying at hand. Resonant Body, an eight-song cohesive time capsule, is about to drop.
“Every piece of music I put out is scary,” she says, explaining how when she writes a track, she always infuses it with an emotional core. “There's some part of my life within it.”
It's her most joyous album to date, and she doesn't need the adoration of the outer world to love each song for herself. But – “My intentions can only go so far into how these media are read and understood,” she says, referring to the fractured way culture is created today. “I have all these ideas behind these things. Everything I wrote is really important to me.” It's no crime for an artist to hope people like what she does.
Octo Octa recently switched back to playing all vinyl, replenishing her DJ spirit with the benefits that come when you source dope tunes the old way. Enter an obscure record shop in Chicago or Berlin and you may just find her plunging her digits into the dusty stacks to reveal a wonky image here, a beckoning white label there. She'd gotten into the habit of using straight digital turntables during the previous tours, to make things easier. The pavement pounding has paid off.
Her album Where Are We Going? was named one of the best albums of the year by Crack Magazine, Noisey and Resident Advisor. Her emphatic Boiler Room set from Amsterdam, last year, drew praise for her creative mixing style. Songs off her For Lovers EP found their way onto late-night Los Angeles radio playlists. She just scored the cover of Mixmag this summer. And by the end of August, one of the first releases from the new one had already racked up 35,000 plays on Soundcloud.
Resonant Body begins unassumingly enough on “Imminent Spirit Arrival,” with a warm mellow glow punctuated by an intriguing but not-too-leftfield synth, morphing into a pleasant techno-traveller landscape. On “Move Your Body” we get an ode to classic house, with that badass-boppity-beat so characteristic of Octo Octa DJ encounters. They are informed by classic rave, with complex drums loops well under control. The technicality is obviously the result of years developing her jungle and IDM sensibilities. Later on, you can hear that coming out on “Ecstatic Beat,” which has a verbed-out horn background gluing the breakbeats together. It's sophisticated and urban, but also minimal.
We get a dash of acid techno here and there on tracks like “Spin Girl, Let's Activate!” and plenty of ambient sonics to go around. I can't help but think that Bouldry-Morrison's decision to go full chill-out on “Body Is Powerful” was the result of retreating to the serenity of her rural abode. Are those wolves? And loons? “Can You See Me?” could do well in a Tycho set. But don't let this versatility fool you. Despite the sojourning, the album is dancefloor-ready. Celebratory crowd chants are juxtaposed with steady electric organ chords on “Power to the People,” reminiscent of some of the latest productions from Four Tet's Kieran Hebden. And while “Spin Girl...” begins with reflections on technology, it's the playful piano buildup on a bed of background staccato that betrays Bouldry-Morrison's intention for the release. This is a jubilant affair.
Octo Octa grew up in New England, and there've been some hard rows to hoe along the way. The first records she owned were from Kid Rock, 311, and Beck. Her ear had a natural affinity for electronic-leaning production, and she soon fell for the global dance music scene – what she could find of it. “At the time it was a very lonely thing to be doing on my own,” she says. “I finally came across that stuff when I was 13 and I was finally able to have the internet at my house.” She tuned in to the jump up, dark and liquid drum n' bass on the online BassDrive radio station. She frequented video game music message boards. She's been an artsy kid her whole life, and was trying to figure out the best way to express herself. The answer seemed to arrive from eBay, in the form of her first piece of musical hardware: the Korg Electribe ER-1.
Bouldry-Morrison attended the University of New Hampshire and played in a band called Horny Vampyre. But separately she'd create music examining breakcore and related genres under the moniker that would come to dominate her life – Octo Octa. Eventually she morphed into a house DJ, releasing her first EP on LA label 100% Silk in 2011.
Then in 2012, a watershed moment. While reading a Rolling Stone article about the trans frontwoman of punk group Against Me!, Laura Jane Grace, Bouldry-Morrison had a revelation. “Reading a mainstream article about this person, I was like, 'Oh fuck!'” she remembers. “I feel this way, I have these emotions.” That's when Octo Octa began her own male-to-female transition.
Her music began to reflect the reality of her gender transformation. Her Between Two Selves release seemed vague and universal at the time, but was pretty on the nose, in retrospect. It wasn't until her 2017 album Where Are We Going? that Bouldry-Morrison explored her experience publicly. For her, it was important to be visible. She recalls how important discovering deep house record Midtown 120 Blues by DJ Sprinkles had been. It was the first time she'd heard a trans artist exploring the trans experience in dance music. She wants youth to know that being trans isn't a death sentence. “In general for queerness, there's not always a lot of positive media available – especially for trans people,” she says. “So it was a really important album for me. So I hope that some of the things that I do would also be a positive thing for other trans people as well to go see. But that's also not my call. I can only live my life and do what I'm doing.”
Writing doesn't always come easy for Octo Octa. “It comes in spirts,” she says. “I'll have big blocks of nothing, and then all the sudden I'll take a week and I'll write three tracks.” That's what happened with this one. She banged out the first draft in three weeks. She took the first dozen or so songs and whittled it down to the final number, refining them over the course of the next month. “And the starting point for those would be all different. Some of them were drum loops, some of them were from sitting down with a synthesizer, some of them were just playing with a vocal sample in the computer."
It's also perhaps the most beautiful love letter you could hope for – addressed to her two partners, Eris, with whom she launched record label T4T LUV NRG earlier this year, and Brooke, her long-time wife. The key to a successful polyamorous relationship is respecting peoples feelings and keeping the communication flowing, she explains. “Polyamory is not for everyone, no matter how much some people like to claim it is,” she says. “Some people have a lot of jealousy and can't get through it. And I don't mean that in a negative way, either. Sometimes it takes the security of having one person that's there in your life that's important. And while that's also important to me, it's something that I felt like I could also share, and have that with other people.”
This well of emotion provides the basis for tracks like “Deep Connection,” on the new album. That song features simple slow-burn melodic arpeggios, upper flourishes that don't reach too far, and just enough syncopation to turn heads. It's all contained within the womb of a warm, ambient glow. I wonder if it's the same emotion that caused Eris to express her excitement over coming across triangle forms in ancient Sumerian Cuneiform artifacts, online. “It's a lot of processing,” Bouldry-Morrison says, about maintaining healthy, complex connections. “It's a lot of talking about how people are feeling and what they're feeling at the time that leads to a bunch of really difficult conversations, but they're important conversations – to not have things, you know, bottle up. It's something that should be in every normal relationship anyways.”
Why does it work for them? I ask. “I don't know,” she says, trailing off in blissful laughter. “I don't really. It does!” In that split second I imagine a series of thoughts pass through her mind: of her high school sweetheart Brooke offering up her vocals for Between Two Selves; of her heart warming upon reading Eris write “Can rave save the world? No. But it can transform the lives of individuals & communities.”
Octo Octa is aware her songs can be difficult for DJs to mix. She knows her story isn't the easiest for a lot of people to get their heads around. But she doesn't give a fuck. Nor should she. There's just 14 miles left to go on this leg of the journey, before she arrives in Boston. But it's just the beginning. There are millions more left to travel.