When you enter the world of DJing, you set yourself up for a life of travelling, sometimes never being in one city for more than 24 hours. For Ukrainian artist Alinka, this is something that happened very early on in her life as her family moved from Ukraine to Vienna before eventually settling in Chicago and that’s when her life completely changed. With her family encouraging piano and singing lessons and introducing her to classical music, it was in Chicago that Alinka experienced Western music properly for the first time. Early influences include the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson and whilst she was at university, Alinka experienced the magical world of house music. Getting her musical education from local radio stations where she would frequently hear records by Chicago legends Cajmere and DJ Funk, Alinka started promoting at raves and had a chance meeting with Justin Long who soon became her mentor. Experiencing a burn-out in 2008, Alinka rekindled her passion when her friendship with Shaun J. Wright began and they started collaborating on releases. Since then, they’ve launched a label called Twirl which is currently celebrating its fourth anniversary. The pair have released a strong selection of house legends including Virginia, Kim Ann Foxman, Justin Cudmore and Spencer Parker to name a few. Twirl is a strong testament to her first home of music Chicago whilst featuring European acts from her new home, Berlin. For the fourth anniversary, Alinka and Shaun will be reissuing their ‘Journey Into The Deep’ single, revamping the track to align with their current tastes and have enlisted Honey Soundsystem artist Justin Cudmore for a remix.
You grew up in Ukraine where you had very limited exposure to Western music, what were some of your earlier musical influences during this time?
This was before I was 8 years old so the only music I remember knowing is the classical music I learned to play during my piano lessons, and some Russian kids songs. My mom studied to be a pianist so I had a piano in my room and learned to play and read notes very early on, but I wouldn’t say I had any actual influences at that time. But it was definitely a good way to train my ear for what came after this period.
Moving from Ukraine to Vienna before finally settling in Chicago, how do you feel all the travelling impacted you when you were growing up? Did you find it hard to find your own feet?
It was a bit of a whirlwind my childhood, I think it shaped me in many ways. I think at the time I was so young I didn’t really understand it, or know what was happening. I wasn’t told we were leaving, I was too young and my family was protective. It wasn’t an easy transition or time but I think there were as many exciting things about it as there were difficult things. Nonetheless I think it still affects me. It made it difficult to leave Chicago in many ways, it took me 8 years to finally just buy a flight and not look back. But I’m grateful that everything happened as it did, I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for all of these experiences. It definitely taught me a lot of empathy, and how to read people well even when you can’t communicate in the same language. I guess that helps with being a good DJ, you can really feel people’s energy and read a room.
What are some of your first musical memories when you moved to Chicago?
I started collecting mixtapes of Michael Jackson and Madonna. We didn’t have much money when we moved so I’m sure they were probably not the current releases but everything was so new and exciting at that time it was a whole new world. I used to spend a lot of time memorizing the tracks on the radio, I could turn on the radio and literally name every pop song and artist playing at the time. I think I also had an unfortunate New Kids On The Block faze, but later realized it’s because I wanted to be in the band and perform for all the screaming girls.
Did you have a kind of lightbulb moment when you experienced house music for the first time, knowing that music was what you wanted to pursue?
I became obsessed with it instantly. It just took one night out with some friends and some ecstasy my first year at University. But after nearly a year of non stop clubbing and raves I had one evening in particular I tried scratching on my friends decks at an after party, and in my hazy state thought I was the best turntablist in the world and had to pursue this. So I came to their house every day with my two records I bought and tried scratching over and over until they told me I had to learn to mix because they can’t stand the sound of me learning to scratch anymore. I then decided that was a brilliant idea, quit my partying and worked all summer at a swimming pool so I could purchase my technics and little pioneer mixer before returning to school.
In today’s society it’s so easy to burn out and become uninspired and in 2008 you experienced just that. How did you manage to pick up music again and how do you stop yourself from experiencing the burn out again?
I think when that happened in 2008 many factors were involved. In the US it’s hard in general to pursue an artistic career most people tell you it’s a hobby and to get a real job they don’t see value in it or understand it and after a while of struggling and carrying that weight and pressure from family and society and yourself, it can become too much and you start to doubt yourself and your own value especially when you’re young and trying to figure out who you are. But I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else, so I left school and based my decisions around that commitment to music. At the time I didn’t have the support system or the guidance to make a proper career out of it. I did put records out and tour in Europe a few times and but I was just a kid playing for travel and food money and sleeping on promoter’s couches. I never cared about fame or focused on making money for something I love so I didn’t really pursue that, and at the end I also had some negative energy around me from the people in my life and I just needed to take a step back from all of it because it didn’t feel right anymore. I wish I knew then what I know now, I would have never stopped, but going through all of that is why I’m here today. I’ve come to realize this music found me and not the other way around. So it managed to find me again in 2012, I was producing music for a band project and through that I met Shaun J. Wright and everything came back into my life, it was my second chance at life. People say you only need one person in a room to believe in you, and that’s absolutely right. For me when we met and started writing all of that drive and inspiration came back because he believed in me and gave me the confidence to be myself. I can’t really say that it’s at any point easy in this business. This industry has really changed from when I started playing. It’s very easy to get discouraged when you don’t feel like you fit into what’s happening with the hype machine or social media garbage and all this bullshit surrounding artists now and it can be very toxic when you pay too much attention to all of that. I am very lucky to have people in my life that believe in me who I really respect, they keep me grounded and remind me to be grateful for each day good and bad.
How has your move to Berlin helped you as a musician and also as a person?
Berlin gave me life. It’s the first place I felt like I really belong, and I felt validated as a person and as an artist. It’s given me so much inspiration and also the freedom to grow and to evolve. It’s been the best rollercoaster ride of my life.
How did your relationship begin with Justin Long? What was it like being mentored by him?
I can’t fully remember but I think we met at Gramaphone or at the club at my University around 2000. We just became good friends, he introduced me to a lot of music and helped me get gigs playing with him and really pushed me in the early years. He’s a no bullshit DJ so you couldn’t mix badly around him I guess like most DJ’s in Chicago back in the day, they really teach you not to fuck up technically or you will never get booked again.
You run a record label called Twirl with Shaun J Wright from Hercules & Love Affair, why do you think your creative relationship works so well?
We just have a special relationship. There is a lot of mutual respect and love there. We are also both introverts, so we understand each other. We let each other be ourselves and encourage each other to grow. He teaches me to be grateful no matter what’s going on in my life. And creatively it just works organically, and when it doesn’t we start fresh without pressure.
The label was launched four years ago, what are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned so far?
That anything is possible you just have to go for it. This started as a random idea and discussion at one of our parties and here we are four years later with such an amazing roster of artists. I’m very proud because we did it our way. We work with the people we want to work with, we’re proud of the material we put out and it’s our baby that no one can take. I’ve also learned that there are still good people in this industry that are in it for the right reasons and I want to always work with those people. Other than that I’ve learned that we could use a couple of clones or interns because there is not enough time in a day to get everything done in order to grow.
You’ve had some of most incredible house producers on the imprint including Virginia, Kim Ann Foxman, Justin Cudmore, Spencer Parker and more – which other artists would you love to have release on the label?
Oh god there’s such a long list. I can’t speak for Shaun but I would say Derrick Carter for me because he’s really fucking genius and one of my greatest inspirations. Also would love to have my friend Danny Daze, he’s a continuous inspiration and a very real person whom I respect a lot. And my friend Tijana T, she’s also a brilliant artist and human who is no bullshit and has great taste musically. I want to continue to put friends on the label and to be open sound wise because Shaun and I both like a wide range of music.
In a previous interview you mentioned that you wished for more clubs to strive for that community feel – what are some of your favourite clubs or promoters that do this so well?
I’ve had some great gigs lately but for me Circoloco, Lux, Berghain, Dalston Superstore, and Goethebunker stand out. Also the parties I’ve played in Paris, La Mona and Menergy were really good. Reworks festival also was so supportive and everyone working there was so nice, you can tell they really care about music. Obviously the B-Pitch parties, and the Maya Jane Coles parties I’m always happy to be invited to play. I know I will forget and leave a bunch out, it’s a bit impossible to list them all. I think I’m lucky in that I mostly play for promoters and clubs that get it and take risks and book people for the right reasons.
You have a really strong connection to the song ’This Must Be The Place’ by Talking Heads, are there any other records that you have an emotional connection to? Can you tell us the stories behind them?
I’m not sure if it’s the specific songs or the moments related to them, but I remember a night around 2002/2003 the song “I Gave You Love’ by DJ Jes on Fresca came on at Smartbar right after I just finished playing. The room was completely full went completely mental and tears just started falling down my face because I was so in love with this music and I didn’t know what to do with all that beautiful energy. It was magic.
Gemini – If You Got To Believe In Something
Always listen to this when I’m down to remind me not only that I’m from Chicago and to get it together, but also that Gemini is the greatest ever.
Also this year this song came back into my life, the last few Panorama gigs I’ve practiced in my room and also listened to my folders on my phone running around Berlin and every time this came on I would close my eyes and the tears would start. A musical reminder to never give up and that it’s about the journey not the destination.
How long have you been collecting sneakers for and what are some of your recent purchases?
I would say I’m not so much of a collector but an admirer these days it’s harder to have the space and to justify spending record money on kicks but I manage to always find ways. I’ve been obsessed with sneakers since we got to America and I found Nike and Michael Jordan. Of course we couldn’t afford them then but my family found ways to get me a pair every year. I’ve also gotten a bit more functional these days with the trainers, I just like a comfortable pair to travel and run around in. Right now I’m wearing my Gosha RubchinskiyReebok’s mostly and I designed myself some custom Nike Airmax 95’s.
With your amazing collection of tattoos, some inspired by your favorite artists, do you feel these are integral to your personal identity and why?
My tattoos are sort of a timeline of my life and my experiences. They all have different meanings even though most aren’t very obvious when you look at them. I think the first ones were just experiments and then they evolved and grew with me and they became more therapeutic in a sense, and meaningful. They are a big part of me visually and spiritually.
What are some of your favourite records at the moment?
As usual too many to list but I’m playing a lot of Chinaski, Jensen Interceptor, and Antoni Maiovvi. My friends CYRK also just sent me some crazy unreleased EP’s I’ll be playing every set. Also Curses’s album on Correspondant, Miss Kittin’s album Cosmos, and Mariel Ito’s album 2000-2005. Very into albums right now.
What’s next for Alinka?
Lots of naps, more great gigs, possibly a full length album, definitely a lot more music. I’ve just remixed my super talented friend Joyce Muniz, it’s probably my favorite remix I’ve ever done. I’ve got another remix I’m working on for Nein records as well, and of course we have lots of releases lined up for Twirl.
‘Journey Into The Deep (Revisited)’ by Shaun J. Wright & Alinka will be released on the 23rd November via Twirl