In the latest edition of Label Watch we spoke to Duality Trax label boss Holly Lester on the label’s beginnings, the struggles of the creative community in Northern Ireland, and her Free the Night project.
Over the last few years Holly Lester has made a name for herself as one of Northern Irelands most loved exports. After carving her way through the North West scene Holly has managed to secure herself a Boiler Room mix, a residency at Manchester’s Warehouse Project, and play in some of the best venues in the country including Printworks London, and XOYO to name a few.
Duality Trax is Holly’s newest venture and she has gotten it off to a good start. The label – founded in 2020 – has a heavily rave inspired sonic aesthetic with each record infusing elements of trance and techno making it hard to simply to place Duality Trax in one particular box. High energy breakbeats, powerful synth stabs, and hypnotic arpeggiated leads is usually what you can expect, although the latest VA Visions Vol.1, a record in which 100% of the proceeds went to the Doctors Without Borders charity, threw garage and electro tracks into the mix.
Holly hasn’t stopped there however, she is also a founding member of the Free the Night organization which exists to help lobby against licensing laws in Northern Ireland. We were lucky enough to be able to chat to Holly about some of her most recent projects…
Words & interview: Callum Martinez
So then, we’ll start from the beginning. Can you tell us who a bit about who you are, your story so far?
My name is Holly Lester, I am originally from rural Northern Ireland and now based in Belfast city. I’ve been DJing for around 15 years now – professionally in the last five years or so. I run a label Duality Trax and I’ve also co-founded an organization for the night time economy here in Northern Ireland called Free the Night, which we started in April of this year.
Can you tell us a little bit about a bit more about Free the Night?
So, it’s essentially a lobbying/advocacy organization. We’re all volunteers, there’s about seven of us, and I co-founded it with a guy who works for the Humanists. His background is in lobbying and advocacy, whilst the rest of us come from a creative background.
Just to give you a bit of background into Northern Ireland, we have a history of really regressive licensing laws here. We want to be a voice for the creative industries at night going forward, and we want to do a number of things such as protecting creative spaces, as well as lobbying for better licensing laws and safer cities at night. A lot of the latter will involve tackling public transport issues in the city center and lobbying for staggered closing times in different venues.
We also want to prevent this creative drain which we see quite a lot in Northern Ireland. We end up losing quite a lot of our creatives to other UK cities and cities in Europe because they have a much better chance of progressing in their creative career there. Places like these also offer a lot more to them in terms of entertainment. We want to try and build an infrastructure that allows creative people to thrive in Northern Ireland.
I had read that it’s quite tough over there for events and creatives in general. Has there been any progress so far, and do you have anyone in government there on your side supporting the cause?
We’ve been speaking to politicians and there are a few that are definitely on side with us, but it’s hard to say how much they would be fighting our corner. We did have a bit of movement recently however, as there was a reassessment of the licensing laws here which unfortunately didn’t have the end result that we wanted, but we did have one of the MLA’s bring up our concerns in Stormont, so that was fantastic! It’s definitely a step in the right direction. Most of our challenge is going to be trying to get MLAs and councillors on our side – a lot of them don’t actually understand what the night time economy involves, or what a nightclub is, or what DJ’s actually do etc. A lot of this is totally alien to them. So yeah, half of the battle is trying to get them to understand the importance of our industry and what it’s function is.
It’s often the case when you have governments with a lot of older people. We need some way to increase the amount of young people within the government so that there is still some sort of connection with the youth. It’s frustrating sometimes.
Yeah, definitely. The other thing is as well, which I’m sure you’ve read up about, is it’s quite a religious country. Even the politicians that are quite young generally come from a religious background, so it’s a bit of a different landscape to the rest of the UK.
Let’s talk about the label. What inspired you to start Duality Trax?
I wanted to start a label for a number of years, but it’s just one of those situations where I wanted to wait until it was the right time. I went to a sound bath in 2019, it was at the time of spring equinox which is focused on this balance of day and night, and that’s what basically got me thinking more into the concept of duality in the days following.
I knew I wanted the label to mean something special. I didn’t just want to start a label for the sake of it. I wanted to try and bring the concept of duality, this idea of equilibrium and balance into the label and the music industry in genera l- there’s been a lot of conversations in the last few years about trying to equalize things between genders but I haven’t really seen that many labels actually setting out to do this. I’ve had a lot of men in my life that have really helped me out in my career, so it just didn’t feel right to say I only want to focus on female or nonbinary artists. So that really fitted in with the principles of duality, this idea of this oneness and of two parts coming together to create a better whole.
It’s interesting how you have incorporated the concept of duality in such a way, especially now. Covid and the lockdowns I think have forced everybody to really think about the duality of their lives, health, partying, etc.
Yeah. Another tenet of Duality is the idea of the shadow self that must coexist with the positive aspects of your personality or of life itself as well. I think a lot of DJs and people in the industry have undergone a lot of that shadow work in the last year, so it does oddly relate to what I was thinking about in 2019.
So, how did you build your relationships with some of the artists on the releases so far, and what is your approach to find new music?
I already knew the first two artists that I released. Fio Fa is from Dublin, and I had met him a few times before. We were always talking, and he was sending me demos before I’d even started the label, so he was one of the first people I thought about because his sound was exactly what I had in mind. I had also been chatting to Cromie – the second release on the label – online for a year maybe before I released him. We had met in real life once, just by chance. He’s actually from LA and by pure fluke, we ended up meeting in London when I was playing in Printworks, which was super nice because we’d already put the wheels in motion and decided we were going to do the release together. I never thought I’d get to meet him face to face, so it was cool that it worked out that way.
I’ve put out the first Duality Trax VA recently, but I didn’t really know a lot of those artists. It was quite a nice challenge actually, because I basically just reached out to some of my favourite artists and hoped that they’d want to get involved. And for the next few vinyl releases that I have coming up, again it’s pretty much internet connections that I’ve had for a while. One of the artists had sent me some demos over email – ‘m not going to say who it is though because I haven’t announced it yet, but he’s super young. He’s from the Netherlands and is only just starting out really, but he’s had some wicked releases out so far. He’s doing some really nice stuff at the moment.
I haven’t met him, but I guess the pandemic is getting in the way there still, and it’s the same for the other people that I have planned to release. As for the remixers, again, they are people that I’ve always admired. I just reached out to them and hoped that they would say yes. But yeah, it’s actually been a super nice way to make these connections with artists that I really like, as sometimes the chances of us crossing paths is slim.
Yeah, I think that’s the power of the Internet isn’t it. Back in the day you would have to traveling down to events and meeting people.
You said that there were some teething problems when you initially started the label. Could you go into a bit more detail into those difficulties?
Well, I guess when I first started, I didn’t really have any concept of how much time you need to give yourself. You need to allocate more time than you actually need for deadlines because you can be guaranteed that there’s always going to be something that goes wrong. The first record was meant to come out in 2019, but it ended up coming out in 2020. We launched the label around Christmas time, and I had a launch party here in Belfast, but it ended up coming out three months later because of delays with the pressing plant, but I think that’s just like an age-old problem with vinyl.
Another big problem that happened was that one of the artists realized that he didn’t have his stems for one of the tracks, he couldn’t find where they were. I was on holiday at the time in Ibiza and he messaged me and was like; “OK, so I found it but it’s on a corrupted drive! I tried to get it fixed but it’s not working.” I was just super determined because I really loved the track and wanted it to be a part of the release, so I was like; “Right, just leave this with me. I’m going to contact a friend of mine who’s like an absolute technical wizard.” My friend Dave Lievense was the man for the job, and I had no doubt he could fix it. I sent him a message and I was like; “Right, Dave, here’s the situation, the hard drives corrupted. Do you think you can fix this?” and he was like; “Yeah, send it up to me.” and he did. He actually fixed it!
Everything then went ahead as planned, it was just a little bump in the road really but it ended up that the premasters couldn’t get sent off as soon as I wanted which had a knock-on effect. The record ended up getting pressed around Christmas time which meant more delays due to holidays, so it didn’t come out until months later. I guess like a big lesson there is to always check as soon as possible that the artists have all the stems for everything and allocate yourself more time.
Wise words. I think I need to take some of that advice to myself. And have a mate like Dave. That’s the other lesson.
[laughs] Dave’s a genius. But yeah, you have to be organized to run a label. There’s a lot of admin and organization that’s needed, and I think if you’re not, it’s probably going to be a bit of a shitshow. I hear stories about other labels all the time and it sounds like a bit of a nightmare. You have to be really on top with this kind of stuff. Maybe I’m generalizing here, but a lot of creative people aren’t really tuned that way – they’re more focused on the creative output which is great, but you definitely need to have one foot in the organizational side, as well as one foot in the creative.
So again, it’s about duality and balance.
You talked about like the struggles for creatives in Northern Ireland, and the mindset towards the industry. Do you think that has that been reflected in the sonic identity of the label anyway?
That’s a really good question. I’ve been asked this a few times actually, even about my own DJ style, but yeah I think so. It’s probably best to start with techno here in Northern Ireland. That’s a really huge genre here, especially in Belfast. I think that is basically down to the fact that it is quite anarchic, punk is also really big here in Northern Ireland and I think again, that’s like due to our troubled past, the Civil war and all of the other problems that we have had here. I think that has had this effect on the kind of music that people enjoy here. They’re more attracted to this rebellious kind of anarchic sound. Whether it’s punk or techno or even hardcore and hardstyle. Those last two were really big here when I was a teenager.
Another thing that was really big here was trance. I’m not a trance DJ, but if you’ve read a lot of interviews of mine, you’ll have probably noticed that I grew up listening to a lot of trance. I grew up in the countryside, so I wasn’t as affected by the troubles as other people that lived in the city, I don’t think. I think it was popular due to the fact that trance is pure euphoric escapism, and people here really needed that.
Trance has kind of seeped into my style a little bit, and sometimes I will play some trance at the end of my sets. A lot of the stuff I’m playing, especially at the moment, is like older progressive house and trance. There’s a lot of modernized versions of these sounds coming out at the moment, so I’m finding I’m playing a lot of that stuff, and I’m also releasing a lot of that stuff too.
In the first release for example, there was a bit of a Goa trance element happening. It’s similar with the ones that I have coming up with as well. I’m really drawn to that sound at the moment.
So, to answer your question yeah, I think the surroundings have an influence on the sound of the label, but maybe not in the way that you would expect.
That makes sense. I mean, it’s interesting what you’re saying about the harder, faster paced music. I’m from the Northeast of England and our struggles were mainly born out of the economic situation there. For us it was makina.
So, what are some of the golden rules that’s you have learned so far?
One of the top things is making sure that you have as much time as possible. I think it’s well known that there are some extreme delays with pressing plants at the moment. It’s a big problem!
I guess my best advice to anybody who is planning to do vinyl is to try and plan ahead as much as possible. The delays for some of the plants are going into next year. I’m still trying to work out a release date for our next one. It’s a very long process, and it’s very frustrating at times, but I don’t think I’m ready to stop doing vinyl yet because it’s my first label. It’s just so nice to have this physical thing to hold to and say, I’ve done this! I can see it. I can feel it. It’s just so much nicer than just doing digital releases.
Obviously, the VA release that we did was digital because I was waiting for such a long time for the vinyl, so I decided to do a digital VA in the meantime. Maybe that’s another tip. If you are waiting around and you don’t really know what to do, try to have a plan B. Maybe it could be some merch or maybe a VA. Try and think of something else to do to fill the time.
Yeah, the key is to keep consistency I think, especially nowadays. What pressing plants are you using? Are there any in Northern Ireland that you’re working with?
I’m currently pressing with Lobster who normally use MPO in France, but they are now using two others in Europe due to long waiting times.
Everywhere is in the same situation currently. There’s been such a huge knock-on effect from COVID as well as also being timed with this rapid increase in popularity with vinyl. They don’t have half as many people working on the plants and most of the plants are in Europe, which isn’t as far ahead as the UK in terms of vaccinations etc., so they’re not working at full capacity. It’s causing a lot of backlogs. I hope it starts to improve in 2022 because it’s difficult to plan everything when you have to factor in such long waiting times, and they seem to be getting longer. It means that even if you have a fair idea of how long it’s going to take for a release, it could totally change by the next one.
That sounds difficult. What’s next on the horizon? What have you got planned that you can talk about?
So yeah, we’ve just done the VA recently that was released as a digital download via Bandcamp. All the profits are going to Doctors Without Borders, which is a fantastic charity – they’ve been doing a lot of work in the pandemic with countries that can’t access health care in the same way we do here. They do a lot of work in war torn countries and places like Gaza and Yemen, etc., so it kind of ticked a lot of boxes for me and I thought that this would be the perfect charity to choose for the project.
With the next release, as I said, I’m unsure yet of exact release dates, but I’m hoping that it will be this year. The delays are so bad now that it might be wishful thinking, but I’m hoping that it will be this year. That’s coming from the young Dutch artist, and the remixer is somebody who I’ve admired for a while now. I would say she’s one of my favorite producers and DJs of the last few years. She’s from Australia and currently lives in Berlin but I won’t say anything else.
Then there’s another record following that one, and it’s by two guys from Estonia and another one of my favorite Australian producers is remixing that, so again, that’s going to be in 2022.
There are so many sick artists coming out of Australia. Have you ever been over there?
No, I’ve never been, but I really want to go because I just feel like they’re having this kind of resurgence at the minute. I know that they have a pretty decent club scene, but I just feel like in the last few years, it seems to have really taken off.
I think the club explosion that we had here in the UK in the 90s is the moment they are having now. They are borrowing a lot from these sounds which were really big back then, and incorporating that energy into what they are doing now. That’s just my two cents. I have no idea if that’s actually the case, but I feel that’s kind of what’s happening there right now, and I just absolutely love these sounds that are coming out of Australia at the moment. I think most of my favorite artists are either in Australia, or in the states.
If you could have anyone in the world to release on the label, who would it be?
Liquid Earth, Youandewan, Patrick Holland, Rudolf C, Nathan Micay, Eris Drew and Octo Octa are the names that spring to mind right now.
Who are some of the Irish DJ’s that we should be looking out for? Anyone worth mentioning?
In the North there’s Matheson who I think is going to do really big things production wise. Also, Kessler who is now over in Rotterdam is absolutely killing it. There’s another guy called Brién who is a musical genius, he can play any instrument and can turn his hand to anything in the studio. In the South, there’s Dylan Forbes and Collie. Oh, and Dufi too – he’s making some really cool stuff. Those are the main ones that spring to mind.
You can buy music from Duality Trax here.
Support Free the Night here and don’t forget to give them an email if you would like to help out.