Communicating a feeling – In praise of Lena Willikens

Few DJs embody the idea of a rounded forward-thinking selector quite like Lena Willikens. Yes, there are DJs that are as eclectic as the Düsseldorf native – Ben UFO and DJ Harvey immediately come to mind – and yes, there quite a few DJs that display the very same esotericism in their selections – Nicholas Jaar being obvious example here – but no other DJ combines it quite in the way that Lena Willikens does. She is a landmark DJ in that regard, garnering the type of notoriety in a mere fraction it took many an established DJ, and with good reason too. Her tastes are varied and broad and she has a very unique ability to create an extensive narrative through her sets, imparting something of her own personality through combining the music of others. Although her rise to fame (by modern day social media standards) was steep, going from local resident DJ at Salon Des Amateurs to an internationally sought after DJ, it was something that was certainly cultivated and refined through years of experience and her intrinsic tastes. It’s something Lena explains in an interview with Ransom Note as such: “What I like the most when I produce or DJ is the moment when my brain stops working and I don’t think anymore.” This is also the reason she often feigns interest in doing interviews, preferring to let the music speak for itself, instead of conflating it with a trivialising literal interpretation of what she does. But there is something unique to what she does and it’s not something that could be described in a single sentence. To consider Lena Willikens appeal, is the resolve of getting to heart of all of Lena Willikens.

As with any artist, it starts with the influence of her parents and for Lena this would have planted the immediate seed for her penchant for the road less travelled in electronic music. Citing the new wave electronica Grauzones’ Eisbär as an early favourite – she was five – thanks to her mother, it seems that Lena‘s nonconformist tastes, manifested early in her life thanks to the influences of a previous generation. As a result she found her way into artists operating on the periphery of cool, artists that start with the likes of Lee Scratch Perry and end today with Carter Tutti Void. In her own music you can even hear an outer dimensional reference like Grauzones making an appearance on a track like “Phantom Delia”. This diverse taste for unconventional music followed her into her teens, where as an ardent collector of music her record collection grew as the physical manifestation of these tastes. Where a record collection begins a career as a DJ usually follows and while she was an art student, wherever there was a party in Düsseldorf, you’d find Lena Willikens at the decks. Eventually leaving a career in visual art behind for the most part because she “just couldn’t stand this intellectual talking anymore” (according to an interview in Juno) Lena channelled all her creative expression into music starting with her record collection. But Lena’s ability has never merely been about her personal tastes or being able to mix one record into the next. There’s always been something unique to Lena Willikens and her DJ sets, something that tends to transcend trends, genres, even mixing, and can rather more accurately described as a feeling.

It’s what Lena Willikens refer to as “journey” in an XLR8R interview from 2015, in which the magazine considered her as one of their “bubbling up” artists of the year. Even her recorded mixes, like the one she’d done for RA, is not always technically magnificent, nor is the song collection all that mysterious, but the way she takes the listener from point A to B is what truly stands out. It’s not a mere build up, taking you through the ubiqutous course of a night; it’s more of wave, a wave that simulates the mood swings of a manic depressive – there’s never a dull moment in the course a Lena Willikens mix. “I really try always [to see] how far can I go, and of course the farther I can go, the better,” says Lena in that same XLR8R interview. Combine this with her eclectic nature and the word boring is never one you’ll hear associated with a Lena Willikens set. I doubt that this is something that just came to Lena, and I think a lot of her nature in the booth has to do with being able to read a crowd, and much of that has it’s roots in Salon Des Amateurs, the Düsseldorf establishment who gave Willikens her first residency. “It sounds clichéd but for all the residents at the Salon it was never about a DJ ego,” says Willikens in an interview wit Resident Advisor. “It was about sharing music we love and music which was hard to find on other dance floors.” Starting her career there as a bouncer, what becomes evident is Lena has always had an acute awareness of her audience, looking from the outside in – going from a bouncer and clubbing enthusiast to a resident DJ. It seems she is not about playing to a crowd, but rather more about sharing the experience with a crowd. It doesn’t mean she’ll placate the crowd either. She expects her audience to share her open mind when it comes to the music she picks, and her vinyl-only sets are as much about her record collection as it is about forcing herself into unknown territory and taking the audience on that journey again. “Some friends of mine stopped playing vinyl—it’s too uncomfortable to carry all that heavy shit around,” quotes XLR8R. “I like the challenge sometimes, when you are like, ‘Oh no, I packed totally the wrong vinyl and I’m playing peak time.’ I don’t like to have the records with me where I know they work every time. I don’t want them to get boring for me.” So devoted is she to playing the records that won’t always work, that when she coincidently played the same record as DJ Koze at the same time, at the same festival, she never touched that record again.

You’ll be guaranteed to hear something different and new each time you encounter Lena Willikens at the decks. And yes, her sets are almost always a journey. All you have to do is tune into her monthly podcast, Sentimental Flashback on Radio Cómeme to catch a glimpse of this dedication to the musical journey. She spends hours putting that show together out of her record collection and as the title suggests, it’s not for a particular purpose in mind, but rather a feeling. It’s that same feeling she instils in every mix she approaches, with a special personal reflection conducting her choices of music she selects. In a way, Sentimental Flashback is probably the closest we’ll get in putting Lena Willikens’ music and DJ sets into words, and even that won’t necessarily do it justice. From her residency at Salon Des Amateurs to her Radio show to her record collection, all of it forms part of a special ingredient that makes Lena Willikens the forward thinking eclectic personality she is and makes her one of the few DJs that could actually communicate a feeling through the music.

* Lena Willikens will be joining Ben UFO on Friday, the 19th in our basement