Auckland-based artist Baby Zionov is an up-and-coming producer and DJ who has been honing her unconventional blend of pop and electronica since 2014. Zionov has been setting dance floors on fire from the moment she took the stage for her first live performance in June last year, and this weekend she will be making an appearance at the third annual Double Whammy festival at Whammy bar in Auckland. Ahead of the blazing event, boogie beneficiary Fluffy caught up with the jive forger to chat about her toe-tapping tunes, unconventional instrumentation and her strong social politics. Read all about it below...
UTR: So, for those out of the loop, who is Baby Zionov and what kind of tunes do you make?
Iím Aaliyah Zionov, a 20-year-old girl from Auckland. I make bubblegum laser-sound boogie shoes classics. My project is basically to take the things that are most fun about dance and pop music to their most ridiculous extremes, so that theyíre even more fun.
Youíre heavily involved with prison abolitionist activist group No Pride In Prisons. Tell us a little about that what the group does and what you do within it?
The goal of No Pride In Prisons is basically to see the abolition of prisons and police in Aotearoa by any means necessary, and to fight for the basic human rights of prisoners. So we agitate in parliament, protest on the ground, send out pamphlets, do research on prisons, and advocate for prisoners. I got into it 'cause I think the basic principle behind prisons, where individual people are targeted for individual offences, doesnít make sense. It doesn't account for why people do social harm, which is rooted in their relationships to the people, politics and economy around them. Most people who go to prison were already suffering from poverty, racism, domestic abuse, mental illness, addiction, or illiteracy, and they come out of prison even more traumatised because itís so violent. So I see prisons as basically a way to hide how devastating colonialism and capitalism really are. The statistics show over and over that they donít reduce crime and they donít stop people from reoffending.
So what NPIP does is work towards a world where everyone has access to what they need to live, no one is disposable, and our communities are empowered to deal with their own problems, to support people to become better.
Iíve seen you use some awesomely unconventional instrumentation, including a deflating balloon. What drew you to that?
My friend, a very eccentric farmer from Hawaii, introduced me to the ďmother of balloon musicĒ Judy Dunaway when I was 15, and convinced me it was the future of music. I think the balloon is one of the most timbrally diverse, unpredictable and fascinating instruments in the world. But itís only really ever been applied in very dry explorations of texture and timbre, so I think the next step is to start applying it to new contexts like dance music. It gives the heavy beats an element of unpredictability - even I donít know what sounds are gonna come out or whether any will come out at all. Itís a fun way to challenge people while still being very danceable, which is always the most important thing.
The other thing is Iíve never really had the attention span to learn any ďtraditionalĒ instrument other than ukulele, but Iíve always had the urge to make music of some kind, so I spent a lot of my life messing with balloons, slide whistles, rubber bands, pots & pans, whatever else. I guess thatís the other part of ďthe balloon revolutionĒ - absolutely anyone can play one!
From what Iíve seen, thereís been an increase recently in discussion surrounding less privileged people (e.g. those outside of being straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied) in the media and I would hope in wider society in general. Iím sure this is in no small part thanks to Coco Solidís Equalise My Vocals campaign, in our part of the world. From the perspective of a trans musician, do you think that the tide is slowly turning and that there are more inclusive spaces for less privileged people within the music industry?
I pretty much owe my existence to the wave of cool initiatives run by really passionate, talented people, like Equalise My Vocals and the Secondskin programme from last year. The latter is what gave me the confidence to go out and start playing music on the reg. But I wouldnít exactly say that the tides are turning, or that weíre starting to ďbe in the music industryĒ for the first time, cause weíve actually always been there. I owe so much musically to generations of oppressed communities who basically built dance music from scratch on cheap equipment because it made them happy. The tendency of the music industry is to take that and then make money off it with copyrights and more palatable faces. So I think whatís changing isnít that there are more oppressed people making music. Itís that people are starting to honour those communities and their histories more, which is a very good thing.
I noticed a show you played had a split door charge for waged and unwaged patrons. Do you feel initiatives such as this are important for minimising the financial barrier to musical performances?
I feel like itís a very important step! The question of wealth inequality and class colours the landscape of the music scene as much as race, gender and ability. I was actually talking with my friend the other day about how the housing crisis has affected the music scene here and all over the world. Lots of music venues have been shutting down or shooting up their booking fees because theyíre struggling to make rent, and itís been hitting all-age venues especially hard. That really undermines any possibility of new blood being pumped into the scene, and it discourages people from taking risks or inviting new people. It also makes concert tickets more expensive, which keeps people from supporting the scene and checking out new music. Having cheaper door charge for unwaged people is a really great step towards rectifying that for the people most affected.
I also really appreciate stuff like the Audio Foundation instrument library and songwriting or production workshops. Music is a beautiful, collective thing, and in an ideal world anyone can and should get involved in it. The best way to make that happen is to socialise the means, equipment, and know-how of making music. As the housing crisis gets more intense, I think itíll become more clear that the logic of capitalism works against the logic of music and culture. Protecting it means building a revolutionary movement that puts people before profit.
Your rendition of 'Tel Aviv' went down a storm at the release show for Kitty Taylorís Prayers EP last year. What about that tune do you think speaks to people so much?
That song (by Omer Adam) started as kind of an inside joke between me and an Israeli friend whoís involved in Palestine activism, because it was the anthem for Tel Aviv Pride in 2014. The lyrics are basically just about how hot Israeli guys are and how many opportunities there are for gay sex in Tel Aviv. Israel is famous for making a show of its gay rights and vibrant party culture to hide how it commits these horrible war crimes every day. So thereís this really funny surreal feeling to that song and a lot of the dance music that comes out of Israel.
That didnít really answer your question. It went down a storm because it sounds great and itís a banger. In the moment thatís what really matters.
At this same show, you played two sets. The latter of the two was dubbed the Ďbangersí installment. What sets apart your approach to either variety of set? I would have thought they were all bangers?
I work best under limitations, so I basically have two types of live sets at the moment, each with specific rules.
The first is a set of my original productions and remixes. This set is always at 170BPM and every song uses the same octave bassline played at 1/8th, usually on the most plasticky Ď90s piano sample I can find. The only beats Iím allowed to use are the 30 or so drum loops that come prepackaged with Ableton, and the aim is to make the most euphoric and danceable music I can using these restrictions. Itís also built so that any of the songs from the set can be played in any order and flow together seamlessly. I donít think itíll ever be finished - I just add a new song to it every couple weeks as I go about my life and learn new things about music.
The second is my DJ stuff. These sets are always at 135BPM, and the emphasis is basically on keeping the energy going while introducing diverse new elements all the time. My guiding principle here is that great dance music is usually built on the contradiction between hard and soft. So thereíll be a wistful, ethereal, or sunny melody for the brain at the same time as a relentless heavy beat for the body, and the two send each other soaring into space. Thatís what produces that overwhelming euphoria feeling, which is why I call this the ďbangersĒ installment of Baby Zionov.
Catch Baby Zionov as part of Double Whammy, which is being held this weekend at Whammy Bar in Auckland over Friday and Saturday nights. Head over here for more information and to buy tickets.