Responsible raging: talking with Beats 1 DJ Anna Lunoe
'It's the reason Justin Bieber just made a tropical house song, you know?'
Most people associate Friday nights with freedom from the tyranny of their work weeks — you can do whatever you want because the pressure’s off. For Beats 1's DJ Anna Lunoe, Friday nights are the culmination of a week’s worth of frenzied listening, planning, and recording, and the product of that work is broadcasted simultaneously to hundreds of countries and millions of listeners around the world. It’s a little more stressful than your couch-centric downtime.
Lunoe is a regular presence on Beats 1, the digital global radio station that launched as part of Apple Music earlier this year. Her show is a Friday night fixture, and it’s quickly become one of the station’s flagship dance music sets. Take one look at a representative set, and you can understand why Zane Lowe handpicked her for a promotion to the big leagues. She has distinctive, eclectic taste, the kind that leads to playlists where club-ready SoundCloud gems cozy up next to 2 Chainz, SOPHIE, and Fetty Wap. She’s also a charming and friendly host with a deep Rolodex, the proof of which lives in her regular Guest Selecta segment. (Diplo, Kaskade, and Dillon Francis have all made recent appearances.)
When she’s not working on her Apple show, Lunoe keeps busy with a packed DJ schedule and her own music. Her Hyperhouse tour kicked off earlier this month in San Diego, and it’ll keep Lunoe and a crew of other artists on the road until the beginning of December. She’s also putting together a new EP for release in the next few months. When I spoke to Lunoe on the phone last week, it was obvious that she doesn’t take the reach of Beats 1 for granted — she’s making sets with responsibility in mind. “I care about the art of dance music,” says Lunoe. “This stuff trickles down to pop music … There’s a great opportunity for me to give people some of that understanding.”
Jamieson Cox: Can you walk me through how everything happened that led to your spot on Beats 1? I’m assuming you had to sort out the details well before the service was announced. How did Zane [Lowe, Beats 1’s flagship DJ] reach out to you?
Anna Lunoe: I was contacted by Zane about a month before the station went live. I knew that he was leaving the BBC, so I was aware that Apple was doing something, but when he contacted me I had no idea what it was about. I got an email notification that Zane Lowe had followed me on Twitter, and I was like, "What’s going on?" I got an email from his team reaching out ... He just said to me, "I want you to make a radio show for me, and it can be whatever you want. You can play whatever you want, you can do whatever you want, you can say whatever you want."
I had been doing radio in Australia for a few years — I did four or five years on an amazing community station called FBi. I was really passionate about it, and I really missed doing it, so when I had the option to do this, I just jumped on it. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and I just ran with it. It was super exciting. And it was really nice not to have to audition and to prove myself; I think most creatives will tell you it’s the worst thing to be like, "Hey, I’d like to put myself up for this job, I’d be great for this." It was so nice to be approached and trusted. Zane said, "Hey, I trust you, I’ve been looking at what you’ve been doing, and I want you to do this for me."
I know that feeling, especially when it’s someone you respect. To hear them say, "Hey, just so you know: I’ve been keeping an eye on you, I think this is cool, I want to work with you." There’s no better feeling in the world.
It was really validating for me because it made me understand my choices. I’ve always operated from the heart, I’ve made music from the heart, I’ve played mixes from the heart. I really think about those mixes and try to put stuff in there people might not have heard; I try to educate them … the way I do what I do is conscious.
It sounds like you have a lot of freedom when you’re preparing your Beats 1 sets. How does the process differ from when you were doing your community radio show?
Because the Beats 1 show is weekly, I don’t have as much to choose from. I try to focus on new music and keep it as fresh as possible. I listen to 400–500 songs every week. I want to find and represent as much new electronic music as I can, and I make sure that [my Beats 1 show] is a little bit wider than my other sets. I want to represent every corner of the dance music scene, including ones that might not be getting played on other shows.
That’s something I like about the sets: they’re obviously anchored in dance music, but they’re also quite broad. You’ll play a lot of different electronic stuff, and then you’ll play something from the Drake & Future tape or something from the new Janet Jackson album. Given the size of the Beats 1 audience — it’s like 100-plus countries, right? — do you feel a certain responsibility to present that kind of breadth?
Absolutely. I feel that responsibility, but I’m also just passionate about a lot of different music — it’s a natural thing for me to try to incorporate it. When it comes to Janet and Future and Drake, all of these people are exerting an influence on dance music. Their voices are constantly being resampled and rehashed. Every dance music producer is watching what Drake does. There are a ton of Janet Jackson bootleg vocals on remixes and tracks — kids who are interested in dance music might not realize that this is Janet Jackson they’re hearing sampled in 20 other songs. I think it’s a great opportunity to say to a new audience, "This is Janet Jackson." This is her voice, and you probably recognize it from this song, it came out two years ago or five years ago, and you never really understood who that was. I want to show people the concept and educate them as well.
One thing that comes through in your sets is that your taste is really eclectic. It doesn’t feel restrained by ideas about genre. Do you think there’s anything specific in your musical education that contributed to that sensibility?
I think it has something to do with growing up in Australia and being exposed to a lot of different music. Australia is so far away from the rest of the world — we get everything, but we only get the songs that crack through to the top of the charts around the world. We might get a few rap songs, we might get a few UK bass songs.
"It's like we got the top 10 from London and the top 10 from the US."
Because the industry’s so small down there, it never felt segmented into different radio shows or stations. All of the music would channel through two radio stations in Sydney and the one music TV station. We had that stream of music coming to us directly, and the way in which we digest music now is completely different. Now you can listen to anything online at any time, and you have access to music all around the world. It’s like we got the top 10 from London and the top 10 from the US. I think that’s what gave my ear its sensibility, and that’s what made my instincts very international. It makes me gravitate toward a lot of different music, not just American or European music.
I never thought about it that way. I’m based in Canada, and our government has these CanCon regulations in place. They mandate that a certain percentage of everything on the radio needs to involve Canadians. It’s usually around 35 or 40 percent. But the US is still right below us, and it’s the dominant influence on our cultural diet — I guess I take that for granted.
I love that CanCon idea, though, because my radio station in Sydney seemed to have the same policy. Half of the music was Australian, and it was like a community station. It does foster a unique sound, and I think stations like FBi and Triple J in Australia give Australia its own sound because we have supportive localized media. It’s the same with Canada, Canada’s killing it all around the world.
Yeah, and it’s easy to forget about the infrastructure that helps with that. It sounds like the systems are pretty similar — it’s a cool way to retain something special about where you grew up and about the music that comes from that place.
It’s a sense of identity.
Let’s get back to Beats 1 for a minute. It’s been about three months since your show started, and you’ve put about a dozen of them together. What have you learned from these first few months of doing the show?
It’s been growing every week. I’m trying to incorporate new markets and cultural events that are happening in the industry, and I’m referencing them and tying them together into some kind of story. I think the show’s bringing amazing music to people, but it’s another thing to give them context and to explain where it fits so they know how that person got to that stage. If I give people information, they learn things, and that brings greater understanding to dance music and gives it some context. I think that’s great for the industry, for the artists, and for the world in general.
"It's the reason Justin Bieber made a tropical house song, you know?"
That’s what really drives me: I care about the art of dance music, the innovation, and supporting the artists who are pushing it and creating trends. They’re creating a movement that causes ripple effects and leads to number one on the charts. It’s the reason Justin Bieber just made a tropical house song, you know? This stuff trickles down to pop music, and it’s setting the cultural and sonic spectrum for what trickles into the biggest songs in the world.
There’s a great opportunity for me to give people some of that understanding, and a heads-up on what’s going to be next. I’ve learned that’s what people are really tuning in for. They love it when I educate them a little bit or show them something is happening, or explain how this song came first. I might play a song that’s really popular right now, and I’ll also play its influences. So I’ve just been working on my voice and how I want to use it, and that’s how I want to use it.
That sounds like a measure of confidence to me — when you have enough confidence in your voice and base of knowledge to say to yourself, "Okay, I’m ready to show people something. I’m ready to teach people something." That’s a cool, empowering phase to be in.
I don’t pretend to know everything, that’s for sure, and there’s still a ton that I’m researching and learning about myself. But I’ve got a good 10 or 15 years of solid dance music observation and knowledge and curiosity — I’ve been curious about it my whole life, it’s just been something that drove me from a very young age. And I don’t think it’s something you can learn: you either have that curiosity or you don’t. I remember the first time I heard a sound, the first time I heard certain songs. I was so curious about who these people were, the emotions being portrayed in the music, the community and the people around it that wanted it.
I’d watch these video clips in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep — there was a show that played video clips all night — and I’d see raving kids in the UK, hip-hop kids in the US — and I was in Australia where, compared to the UK and the US, there’s very little youth culture. And that just totally set my mind alive, all of these people and communities that had created this culture. So yeah, I really just study it, and when something piques my interest, I look into it and I want to learn all about it. I guess I know a few things, but I still have a lot to learn. This show helps me learn.