Mobilegirl on Having Creative Freedom and Breaking Expectations
A conversation with mobilegirl on her second visit to Indonesia about being unprepared for her Boiler Room set debut and defying genre expectations.
Words by Ghina Sabrina
A musician might be known for their consistency in their music whether it be for their sets or their releases, as it would become the main characteristic that would differentiate them from the others. However, Bao-Tran Tran, the Berlin-based DJ and producer known as mobilegirl, had decided to break out of that and instead do the absolute opposite. On one hand, her selections are genre-defying and eclectic, you should expect some familiar 90s R&B tracks from J-Lo or Ciara being restructured and infused with high-energy dance tracks. On the other, the atmosphere created by her debut EP “Poise” clearly reflects the title of the album. In collaboration with Studiorama, we caught up with Bao-Tran in Jakarta to talk about how she got into producing in the first place, the rise of collectives, and her plan to focus more on her own music in 2019.
While your background surrounds Media and Computer Science, you’ve decided to become a producer instead, how did you end up choosing that path?
It was quite random actually, I think few people really actively decide to become a producer. At some point I just started being really interested in underground electronic music quite passively as just a listener. I never thought of myself being in music, but then along the way I just met so many people who actually made music or are DJs, and they kind of pushed me into doing it as well. So it started all just trial and error, then I literally made one track, and I’ve already kind of picked up half a career (laughs). It was a really good moment. My friend really pushed me to make at least one track, just to see. Because I kept saying things like, “I don’t know, I have not much musical knowledge, I have no idea what I’m gonna do”, so, just get a crack of idea of it, make a track and see for yourself.
You had your Boiler Room set just 2 years after your first track on Soundcloud, “Ice Sheets”. Could you tell us more about the process?
I have no idea how I got there. I don’t even remember – I think I just moved to Berlin a few months prior, and then CTM had booked me to close the stage, and one of the Boiler Room coordinators was there, he also now curates CTM as well. But he was there and really liked the set, I guess. And then a few days later I got an email asking if I want to play a Boiler Room set. I was super nervous. It was probably my 8th set in my life, I was terrified. But that’s something you cannot say no to, right? So I felt really unprepared, and also was too nervous to actually prepare a playlist or anything. So I just went there, kind of just jumped into cold water (laughs).
Your mixes are known for infusing R&B into experimental dance tracks, which people would find surprising. How would you describe your selection of music?
It’s quite eclectic. I don’t really have any boundaries when it comes to which tracks I can play out or what genres. So it’s mostly just anything I personally like to listen to and I feel like could work on the dancefloor, just regarding could people vibe and dance to it. Even sometimes more functionally like, could this create some sort of break or bridge. Or how can I play around with the song. I started listening to music like that a lot, just to know how would that work in a set. Other than that it’s really just what I personally enjoy. I have music on my sticks that are really ridiculous, for instance The Sims soundtrack – where I haven’t really figured out yet how to play that. I mean, the limit is maybe just how I see it working out. Apart from that, anything goes.
Have you ever been in a set where you tried playing a track and it didn’t work?
I don’t really have any boundaries when it comes to which tracks I can play out or what genres.
Yeah, for sure. Even when playing a few days ago, the beginning was super hard for me because I couldn’t really see any reactions. There was this guy right in front that was kind of sleeping, he was probably on something, but he was just leaning against the deck throughout the whole set. So just looking up was really confusing, and I didn’t know what to do. But then I just go through some tracks and started guessing what people would like and kind of go around it. The good thing about playing music across all genres is that you will probably have some tracks in store that people will like.
Speaking of your debut EP “Poise”, the songs on it are more poised than how you usually do your live sets. Does this mean that the sound of your next releases would be different from each other?
I think it’s generally going to be more toned down. Because I don’t think I’m particularly good at producing club bangers, but I do want to go more into a beat-y direction because the first EP was quite ambient. And that just felt really necessary at that point, because I was so pushed into the direction of the high-energy, high-octane kind of DJ, but I don’t really feel like that most of the time. So when I sit down at home it’s just a different kind of environment where I feel like I really don’t want to listen to a kick all the time. And a lot of producing is also my own listening experience, so I just wanted to do something that is the absolute opposite. I was actually afraid that it would kind of ruin my career because I think a lot of people started being really confused to what kind of music I’m actually making. Because also before I made club edits and stuff. But then I just felt I need to break out of that. I kind of ruined the idea of a of coherent line early on. But now I feel like I have the freedom of mixing all of my influences together. To create something a bit more speedy. That’s actually what I have in mind right now, sort of similar to the first EP but a bit more energetic.
Your EP sounds more like what you listen to while coming down from a party.
That’s actually perfect.
Water is a recurring element in your works, starting from the artwork of “Poise” to sounds of splashes in your music. What is the reason behind this?
Just for purely aesthetic reasons. The kind that I find quite unfounded. My element in lunar astrology is water, so I think that’s just something that followed me in my life. It’s always present, the same way that the traits society tells you you are given through your signs will to some extent shape your personality whether you believe in it or not. You’re just being confronted with it all the time until at some point you just adapt to it. It’s so arbitrary. But also I generally really like the calming sound of water or music associated with water – kind of the harp-y, bell-y sound that I really like to use myself as well. Especially in soundtracks of games, that’s where the water regions have this very calming, soothing sound. I just love that.
I was so pushed into the direction of the high-energy, high-octane kind of DJ, but I don’t really feel like that most of the time.
You’re signed to Discwoman who exclusively promotes underrepresented artists, how do you see the rise of collectives such as this one affecting the music scene? Have you seen any significant changes?
I’ve definitely seen changes. At least, discussions rose much more and I keep seeing more and more panel talks and people actually trying to switch up the lineups a bit. Even like governmental funding making it more of a deal to support women more. I applied for one in Berlin last year and they made sure to have a ratio of 50-50 of men and women, and that’s already so much of a change. At least it being a more present topic already feels really good. It has started a conversation throughout the whole world, I guess. Discwoman did a panel and showcase in Japan, which is quite sexist – and I was really wondering how that was perceived or what else is going on in a place where you don’t really hear much about it since the conversation is so Western. But apparently it was received really well. I just hope at some point that it just gets redundant, that we’ve reached a state where collectives like Discwoman are like any other agencies.
You seem to choose which collective you’re associated with carefully, such as Discwoman, Staycore, and Sister, who’s known to have distinguishing characteristics. What are the reasons behind this?
First of all, Sister is a semi-open platform. I wouldn’t say I’m an active member of it, I’m just in the Facebook group, I know there’s a thousand people in it or something. With the others, it was more of a personal approach. I actually wrote to Staycore first, that was right when they just started out and had one mix on Soundcloud. I really liked it and I thought “this is very fresh and I really appreciate this music, I kind of want to be a part of this”. And then I just wrote to them and asked them for a couple of tracks, and then we started a conversation and that’s how I started working with them. I think it generally needs to be like that for me. Either we are aligned 100% aesthetically, for which I really can’t think of any label/collective right now, or there’s some personal emotional component that I agree with. I just find it really important that I get the personal part in this and it matches because you eventually become so tight with them because you work with them all the time. I find that more important than the artistic vision. I quite easily just break it off if it doesn’t work anymore.
This is not your first time in Indonesia, since you were also part of Nusasonic Festival last October. Has the city of Yogyakarta influenced you in some way?
I wouldn’t say directly influenced me, but it was a very interesting experience. Hearing about how popular it is to be in bands is something completely new to me. Or the musical direction that the people are more into is just very far away from what I experience in Europe. That was just really interesting to have sort of an exchange with people of different influences. The thing is, at home I don’t do it that much. I’m definitely in some bubble. Not very consciously, but I mostly only surround myself with my friends and then we all kind of rub off onto each other but it happens very rarely where you’re thrown into a pool of completely different people, so it’s nice to experience that. I would definitely go back.
Berlin has always been in the spotlight in regards to the thriving party scene. Since you’re a Berlin local, is there something that people need to know about?
I think, the general warning is that it could get very comfortable really quick.
I feel very comfortable in Berlin right now, it’s a very difficult question for me. I think, the general warning is that it could get very comfortable really quick. Keeping up with some sort of living standard is not super hard. You will probably have a lot of time to be very introspective, you would think about your life a lot. That’s the main thing you should know about Berlin if you want to move there. It’s definitely very different from other bigger cities where you need to hustle a lot, to be that person in Berlin, you need to be super disciplined. It’s very easy to slip away and do nothing because it’s too chill.
What’s next for mobilegirl?
I’m going to release a single soon to bridge into the next longer release. I’ve been working so much on creating music for other people this year that I didn’t really get the time to work on my own project. Next year I just want to dedicate my time for that, so also less touring and more studio time.