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Violet shook up Lisbon’s club scene, now she’s coming for the world

The Naive label boss discusses how she’s fighting for the inclusion of women and the LGBTQ community in dance music

“I have only lived in Lisbon a short time, but in that time it became clear to me who was moving and shaking things up in this city and that person was/is Violet. From running her own record label Naive, to flying all over Europe and the world to play gigs, Violet represents to me the change I want to see in this world, which is powerful women running electronic music and beyond” – Mykki Blanco,  guest editor of Dazed, August 2018

Inês Borges Coutinho, who DJs and produces under the name Violet, plays melodic, emotional techno sets that pull everyone inside them. She’s an intuitive artist – carefully observing the bodily arcs of clubbers from behind the decks and steering them into rugged, kaleidoscopic terrains – and it’s important to her that these moments of transcendence are open to all types of ravers.

Embracing anyone and everyone means taking stands to challenge an industry that can be exclusive and stuck in its old ways. Take Violet’s June 2018 set at Lisbon Pride. Dismayed by the lack of trans people on the line-up – particularly in a city with a colourful LGBTQ underground – she invited trans friends from her queer party mina to ‘invade’ her performance.

“It was an opportunity to occupy space,” she tells me when we catch up in the event’s aftermath. “We’re all part of the mina crew. If you’re cis, you’re free and privileged enough to just be you, so we went with the philosophy of everyone doing their own thing. That meant some of the people invaded the show danced, yelled, or just stood there. It felt so important, especially because having a political conversation (in Portugal) can feel so impossible.”

Violet strives to fire up this dialogue in all aspects of her work – her women-led reinventions of Underground Resistance tunes, the Radio Quantica platform that’s a safe haven for emerging artists and activists, a ruthless attitude for calling out bullshit toxic masculinity on Twitter and Instagram. Violet’s label Naive, barely a year old, is well known for shining a light on up-and-coming talents, alongside club-seasoned pros. And “Togetherness”, her 2017 jungle-infused hit played by every DJ worth their decks, is a banger to be sweated to in the arms of friends and lovers.

We spoke to the DJ and producer about partying, stage invasions, and first experiencing clubbing at 13.

Tell me about the Lisbon Pride stage invasion and performance.

Violet: The mina crew came in – all these trans girls and boys together – to invade my performance and occupy the space. Odete, Stá, Shade, ssac, and Ketia – all young, super talented DJs and producers themselves. We just wanted to prove that trans visibility is super important – representation will never mean that the party is less fun. We were the ones having the most fun at Pride! In Portugal sometimes having a political conversation can feel impossible. We’re only 40 years out of a dictatorship – it always feels like you really have to push things more and physically do things to start dialogue.

Is that what’s holding Lisbon’s scene – and the wider industry in general – back? The lack of awareness or willingness to engage?

Violet: People that have been part of this scene for ages are also in privileged positions, like white boys that are upper middle class and have a collection of vinyl records. It’s easy for them to say it’s just about the music, because for them it can only be about the music – everything else they don't have to think about. They don't have to think about being different in the crowd, being the ‘look at that’, the marginalised.

The culture is then intensely homophobic and misogynistic, and there’s no will from people who benefit from it to change things and make it more inclusive. A lot of the first reactions to any kind of challenge is to defend themselves. Here, when you try and talk about politics, people can feel like you’re trying to just pick a fight.

“White boys that are upper middle class and have a collection of vinyl records – it’s easy for them to say it’s just about the music, because for them it can only be about the music” – Violet

Where do you see change?

Violet: I came back from London two years ago, and I do see change. People are putting their guards down, realising there are conversations about inclusivity and creating safe havens that need to be had. We’re seeing a better mix of more established and emerging artists – we do this a lot at Radio Quantica. A lot of old school DJs have their own shows, and then we have these 20-year-old trans and queer kids there side-by-side. Having these intersections and opportunities to create dialogue is so important.

I suppose clubs can be a place for conversation about so many things, so why not make it productive and radical.

Violet: It makes partying more wholesome and holistic. Parties are about building community, it’s never just ‘let’s party, let’s be friends’.

Has your social consciousness and clubbing ideals always aligned? What came first for you?

Violet: They’re hand-in-hand. In the 90s, racism was really outright here, but no one really talked about it. We had terrible cases with local skinheads, a black teenager was killed in a bar in Bairro Alto, a popular place to go out and drink – these tragedies felt very close. Both of my parents are very left wing and my grandad was part of the ‘74 revolution and was a political prisoner, so this conversation was always part of growing up. They have really shaped my view of the world. My house was full of a lot of traditional music too, and I was into the Beatles, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I was a late bloomer in my late 20s with doing music for myself. I can’t separate my presence in this world as an artist and as an agent of change.

You co-run mina – what does mina offer a Lisbon crowd?

Violet: There wasn’t anything like mina in Lisbon. We started mina as a collaboration with Marum of Rabbit Hole (a Lisbon queer collective), which turned into a bigger crew with more than 10 people – we look to all these European capitals of queer nightlife like Berlin and London, where dance music is super modern and people can dress and feel like themselves – that didn’t exist much here before. It really is a safe space outside of the huge clubby venues in the city. You can dance exuberantly with no side-eye, it’s sex positive and drug positive. Rabbit Hole throw these other really crazy parties too. People really go for it and wear these amazing outfits, and the resident DJs are incredible.

“I can’t separate my presence in this world as an artist and as an agent of change” – Violet

What was your first clubbing experience?

It was at this club on the outskirts of Lisbon called Bauhaus, and I was 13. They would do club nights before midnight for kids, so they wouldn't serve alcohol. They played a lot of house classic music and Prodigy, some Fugees, No Doubt. It was so good, an early clubbing experience for all different kids from the different coves. When we were old enough to go to proper clubs, we were so ready – I was a proper raver by 16. I saw the rave scenes in the UK, the field parties, but it wasn’t like that in 90s Portugal, but we had a huge boom of dance music in the 90s with DJ Vibe and Luis Leite.

What’s your favourite city to play in?

Violet:I always love playing in Berlin, where people really go for it. Nightlife culture feels mature there and community-led in a way that is really freeing. I just feel really safe in Berlin, it has an energy that inspires me to play brave sets. Scotland is always amazing, a special mention to both Edinburgh and Glasgow, everyone feels super open.

Your label Naive is producing really exciting work – there’s a lovely intersection of emerging and established artists.

Violet: We (recently) had Almaty, this girl from Sweden – I actually met her when I was doing a workshop teaching girls and femme-identifying people how to use Ableton and she was one of the people I taught. She finished her first track and I knew I absolutely wanted to put it out. It feels so special to be pushing this. It comes alongside remixes by Octo Octa, Photonz, and Endian. There’s a few more first-time releases from girls soon too. 

Twitter is such a good place for that too – I always notice how great you are at hyping others on your TL.

Violet: Totally! Half of my music girlfriends I met on Twitter – you can tell a lot of the time when someone’s your vibe and if you could work with them. Sometimes people are meeting and working with other artists they’ve never been on the same continent as. Having another musical kindred spirit – and who is a woman – can be so great, especially when you’re not usually surrounded by such.