London-based selector and creative influencer Donna Leake’s vinyl-only NTS Radio show is a window onto how a virtuoso assembles enigmatic jazz hooks. Whether of the fusion, psychedelic, rock, spiritual or straight varieties, Leake’s uncanny ability to mix jazz with rock, Afro-disco, dub and boogie takes listeners on a genre-bending deep dive of the recherché every episode. It’s also a window onto part of who Leake is, as connecting via music is what she does.
Leake says this link through a set may not register consciously with listeners because she may not be fully aware of what is affecting the choices of her musical lexicon, adding that, “…[it] is dependant on so many things including the “times,” but this also means many different things: What’s going on in that moment within myself, and in the world or the particular environment I may be in. Maybe it’s the country, type of venue or day of the week.” Her sets on NTS are only one outlet for Leake, as she has also guest hosted on Worldwide FM, and some gigs get streamed via Boiler Room TV.
Growing into, and crediting her evolving melodic tastes to always listening, Leake has professed having a bond with music since a young age. She says the gear that served up the music was important too, relating how a Discman caused trouble in school. “I always loved music. When I was young I had a tape Walkman (Talkboy if you can remember), then a portable CD player and then an MP3 player, all of which came everywhere with me.”
Photo above: "I guess it all started when I was around 18 years old. I would go to a club night regularly with my friends and began asking the DJ to play specific songs." Leake spinning at home. E&S DJR400 rotary mixer, Technics 1210 MKII turntables.
Leake admits to not being one for making plans and that becoming a DJ was something she fell into, rather than seeking out. She started going to gigs and then constantly suggesting songs to whomever was spinning. In the end this interest in deciding how to make people move opened doors previously unknown, and she ended up becoming a resident on the turntables at Amit and Aneesh Patel’s East London slow-music haven Brilliant Corners before covid hit.
According to Leake, her unique jazz aesthetic has always been there, and exposure to the Hackney scene coming up through Corners didn't really affect it. "I've always been this way," she says. "Of course taste changes and develops, and the more music in general one listens to – particularly jazz – the deeper one goes. So, I have probably dived deeper and deeper each year, but not as a result of influence from anything specifically." She isn't one to follow a formula for building playlists and simply feels the more one listens to music, the better life becomes.
Photos below: Leake selects albums from part of her collection housed at her London flat.
The journey and what can happen along the way is usually much richer for me crate digging than any discovery from behind a screen, and with the journey of digging, the record often has an even deeper story to it."
RA: How long have you been spinning and how did it start?
DL: “I started DJing roughly four years ago. But, I guess it all started when I was around 18 years old. I would go to a club night regularly with my friends and began asking the DJ to play specific songs. Not because I didn’t think what he was doing was good or right, we enjoyed a lot, I was just keen to get involved I guess. Thankfully, he responded well and was not offended, so each week I would request more and more until I would just hand over a double sided A4 piece of paper full of songs listed in the order I would like him to play them. He wouldn’t always have everything or play in the exact order I suggested, but he was really cool and seemed to be fond of my enthusiasm. I didn’t think anything of this until you asked this question and realised that is where it all began, but I had no idea selecting songs, making playlists or DJing was something I wanted to do or even enjoyed until that time.
RM: Have you always spun only vinyl, or has it always been a mix of digital and analogue?
“I started buying records at the start of 2014, a couple months after moving to London. I’m not sure why, I had no friends who told me to do so or influenced me, I just went into a record shop one day and bought one and didn’t stop. Although, I played my first few DJ sets with CDs as well. Then, as soon as I had around 30 or so records I would play only from these and it just stuck. I played a handful of sets around London – they just came my way – I never really asked to play anywhere until I first went to, and very soon after started working at, Brilliant Corners in early 2015. I enjoyed working and playing there so much, and they only have turntables so spinning with only vinyl became the norm. A couple months after starting to work there I met Nabihah Iqbal late one night. I introduced myself as a fan of her NTS Radio show and asked if she’d like to play with me at Brilliant Corners some time. She agreed and returned the invite, asking if I would join her on her radio show. We hit it off and very soon after she asked me to cover for her show when she was away. I did this a couple of times, then in October, 2016 Errol from Boiler Room asked if I would do a set after listening to my shows. Right after this I started doing more and more, and travelling further afield.
RM: What are the strengths/weaknesses of vinyl and digital in your opinion?
“The first two or so years of spinning full time I only played vinyl. Then I started to take a USB stick with me since I would sometimes only be able to take one record bag for four or five shows. In theory, digital has more strengths than vinyl, with vinyl more of a pain in many ways – especially from a DJing point of view. LPs take space, weigh a lot, get scratched and damaged, and can be very expensive. You have to replace needles, carry accessories for cleaning, maintenance, etc. and on a lot of club/festival systems the sound quality is not even noticed – and can be worse on vinyl. None of these associated qualities apply to digital. In fact, it’s the lack of all these analogue accessories which make it more appealing and sensible to use digital. But, with vinyl comes a more physical, more emotional, and more flowing feel to the music – it’s like dancing. Especially when you are the selector. It feels much more natural and enjoyable to flick through a stack of records when deciding which song to play rather than reading a digital screen while turning a small nob.
“Vinyl changes it a lot for me. With LPs you also have to take more time and care into packing the bag. I find there is an art to packing the record bag which is also part of the enjoyment, especially when you have a few gigs to play in a row. I like this process in the analogue selector pathway. You really have to think about how you feel in that moment, the environment you’ll be playing, and utilise certain records. I find this can often lend itself to expressing myself in a more honest and authentic way. Plus, sometimes too much choice makes it more difficult (although I do tend to take way too many records when I play, whether I am playing one local gig or a half-dozen ones overseas). That’s not to say that authenticity and an honest expression cannot be achieved when using digital, it certainly can, and there are many DJs proving this. It’s just what works better for me now.
“Another huge factor as to why I prefer Vinyl over digital is the first stage of spinning comes in discovering songs and albums – music – through record shops, record fairs and record dealers. I find this approach to learning a musical, artist or genre-based curve much more enjoyable. The journey and what can happen along the way is usually much richer for me crate digging than any discovery from behind a screen, and with the journey of digging, the record often has an even deeper story to it. Again, that’s not to say I don’t dig online or appreciate how incredible the Internet is. The various platforms have made digging online amazing – especially during the Pandemic. There’s so much to discover and you can learn a lot very quickly this way.”
Photos above: “I love to play and mix it all.” – Donna Leake
RM: How did you develop your musical aesthetic?
DL: “Listening my way along, using the sound as a compass and keeping my ears and mind open for constant and ongoing development and movement. I'm always listening to what I feel, and being as honest and authentic as I possibly can in any particular moment when in a position of expressing myself through music. Not caring what people will think or worrying about what may be expected from a selection or set, but at the same time trying to respect the who, when, where, how and why in every situation. Making sure I can get lost in the songs first and foremost, and then figuring out how I might share this while having fun with it.”
RM: Favourite genres to play? Favourite genres to mix? Do they differ?
DL: “I love to play and mix it all.”
RM: Is every set you spin about establishing a connection with the audience, yourself, and in time and space? Would you choose the same music for a local gig compared to France or Japan?
DL: “It started as only sharing what made me move, physically and mentally/emotionally. It could be the weather in that moment, the feeling of the crowd, a personal experience I am going through or one we all share on a global level. This may not be obvious or even noticed to most, but it certainly plays a part in how I express my musical vocabulary. This is also the same for how I play at home. Sets at home and away can be the same, but again it will be dependant on these same things.”
RM: Would you say that listening to your sets is a way of decoding what's going on with you that day?
DL: "It could definitely be that yes, not necessarily every single set though – I learnt this over time. At the start of DJing I just literally played what and how I felt, but as I began to do this more and more I realised it’s much better to consider how everyone else might be feeling first and try to meet in the middle. The idea being, hopefully, we can get to a point where I can be totally free. It doesn’t always work out though and I have cleared many dance floors form reading things wrong."
Photo above: Leake at home. Her wall-of-sound system started with a pair of vintage Tannoy Arden (large cabinets).
RM: You mention “travelling” in the context of listening yourself, or to other DJ's sets. I take it to mean a transportive sense… where/how you go while being engaged by a song or album?
DL: “Yes this is right. Music or a set is like a ride or a story for me and if it can take me with it then it’s working, even if I don’t particularly like or understand whats going on. I find music is a way to travel, sometimes it takes me deep into myself, sometimes I am closely relating, sometimes it makes me appreciate a completely different perspective… sometimes it gives me an insight into something I’ve never come close to experiencing. Other times it leads me to understand something I struggled with before or leads me to research further into something. Sometimes it’s mindless and just a release of some kind – or a grounding – and sometimes it just makes me dance or smile and I have no idea why.”
RM: What’s the level of intersection for you between gear further revealing the music (and how that deepens the experience), and just getting lost in the music regardless of what it’s playing through?
DL: “It’s undeniable that gear will change what you hear, and in the last few years I have explored this avenue more and more. I find it often to be a more enjoyable experience when the sound is good. But, that doesn’t at all mean you cannot have a good time, go on a deep journey, touch others or be touched by others through music without good gear. Some of the best times I’ve had with music have been with both incredible gear and technically, what could be considered the worst. It’s dependant on so many things and a huge amount on the people that you are sharing and creating the energy with.”
Photos below: Leake balances art, hi-fi and music in her home. One of her drawings graces the newly released Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors LP, Selected Works 1985–2005 on Time Capsule Records.
RM: You have vintage Tannoys, Quad amps – 1200s – what's your system? How did you get into vintage hi-fi gear? Has it heightened your level of interaction or understanding of ‘seeing’ into a recording further?
DL: “Downstairs are a pair of Technics turntables, an E&S DJR400 mixer, 2x Quad 303 amplifiers, 1x Quad 405 amplifier, vintage Tannoy Ardens, vintage Tannoy Berkeleys and 15-inch Tannoy studio monitor 3809 drivers in custom cabinets hand built by Seth Barlow. Upstairs in my room I have a pair of Rogers Studio 1 speakers and a Quad 303 with a Quad 44 preamplifier. I got into high fidelity gear through my time at Brilliant Corners, or at least that was the first time I was aware that I was listening to music on a “good” sound system, but honestly it took me a little more time before I actually started to really appreciate what was so different about the sound."
"Brilliant Corners was a brand new environment all together for me, so at first I was being taken away by not just the sound quality, but the energy in the room, the way it was set out and it’s progression throughout the night – the music programming, the lighting, etc. After a few months I moved into a shared house where we were asked to look after a pair of Tannoy Ardens. This was the real changing point for me. After having a home system like that it was hard to imagine anything else, and when the Tannoy's eventually were taken back, I decided this sound is worth investing in. I saved up the money and bought that same pair. But, then I realised exactly how the speaker alone is not the whole sound, I learnt how the amps/preamps, mixer, needles, the room, etc., all played a part in what one was hearing. It was a process of understanding for me and I’m still just dipping my toe in the pool of hi-fi.”
I moved into a shared house where we were asked to look after some Tannoy Ardens. This was the real changing point for me."
Photos above: "Sometimes I’ll hear an instrument I’ve never heard in an album I thought I was totally familiar with." – Leake on her two home systems. Left – Rogers Studio 1 monitors (with Quad amplification) in her bedroom.
“I can’t say my high-fidelity system has increased my level of interaction with albums since I was always heavily interacting/listening, even when for the most part before this it would just be on headphones, which can often be an even deeper, more in depth experience of an album. But, it certainly made me appreciate the beauty of an album and by extension the quality of the recording, production and mastering of an album. You really hear an LP in a different light when you’ve set it up in a certain way on a specific system. Sometimes I’ll hear an instrument I’ve never heard in an album I thought I was totally familiar with (this would happen a lot at Brilliant Corners on the Klipsch speakers installed there), and sometimes there’d be an extra depth that had never been revealed, or came through before. Sometimes it can go the other way and you realise actually how bad a specific record was produced/recorded, or may just not be made for certain sound systems. I also think it has changed the way I dig for music. I have become interested more in the subtlety of slightly more experimental or ambient sounds since starting to listen on sensitive systems.”
RM: Do you have a separate listening and DJ collection or are they interchangeable?
DL: “Interchangeable. I play records from every section of the collection when spinning, but I will usually have a few piles on the floor of my recent finds or the records I’m feeling like playing in that particular moment.”
Photos above: Digging, choosing, listening.
RM: Could you list five desert island LPs?
DL:“This is almost impossible as I am always hungry for what I don’t know. Also, a lot of my favourite songs are on records where the other songs don't move me half as much, which further adds to the difficulty of the choice. So, if I had to take five records that I could listen to – in their entirety – right now to a desert island they would be (in the order in which I discovered them);
Photo above: Leake with some of her favourite LPs.
If pandemic and covid-related restrictions in the United Kingdom and the European Union make earning a living playing music next to impossible, there was at least solace and inspiration to be found for Leake by digging into her vinyl stash. “I did turn to my record collection yes," Leake says. "It’s been a great time to rediscover records, discover completely new songs I had no idea of, and cleanse my collection – so, sell or trade. I also spent a lot of time listening to music online and digging on Discogs and YouTube." Leake says online digging is less easy. "I’m not that great at this aspect as I am not much of a screen person. I can only stand it so long, but during lockdown I’ve been grateful for this ability. Another thing I did during the pandemic, which I never really did before, was listen to DJ/selector radio shows and mixes I would come across on Mixcloud. It has been such a great thing for me since I have always just been so focused on digging for songs I never really spent the time to listen to how other people put them together or shared their stories."
While the past year saw music discoveries online and within her own collection bearing fruit for Leake creatively both personally and with her online sets, they don't cover the rent. "Radio shows don’t pay, so unfortunately that hasn’t helped in continuing to make a living during the pandemic," says Leake. "But, for me it has even more import than money during this time. I have always been heavily dependant and thankful for the radio shows I’ve done over the years. I feel they have kept me sane and grounded throughout some of the harder parts of this job, especially throughout the harder parts of the pandemic."
RM: Last question. Do you play saxophone?
DL: Although I have a saxophone, I do not know how to play it, although I do play with it. I just like the sound of it and mess around with it, as I do with all the other instruments I have. I intend to learn properly at some point... so hopefully one day my answer will be different."