"Everything Must Be True" for Jana Woodstock

Alex Fisher sits down with trailblazing Ukrainian DJ Jana Woodstock

Photo by Hana Gin

Music looms large in the making and molding of modern Ukraine.

The phenomenon started with Taras Shevchenko, a 19th century dandy who wrote poems, painted, and was affectionately nicknamed the kобзар (bard). Shevchenko, who is frequently pictured playing the Ukrainian bandura, is William Shakespeare, George Washington, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe mixed together with John Mayer-style singer-songwriter star power.

The genius of Shevchenko was grounded in his ability to put words and sounds to all manner of ineffable sentiments—making legible and audible what Ukrainians were proud of, what was frustrating them, etc. Bard after bard has followed suit. There was composer Mykola Leontovych, a martyr for Ukrainian independence whose 1916 Schedryk is performed the world over as Carol of the Bells. There were the Bu-Ba-Bu, a literary performance group whose eccentric, oft-nonsensical shows probed the absurdities of the late-Soviet 80s. There is Okean Elzy, a rock band of mega proportions whose songs of lust and longing united a broad, restless audience through the 90s and early 2000s.

Since 2014, a new Ukrainian bard, the DJ, has captured the imagination of the country’s youth and drawn the electronic music world’s attention to Kyiv. Jana Woodstock is one of the most visible and visionary members of this future-facing generation.

The thirty-two-year-old Woodstock’s sets cover more sensations than words can handle, veering between punk, trance, industrial, and back again. She cut her teeth at Kyiv club 56, and has since featured at a top hits list of clubs, parties, and festivals across Europe, including CXEMA (Kyiv), Tempio del Futuro Perduto (Milan), Arma (Moscow), and Tales from the Evil Empire (Berlin).

I sit down with Woodstock for bao buns and spicy tofu soup at Kitaika on the edge of Kyiv’s gilded and marshrutka-laden Victory Square. Like her sets, our conversation veers all over—touching on the influence of VIVA Zwei, the power of posters, her residency at Osnova, and her forever mission to “feel everything.”

We are soon joined by Masha, who is Woodstock’s agent and founder of the fast-growing ЗМЕИ (SNAKES)—a nomadic party series born out of a desire to create a female artistic community which has distinguished itself for its commitment to inclusive, interdisciplinary experimentation. The duo share their mission of looking ahead to tomorrow instead of obsessing over yesterday, plot their ЗМЕИ takeover of Moscow’s Mutabor, and reflect on the importance of playing true.

Socks and Soviet Modernism also find a spot to slip in. What more could you want?

Alex Fisher: I’m catching you before you leave for Moscow in the morning. Are you packed?

Jana Woodstock: No, but I have everything in my head. I know all my looks. And I was going through the music yesterday, searching. Because every time I play, I do something new—to do it for the first time, every time.

Does that process reflect the seasons? I imagine you are feeling different in the summer versus the dark, grey winter.

Nature is influential for sure. But more so is when I choose the music—in the mornings, right after I wake up. That’s when I tune in to what I want to play at the next party.

So then are you reflecting on your dreams?

No, my head is working better in the morning. I feel fresh.

Rest is the new rock and roll. Let’s talk a little about how you promote the parties you’re playing at.

There are so many ways to do it now—it's not so underground like before. For me, Instagram is great. You can put up a picture and people will see it and know it and want to come. Telegram has also become super popular in Ukraine. I’m not so good on that platform. And generally I’m more focused on playing than promotion. If people want to come, they’ll come.

It must be nice to have a range of crowds you are commanding. You can do different things with a crowd of two hundred than you can with a crowd of five thousand, and vice versa.

Yeah, and you feel the crowd at the smaller clubs and more avant-garde events—that they’re there for the music and not for something else. They know it, they are excited about it, they want to speak about the music after the party is over. And you can create different atmospheres. I always let my feelings show, so right now my sets are heavy on punk and trance. When I started, I began with EBM and industrial. But to play just EBM every time is boring. And to play just industrial every time is boring.

When I walk around Kyiv, I see a lot of Pari Match gambling advertisements and I see a lot of posters for parties that you and your friends are involved in. The visual character of Kyiv is heavily shaped by these posters. This weekend’s posters are covering last weekend’s posters and they will soon be covered by next weekend’s posters. The walls of the city are a living archive of what you are doing.

Every time you throw a party, you bring a group of people together in the creative process. We invite artists to work with us on the posters, inviting them to design what they like.

The party is a meeting ground at every stage of its making.

This is true, and this is why people are coming. Because everyone helps a little bit in their own way. Everyone brings something from himself or herself—their vision.

This line between underground and commercial—you walk it very carefully. But when your name is scattered all over the city, that’s a very visible form of marketing. You’re not hiding; you’re embracing your public persona and standing behind your work.

And waiting for new cool DJs to stand up there too. There were five of us who all started at the same time—Nastya Muravyova, Yana Ponura, Sasha Zlyzk, Taras11112222, and me. Four years later, we represent Ukraine. Now with more open doors, it is time for our youth to create something. Because before you created and it was hard to bring what you created somewhere. It was not so easy.

It sounds like for you there was an element of right place at the right time, surrounded by the right people. This a good moment to take a step back. Last time we met, you told me you grew up in Germany before moving to Kyiv as a teenager. You can’t have instantly become involved in this community you’re in now when you were fourteen. It had to have taken some time. What was that transition like?

It was like growing up again as a new person. At first, people were not so open. It wasn’t because they were not nice—that was just normal. But after I got to know the people more, I realized they are friendlier than anyone. They have a big heart.

Americans have this reputation of being gregarious, outgoing, chatty, super loud. But after this initial warmth, the walls come up. Vulnerability is difficult. Perhaps with Ukrainians there is a hard exterior, but, once you crack the shell, you’re totally in. At the same time, you’re not the traditional Ukrainian. You have an openness and ‘let’s do it’ mentality.

It's because I lived in Germany and I travel a lot. And I don’t know which mentality is better—they are just different. And it is cool to meet people who are different. It changes your philosophy about everything; I like to be in strange places so that I can feel something I haven’t felt yet.

There are people who like living in a comfort zone—nine to five, pension plan, health insurance. You choose to reject routine and embrace unpredictability.

I want to see everything—to understand the earth. That won’t happen if I restrict myself to one area. When I’m here (in Kyiv) or in Berlin, I know what I need to do. When I go somewhere like Armenia for the first time, I have to say “let’s see how this goes.” And it goes. So I think if the music is nice, it will be nice for everyone.

So what was the initial urge to go from being someone who went to parties to being someone who played at parties?

I told you that I was born in Weimar, but grew up in Hanover. Since I was a little girl, it was impossible to go to the clubs. But at that time you could turn on the television, switch to VIVA Zwei, and listen to electronic music. I was listening to it and watching it very seriously every day, and so were all my neighbors. I thought, wow. I watched all the videos—not just the electronic ones, but punk and grunge and metal as well, saw what the artists did, listened to interviews, everything. And then later I started going to tons of festivals—meeting the artists, following them. However, I still had the feeling that I couldn’t be one of them—that these people were something else.

They were cut from a different cloth.

Yes, like, “Who? Me? Never!” Then I was in a relationship with a guy from the hardcore metal area, so I stopped listening to electronic music for three years. But when we broke up, everything from those years started coming back to me. And, at that time, I was bartending at this bar called Hashtag and then this club, 56, where Masha was curatoring the events program, opened next door. One of my coworkers told me I should try to play because he knew I liked electronic music and I was talking so much about it. He called me every week for a month asking me to play at a party there. I was like, “Are you crazy? I don’t know how to do it.” He kept calling me, and finally he was like, “I’m putting together the poster for the party. I need your name. What do you want me to call you?” I was like, “Are you crazy?” He said, “No. Let’s try it.” And I agreed. He wound up just putting my name from Facebook. Then I understood, “Ok, Jana—now you need to do something. People are going to come and you don’t know how to do this.” Of course, that first show wasn’t so professional. But when I was doing it, I realized everything in my life was coming to one point. I understood when I was playing that I was home. Even after so many years, I still feel this serious about it—one hundred percent excited.

Some people spend their whole lives trying to understand what they are meant to do. You’re lucky to have found it early.

I am super happy. So, yes, I kept going with it and played a few seasons in 56. After this, Masha, I, and our friend Taras decided to keep pushing and create some new underground in Kyiv. And so we started doing our Osnova parties at Otel’. Three years later, I can tell you this is where I want to play every time.

Your professional development is linked with the growth of this party at this place.

It's so nice to create something more than yourself. Travel certainly helps with this, being exposed to all these new people and new projects. Then we can bring more guests, exchange ideas, build something new. It's a never ending story.

[Masha walks in]

Masha: So, you’re already finished?

AF: How are you?

M: We’re leaving tomorrow for our ЗМЕИ party at Mutabor, so busy.

JW: I’m thinking about gifts—what do we need to bring? Maybe I buy some Azerçay? Or maybe some socks?

AF: Socks?

JW: The socks shop is right near my house.

AF: Got it. Anyways, we were talking before you came in, Masha, about the significance of travel and the international community that forms as a result of it. There is something very idealistic about this constant exchange, great hospitality, etc. But there must be some competition in this industry, right?

M: I think the competition is more inner—battling your fears or something like that. Because competition is pointless in music. It's about your taste and you cannot compete in taste. That’s why it's nice to stay in this field for so long—competition is quite abstract.

AF: Writing this article has likewise proven to be quite abstract. I am used to talking to and interviewing visual artists about paintings or photographs. I find it easier to apply words to work that hangs on a wall. Jana, your work can’t be so immediately interpreted. It demands presence and personal reflection.

M: This is why music connects so many people. It allows you to visualize whatever you want in your mind. It's never about correct or incorrect.

AF: Jana is always searching for new sounds and the audience is along for the ride. We are not waiting to hear a hit. We buy in to the fact that we are on this journey with you.

M: The crowd comes for her taste, not some precise track. It is super honest.

AF: Jana, do you ever allow yourself to be nostalgic over how things have evolved for you or are you always firmly pedal-to-the-metal forward?

JW: Yes, I just go forward. And never do the same thing again. This is why I’m so excited about our ЗМЕИ party in Moscow this weekend. I will try to do something I’ve never done before.

M: She’s not the only one who has told me that. That’s the thing about ЗМЕИ—we’re all friends, we feel we can challenge each other this way.

AF: This makes me think about parameters. Sometimes structures or themes can be useful because then you have something to work within or against.

M: I don’t think of it as a parameter. A parameter would be saying I want to play Berghain every weekend and conforming your sound to what they want to have playing. And then you get paid thousands and yeah, yeah, yeah.

AF: You can read into their strategy.

M: If you want. But if you are playing from your heart-

JW: I think everything must be true. This is what Masha does so well—filling her parties with artists who play true.

M: This has to be the case when you are trying to create some culture, and nightlife is culture.

AF: Some cities have nightlife mayors now.

M: Yes, yes. Not Kyiv.

AF: I guess that’s kind of you then Masha, right? You can create that position for yourself.

M: I always do—Jana knows.

AF: But is there a point where Kyiv ends and where Ukraine begins?

M: Kyiv is still the capital of music in Ukraine, but now we get offers from other cities. Some are still super raw, but, yes, even in the last year we have seen a change. All big cities are getting developed and the small ones are not far behind them.

JW: If you create in your little city something that draws people from Kyiv, that is good for everyone. And Ukraine is rich in good musicians. Because after the war started in 2014, it became too expensive to bring in so many foreign artists. So the locals were forced to start playing well.

AF: The practical situation demanded that Jana Woodstock appear.

M: I like that. Right after Euromaidan you had all these young people fighting against the prospect of conflict crushing culture and pushing it back ten years.

AF: I’m struck by the abundant ideologies angling for attention here. In the States, the millennial hipster brand reigns in the big cities. You have that in Kyiv, but also militant nationalism, a fascination with Soviet Modernism, a blossoming of Orthodox christianity, etc. I feel the tension when I am walking to work at Mystetskyi Arsenal. Our neighbor across the street is the Pechersk Lavra pilgrimage site and down the block is the Motherland Monument. It’s a lot of history to handle.

M: You know, Pechersk Lavra and the Motherland Monument are the same. They were conflated during Soviet times—religion and monument working in tandem. But yes, there is this fascination with the Soviet and interest in propelling preservation so that the constructions from this era don’t get demolished. Communism and religion—this is our history, and you want to be aware of history. You don’t want to live in a city with no roots. Kyiv has roots, and they are beautiful.

AF: Can’t argue with that. Final question: Jana, why Woodstock?

JW: Because everything started with blues. Blues to rock and from rock to electronic music. That’s why. It’s the start.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

Alex Fisher

is an art historian from Buffalo, New York based in Kyiv. His research is focused on developments in Ukrainian contemporary culture, a subject he has spent the last year pursuing as a a Fulbright scholar affiliated with IZOLYATSIA and Mystetskyi Arsenal.

All contributions from Alex Fisher

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