For the cover shot of Octo Octa’s new album, the Brooklyn-based DJ and producer Maya Bouldry-Morrison is kneeling on a bed in a San Francisco hotel room wearing a $25 dress and stockings. Glasses on, her face is set in a goofy version of the Mona Lisa smile. Deciphering it is fun; there’s a playful pop-chart sultriness, a hint of pride, and perhaps a sense that she would rather get the shoot over and done with. However reluctant she looks, the decision for Bouldry-Morrison to put her image at the forefront of the release – something rare to see in electronic music, in which even the most conventional, dominant-male acts don masks to perform – goes deeper than simple aesthetics. It’s the first album she’s produced since coming out as transgender, a work she describes as “emotional content”.
“For a long time I never took pictures of myself because I didn’t like my body,” she says. “It’s only been a couple of years now, especially since publicly transitioning, that I’ve finally felt OK with how I look.”
Released this month on the HNYTRX label of San Francisco’s influential queer DJ collective, Honey Soundsystem, Where Are We Going? is an album of house music that scores the narrative of Bouldry-Morrison’s life.
Tracks include No More Pain (Promises to a Younger Self), which starts with dreamy digital cascades before dropping into an uplifting vocal loop that spirals over a drum break; Preparation Rituals, a track layered with synths that builds with sincerity over seven minutes; Fleeting Moments of Freedom (Woo), capturing the pleasure of DJing with its shuffling percussion; and Adrift, which creates a sense of fear and darkness amid deep, low notes and pulsing kick drum.
While some tracks reflect lingering worries about life and identity, this album has a sense of confidence and fulfilment. Her previous LP tells a different story. Between Two Selves, released in 2013, captures the artist during a time of uncertainty. With tracks such as Please Don’t Leave and Fear – focused on Bouldry-Morrison’s overwhelming anxiety issues at that time, including those about her partner leaving – and Who I Will Become, it’s evident what she was processing while making it. “Originally, I wanted to call that album Trans,” she says. “But I just got too scared. It just wasn’t the time for me to be able to do it.”
That time came last year, when Bouldry-Morrison finally told her parents, before coming out publicly in a fitting manner for an electronic artist, through a feature published in Resident Advisor. She already had the interview lined up before she broke the news to her family: “It felt like I had to let them know before this thing popped up online and then have to retroactively say ‘Hey! so...’” she laughs. “They were fine afterwards. Like always. Everyone was confused, then it was OK. Which I was lucky with. I know other people that don’t have that. But it worked out for me, I guess.”
Since then life has changed in many ways for Bouldry-Morrison, who is just approaching her 30th birthday. Her struggle with anxiety is under control and she no longer has to work in a lighting warehouse with a group of “dudes” (“Even though they were all very sweet, we are not even close to being the same person!” she says diplomatically). Meanwhile her profile as a DJ continues to grow, while her development as an artist is evident from the richer, more refined sound.
One thing that remains consistent is her relationship. Bouldry-Morrison has been with her wife, Brooke, for nearly 15 years. Growing up together in New Hampshire, they’ve known each other since they were 12, and during high school they’d hang out and listen to drum and bass on the radio. While Bouldry-Morrison was experimenting as a musician, producing breakcore and intelligent dance music (IDM) as well a performing in a stripped-down powerpop two-piece called Horny Vampyre, Brooke’s career led her into teaching.
Bouldry-Morrison’s big break came in 2011, when her first EP, Let Me See You, was released by 100% Silk. The LA-based label had just been launched as an offshoot from noise and ambient imprint Not Not Fun, of which Octo Octa was a passionate follower; its founders, Amanda and Britt Brown, were on the hunt for dance music producers with an ear for the retro, lo-fi, DIY house sound that the label quickly became known (and at times chastised) for.
At the time, Bouldry-Morrison had been merging ideas from her two projects – her IDM productions and party music from Horny Vampyre – to create upbeat four-to-the-floor music people could dance to.
“I had no friends that were releasing on electronic labels,” she says. “Everyone I knew was in punk and hardcore bands. I had no idea how to release this stuff, but 100% Silk were just so open and accepting. If it wasn’t for them I don’t know where I would have been.”
It was an event featuring three acts on 100% Silk – a label known for supporting artists that don’t necessarily fit the mould elsewhere – in December 2016 in Oakland, California, that resulted in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire when 36 people died.
Two artists on 100% Silk’s roster were killed in the fire, Johnny Igaz, AKA Nackt, and Chelsea Faith Dolan, known as Cherushii. Bouldry-Morrison’s friend Joel Shanahan, or Golden Donna, was also due to perform at the night but survived; her voice catches as she describes trying to find out what had happened to him in the immediate aftermath: “It was brutal,” she says.
“I recently saw people in San Francisco, people who knew more of the people who were there and affected by it and everyone was still pretty fucked up about it. Which makes sense, because it’s just brutal and sad.”
For Bouldry-Morrison and artists like her, DIY culture and the often radical, queer spaces that intersect with this world have been fundamental to her development as an artist. She was furious to see the narrative of the Ghost Ship fire taken away from the victims and turned into a shallow story about young people needlessly risking their lives by going to a rave, when places such as this play such a crucial role in fostering grassroots music communities and providing a vital platform for those who may feel less welcome, or safe, in conventional clubs.
“People just don’t understand what spaces like the Ghost Ship are and what they can be,” she says. “In Brooklyn, there are plenty of venues but there are a ton of clubs that I will not fucking go into. Or if I go to that space I’m there for a little while and then I’m out. Not all clubs everywhere have an inviting community of people inside.”
This uncompromising demand for the protection of queer and underground nightlife spaces, and the belief in the music that comes from them, makes Bouldry-Morrison an easy fit for Honey Soundsystem. The collective has been running anti-mainstream gay nights for over 10 years, while also releasing music with a political and cultural mission in mind, not least gems like Patrick Cowley’s forgotten gay porn soundtracks. The Octo Octa release is its first LP from a living artist in a decade. At the heart of the album is a renewed confidence. In the final track on the LP, Where Are We Going?, Bouldry-Morrison loops a vocal of the one question she was asked repeatedly after coming out as transgender – “Do you feel better? Do you feel better?” – a track that, like all her work, was created through a process that helps her “move through thoughts and feelings”. Her cover photo, then, is emblematic of this new state of mind, something Jacob Sperber, one of Honey Soundsystem’s four members, who suggested the idea of her image, very much encouraged.
“I feel like Maya’s decision to go full-on with this cover very much helps listeners understand what the album is about,” says Sperber. “This album has so much candour, and you can see that glowing off Maya in the photo we ended up running with. The record not only breathes with life and love, it reads like a diary at the tempo of the heartbeat.”
• This article was amended on 29 March 2017. An earlier version said the event at the Ghost Ship warehouse on the night of the fire there was promoted by 100% Silk; the label has said that it did not organise or promote the event.