For nearly 20 years Ill-esha has weathered the dynamic, often ephemeral soundscape of Electronic music, simply by being an original. “I’m not really an observer. I’m very much a participant and a creator,” self-describes the Vancouver, British Columbia-born artist, songwriter, producer, and DJ. “Everything I do in my life, it quickly becomes way more than a hobby.” From growing up in the EDM hotbed of the Pacific Northwest, attending raves in her teens, Ill-esha accelerated her musical passions to the fullest. “First I wanted to be part of this culture as a DJ, doing vocals and curating music. After that, I also needed to participate in the music I was playing,” referring to her progression as a producer and headlining performer. “I’ve just been moving one step up at a time over the years, into being this completely original show.”
Although Ill-esha’s professional career dates back to 1997, the Denver, Colorado-based artist asserts that her recent evolution in music greatly contrasts with her initial work. “I spent about a decade in the Drum & Bass world. I was one of two Drum & Bass female MCs in the whole country, for a long time. That’s how I got my start, and started touring.” Delving further into making the kind of music she wanted on her playlist, Ill-esha’s journey broke out of genre. “Something about Drum & Bass just isn’t what I make,” she says, becoming a pioneering artist in the Glitch Hop movement. Even that musical taxonomy is something that today, the veteran shakes off. “It now means something very different from what I do.” Currently immersed in Future-Bass, Ill-esha’s music captivated audiences in 2013, tied to three separate tours, alongside Bassnectar, Beats Antique, and Big Gigantic. With the increasing dates and venues, the artist remains committed to her audience. “After that experience, I upgraded my set-up. Now I have custom stands, instruments—even if it’s heavy and expensive to travel with, I’m proud that authenticity is what matters most in my music.”
Authenticity has been a driving force in Ill-esha’s albums, including 2008’s The Perfect Circuit, 2010’s Circadian Rhythms, and most recently, 2014’s Open Heart Surgery, among a plethora of singles, EPs, and various appearances and side projects. Looking at the space she’s helped lead, she says, “Those of us who do it own way without going with what’s hot in the market, we don’t blow up as much, but we’re all still here.” With her work covered and remixed, the artist who grew up in a professional music family, stresses, “I really try to make songs. A good song should be translatable. If I can’t play an acoustic version of it, I don’t let it sit.” Calling her own musical style “weird,” it’s something that crowds have hooked onto.
All the while, Ill-esha has helped shift a paradigm in EDM. After years of suffering the music industry’s sexism, from being mistaken as a visual designer or a dancer to being discounted despite her expertise, it’s only made her sound hit harder. “I have to be better cause people expect me to be worse,” Ill-esha says, noting that she plans to lead workshops that inspire at-risk youth—young women especially, to pursue the technical arts. In a culture where production is stereotyped as a masculine practice, it is Ill-esha now making the records that male and female DJs are spinning.
A fully dimensional artist, Ill-esha remains in touch with her DJ past. “In my live shows, there’s an extra layer of freestyle energy. I think it’s really important to make each show special, and make people have to see you.” Differentiating from the albums, she adds, “I like to make solid songs, and just a whole level of randomness when it’s live.” With turntables, keytars, vocal loopers, and other instrumentals integrated within her sets, all of the iterations of Il-esha’s journey are represented.
While Open Heart Surgery is Ill-esha’s most recent release, it represents a cathartic benchmark, allowing her greatest progression yet. “As soon as the album came out, a lot of positive stuff now came to my life.” It was around this time that Ill-esha formed Polar Vortex with her husband SAUCEmonster, a constantly touring group that features mixed media, videos synced to live instrumentation and electronic percussion. With a new family, non-stop touring, and constant collaboration, a blissful Ill-esha describes her newest creations as upbeat, positive parallels to her life. “I feel resolved now. Hopefully my happy music is just as good.” With that constant driving bass, freestyle, and soulful lyrics, it surely is.