Octo Octa's newfound joy, with a catch

The producer and DJ plays July 14 and 15 in Madison.

New York City producer Octo Octa's 2013 album Between Two Selves stands out as one of the most beautifully sad works of electronic music released in recent years. Its opening track, "Who Will I Become," begins with two flickering synth notes dispersing into expansive but gentle reverb, setting the album on a bittersweet, wounded course that it only veers from a couple of times. While Octo Octa, real name Maya Bouldry-Morrison, is rooted in house music, the songs on Between Two Selves rarely work up to the sheer exuberance of which house is capable. The beats are kinetic but restrained, the melodic ideas patiently stretched over the course of several measures, and the occasional vocal samples (as on "Please Don't Leave") are pitched-down and woozy.

Bouldry-Morrison, who plays July 14 at the High Noon Saloon and July 15 at La Fete de Marquette as part of the annual Musique Electronique mini-fest, lets loose a bit more in her singles. "Let Me See You," from 2011, builds bouncy piano chords and sparkling melodies into a playfully mid-tempo groove, and "Cause I Love You," from 2014, hammers away with a lustily chopped-up vocal sample. But she fleshes out something of an in-between territory on the new album Where Are We Going? From the start it's much more lighthearted than Between Two Selves, though if anything it takes Bouldry-Morrison's compositional approach in a more complex direction—often with dazzling results, as on the swinging and multi-layered "Until The Moon Sets."

The sense of release has a great deal to do with Bouldry-Morrison's recent decision to come out as transgender and begin living openly as a woman. (The title and overall mood of Between Two Selves hint at the painful early stages of Bouldry-Morrison coming to grips with her gender identity.) It's also tied in with her growing confidence as a DJ.

"My friend told me that after I came out, my DJing got stronger, and he's like, 'I don't know, you just seem like you're happier and having a lot more fun going out and playing and making stuff,' and I think that's part of it," she says of the emotional arc of Where Are We Going?

That arc, bookended with two title tracks, conveys a newfound sense of joy and resolve, but there's conflict and dissonance mixed in. "No More Pain (Promises To A Younger Self)" could almost be a banger from one of Octo Octa's 12-inches, except for its atmospheric intro and the strange, ominous chords that creep in between its whooping vocal samples. "Fleeting Moments Of Freedom (Wooo)" is the album's most propulsive track—the one with the strongest sense of a producer rediscovering how much fun house music can be—stringing bright synth stabs into a prickly melodic statement. It's the "Fleeting" part that's operative, though, informing the tension the listener begins to feel as the melody repeats and modulates. It's a track about letting your guard down—but not escaping the constant knowledge that you can't always let your guard down. 

"That is very direct to coming out as trans and me feeling a lot better and presenting and being in a body that I actually enjoy and like and feel good about, but that doesn't change the fact that I get stared at and talked to and pointed and laughed at, and all this shit that happens to me every single day," Bouldry says of the song. It also reflects the difficulty of finding clubs and dance nights where she feels entirely comfortable—"where I'm not having to constantly police around me...and having to look over my shoulder to make sure that I'm safe in this area, which is something that I have to do a lot." (Perhaps continuing in that vein, she notes that she's working on a new track titled "Everything Is Gonna Be Alright, Right?") As she sums it up: "Things are good but they ain't great."

Even though Bouldry-Morrison's approach to melody is one of the strengths of the album, she's sometimes conflicted about it. "I really wish I could write very simple loop-y hooks. I'll listen to, like, a Paranoid London track where it's just one line that's repeating forever but I'm not getting bored of it." But the tuneful backbone of many Octo Octa tracks is also a result of process and patience.

"I started doing electronic music when I was 14, 15 years old and there's always that Malcolm Gladwell myth about 10,000 hours, whatever that shit is that's not actually true," she says. "But being self-taught, it took me a long time to actually develop an ear and figure out what made me happy when I was listening to music. I throw away so much music, because I'll be listening to it and be like, 'I don't know what's here,' or there's no emotional grounding….I don't have the technical ability to be in my head, 'Oh, this melody sounds great,' and then go jump down and start knocking it out. I kind of have to jump and play around a lot, and eventually the things that really stick are the things I just keep coming back to and really enjoying listening to, but it takes a long time for me to find what melodies I'm looking for. I typically know I'm happy with it in that I can listen to it for two weeks straight and be good with it."

Bouldry-Morrison has been DJing more often lately, and isn't yet sure whether her Madison performances will be DJ sets or live-PA sets. [Editor's note: Since our interview with Bouldry-Morrison, promoters have confirmed that both appearances in Madison will be live-PA performances.] If it's the latter, audiences will likely hear at most one or two tracks from the new album. "For live [PA] stuff, it's half improvised and half stuff that I just pull from the whole catalog of everything I've done," she says. "It depends on how I'm feeling for the day. I'm never like, 'OK, now it's time to play the album out,' even though that's something I should do."