When musicians wake up each the morning, what do they hear playing inside their heads? For the bubbly British-Hong Kong violinist and DJ Olivia Dawn, it is something “really soulful and groovy”.
Dawn, 25, says: “My morning routine normally begins with music. I shower with it on and sing along to it. It helps gets my day started.”
Although still young, Dawn has already made quite a name for herself in the music festival scene with her signature violin improvisations and smoky vocals over live electronic sets. Her work has led to her collaborating with major brands such as Nike, Armani, Porsche, Tudor and Shanghai Tang and being invited to perform at a Virgin Australia Airlines event by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
Having played at the electronic dance music festivals Tomorrowland, in Belgium, and Amsterdam Dance Event, in the Netherlands, she is looking forward to making her solo debut in February at Babylon Festival in Australia.
“That's going to be my first kind of headlining… it’s prime-time between two of my idols, DJs Damian Lazarus and Behrouz,” Dawn says.
When back in her home city, she loves getting up at around 7.30am to read the journals she has written the night before, have breakfast (cereal, toast and, sometimes, scrambled egg. But there is always peanut butter somewhere) and go for a jog along Bowen Road, in Mid-Levels, on Hong Kong Island, before music practice.
“Hong Kong is so beautiful in the morning … just running around on Bowen Road feels like a little bit of an escape,” she says. “All you see at that time are people with their little dogs, or people doing tai chi. It's a really peaceful and meditative way of starting my day.”
Dawn … of a musical journey
Dawn began playing piano and violin at the age of five and by the time she was at high school in the United States she was writing her own songs. Yet it was the experience of attending a music camp in the US that really woke up the musician inside her.
“That was the first time I've ever been in an environment where everyone was also doing music and I felt this could be an actual career,” she says. “That was my first epiphany.”
Born with a competitive personality, Dawn was aiming for the Juilliard School – the renowned New York performing arts conservatory that is one of the most difficult music schools to get into – even when she was told by her college careers advisers it would be a huge challenge. As she said: “I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.”, she says.
Changing her tune
Dawn was, indeed, accepted by Julliard, but she also soon realised that her musical ambitions lay elsewhere. “I started to think maybe classical music wasn't really for me because every day I was playing songs that 100 billion other people have played,” she says.
So, she started writing songs while managing a demanding curriculum, but after graduating, she felt unsure what she should do next. It was thanks to her family in Hong Kong that she got the careers advice that she needed.
“My mum and brother both said, “Olivia, have you ever heard of this place called Berklee It's like a pop music, modern music school,” she says.
The whole family went on a trip to Spain to look at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia campus, and once she had arrived it was “love at first sight” for Dawn. She felt Berklee was where she belonged.
“That first week of school was when I had my second epiphany,” she says. “People were playing anything from Indian raga, Arabic, salsa, [Cass] McCombs to quarter-tone scales … every kind of music you could imagine.”
A new love – of jazz
At Berklee, Dawn also fell in love with jazz. “It's world music … jazz leads into electronic music, into Detroit House, Chicago House, Deep House, soulful house, every kind of music,” she says. “That's when I realised that this is what I want to do: electronic music is what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.”
During that time, she also met a lot of people that inspired her to become the versatile musician she is today. The thought of Djing never even crossed her mind initially, as she was focused on honing her craft as a live electronic artist. It was at the suggestion of her teacher that Dawn put her hands on the turntable.
“I never once thought about DJing,” she says.
“I just wanted to produce – to be a live electronic artist.”
However, her teacher opened her eyes to the possibility of being a DJ.
“She showed me how to beat-match on turntables [synchronise tempos of two recordings to ensure a smooth transition] and I found it was really fun,” she says. “I could just mix one of my songs in and then the rest could be songs that reflect my taste and are similar to songs I want to make.”
Hitting the high notes
She then began to start jamming on her violin with a DJ, which inspired what would later become her signature style.
“One day my teacher was watching us perform and he was like, ‘Olivia, you’re a DJ, too, so why don't you try to do both [play the violin and DJing] at the same time?’,” she says.
She started doing music jamming on her violin with a DJ. One day, a teacher walked into one of these spontaneous sessions and suggested that Dawn add violin playing into the mix.
Initially reluctant, Dawn tried it – experimenting by having interludes of violin playing and DJing in one setting – which led to some trial and error.
She was at first reluctant, thinking: “I only have two hands!” But the teacher made another suggestion for her to experiment having interludes of violin playing and DJing in one setting – which led to some trial and error.
“I ended up dropping my violin on the floor ... I'm pretty sure I dropped a lot of things,” she recalls. Yet she soon mastered it. “I realised that I could build more and more on my set. I can loop my violin, add other instruments with it, and I can sing to it: the possibilities are just endless.”
Apart from being the support act for international DJs, Dawn also records vocals – including those on her forthcoming debut EP, “Lion” – and strings for respected artists such as Eagles & Butterflies, Tobias Enhus, Yarub Smarait and Casey Driessen.
Her success, Dawn contends, is largely built on discipline. “I find that with artists it's normally very difficult to have a routine, because it requires a lot of discipline because we don't have normal working hours,” she says.
“I am quite OCD in a way that I like to plan everything on iCal and I literally put slots. I schedule my breakfast in, I schedule my running in. And normally after breakfast I schedule at least an hour of practice time from 9 am to 10:30 am.”
Describing herself as “OCD”, Dawn likes to have everything slotted into her schedule on iCal, right down to her breakfast and morning run. There is usually an hour of practice between 9 am to 10:30 am, after she has had something to eat. And unlike how a lot of people think of DJs, Dawn enjoys waking up early.
And while many tend to associate DJs with clubbing and partying, Dawn does not fall into the stereotype.
“I don't approach DJing as a form of clubbing or losing myself in alcohol. Instead for me, I come from an academic standpoint with music. I don't need anything to give me energy during my set because I'm ready, so hyped during my set that I really don't need anything more,” she says. “Just drink ginger ale or coke is enough to get me going. If I'm really feeling it, maybe a gin and tonic.”
“I come from an academic standpoint with music”
Although she belongs to Gen Y, as a musician she appreciates the value of music in pre-digital sense. She goes out to browse vinyl records from time to time.
“Just the fact that it doesn't just cost 99 cents on iTunes, the fact that you have to pay like a HK$100 or HK$200, sometimes HK$300 for just a disc, it makes you really think about what you choose,” she says.
With her career now on an upward trajectory, Dawn still has one dream she has yet to fulfil. “One of my ultimate goals is to do an entire show that is completely live with electronics, with Ableton Live [a software music sequencer and digital audio workstation] and all my machines and my gear,” she says.
“I would play a set where I don't DJ at all – a dance set where I can do 100 per cent original music live,” she says. “I can play the synthesisers and piano live, I can sing live, I can loop my violin live and everything can be triggered live on my Launchpad control.” If the determination and focus she has shown so far is anything to go by, then this dream could soon be within her grasp.