On Point With: Whitney Day

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One of the best known and most beloved DJs and nightlife producers in the national lesbian scene (and queer scene in general), this classically-trained musician has conquered two coasts with her lavish, lively events and eclectic beats. For Brooklyn and New York Pride this June, she will be bringing her brand back to her native land by way of four major kikis. Let’s get wild with Whitney Day!


Thotyssey: Whitney, thanks so much for talking to us today! You’re in California right now, right?

Whitney Day: I am, yes! I’ve been living out here in LA for a couple of years. But I’m still going back and forth to New York quite a bit doing events there, and here in LA as well.

That must be crazy sometimes, having to keep track of all these events on two coasts.

It’s a lot! But it’s interesting, and nice to have the variety to keep it fresh.

Both cities are always evolving at such a rapid rate. I’m still in the exploration stage of LA… it’s so big. I was born and raised in New York, so I feel like I know that city like the back of my hand, even with all the constant changes. But LA is like a whole other beast because it’s so big, and so spread out. It never get’s boring, that’s for sure!

Where in New York are you from, by the way?

I’m a native Manhattanite. I grew up on 23rd Street on the East Side.

Amazing! You’re a unicorn.

I know! We’re really a rare breed, and we’re becoming more and more extinct.

I guess that’s how you were exposed to music and culture so early on.

Definitely. I went to LaGuardia Performing Arts School in the Upper West Side, and I had a lot of very artistic friends that I grew up with. We used to go out a lot and party, go
to raves, all the places we weren’t supposed to go. I got some early exposure to some of the clubs that don’t exist anymore today, and some New York underground club culture before it disappeared (and maybe now is coming back, in Brooklyn more than anything).

But yeah, I had a lot of freedom to run around the city, it was like my playground when I was in high school growing up.

Lots of DJs I’ve spoken to are classically trained, yet many people assume that the
beats-centric music that DJs play is kind of a “low art.” But that can’t be the case, because of the pedigree of these well-schooled DJs! What do you think the connect is, between being “classically trained” and being a club DJ?

That’s interesting! I was a classical trombonist, actually, from age 10 to 21. At that time I just wanted to be a professional trombonist, and I wanted to play in the Philharmonic. But I never saw those dreams through, and I ended up taking some courses in music technology and computer music.

You know, of course I think the DJ world is a bit of an over-saturated market. You have
people who are DJing for all types of reasons, just like any industry. So, I think it does make a difference when you have this really deep knowledge of music, and a passion for it–versus playing whatever’s on the Top 40 charts, and doing your best to throw it all together without giving thought of the journey, or what your personal style is, or what you want to say to the world.

When you’re a musician, it’s your mouthpiece in how you express yourself. I think it really aids DJs to have that musical background experience.

It gives you an edge over everybody else in the over-saturated DJ market.

Maybe that gives you an edge, but so does having a lot of Instagram followers [laughs]! So if you can have both, you’re really golden!

That’s the formula, I guess!

I guess so! It’s a tricky thing, but like any art form or anything at all really, it’s also about having to be at the right place at the right time. Your talent will only take you so far, but then you need a bit of luck, and a bit of personal motivation to push yourself. Especially now that that it’s a pretty competitive industry, you need more than just a love of music. You need a little bit something more to put you over the top.

It must be really irritating for you when you see a Kim Kardashian or a Paris Hilton billed as “DJing” some club in Ibiza, when you know they are just standing there in front of a laptop’s playlist.

Yeah, I’ve seen that a few times! Not so much with celebrity DJs, but all kinds of DJs. I feel worse, honestly, not with the fact that those people are getting those kinds of opportunities, but that they’re influencing attendees to listen to garbage music, or to pay a lot of money to support someone who really doesn’t care about the arts. I think that that’s the most frustrating thing: when you’re trying to expose your audience to new music, and you wanna be creative about it, you wanna expose them to new tracks that you know they’re going to love but they just haven’t heard yet.

It’s frustrating when any DJ is doing it for their ego, or something like that, instead of for the right reasons: to expose people to great music, and to do it with integrity.

Before you started DJing full time, you used to score movies and TV shows.

I did! I was writing music for TV and film, and doing all types of things on the post-production audio side of film, TV and commercials. I was doing voiceover casting, some sound design, some music editing. My first job out of college was being a film score composer, so I got to do some ghostwriting for various cues on the Discovery Channel, the History Channel, and some indie films. It was a good way to learn these fields before I started DJing.

You’re a jack of all audio trades!

Sort of! It’s all relevant though, they’re all so connected. It never really seemed that I was doing so many different things, because they are all so related.

Do you ever randomly hear an old sound byte of yours pop up in a show or something, these days?

No I don’t, but I still get some royalty checks! Which is nice, considering that I haven’t
written a cue in, like,10 years! It’s nice that some cues are still being picked up–maybe for some shows overseas, or maybe they ended up in some kinda library, Every once in awhile I’ll get a couple of bucks thrown my way, which is always nice.

So, you started DJing in New York.

Correct: around 2009 or 2010. The first gig I played was in Brooklyn, and I had started to do a little Sunday barbecue party there: BBQueer. It was at a local bar called Sweet  Revenge. They since changed their name to One Last Shag, and then they closed a year or two ago. But at the time it was brand new, and the neighborhood was still ungentrified. Eventually that bar became a really popular queer hangout, and it was a really cute space. That was the first party.

When did you start to become really well known for lesbian and queer women’s events and parties?

I started actually DJing more for gay men’s parties. I was working a lot for Fornabaio  & Voss (of course, it’s now Brandon Voss running his own empire).And in 2012, I was one of Next Magazine’s upcoming DJs. At the same time, I was DJing some small lesbian parties. There has always been traditionally less going on for women then there is for men. So I was kinda dabbling in both.

But I eventually kinda realized that there just wasn’t a lot out there for women, and what was there was leaving something to be desired. So not long after that, I started my own weekly lesbian party, and that kind of catapulted me into the world of event production, on top of DJing.

There’s been so much discussion on “the death of the lesbian bar” in the past few years. And that’s certainly true in New York, where we have only one now in Manhattan (Henrietta Hudson), and a small one (Ginger’s) in Brooklyn. But
lesbian-centric events–weekly, monthly, a few times year–can be very successful. What do you observe as being the reason why this dynamic of big parties and few bars has happened?

People want to take a chance on lesbian parties and nights, but they don’t want to take out a lease on a 7-day-a-week bar. I know somebody approached me with an opportunity to do that a few years ago, and I was like, “No thank you.” I can only imagine how hard it is. I’m friendly with Lisa, who owns Henrietta Hudson. She’s worked extremely hard, and
has rebranded that place, and done some really great work there.

But the bars are closing all over the country. There are zero lesbian bars in greater Los
Angeles; same thing for San Francisco. I travel internationally, and it’s the same when you go to Berlin, or anywhere, frankly. So, that’s really been the normal trend.

The reasons why? It’s hard to say, exactly. Of course, we have social media and apps, where people are connecting and hooking up. That’s certainly impacted nightlife for gay
men as well. And also, we’ve been feeling much safer in “mainstream”/straight spaces, so
there is less of a fear of getting harassed or beat up, especially in large cities. So the need for having these constant gay spaces has been diminishing a little bit.

And I think, also, girls socialize in a way where we tend to get into these long-term relationships. You know, you see a couple girls out, they end up being girlfriends, and then you don’t see them for two years… they come back out when they break up!

So parties tend to work better [than everyday lesbian bars], at least in my philosophy.
I always like to work towards something big—let’s say, once every few months—and I’m able to charge a little bit more money, because it’s something special. Then I can pay everyone better, and put a little more into production and marketing. It makes more sense for me.

Lastly, women tend to make less money then men. They drink less alcohol then men. So it’s very hard to support a women’s bar that’s open 7 days a week.

The gender wage difference really comes into play.

It definitely has some impact, not to generalize. The men in this scene seem to have these really amazing jobs and secure salaries. And some of the women I’ve met in the scene are very successful, but many are filmmakers and artists. It’s very hard for them to run up a $70 bar tab and pay a $15 entrance fee on a weekly basis—especially in New York. It’s a challenge, and I definitely commend those people who are keeping those landmark
places open. It’s not an easy job.

I always liked the idea of taking up spaces that were not normally occupied by queer women. So a lot of the places I use–like Marquee for example–I’m the only one who’s used that space for queer women. And I’m doing a party at Le Bain at the top of the Standard; I’m the first queer woman to be using that space there as well.  And I like that. I think we’re entitled to experience really beautiful venues that are hot spots
in New York, but it’s much more comfortable when the night is geared towards this
crowd and demographic.

In NYC, we’re losing these large dancefloor venues in general. Space Ibiza in Hell’s Kitchen is going down this summer, and there’s almost nothing left after that, it seems. Is that trend the same in LA or in other cities?

There are a lot more options in LA, because it’s just such a physically huge city, that
you can find a big warehouse, no problem. But the commercial rent is just so high in New York.

It was my experience in the beginning that people were just so eager to get a hundred cool-looking girls in a room drinking. But now it’s just crazy. You need to pay a really huge bar guarantee if you don’t hit a certain figure agreed on. That never used to be the case. So, it makes it a lot more challenging. It’s very hard when you wanna pay your artists and DJs a proper fee, and it’s just much riskier now with the fees that they’re charging. It’s just really, really different. I understand why they need to do these
things, because the rents are so high. But at the same time, it makes it very difficult for someone like me to keep the production level high. And like you said, it’s really hard to find these spaces in general because there are just not that many left.

Well I don’t envy you, but I certainly admire you! It’s so important to keep nightlife going, in this city and in the world.

I think if people kept that in mind that when they see something that has a cover of $10 or $15. Try and think of all the money and effort that’s being fronted to make this happen. Sometimes it takes me two to three months to plan one event, and I throw thousands of dollars down the line that I have no idea if I’m actually going to get back or not, before we’re even talking about a profit.

So, I know some people are like, “Oh, your life’s so fun! You get to throw a party, and drink and dance! Your job’s so amazing!” But it’s actually very, very high pressure, because every party is potentially your last.

We need people to come out and support. I wish some people would shift their thinking
and recognize that instead of maybe buying a pack of cigarettes or that expensive deli sandwich, to put it towards the cover. Stop asking for comps! Support your friends, and the community, and keep these things going! Otherwise, there won’t be anything: no bars, no parties!

Let’s talk a little about music right now. If I went to a Whitney Day event, what would I hear?

It’s funny, my style is always kind of evolving and shifting. I’m playing a lot of disco
these days; I think it’s really fun, feel-good music. NY and LA have gotten so pop heavy, and very hip hop heavy. I like to kind of lighten it up a little, so I play a lot of disco, a lot of house music: deep house, vocal house, funky and soulful, a lot of Latin and Brazilian rhythms over house beats. Sometimes it can get a little bit darker, depending on the space and time. A rooftop party is obviously gonna be a little different than an after hours party at a warehouse.

Everything I do is very on the fly and organic. People ask me what I’m going to play tonight, and I really don’t know until I’m there, and the ideas are coming one after the
next as to where this set is gonna go.

It must be annoying when you’re in the middle of that journey and someone comes up and is like, “play Beyonce!”

I feel like I’ve been approached with every request and every comment. It’s so funny to me! You just kind of have to laugh at it sometimes. They say the craziest things, and you just have to say, can you put yourself in my position, and hear yourself and how your comment is super offensive? Like, “Can you play something I can dance to?” [Laughs.] Well, I know it’s a little subjective, but this is something I would dance to!

I had someone the other day ask me, “oh, can you play something more boring?  More
basic, more boring!” I think she just meant, like, straight pop. Well, I’m not really into playing boring music, sorry!

But you get bombarded with a lot of requests. People putting their phones in your face, typing stuff. Or asking you to connect their phone… I even had someone approach me once at a place–and it was painted on the booth: “No Requests!”–but she couldn’t help herself. I mean, some people do have really good requests. But usually I just try to blow them off: “if I can, I will,” or “maybe” [laughs]. I try to be as nice as I can, because they are guests, and I’m there to make people happy.  But I can’t really take too many
requests.

The younger generation struggles with allowing that DJ journey to happen and to just go with it, I think. It all has to be about them, “me me me!” I know I probably sound like I’m 90 when I say that. 

No, it’s true! But surprisingly, it’s all ages. Some people who are older than me do the same thing. I think it’s just a bad habit, where people feel that it’s their night, that they’re there with their friends and they can hear what they want… and of course, that’s not how it works.

I throw a monthly party here in LA called Heartbreaker, and my concept is to just be totally non-commercial. I just tell my DJs that I don’t care what they play–just keep it interesting and different. And I’ve had people be like, “I wanna hear hip hop!” And I tell them that there’s a hip hop party down the street, and that they are more than welcome to check it out. But I wish people would take a minute or two to check out a Soundcloud, or read a description of the event to know that it’s a house music party.

I think it’s getting a little bit better. People are realizing that it’s a faux pas to do that. The best case scenario is to just get a DJ booth that’s really secluded. With a security
guard [laughs].

June is Pride Month here in New York. Pride, of course, is a wonderful and vital time for the queer community, but it seems in the past few years that the festivities are overshadowed by something grim and threatening. Last year, of course, it was the Pulse shooting in Orlando. And this year, you have the Trump presidency, and now this horrible bombing at the concert in the UK. Are you forced to be very aware of these things in your event planning, as far as both security and tone of the presentation go?

Absolutely. Last year was insane. I had a party the night that [the Pulse shooting] happened. It was the first event that I had ever attended and DJed and produced, so I was really riding high. And when we got this news, it was just devastating. And I had two other parties coming up in the next two weeks, and you can’t cancel them, but what are you gonna do? You wanna be sensitive, but you’re promoting, and obviously your goal is to produce something amazing and make a profit. It was just very tricky to figure out how to word things, and how to make sure that (most of all, obviously) people are safe.

So I had to make a call to one of my venues about people having to go through metal detectors, with wands and searches, which is something that I’m usually against;
especially in a mixed queer crowd where you have people of all different body types who may not be comfortable with having a body search. But we wound up having to do all of that, because at the end of the day safety comes first. We had a police presence outside–I know it scared a lot of people away. It was a very tricky situation, and I
understand why a lot of people didn’t party and rave and celebrate the way they
normally would.

I think with Trump in office, it might actually help this year. I hope it does! I think that people are gonna come out in full force, show their pride, resist, and fight back by being present and proud. I’m hoping that the feeling is different after last year’s tragedy.

Of course, now we have the tragedy from the Ariana Grande concert [bombing in the UK to think about], but last year was so relevant. It really hit close to home. I was DJing in Orlando just the week before. But, I’m really hoping that with all the political shit going on this year that people come out and celebrate and show face, just like they have been n all the protests and rallies that have been happening all over the country since November.

It’s an amazing feeling, when you’re out there with friends and with people in your community, and you’re coming together on this one day or one weekend. It’s really an amazing feeling. I think it’s gonna be a really big year—I have high hopes for it!

Let’s run through the events! First off is Brooklyn Pride on June 10th, when you’ll be spinning at the House of Yes. You been there before, right?

I have! I did a party there in September with JD Samson called Body Language. It was amazing; such a great party. And I did last Pride there as well, with a different lineup of DJs and performers.

It’s a really cool space!

I think it’s really my favorite venue in New York at the moment. They’re really in it for the right reasons. They love to create art, and create these amazing nightlife experiences.
Money is secondary to them, which is very unique in New York. They’re more concerned about curating a great night and a great crowd.  And the venue itself is sick! I’m really excited to be back there!

You’ll have some other DJs and performers with you there that night.

BKLYN Storm is a DJ that I met at Henrietta, and I always try to get some local talent for the night. Jubilee is a headline DJ from a different scene, but she’s really cool. She plays a lot of bass music, tropical dance hall, hip hop… a lot of stuff that I don’t play. And Dai Burger is amazing. She’s a really super performer, her music is so much fun. She’s just a really fun, over the top person.

Then for NYC Pride Weekend, we’ve got the party you mentioned earlier at Le Bain on top of the Standard for Friday, June 23rd.

The last couple of times we did it at Cielo, but I made a switch this year to Le Bain. I’m really excited to have that space.: it’s so beautiful with amazing views, and a really cool vibe. It’s a free party with no cover entry, but I don’t have a very large guest list allowance. The way I’m working it is, everyone who buys an advanced ticket for Sunday gets a ticket for Friday. So, it’s kind of a two-for. And that’s pretty cool! I don’t know of
any other Pride party that happened for free, ever.

It’s gonna be with DJ Lina, who I played with on Fire Island many years back, I’m excited to work with her again. Then I have a friend of mine from Australia, Amanda Louise, flying in. She’s played with me before at Cielo, she’s amazing: very funky, soulful, house.

We’re expecting a pretty nice mix crowd of men and women, and the whole LGBTQ fam. In fact, the party is called FAM! So, everyone is more than welcome to come dance with us.

The on Saturday, June 24th, you will be DJing (and not producing, for once!) the annual GIrl Pride party on Pier 15 that Henrietta Hudson produces: Siren!

It’s really fun. It’s open air, outdoors, on the pier. I always have a good time. Very diverse crowd. I really can’t ever say no to Lisa when she asks me to do that, because it’s really just such an enjoyable gig to play!

And the next day is your 5-year anniversary doing Pride Sunday at Marquee!

This party has really grown over the years. It’s such an amazing space, in terms of the sound and lighting and LED screens. It’s really an experience–a great way to end Pride in a really big way. We have Crystal Waters headlining this year, who’s the biggest performer I’ve ever had at a party; I’m really excited to bring her in. And we have some other really great DJs: Elle Kay from Los Angeles; DJ Teresa, who some people know from the Matinee parties; and KAMICASE, another DJ friend of mine from Vienna, who’s coming in just for this party. It’s really exciting, one of my favorite parties of the
year. It’s just so over the top, very indulgent, and a lot of fun.

Wow, a busy June!

Yes! I’ll have some downtime after, before I get to some overseas gigs in July. I’ll catch up on some sleep, and absorb everything that happened. It always takes me awhile to process what happens over Pride, because it’s so much.

Well it will certainly be a well-deserved bit of relaxation and reflection for you! Okay, last question: what is the best piece of advice you can give to a brand new DJ?

Play what you want. When I was getting started, it was a very “request time” in the DJ world, and I wound up playing a lot of things that I wasn’t passionate about. I l learned over time to just play for yourself. Keep your mind on the crowd, of course, and make sure they’re moving and grooving. But in general, go with your heart and what resonates with you, because that’s really getting the crowd into it more than anything. When you’re just playing what they expect to hear, it really doesn’t work; you can really feel the difference when a DJ is playing music to the crowd that they really love.

That’s the most important thing: be true to yourself, be true to your style. Don’t listen to anybody else; part of this job is forming your own style and own taste. Become a tastemaker. Don’t just be a jukebox!

Amen! Thanks so much Whitney, and we’ll be seeing you in June!


Check here for a listing of DJ Whitney Day’s scheduled events. Follow Whitney on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, SoundCloud and her website.

 

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