Elkka: The Pleasure Principle

It’s taken Elkka a little longer to arrive here than her pop-loving younger self might have liked. But as she prepares to release her debut album, the stunning multi-coloured, ‘Prism of Pleasure’, it’s apparent that taking the time to find her voice has paid dividends. How did she do it? asks Anna Cafolla. By making connections between music and euphoria, and most importantly, following pleasure. “With women, with music, the things that really inspire me most,” she reveals…

The last gasp of summer envelops London’s All Points East festival, where onstage, Elkka commands the crowd: ‘Make me love you, make me love you, make me love you’. Her body contorts to meet the shimmering crescendo, her dress the colours of an oil spill. The pulsating lights pick up the blissed-out smiles of the dancers in front of her, who galvanise with the building synths and hypnotic lyrics: ‘All night long’.

Then Elkka gets cut off. British summer’s swansong has delivered us torrential rain that halts the festival. The artist and producer refracted her sprawling, club-indebted pop, those silky electronic beats and resplendent vocals, into a neat, compact 20-minute missive. Lightning or not though, it was electric. She’s magnetic to experience. Unbeknown to this crowd too – and the others over the last six months of festivals and club spaces from New York to Lisbon, San Francisco to Oslo – this is a stolen glimpse at the first tracks from Elkka’s forthcoming debut album, ‘Prism of Pleasure’. 

“That show was insane,” Elkka, real name Emma Kirby, recalls when we catch up months later. It’s a brisk, bright January day and we’ve bundled into a cafe in Tooting. We’ve swapped east for south London, and the tart hard seltzers of summer for peppermint teas. “I’ve never felt so empowered by my own ability to connect with people,” she says.

“I know how much I can do this now. The music is all there, so I can just give myself to the audience. The crowds are so responsive. When I’m DJing and playing clubby music, I’m moving with people. It’s amazing. But when you step to the mic, it’s just a whole different relationship,” she says emphatically, bringing her hands to cup her chin. “I can look them in the eye and sing. I feel so in control of what I want people to feel – pleasure!”

‘Prism of Pleasure’ is Elkka’s proclamation of the artistry she’s diligently crafted over a decade. “I want it to be a statement of intent, reflective of who I am and what’s important to me,” she explains. Written over 18 months, it’s a 10-track record conceptualised around Queer female intimacy – as a ritual and shared experience, a personal epiphany, creative practice, an ever-shapeshifting appendage of identity.

It opens with ragged panting: ‘I’d give you the last breath that sits in my lungs,’ she sings on album opener ‘Break Down All My Walls’. ‘Your Skin’ is a sonic mille-feuille, a sugary rush to ravish a lover that builds layers of beckoning percussion and bass, with another supple vocal: ‘I want to taste every inch of your skin’. These tracks can caress a Glastonbury crowd, sweep a limb-lithe group of friends front left on the sticky dancefloor into hug after sweaty hug, and soundtrack a contemplative solo journey to meet a lover.

“I’ve always made connections between how music releases euphoria and connectedness,” Elkka says. “I guess, connecting those dots brought me to ‘pleasure’. With women, with music, the things that really inspire me most.”

Roots laid by her previous releases show: shimmering electronic arrangements, diaphanous synths, ravenous hooks to propel any dancefloor into shared ecstasy. 2019 EP ‘Every Body Is Welcome’ weaved breathy, billowing club music into earthy sounds, music made as she found deeper connection with Queer club settings. Her ‘I Miss Raving’ EP on grassroots London label Local Action was a sonic vignette, a sprightly ode to clubbing in the confines of lockdown. 2021’s ‘Euphoric Melodies’, Elkka’s first Ninja Tune via Technicolour release, showcased her instincts toward richly textured soundscapes. Anthemic radio fave ‘Burnt Orange’, evocatively named after the curtains in her late grandparents’ house, features the alluring wisp of her vocals. 

Elkka’s innate ability to worldbuild plays out in the mixes and sets of her peers and the industry – Floating Points, SHERELLE, Caribou and more. Her own curative skills shine in riotous DJ sets, in radio slots on RINSE FM and 2022’s Radio 1 residency. “When I was a kid, I’d pretend I was doing a radio show on my mum’s tape recorder – Radio 1 was a dream come true,” she says. Weaving together her own music with diaphanous blends of old school house, atmospheric techno, and recontextualised pop – LCY to Floorplan and Prince, Donato Dozzy and Britney Spears – she bagged Essential Mix of the Year 2021.

“I think stuff I’ve gravitated to, and that I’ve made before has always been warm and tangible. I’ve never made cold music,” she explains. “But there is a new depth to it. That’s how I feel as a woman too – in my age, in my life,” she adds. “In my 20s, I was figuring that out. I came out quite late. And then musically – it all flourished at the same time.”

Elkka was born and raised in Cardiff, where no visible Queer community existed for her. She found herself at university in Bath, going through the motions of a “classic safety plan route”, absconding to London when she could and gigging as a singer-songwriter. “I hadn’t found my people yet,” she says. Like many of her peers, she grew up in the club and forged her tastes and identity on east London dancefloors – all the haunts of Dalston’s Kingsland Road. She dropped out of university and made the move to London, where she came out age 23 and found the crews, collaborators, and friends she craved. It was also her first chance to take producing seriously, ploughing into DJing and the electronic scene. She founded Femme Culture in 2016, a label that champions inclusivity and forward-thinking electronic music from women, non-binary and Queer artists. That’s evolved into several instalments of the HeForShe compilation, a series that’s featured artists like Octo Octa and I. JORDAN.

“Now I’m super content with who I am, where I am,” Elkka says. “I’ve never felt sexier as a woman and more in control of my sexuality – I’m proud to show that in this work.”

Raving and romance have intertwined deliciously for Elkka. Her second date with Alex Lambert, her now-wife and frequent collaborator who has crafted Elkka’s visual identity, also marked her first ever DJ gig. “It was at Dalston Superstore,” Elkka remembers, “where I pretended I knew how to DJ. I bought this Ableton set up and made a mix and thought… that’s it, I can DJ.” It was a weekly lesbian night – but she didn’t realise it was strictly for hip hop and R&B. “Within 20 minutes this woman came up to me, shouting ‘NO HOUSE MUSIC!’ and I got chucked off. Alex witnessed it all – she’s a real day one.”

‘Prism of Pleasure’ is a record that reorients Emma’s earliest desires as a musician – namely, using her own voice. A singer-songwriter who grew up on a pop diet of Britney and Missy Elliott, she felt stalled and stifled, writing mostly behind-the-scenes and for male producers. Turning into producing and dance music gave her control of her narrative. Her debut album, based in deep connection and vulnerability, brings her back to that raw, real first love of singing, with this modal shift.

“When I started producing, I pulled back from singing completely,” she shares. “But I couldn’t stop it creeping back in. Now I feel like I’m ready to stand up front again.” The tracks where Elkka’s voice takes centre stage feel rich and intimate. “I hid that part of me away for so long. Now I can connect with people on another level, in the way I always emotionally connected to pop stars.” She worked with a vocal producer for the first time, as she says, to “squeeze everything out of me and feel like I gave it all”.

Pleasure and connectedness cannot exist without the echo of pain or the arch of catharsis. “There’s variability, vulnerability. There’s moments of loss and hurt in this album. It’s not about a perfect world – because that doesn’t exist. I’ve reflected and channelled some of my hardest moments.”

‘Right Here’ was written in 40 minutes on the day of Elkka’s father’s funeral. “Writing an album about pleasure might seem at odds with that moment I was in,” she says. “But it was a way to take control of my emotions. I had a clarity of thought.” Her father had been ill and passed away in October. She had finished her demos and was laying down vocals, and her team urged her to delay the record amid her loss. 

“I remember sitting at a table with headphones on and laptop open. I had the opportunity to really go inwards and tune everything else out. In exploring being creative in those extremely fundamental life moments, you get something that is really special.” Her parents got to see her live show in full form at Hackney’s Colour Factory last year. “They got to see me at one of my best moments – 500 people were there dancing, my parents were on the balcony, I was there with people who love me and being the artist I wanted to be.” She performed what became the album’s first track, ‘Break Down Your Walls’, a song about love “in its truest form”. It’s the record’s hardest track with invigorating bass, but with glowing warmth. 

“Because of my dad, I really pushed myself to be present – and that really helped me write,” Elkka says. “I’m proud of it. He would be proud of it. My mum always cries at the opening track.”

While some artists might hole up and hermit to write their album, Elkka was keen to live life through the writing process. “To keep it authentic, living,” she explains. “I can’t do an album about my own pleasure without partying and connecting with people. Life is intrinsic to the album. It gave me permission to experience more, to feel everything and fuel the music.” Elkka and Alex also got married in May last year.

The album was made in a makeshift studio in the back room of their house, and when Elkka felt claustrophobic, she ventured out. Her collaborator Rupert Clervaux – who helped mix and master the album – switched her onto a set of Audeze MM-500 headphones. It was a liberating piece of equipment. She could tour, head to her mum’s house, walk on the Ibizan beachfront, wake up anywhere in the world and produce when inspiration struck. To get to wander and live, has resulted in a vibrant record with a pulse.

With a clear emphasis on storytelling, Elkka would instinctively filter and create as she went. “I was constantly distilling down what I wanted it to sound like – I’m not a ‘write 200 tracks and refine it down’ person. I’m always challenging what makes sense and connects. But it wasn’t until I had the whole thing mastered, that I had artwork, put it in iTunes, laid it out like an album, that I really saw it.” 

The concise 10-track curation and album order supports the story. “I think of it like a great pop album – they have chapters and pace changes.” It’s how she approaches DJing too – linearity has never been her style. “Predictable is something I’ll never be – I want to twist and turn you; I want to be memorable for you in everything.” The lyrics too are taut and deceptively simple but go for the gut. ‘Crushhh’ is about expressing feelings for someone that felt impossible to articulate. “I’m really exposing myself, but there’s so much richness to gain from that.”

Collaborators are intrinsic for a record about connectedness and shared vulnerability. “Emma and I would come to the studio and talk about life, relationships, family… for a good bit before we started jamming,” says John Carroll Kirby, the multi-instrumentalist who’s worked with Frank Ocean and Solange, and who teamed up with Elkka on ‘Passionfruit’ and ‘Crushhh’. “I felt like we became fast friends and quickly gained an emotional perspective of the other. With that as our foundation the music just seemed to write itself.” Elkka approached Kirby and from two sessions, produced two tracks. She imagined she’d go away with their studio improvisations and rearrange them, but decided they were perfect as was. 

She also enlisted Dot Major of London Grammar (a band Elkka says “make songs with such heart in them, entire emotional universes”), Pearson Sound, Metronomy and Christine & The Queens producer Ash Workman. It was a rewarding new way of working. “I came into producing because I was so frustrated with working with other producers, and the bad experiences I had there. I wanted to go into those sessions with people that I really believed in. You want to feel like people can elevate it. I’m a producer, I can play piano, I can get all my ideas down. But I wanted to work with people who are real instrumentalists.” 

“This album was about exploring every avenue – how I use my voice, songwriting, working with different people to see what they can bring out with me,” she says. “This was never going to just be a dance album for me, I wanted more than that.” 

Her peers certainly approve. Fellow Ninja artist Sofia Kourtesis has no hesitation in revealing that: “Elkka is one of my favourite producers.” The Peruvian producer has played with Elkka in cavernous, genre-cracking B2Bs, and makes similarly spirit-expanding music. “She understands how to make music for people to dream, and how to make the most amazing bangers to play out loud at festivals. She’s a beautiful soul, with outstanding talent. Every new song is a treat.”

In a time of algorithmic playlists and endless scroll-inflected attention spans, one might worry about a nine-minute album track. But Elkka dropped ‘Passionfruit’ to a gratifying response. “I don’t think I’ve ever had such a reaction to my music!” she says. “I think it’s beautiful. I’m so proud. But I didn’t know if people would have the time for it. They’ve leaned into it so deeply.” 

Talk turns to the merits of resisting the current – and not altogether tenable – formulas for music streaming success. “Like, look,” she starts. “I was listening to Kim Petras’ album and it’s seven songs, 15 minutes long! It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong, but it’s instant gratification. When I’m going out and want to feel cunty with friends – that’s perfect.”

She continues: “There’s still a need for people to dedicate time to something you’ve made and feel it deeply. [‘Passionfruit’] is about exploring my relationship to women and taking sweet, sweet time in doing that. The pleasure of music or sex isn’t linear or goal-oriented. We’re so preconditioned for instant gratification, and it’s nice to see that there’s still a desire for something else.”

Our ideas of pleasure have gone through titanic shifts. We have more freedom in love, but the landscape is chaotic and uncertain. We are generations reorientating our identities, wants and needs around tumultuous social, political, and personal schisms. And pleasure, as Elkka lays out, is a nebulous concept. “Pleasure is a process. A very personal one – my pleasure is very different to your pleasure. That’s something I really had to learn as a woman. You don’t need to like and love everything the same as everyone else, and your experiences really inform that – mine definitely have. Connecting with that side of myself has been really crucial to it, to how I see myself as a woman. Finding the good and bad side of things, and confronting them with equal tenacity, has been really liberating for me.”

As such, she worked with Oli Lipski, a creative consultant and sensuality coach, to expand on the album’s core ideas. “Knowledge is power, knowledge is pleasure,” says Lipski. To artistically draw out and embody the concepts, they worked together to find connections between sensual intimacy and musical expression. Like, how music is found to reduce stress levels which is essential for experiencing arousal, as well as how the “combination of movement and music during dance results in a distinct state characterised by acutely heightened pleasure”. 

The whole experience was a process of “following the pleasure”, which Lipski explains is a concept by Somatic sex educator Betty Martin. “[Elkka’s] music responds exactly to this concept, taking people on an experiential journey that follows the pleasure. Music and art are methods of human expression that might be otherwise difficult to express with our limited vocabulary, such as describing sexual intimacy or pleasure experiences. The other is that music and art can be used as sensual tools for facilitating deeper connection, through activating our senses.”

The Orgasm Library, a collection of real-life pleasure sounds founded by the Spanish pleasure brand Bijoux Indiscrets, was a research reference. “These sounds are authentic, erotic, and beautiful,” says Lipski. “I immediately thought of this resource as a source of inspiration for Elkka. It offers insight into people’s private pleasure experiences, through our aural sense which can be a great tool for strengthening the imagination. It also displays the sounds alongside a visual data representation which look quite stunning – harking back to the old iTunes days where we would watch visual patterns dance in time to our music. What a cool concept, to challenge taboo and shame by recording our personal pleasure, prioritising the importance of authentic eroticism, and sharing that with the world.”

Fittingly, ‘Prism of Pleasure’’s intricate world comes to life in stunning visual identity by Alex Lambert. “The imagery is so important to the storytelling, and Alex achieved it so beautifully.”

“Growing up, I’d think: ‘What’s my album going to look like some day?’” The record is marble pink – “intrinsically Queer”. “I don’t always feel I get seen as Queer, as I’m quite feminine,” she says. “I want that to change.” The sleeve reads in hot pink capital letters: ‘Pleasure is a dance, a ritualistic celebration, of life, of love, of our existence’. The sensual artwork features Elkka sitting on the edge of a bath in a pale latex dress, steam in the air and candles lit, hints of other bodies in the backdrop.

The weekend after we speak, Elkka heads to Bristol mainstay Lakota and back to London for Feel It, the self-styled ‘Queer super party’. With a steady tour schedule through 2024, she’s keen to play more Queer parties – “that is my people,” she says, “I’m really myself in these spaces, and being there evolves me as a DJ, that sonic storytelling and the music I reach for.” Even with her mounting live show, she’ll never stop DJing. “I don’t think you should sit still as a DJ,” she says. “I’ll always be a cross genre DJ, responding to the crowd’s feelings.”

The lens of ‘Prism of Pleasure’ is clear, buffed and bright. “I’ve always wanted to do this, it’s always been in me – now it’s even more special,” she says. “It took me more than 10 years to get here. I didn’t think I was going to be in my 30s before I got here! I imagined singing around the world by 22. That it just happens for people – and it didn’t. When I’m on stage now I’m so grateful for it. It’s my heaven.” 

This article first appeared in issue 5 of Disco Pogo magazine. Which you can buy here.

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