Interview Vera Grace "My time at AEMA turned out to be the best two years of my life."

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You might expect her to be a tad jetlagged, having just returned to Amsterdam from her trip to Los Angeles, but if there's one thing radiating from the screen as we talk with Vera Grace, it's her vibrant energy. She's currently on a winning streak, and the day after our interview, she'll be manning the decks at the renowned Awakenings festival.

 Vera Grace is an alumna of the Amsterdam Electronic Music Academy, a part of the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. She takes great pride in her alumni status, often emphasizing it. In fact, during our recent Open Day event, she graced us with her presence to share insights with prospective students, demonstrating how much they can achieve by choosing to study there.

We connected with her via Zoom to delve into her career, its origins, and how AEMA played a pivotal role in her journey. Despite her extensive accomplishments, you might be surprised to learn that at the age of 24, Vera explains that her passion for electronic music was always there, but AEMA helped propel it to new heights in various ways.

What led to the decision to study at AEMA?
"When I had just finished school, I worked at KLM, which was quite a different path altogether. In my spare time, I immersed myself in the music scene, attending clubs and festivals, and eventually even started dabbling in creating my own tracks. So, for quite some time, that was essentially my life. I was a bedroom DJ at home while working at KLM during the day. Then, along came COVID-19, and I suddenly found myself with a lot more time to invest in my musical passion.

 I took on various odd jobs after KLM had to let go of employees due to the pandemic. At one point, I even had a job where I literally worked in a COVID testing facility, but the silver lining was that I could spend the whole day making music. It was incredibly laid-back. And then, at a certain point, DJ Rebekah, one of my biggest inspirations at the time, issued a challenge. She suggested creating ten tracks in ten days, and I thrived under the pressure. That's when I thought, 'Let's see if there's a way to get some formal musical education. I heard about CvA’s electronic music programme through a friend, and that's when the idea started to take shape – I was going to pursue music seriously, not just as a hobby at home.'"

How has AEMA influenced your music?

“It really had a significant impact. When I started producing techno, it was quite hard and intense. But now, I've shifted my focus towards deeper, more hypnotic techno, which involves more technical intricacies. The hard techno which is trendy right now, in my opinion, is pretty straightforward music, lacking depth. My sound was more industrial, but then still, when I listen to the tracks I used to make, I think, 'Was I really like that?' However, it's about potential. Which is what they heard in me when I auditioned. That’s more important than anything.

During my time there, I got exposed to Vince's (Vince Watson, AEMA teacher – red) music and various other music styles I wasn't familiar with. My classmates created unique and unconventional music that required an open mind. This exposure significantly broadened my perspective on music. I started looking at music in a completely different way, which had a profound influence on my approach to my own music.

I also began to think more deeply, and I got somewhat bored with hard techno at one point. So, I started exploring, and by the end of the year, I had undergone a significant transformation. I was still making techno, but of a different kind, not as intense or shallow. Now, I'm genuinely striving to create a purer techno sound. I believe that shift marked the turning point when my career began to be taken seriously by organizations, promoters, and labels."

AEMA is still quite new, 5 years to be exact. How beneficial is it, to follow this programme, if you want a career as a DJ or producer?
“CvA is the only one of the very few places offering this kind of programme, and it's a well-known institute. Before I went, I didn’t have anyone around me that ever went to a conservatoire. Look, if you're committed and work hard for many years, you can get really good. But personally, I would have never improved as quickly as I have done here. Promoters also really like it when you have CVA on your resume. Without CVA, I maybe wouldn't have had the chance to play at Awakenings. It's also gaining recognition internationally. In 20 years, AEMA will probably be even bigger, and lots more DJs and producers will be choosing to go to a conservatoire, but right now, it's still quite new.”

What can you tell us about the teachers and what they've taught you? Is there anything that stands out?
“One teacher, Vince, really stood out. Probably also because he's also active in the techno scene. He was honest and quickly saw potential in me. I didn't understand why at first, but he always believed in me. He told me straight up when I shouldn't do certain things, and I'm grateful for that honesty. It changed how I saw things. Vince is the reason I'm where I am now. Dennis was another teacher who helped me a lot with the technical aspects, especially in producing. In techno, groove is important, and it's about adapting to your style. I got to learn from my teachers and build on it.”

If there are prospective students reading this, what advice would you have for them when they’re auditioning?
“It’s about being open-minded, trying different music genres, not expecting perfection right away, making tracks you're proud of, and showing your musical diversity. Don't just submit one genre; include other genres too. They look for potential.”

What were your expectations before you started, and did they match reality?
“I thought I'd enjoy it, but I didn't expect it to be as enjoyable as it was. It turned out to be the best two years of my life. I didn't hear many classmates complaining. It offered everything I wanted and more.”

Did you have a good understanding of the industry, what it takes to succeed, and how to establish your presence before you began?
“No, not at all. I had only taken part in a talent event previously. I was primarily an attendee at events and festivals, with no insight into the backstage workings; it all remained a mystery to me. My comprehension expanded as I began to perform and ask a lot of questions. CvA also provided valuable practical guidance, about entrepreneurship, branding, social media, color schemes, visibility strategies, and connecting with industry professionals.

 Our teachers organized several field trips, including one to Loveland, where we gained insights into event operations, got a backstage tour and met industry figures to understand their roles. In my first year, I had about one or two gigs per month. However, in the second year, things truly took off as I started receiving international bookings, and it hasn't slowed down since. Early on, I secured representation from an agent, and I'm still with the same agency to this day.” 

What would you say to people who are unsure about attending AEMA?
“If this is your dream and you are eager to learn, and if you're still figuring yourself out, there's a good chance you'll do that at AEMA. I've grown a lot personally, and so have others. We all had different music backgrounds, and now we're building artist profiles. If you're unsure, take your time to think if this is what you really want. During the summer break, I was the only one of my friends who wanted to go back to school, and I cried when it was over.”

How has life been since you graduated?
“It's been great. I've found myself, know what I want, and have a clear vision. I've performed in other continents like Australia and the USA, with more to come, I’m truly living my dream. I remember before I started this journey, my mum jokingly asked if I really thought I could become the next Armin van Buuren. Nevertheless my parents were always supportive. By the time I applied to CVA, they could see how dedicated I was, working on my music every day. My grandpa, who is a pastor, was quite hesitant about his granddaughter being a DJ at first. However, nowadays, he's one of my biggest fans, and he's expressed how proud he is of me. In fact, my whole family has been incredibly supportive, which is truly heartwarming.”

What's still on your dream list?
I’ve always said I want to play on Reaktor Katharsis. However, it’s quite challenging now as they haven’t made a comeback after the pandemic. But nevertheless I’ll maintain hope for their return. Also, playing in the mighty Gashouder for Awakenings is a big dream of mine. Especially during the late hours when the lights go crazy and the sound reaches its peak intensity. I’ve been in Gashouder so many times, Awakenings never fails to amaze me here. Additionally, there's Berghain in Berlin, of course. It's truly legendary, and they have a sound system that's second to none. If I ever get the chance to DJ there, then it will feel like I have reached my ultimate goal, haha.