“A Completely Insane Decision”: George FitzGerald On Quitting Law School To Become A DJ

The UK DJ/producer George FitzGerald commands huge credibility in house music circles – and beyond. But he wasn’t always destined to lead a life in clubs and studios. In fact, FitzGerald studied languages at the hallowed University of Cambridge.

Hailing from Watford, outside London, FitzGerald grew up vibing to UK garage. He started collecting records and DJing, influenced by an older brother. As a uni student, FitzGerald spent time in Berlin. Back in England, he cut club tracks seriously. Yet it was only after relocating to Berlin permanently in 2010 when his music career took off. FitzGerald premiered with The Let Down EP on Scuba’s Hotflush Recordings. (He likewise launched his own label, ManMakeMusic.) Even from Germany, FitzGerald emerged as part of Britain’s bass house movement – adding a modern, post-dubstep twist to UKG. Gradually, he leaned into deeper house and techno – with epic synths. Still, FitzGerald produced a song on Katy B’s Little Red.

In a bold development, FitzGerald signed to Domino Records – home to Hot Chip and Jon Hopkins. In 2015, this artisan presented an emotive debut album, Fading Love, charting a relationship breakdown due to the demands of his music vocation. (Awesomely, the slick Cambridge alumni mag featured him raving about Roots Manuva!)

Now, FitzGerald is promoting his follow-up, All That Must Be, which chronicles further life changes. Indeed, he returned to London on becoming a first-time dad. FitzGerald is accompanied by such quality guests as UK funky stalwart Lil Silva, who sings the single ‘Roll Back’, rising soulster Hudson Scott, and the Grammy-nominated auteur Bonobo. However, the most buzz cameo is that of Tracey Thorn on the sublime ‘Half-Light’. (Thorn, famed for her output with Everything But The Girl and Massive Attack, has a hot solo album of her own in Record.) The LP also encompasses last year’s UK crossover single ‘Burns’. Overall, All That Must Be (a Double J “Feature Album”) reveals greater depth than its predecessor, with FitzGerald composing on piano and utilising live percussion, while re-embracing garage-era samples. He could just be the new MJ Cole.

FitzGerald has toured Australia before, headlining Listen Out and Harbourlife. He’s visiting again next month. Music Feeds talked to the Brit about All That Must Be, self-care for DJs, and his professional back-up plans. FitzGerald arranges the call on a Sunday night – rare for dance-types. “I’m busy at the moment!,” he laughs. “I think, if you interviewed me in the morning, it wouldn’t have happened, to be honest. But, yeah, I’m OK now.”

Music Feeds: I was curious to know what lessons you might have applied from making Fading Love to All That Must Be? How do you feel you evolved as a producer between the projects?

George FitzGerald: I mean, in a technical sense, I think I made quite a lot of effort to become just a kind of more rounded musician – you know [to] try and become better at all of the things that I was doing on Fading Love. A lot of the recording techniques or the composition elements – I made quite a lot of effort just to be doing everything better across the board. Fading Love was the first album that I’d ever written. You go through that journey; it’s not an easy thing to write an album. I knew what I was getting myself into this time around and I was less impatient with the process and just let it happen. The second time around, you have a bit more faith that you’re gonna get to the end of it. There’s less panic about where you’re at in the process and everything. I think that’s one of the important things: to relax into it and enjoy it, otherwise you just end up with writer’s block.

MF: It’s interesting because that first album came out of the dissolution of a relationship. Now you’re back in London and a father! Pretty huge changes there. What exactly happened – and how has that influenced this record?

GF: Well, as you said, the last time I was writing – Fading Love, which is getting on for four, five years ago, when I first started writing that – a lot of the background to that was a relationship in my life breaking down. This record documents the next period in my life, where I had a daughter with somebody in London and then I moved back to London and we all started living together; and the kind of change in my life from being someone living on their own in Berlin and doing whatever they want to coming back to London and getting a studio here and being a dad; also still being on the road and DJing and all that kind of stuff and dealing with that contrast.

MF: I read an old interview and you were talking about how the DJ life does take a toll. It’s come up a lot in interviews lately – in the context of mental health issues. Neil Barnes from Leftfield has talked about the lifestyle of an electronic musician. But I wondered how you feel about the DJ life now – have you found a way to strike a balance?

GF: I’ve definitely taken a step back from DJing with the same intensity that I used to. I’m as interested in the live show that I’m building and taking a lot of time out to write records… Basically, the thing that I experienced was you’re on the road the whole time and you’re quite often on the road on your own and there’s a lot of late nights and there’s a lot of time in hotel rooms – and it’s quite well documented now, as you said, but it’s a bit of a recipe for bad mental health. Luckily, I’ve been OK in that sense. But I think, if you have any predisposition towards that kind of thing, it can really hit you quite hard. I found it very, very difficult. The way through it is just not being on the road the whole time and doing the things that got you into being an electronic musician in the first place – like writing music. DJ’s complain the whole time about [how] they don’t get enough time to write music. It’s like, Just don’t be as greedy! Don’t be on the road the whole time. Actually take some time out and write some music, otherwise the music that you do write is gonna be rubbish. I’m completely glad that I’ve made the decisions that I have, ’cause I think I’ll end up doing this for a lot longer than I would have done otherwise.

MF: I love that you’ve worked with Tracey Thorn. But how did you come into each other’s orbit? Was it through [Everything But The Girl’s] Ben Watt [a DJ/producer himself] or the record label?

GF: No, no, no. I’ve had vague contact with him – like I’d been into a few tracks in the past. But, no, I sent her a few emails before and she was into the idea of working together, but she didn’t have any time. Then I think she liked some tracks off the first record [Fading Love] – and she agreed to it. So I ended up writing a track for her. It wasn’t really any more complicated than that. But she’s just really, really down-to-earth and lovely, lovely to deal with. It was a complete pleasure writing with her.

MF: It sounds like you actually did ‘Half-Light’ together in the studio? It wasn’t a situation of doing a song over email – is that right?

GF: No, no, no – kind of the opposite! I wrote something for her and then the way she preferred to work was with the engineer that she’s always worked with and her own microphone and just [to] be in her own space. She recorded her vocals and sent them back to me and then I worked on it a bit further. It was like a more modern collaboration, in that sense. But we were talking all the time about it. I think you have to allow a singer to work in the way that they’re comfortable. She was gonna find it awkward – almost being on like a blind date with my studio and her having to sing… Then you get a worse performance out of them. So it was good we did it like that.

MF: It was so exciting when you came onto the Domino roster – they’ve got Jon Hopkins. But what has that experience been like? Do you have any musical relationships with the other artists? 

GF: It’s certainly an amazing place to be. You know, I was quite daunted at the beginning. Everyone has their sort of artists on the label that they’ve loved. For me, it was things like Caribou and Four Tet or Jon Hopkins – and Arctic Monkeys. And just to kind of be somewhere where those things had gone before, but then they were also saying, “We think you’re up to the standard and we think you can do this and this is how we’re gonna help you put it together,” is amazing!

In terms of other artists – I did a remix for Jon Hopkins [‘Open Eye Signal’] and we bump into each other now and then and have some contact. But, no, I can’t say [I have much contact] – I’m not in the Domino office very often. It’s more I hear about the other artists who are usually out touring or in the studio through the A&Rs. But the atmosphere is a very creative atmosphere. They really run the label in the way that a label should be run – it’s very impressive.

MF: You studied languages at Cambridge. What did you study – and was it hard to steer away from what might have been a stable, lucrative career in, I don’t know, the diplomatic service to music? Did you have to defend yourself?

GF: A little bit, yeah, at the beginning. I studied French and German – and that’s how I ended up in Berlin, actually. I worked originally there as a translator. I’d always produced music and DJed as a hobby – sort of a passion – but then [I] started getting music signed and people wanted me to play gigs. It steadily of its own accord got more serious. Then there was this crossroads. I was actually at law school in London, after Cambridge, and I just didn’t have enough time to do both! I was kind of getting more and more busy with the music. Law school isn’t really a joke when it comes to the amount of work that you have to do. I just couldn’t do both. I was burning myself out. I thought, I can come back to the law thing – in five years’ time I could do law and it would be fine, but I might not be able to do the music thing, so I owe it to myself to just see what happens with it.

In retrospect, it was a completely insane decision – because I really was absolutely nowhere as an artist. I had a couple of gigs a month or something for a couple of hundred quid. I thought that I could just about pay the rent in Berlin for that – so I packed up my things and went to Berlin. But things progressed steadily from there. I never, ever regretted the decision. Definitely some peers of mine at the beginning were a bit shocked and thought that I was being a criminal going and joining the circus! But, as the years have gone on, people have seen where it’s headed to and have been really cool about it; really, really supportive. So it was kind of a nice ending to that. But it was difficult at the beginning.

MF: Armin van Buuren, the trance mega-DJ, went back and finished his law degree – I think he did entertainment law, so he looped it all together.

GF: And, the clue is in the name, but Judge Jules from the UK, the enormous ’90s DJ – he’s like an entertainment law solicitor. He did exactly the same thing. So there’s some precedents out there. There are some people who gave up the law, or their life in what could have been a very different life, and followed the music.

MF: I know you’ve expressed an interest in doing production work for other artists. Is that something you’re actively chasing at the moment? Have you had any interesting opportunities?

GF: I have had a few things that have come along – not quite the right thing yet. To be honest, at the moment, I feel like I haven’t reached the end of what I feel like I want to do as a solo artist. That’ll be my focus until I feel like it’s the right time to take a break. I feel like I’ve got another album or two in me before I take a hiatus. But the thing is you never know – if the right kind of artist came along and was happy for me to shape something around them, then I’d take a break for that. It’s definitely something I want to do at some point in the future.

MF: You are coming to Australia next month. Ironically, one of the gigs you’re playing, Piknic Électronik, is a day party where they allow kids. From what I understand, you’re DJing and not playing a live show. But what can we look forward to?

GF: I play a lot of the music… Just this time, I’m coming over to DJ and then I think later in the year I’m gonna be bringing the live show, which is really exciting. I’ll be playing music that kind of influenced the record and tracks off the record, obviously. It’s always exciting to go Down Under. I really like DJing there. The crowds have always been really, really warm and welcoming for me. It’s been quite a special place for me, definitely. And any excuse to get Down Under for me is always a good one – especially ’cause my god-daughter lives in Sydney as well.

MF: I’m curious about the live show. How is that shaping up?

GF: Yeah, it’s kind of a full band with me on keys, somebody else playing things as well, a drummer, a singer… It’s really nice just to translate the record into something properly live. A lot of electronic live sets really aren’t live – and they shouldn’t be called a ‘live’ set (laughs). But we’ve put quite a lot of effort into making this something different from the record; if you come to the live show, the record being reinterpreted hopefully in a good way. The reaction at the shows we’ve done so far has been amazing – and that’s before the record has come out. So I’m looking forward to playing to people now the record is actually out in the world.

MF: I know what you mean about the ‘live’ live set. I’ve seen some very spurious configurations.

GF: Yes, yeah, exactly! I mean, different folks for different strokes. People can do whatever they want. For me, it was never really something that I wanted to do – to do a live set where it’s just me standing behind the laptop. It’s nice to get your hands dirty. It being really live, you can mess it up on stage, but there’s a kind of magic to that.

George FitzGerald’s new album ‘All That Must Be’ is out now. Catch his full list of April Australian tour dates right here.

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