Mija Wanted To Get Out of Her Comfort Zone, and It Worked

Amber Giles is a big proponent of living outside your comfort zone, especially if you happen to be an artist. It’s a distressing and vexing experience, sure, but also one that could potentially expand horizons,  fuel creativity, and lead to bigger and better things.

And Giles’ ever-evolving career in electronic dance music is proof. Over the past several years, she’s gone from being a teenage raver, raging away to happy hardcore and drum ’n’ bass at underground parties, to promoting events herself, becoming a popular DJ dropping house and techno at downtown Phoenix nightspots like Bar Smith. Now, she’s blowing up as a fast-rising talent in EDM.

And each accomplishment has come from living outside her comfort zone.

“That’s been really important,” Giles told New Times recently. “’Cause when you’re uncomfortable, that’s usually when you’re learning the most, creating the most, and stepping up to the plate.”

Her biggest change came in late 2014 when Giles, who performs under the stage name Mija, left Phoenix for LA The move came a few months after some attention-grabbing performances at high-profile music festivals (including a spontaneous back-to-back sunrise set with Skrillex at that year’s Bonnaroo that hit big online) and was an eye-opening experience that broadened her horizons and musical palette considerably.

“I got inspired by a lot of people when I moved to LA, and I became open-minded to a bunch of different styles that I hadn’t really considered listening to before,” Giles says. “When I was in Phoenix, I was doing a lot of house and techno — like, Chicago house — and I was really, really into that world. And I didn’t even know I liked hip-hop and trap until I moved to L.A., so that was a real big one for me.”

All this new music led to new projects, including “Crank It,” a collaboration with Ghastly released via Skrillex’s label OWSLA, and later a mixtape entitled Fk a Genre, which lived up to its name by featuring tracks from such disparate artists as Elvis Crespo, Rae Sremmurd, Black Moth Super Rainbow, and Flume. Giles says she wanted to assimilate all these varied sounds she’d been exposed to into her sets and mixes.

“I just wanted to figure out a way to incorporate all of that into one thing and be able to do it,” she says.

Local DJ Sean Watson, who cofounded the long-running Bar Smith night Best Friend Fridays with Mija back in 2014, says she’s always been a huge gourmandizer of music.

“When we started BFF together, she would play, like, Claude VonStroke into Fleetwood Mac,” Watson says. “She’s always had a huge song selection and can sew things together. When we were working together, she could pick any time slot and fill it in beautifully.”
The Fk a Genre mixtape, which has since scored more than 140,000 listens on Soundcloud, ultimately helped inspire a series of parties in a dozen cities across the country, including one in Phoenix on Wednesday, November 23, at Pressroom. Giles says the project has become more than just a mixtape or tour but rather is a mentality of being open to any kind of music. As such, a majority of the Fk a Genre events have featured varied lineups curated by Giles that include high-profile DJs and EDM artists like A-Trak, Kill the Noise, Lunice, Anna Lunoe, Justin Martin, and TOKiMONSTA, as well as rappers like Boogie.

“I wanted to give artists basically a platform where they could come in and feel free to do anything that they wanted, regardless of any expectations of what they generally play or generally come from,” Giles says. “We never actually told anybody what they had to do going into the party because we don’t have any specific rules or regulations. We just wanted to bring people together and basically inspire each other.”

Giles considers each party to be “more like an art piece, from start to finish,” that is essentially its own entity in each city. (Phoenix’s stop, for instance, will feature Jack Beats, Nosaj Thing, Rob Garza from Thievery Corporation, Ardalan, and Durante). It’s also different from your average festival or club show, she says.

“It’s not necessarily like when a headliner that books his own acts underneath them that they think will make them look the best or make their party go off the hardest,” Giles says. “It’s more like selecting different genres and different people that help create an entire story.”

In essence, artists are free to drop whatever they’d like, even if it involves venturing outside the genres they’re known for and into new territory.

“I think when you’re making music ... you’re creating your fan base and have a demographic that people become very loyal to what you’re doing, and it can feel hard or almost scary to switch things up because they do have those expectations,” Giles says. “But I think the parties that we’re throwing, we just curate a really open-minded audience, and it makes people comfortable that they can come in and experiment and just step out of the world they normally live in.”

Or, as Giles did in a recent Fk a Genre promo video, the parties are about “bringing people together that don’t normally play in the same parties or the same festivals, or basically making worlds collide so we can set the world on fire.”

Making those worlds collide was admittedly a time-consuming challenge for Giles and her management, involving countless phone calls and logistical arrangements with everyone she wanted to book (“We had this crazy list of people, and half the time it wasn’t going to work out, and you’ve got to keep going on your list and planning.”)

“It wasn’t hard getting people to want to do it; it was just very hard with everybody’s scheduling and the different budgets for each show. Being a promoter is really hard, actually,” Giles says with a chuckle.

It’s also something that she thought was firmly in the rearview.

“A year or two ago, people were asking me, ‘Are you going to go back to promoting?’ And I was like, ‘Nah, that’s so much work, I don’t have time for that.’ But I guess when you love something, you figure out how to make time for it.”
One DJ that wasn’t too difficult to get onboard was Watson, who will perform during the Phoenix party.
“I’ll be playing a bunch of different genres than I usually do in my set and let it go crazy,” he says, “going a little bit glitchier in my sound than I usually would and going a little bit more seductive and dramatic. I’m definitely going to think outside the grid on that. It’s going to be fun.”

So far, Giles says, the response to the tour has been great, both from fans and performers.

“Everybody that’s played the parties so far has had a lot of fun. People are stoked on the concept, and more people want to be a part of it,” she says. “In New York City, we did a back-to-back [set] with me, What So Not, Nina Las Vegas, and Justin Martin ... and that’s a very interesting group of people to play each other’s music.”

And it led to some cool moments. “It’s funny. What So Not played one of his favorite old house records, and it ended up being an old Justin Martin track, and he didn’t realize it right away when he played it. He just knew it was one of the favorites that he used to rinse all the time, and he just turned around and Justin gave him a high-five. I think that was a moment that just really brought everything together, and it was like, okay, I see what we’re doing here.”

Mija is scheduled to bring her Fk a Genre tour to Pressroom on Wednesday, November 23.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.