In high school, Maddy O’Neal thought it was too late to pursue music because she hadn't mastered an instrument.
She grew up in a musical family. Before she was born, her father lived in Hollywood and toured the West Coast with his band in a gutted Wonder Bread truck. Throughout her childhood, O’Neal dabbled in piano, cello and other instruments, but never stuck with them. Her brother Evan, meanwhile, dedicated himself to music and went on to play in several indie-rock bands around Saint Louis, leaving O’Neal to think she’d lost her chance at being a musician.
“I was always super-envious of my brother and all his musical ability,” remembers O’Neal, “but because I didn’t play any instruments, I just kind of gave up, even though I was always a fan of music.”
Her brother received Ableton, a program for making digital music, for a Christmas gift in 2010, and gave her his extra copy. “I know you have the ear for it,” he said. “You should see what you can do with it.” As soon as she set it up and bought a controller, she was sucked in.
“It was a whole other world of getting into music I never knew existed,” O’Neal recounts. It was perfect timing for her move to Denver for college, where she was introduced to the Mile High’s thriving electronic scene. Nerding out on weekends instead of going out, O’Neal dedicated herself to learning music, even if her approach seemed backward.
“I didn’t really know music," O'Neal admits. "I just knew what sounded good. I think that lack of classical training helped me find my style.”
For the past seven years, with the help of plenty of YouTube guides and local music friends, O’Neal has taught herself everything she knows about music, from the technology and software to music theory, live production and the business of running your own show.
O’Neal’s mother had reservations about her daughter’s pursuit of a career in music. “She saw it as kind of a dead end, and worried about me financially and stuff,” O’Neal says of her mother’s concerns. “Even though I finished school, she wasn’t very supportive until she saw me play at Red Rocks last year. One of my favorite moments to date in my career was hearing my mom have a conversation with a fan at Red Rocks after my set. “Someone said, ‘Oh, your daughter did so good!,’ and I overheard my mom say, ‘This isn’t gonna be the last time my daughter plays here.’ I was like ‘Whoa, she’s on board!’”
The fact that O’Neal is among a handful of women in the electronic game also makes O’Neal's mother proud. “My mom’s a huge feminist," O'Neal tells us. "Especially when I left my last project, my mom started seeing that my music was attached to something bigger and a form of female empowerment. She started appreciating it more.”
Nearly two years, 88 shows and four major tours (including shows with Floozies, Lettuce, Sunsquabi and Pretty Lights) after she set out on her own, O’Neal is going stronger than ever before, playing bigger shows, opening for major artists, and making a name for herself as one of electronic music’s most-celebrated female artists. While O’Neal has always viewed herself as “a human being just like everyone else,” being one of few women in an industry fraught with testosterone has shaped her professionally and personally in several ways.
As she explains: “I definitely lost my naïveté real fast when I got into the industry. After spending the first few months of my solo career sitting back and observing how people treated me and how things worked, I became more of a realist in terms of what to expect from people. No matter how much you believe in equality, women still have to prove themselves. People are always waiting to see what you can do. It’s crazy to see the flip-flop of how people treat you beforehand and after seeing you play. Being a female making electronic music is a bit of a double-edged sword, because it’s given me an opportunity to be this mentor, but I also know I have to prove myself wherever I go.”
O’Neal has also developed a boldness and confidence in her abilities. “The moment I doubt myself is when everyone else doubts me,” she says. “Of course, moments of doubt are part of being an artist, but this environment has challenged me to be unapologetic and take more risks. I think that’s the most optimistic way of looking at it. This is how it is, so how am I going to react to it?”
O’Neal believes that Denver’s highly collaborative electronic scene has built her confidence and supported her music; even so, she hopes future generations of women DJs and producers have stronger women role models to look up to and be inspired by.
“Females don’t have the example, she says. "We underestimate the value of seeing something done just to know it’s possible, like seeing a female DJ on stage.”
Maddy O’Neal, 9:15 p.m., December 15, Bluebird Theater, 3317 Adams Street, $10 to $15, 303-377-1666.
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