Vanessa Worm in the crowd (Photo: Supplied)
Vanessa Worm in the crowd (Photo: Supplied)

Pop CultureMarch 5, 2020

The new New Wave: Vanessa Worm is redefining the club scene

Vanessa Worm in the crowd (Photo: Supplied)
Vanessa Worm in the crowd (Photo: Supplied)

Born and bred in Dunedin, Vanessa Worm is now known in nightclubs the world over. She talked to Josie Adams about how being punk got her signed to one of the world’s best club music labels.

Vanessa Worm – real name Tessa – is calling from her bed in Melbourne. Stage names, sleep-ins, jet-setting; she’s nailing the rock and roll lifestyle. Next weekend she’ll be back on Kiwi shores, playing Beacon Festival with the likes of Nina Kraviz and Richie Hawtin.

Every Kiwi musician has an ‘I’m moving to Melbourne’ moment, but Vanessa Worm has gone – as the kids say – hundy. She started out in the club music desert of Dunedin, and within a couple of years of jumping the ditch, became a performer and producer signed to one of the world’s most well-known club music labels: Optimo.

The Spinoff: Do you describe yourself as a DJ?

Vanessa Worm: I’m not really a DJ; I’m a performer! Most of my shows are live performances. Sometimes I use the guitar. I’m on the wireless microphone and get in the crowd.

When I was out clubbing I used to dance and dream of being on a microphone, in the crowd, bringing a new energy to the club. Something a bit more immersive, that helps people connect together.

You’ve done that by fusing club music with something rawer. What is it?

I’m definitely a cross contamination of club and punk music. That’s what I always wanted to do [which] was bring the two together. It’s vocally quite punky and raw. I think that’s being from Dunedin and being immersed in that raw realm of music.

I was really afraid of singing, but it’s the one thing I’ve always wanted to do. In the past couple of years, I’ve become more confident [with singing] and more confident in what my voice is, rather than having an expectation of what a singer should sound like.

Speaking of Dunedin, as far as I recall it doesn’t really have a club scene. Where’s the first place you performed?

It was [now-defunct artist-run space] None Gallery. The music was very different to what I play now. I wouldn’t be able to play that sort of stuff over here. Dunedin was a bit less club-oriented, a bit more punky, and it suited that sort of thing.

Is that why you moved to Melbourne? To try something different?

I decided when I was 16 I would come over here and study music. I did that for three months, but it wasn’t for me and I dropped out. I went back to Dunedin, and that’s when I started doing the Vanessa Worm stuff, and then I came back here a year later. That’s when the Optimo release happened, and all the club-oriented shows.

Ah, Optimo! Have you noticed things opening up since the Optimo signing?

Hugely, 100%. The fact that Z Time was on Optimo – they’re well-known and trusted – opened heaps of opportunities. The album’s with them as well. I wouldn’t have gone ahead and produced an album if they hadn’t asked me.

Are you heading for global superstardom?

I hope so! I’ve got big dreams! I’m hopefully heading to Europe, but I don’t know when. I’d like it to happen this year, but [if not], definitely next year. Probably places like New York and San Francisco soon. I love visiting new places and travelling, so I’m lucky this is giving me the opportunity to do that.

(Photo: Supplied)

It’s in large part because of the music, but do you think it’s also your performance that leads to your popularity? 

The performance is a bit out of the box, yeah. Half the people at [music festival] Meredith absolutely loved it, and the other half were frightened. They were going ‘what is this?’ It was such a polarising response, and I think that might have a lot to do with it. It’s not something you necessarily see every day when you’re clubbing.

For people who are into punk and go clubbing it really excites them. They’re like ‘oh my gosh, I can dance, but I still get to have my raw punk thing happening!’ and for other people who’ve only gone clubbing, they can see a whole new side of music.

In Dunedin, the music scene is very intimate and everyone knows each other, and there’s a level of safety in that. Is it different for you performing and creating in a place like Melbourne?

In Dunedin it’s so small that if someone new arrives and they go to None Gallery, everyone goes ‘oh, who are you, where are you from, radi-rah-rah’ and it’s all very community vibes. Here, you really have to put yourself out there. You have to take the first step and go to events on your own.

Kiwis don’t like to blow our own trumpet. It took me a year and a half to find my feet here and feel safe and secure. From there I’ve begun to find a new community in the scene here that’s a bit more vast, but very connected.

Did it change the way you made music?

The difference between the music I made in Dunedin and here is huge. In Dunedin, it was far more experimental, or gloomy, or emotional, which is what Dunedin is in many ways.

Coming over here to Melbourne, the EP on Optimo [had] something about it that was a bit more functional. Being here also pushed me a lot more to challenge myself, and to be the best that I can because there’s so much more out there.

Dunedin has a slow pace with a slow process. And here there’s a fast pace, and that energy plays out when you’re creating music. That creates a difference in sound, and you can hear that all over the world. There’s something about each city that connects them all, but keeps them a bit different from each other.

Someone told me the other day [that music is] never purely your own – it’s part of a group consciousness. You’re creating from that group consciousness. You can hear that in my own music, from Dunedin to now.

Would you ever go back to your hometown to play a cheeky O-Week gig?

Ahh… no. I wouldn’t want to play O-Week. I think I’d make them all shit their pants.

Keep going!