On the cover of her debut album Torture Garden Session, DJ-producer Janette Slack wears a mask that resembles her own face. Given the stress and strain she’s endured while mastering the collection of dance tracks, it’s understandable she has a hardened exterior. In recent months she ended a 10-year relationship, and, owing to city planning ordinances, was evicted from the warehouse she spent years converting into her home and studio. “It’s been a really heartbreaking experience,” she says of finishing the album while dismantling her apartment near London’s Barbican Centre. “I have to tell people everything is fine and put this face on.”
Out last month, Torture Garden Session moves beyond the façade and into the mind of one of London’s top female DJs. The album melds house, dubstep and breakbeat, and journeys from mellow and head-bobby tracks to the hard-edged and industrial. Occasionally its lyrics—”pain can be so good if you tolerate it”—suggest she approached the album as therapy. But Slack says the album stems from other motivations. A resident DJ at Torture Garden, London’s legendary fetish club, she hopes it will clarify her style to those outside of clubland. “People who don’t go to the club ask me if I play ‘pornohouse,’ ‘nude music,’ and ‘sex-a-tron,’” she says while furrowing her brow. “I don’t use genres. I use feelings like cheeky, chunky, twisted and demented.”
The path to her first album has been as unpredictable as the dance floor. Born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and Scottish father, Slack came to London at 17 to study hospitality management. Trips to record shops with names like Plastic Fantastic and Vinyl Addiction led to friendships with DJs and fellow club enthusiasts, and eventually a spot in a sound engineering course at London’s SAE Institute. She released her first track while working at a studio for $60 a week. “They took my name off it after selling the first 750 copies,” she says. “I just collapsed and cried.”
The tears eventually dried and Slack, now 32, began mailing out mix tapes. Early gigs barely covered her cab rides home, but over time invitations poured in from mega-clubs like Home in Sydney and Zouk in Kuala Lumpur, and even from organizers of desert raves in California and small music venues in rural Croatia. Despite her growing profile, Slack spent the first seven years of her career hiding behind baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts. “I didn’t want the male DJs behind me saying, ‘She got the gig because of her chest.’” Today DJs and clubbers alike care less about what she’s wearing‹she now favors the provocative and roller skates to gigs—and more about her intuition. “She’s able to drop the right tunes at the right time,” says Carl Loben, a contributing editor at Britain’s DJ Mag. “That comes from inside her, and from too many years in dark night clubs.”
Torture Garden Session stands out for its eclectic electronica, but also for Slack’s unorthodox approach to releasing it. She refused to work with established labels, which would have wrestled away creative control and likely released it exclusively as a digital download. “I want something to hold and to touch,” she says. “I want to be one of the last people to release a CD.” So Slack set up her own record label — Slack Trax — and raised more than $80,000 to fund its release. She took out loans from friends and also took on extra work as, among other things, a TV extra, a private DJ instructor, a model and a make-up artist gluing eyelashes on transsexual cabaret performers.
As she packs up her London apartment, Slack says the album represents the end of an era in her life. “A few years ago it was a struggle to finish a track,” she says. “It’s nice to know that now I can actually finish an album.” With momentum behind her and a knack for coping with graft, expect a lot more to follow.