As the music scene caught wind of her colourful sets after her debut for The Ghost at Club Der Visionaere, Sugar Free shot into the spotlight. What followed was a cascade of gigs that left her name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. We caught up with her in this edition of Rising Stars to talk influential friendships, humbling moments and introspection during the industry’s toughest summer.
Sugar Free is in her element when she’s sharing her music. Moving to the beat with a relaxed smile, engaging earnestly with anyone who approaches her, it’s easy to see why Alejandra has formed a reputation as one of the friendliest faces on the Berlin scene. But this is only a fragment of the reason for her success.
Intertwining decades and traversing genres, Alejandra hasn’t boxed herself into any rigid category. Although her signature sound is warm, upbeat house, she’s capable of switching up the vibe and playing a refined down-tempo set. Unearthing abstract electronica and lesser-known hip-hop gems, she blends them together delicately. Her versatility has been a blessing, propelling her forward as an artist with the ability to hold her own in diverse surroundings.
‘I wouldn’t change a thing,’ Alejandra begins as we broach the subject of her intense gigging schedule last year. ‘At times the travel was overwhelming, but I met so many amazing people along the way. I feel very blessed. I’ve come a long way to get to this point and worked really hard.’ Her gratitude to those who have supported her soon becomes a theme during our conversation, as does her infectious positivity. And it begins in her family home in Madrid.
Surrounded by music from the moment she was conscious, Alejandra formed a deep affection for procuring records. Encouraged to explore her talent by her family, she credits them with planting the seed that has now blossomed into her career. ‘My father has an amazing career in music, starting with his first punk band in the 80s called P.V.P. And my mother used to do PR for independent record labels. She would always bring home promos and take me to concerts and festivals. When I chose to follow in their footsteps, I got all the support in the world.’
Finding her own way in her late teens she explored her love of electronic music and began venturing out into Madrid’s nightlife, frequenting Klubbers, Goa and Space. Integrating herself into a scene she was eager to be part of at the time, she struck up a friendship with DJ Hell in 2013 that led her to her first international gigs. ‘I was about 22 and had barely played outside Madrid, so when he invited me to Munich and Berlin to play alongside him, I couldn’t believe it. I learned a lot from him, even though eventually I went in a different direction musically.’
As we delve a little further into the decade that has passed since she began her journey as an artist, she reminisces about some of the more obscure paths she’s taken to make it to where she is now. ‘I moved to Brighton at 20 to learn English and I got a job as a resident DJ for a party called ‘Latin Fever,’’ she laughs. ‘And I’ve worked in all kinds of sporting events. World Cups and the Olympics in Rio 2016, playing the music during the games.’ Gently she acknowledges that neither of these reflected her musical tastes or ambitions, but she focuses instead on how they helped her to grow. Honing her skills when it came to working with sound. Giving her the funds to buy equipment and records so she could sharpen her technique and get booked in the clubs she had set her sights on.
But aside from work, it was the genuine connections she formed with other artists during this time that helped her to progress. She’s now a solid member of The Ghost crew in Berlin. Known primarily for their fabled record store van, The Ghost offer up a small selection of records that range from outlandish tunes pulled from deep in the archives to new releases by intriguing artists. Their parties at Hoppetosse are the perfect blend of obscurity and light-heartedness and have featured the likes of Truly Madly, Binh and Gwenan. But perhaps one of the most important elements of their parties is that they provide a platform for upcoming artists. It was here that Sugar Free found her feet.
‘I first met Ewan (Youandewan) when he played in Madrid 6 years ago. My friends and I had a super nice time with him so we stayed in contact. When I moved to Berlin he introduced me to the rest of the crew. Eventually, I moved in next door to Gene (Gene on Earth) and we became very close. I’ve learned a lot from him and he has supported me from the very first day.
When Josh and James (The Ghost) gave me the opportunity to play for the first time at Club Der Visionaere, it changed my life. So many friends from all over came to support me and I’ve never had a crowd cheer so hard. I started to get lots of bookings after that party so I’m eternally grateful for that and for all the support they have given me. I was so nervous but as soon as I started playing and people started dancing it felt like a dream come true – all my insecurities disappeared.’
As we explore the subject of ‘networking’ in the music industry a little more, it’s clear that Alejandra rejects this as a label. ‘To be honest, I think ‘networking’ is a negative term.’ she explains. But in an era where influence from social media is significant, and artists and clubs are more easily connected than ever, it’s interesting to hear her perspective on whether these social aspects are crucial to succeed.
‘I’ve never been to a party because I had to, always because I wanted to,’ she continues. ‘Being yourself will take you further in the world and exceed any planned intentions you have. I have developed actual friendships with the people I have met over the years, and from there, awesome things have happened. I don’t think contacts are as important as developing your skills. You might get a gig or two but if you don’t work hard enough, at some point they will stop calling you. There are so many talented people out there. You have to prove your worth as an artist.’
Spotting a gap in the Berlin day party scene, Alejandra kicked off last year with her own party, Sobremesa. A joint venture between her and three friends, including fellow DJ Ethel, it runs primarily on Berlin’s favourite day to party – Sunday. Their main venue, Fitzroy, is an intimate spot overlooking the Spree river. Cosy and uncomplicated, the venue is well suited to the ideology of the party. ‘The word Sobremesa is a very important part of Spanish culture. It refers to a time spent with friends or family around the table after a meal, making memories and enjoying the company – so it totally made sense for our party. That’s the vibe we were going for.’ Already featuring Joe Delon, KRN and Christian AB, Sobremesa is a welcome addition to Berlin.
Last year also marked her first release on Small Hours, Youandewan’s label, on a VA featuring pals Gene, Huerta and Junes. She’s since been quiet on the production front, but for good reason. She’s been working hard to perfect her sound. ‘I only want to put out things that I love and that I consider good enough, at least for myself. After some time to focus, I’m very close to finishing my first solo EP,’ she announces.
Famous for her edits labelled by her doodle drawings, Alejandra knows how to tweak a track to fit her style. She nods to Discogs as her main source of music, but she lights up as we begin to talk about her favourite record stores – Ultrasound in Valencia and El Almacén de Discos and Palma 39 in Madrid. ‘It’s a totally different experience because with Discogs you have so much information about the record and that sort of kills the magic. When you go to a store you just pick up a bunch of records and listen to them. You might know the label or the artist, but you really just pay attention to the music,’ she explains. ‘The people that work there make it feel like home. I’ve been digging a lot of hip hop, downtempo and non-electronic music recently, which is what makes me feel good right now.’
Submerging herself deeper into the Berlin lifestyle in symmetry with her success, she refers to her move here as the best decision she ever made. She’s inspired by the city’s intricate and vast music scene – the collectives, the labels, the artists. The endless opportunities to learn from past, present and future talent, constantly breathing new life into the scene. But in a period of uncertainty, we begin to discuss where she feels at home. ‘At the beginning, I didn’t miss home, but as time passes by, I feel more and more connected to my home country.’
Eventually, the inevitable conversation comes up – COVID-19. The music industry has been crushed by the weight of the current pandemic, leaving clubs, artists and promoters on thin ice, fighting to survive. As the first wave hit back in March, Sugar Free, like many others, found her jam-packed schedule suddenly cleared. What at first felt like a glitch became a full scale shut down. Alejandra is refreshingly honest as we talk about how she’s dealt with these challenges.
‘It’s been a weird time for me. I started with a very positive mindset and I was happy to finally rest and have the time to dig properly again. When you are on the road, it’s difficult to make a new bag every weekend. I was happy to have some downtime to go through all my records, rediscovering some lost ones. I was able to finish the edits I didn’t have time for, and I kept searching for new music. I’m also in the process of recording a new podcast which is due for release soon. But after the first two months, the illusion has slowly disappeared. It’s become a lot harder to focus on club music.’
Not one to end on a negative note, she soon reverts back to her optimistic mindset as we look into the future. ‘It’s a hard time for music but that’s not gonna stop me from continuing to pursue my dream. I’ll continue to do all the things that I don’t get to do while I’m gigging: not only making more music and digging more but eating more food with friends and visiting my family in Madrid more often. Meanwhile, I’m patiently waiting for the time where I get to travel and play again.’