For Amber Giles, life changed early one morning at an art car parked on the grounds of a music festival in Tennessee.
A few weeks earlier, at her 22nd birthday party in Arizona, the people behind the Burning Man–famous Kalliope car heard Giles on the decks and asked her to play for them at Bonnaroo. On that festival’s final morning, Skrillex turned up at the Kalliope after-party and asked Giles, who had just adopted Mija as her stage name, if he could play back-to-back with her.
The two weren’t complete strangers. Years earlier, before Skrillex released “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” and became an EDM superstar, Giles had booked him to play a party in Phoenix. But they hadn’t kept in touch, and Giles still isn’t sure if he recognized her at first.
Regardless, the two had an immediate chemistry on the decks. Recordings of their sunrise jam were a huge hit online. Giles recalls the questions that came after people heard the mix: “Who is this girl? Why did Skrillex go back-to-back with her? Why did they only play a deep house set?”
Nearly a year after her breakthrough gig, Giles sits outside an Arts District coffeehouse on a rare week off from touring. She relocated in late 2014 to downtown Los Angeles, where many of her EDM friends and collaborators live, but doesn’t have a chance to stay in town for more than a few days at a time. The night before, she was in the studio with a pal. He showed her some production tricks with Ableton. She taught him how to mix on CDJs. “It was a really fun trade,” she says.
Midway through the 2015 festival season, Giles has already racked up an impressive list of gigs. She took on Miami for the Winter Music Conference and hit the Do Lab stage at Coachella. Her summer schedule is packed with club dates and festival sets, including a turn at the sold-out HARD Summer in Pomona on Aug. 1 and a gig at Splash House in Palm Springs on Aug. 9. She’s likely to finish the season as a star on the circuit.
More DJ than producer, Giles’ sets cross genres and play with tempos in unusual ways. She stands out in a scene that, in recent years, has been obsessed with bangers.
“I think that she’s really versatile,” says HARD founder Gary “Destructo” Richards. “She can play house. She can play trap, dubstep, the more bangin’ stuff all together and make it all work.”
Richards has played with Giles several times in the past few months; the first was an impromptu tag-team set in San Francisco. He’s not the only one who is impressed with her work. “She has this cool vibe,” says Ryan Jaso of Control, who has booked her at parties in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A-Trak, too, has sung her praises on Instagram.
Meanwhile, Giles has contributed a mix to Diplo’s podcast series, and her collaboration with Ghastly, “Crank It” (featuring Lil Jon), was released through Skrillex’s influential label, Owsla.
Giles is succeeding in a scene that is still overwhelmingly male. At a time when dance music festivals in particular are being criticized for the lack of women on their lineups, Mija (Spanish for “my daughter”) stands out as one of the few female names that turns up repeatedly on bills.
Sometimes, things get weird. There was the gig where a guy threw dollar bills as she played. At the time, she says, she thought it was funny and threw the money back at him. Later, she wondered, “If I was a guy, do you think he would have been making it rain onstage?”
When Giles started out in the party world, she heard that things would be harder for her because of her gender. “I don’t think that’s even true,” she says.
However, she’s aware that, as one of the few women playing on this level, she can help inspire the next generation of girls. “I think seeing another girl go out there … gives them inspiration.”
Born and raised in Phoenix, Giles spent most of her childhood in a choir and had the opportunity to tour in France and Canada. But at 17 she gave up singing. “My family couldn’t afford [choir] anymore,” she says. “It was a little discouraging at the time, so I stopped doing it.”
Around the same time, Giles started promoting raves. Frequently she took on the role of runner — the person who picks up artists from the airport, takes them to dinner and gets them to the gig. When Giles wasn’t booking DJs or carting them around Phoenix, she shared a house with them; three of her roommates in the early days were DJs. That’s what prompted her to give the ones and twos a shot. Her attitude was, “If you can do it, I can do it.”
The first time she hit the decks in public, she played a couple songs and says the results weren’t that great. Still, she booked two gigs that night.
Giles played warehouse parties where the crowds craved drum & bass, hardcore and happy hardcore. She dropped tracks with fast tempos, lots of bass and pitched-up vocals but soon caught a bug for disco beats and moved away from the rave scene. “They just want to hear bangers, and I was going in a different direction,” she says.
She ventured into the clubs and started playing house music, but it was a twice-weekly gig inside a Sheraton hotel where Giles gained serious skill. “You can’t just play a house set for four hours at the Sheraton,” she says. “You have to be creative and throw in some jazz, some Latin music, and really mix it up.” She kept the standing gig until her move to L.A.
A boyfriend gave Giles her stage name shortly before Bonnaroo. When she returned from the festival, she found out that he’d cheated on her. The name, however, had already stuck. Giles decided to hang on to Mija and use the momentum from the gig with Skrillex to take her career to the next level.
“It was almost a little spiteful at first,” she says of the decision, “but I really like the name still.”
She entered and won a mix contest for Black Butter Records, which garnered her a spot at TomorrowWorld, a huge EDM festival in Atlanta. That was her first proper gig on a festival stage. Then she started learning production and spent months managing her own career, even booking a small tour of Mexico for herself.
That chance encounter with Skrillex kick-started Giles’ career, but she’s not coasting on Internet fame. “I don’t ever take anything for granted,” she says. “I know … people would kill for the opportunity to play on festival stages and whatnot.”
The tour dates have taken up much of Giles’ schedule, but the 23-year-old also is moving into other ventures. She recently launched a clothing line, featuring limited-edition pieces released sporadically. By next year, Giles hopes to release an extended EP of original material.
“I’m always pushing myself,” she says. “I have to constantly be doing something, otherwise I don’t feel like I’m reaching the level that I should be.”