As a DJ, musician, director, editor, and screenwriter, D.W. Waterson puts most multi-hyphenates to shame—and I was only skimming the surface of her creative resumé. Based in Toronto and Los Angeles, she is the architect of Kensington Market’s Home Brew, where she DJs as hey! dw, her manic cheerleader alter ego. She’s also the creative force behind the television series That’s My DJ, an insider’s glimpse of Toronto’s electronic music scene. In the midst of her gatherings, you’ll be surprised at the heart and rhythm she will inspire in you—be it a film set, the dance floor, or on stage. Off-set and hanging out with her in Kensington Market, though, she feels more like the wisecracking class clown you’d skip school with.
D.W. is a living, breathing lesson in embracing your multitudes. Read on to find how just how far that can take you.
You’re director D.W. Waterson by day, DJ hey! dw by night. Have you always created specific ‘personas’ for each creative outlet you pursue?
I don’t think I always set out to create specific personas. I think they developed naturally. When I pursued directing, that just came to be. Same with Hey DW. I started DJing as just DW, and the ‘hey!’ was triggered. She’s definitely grown since then. She’s wearing a cheerleader outfit. She’s crazy on stage. She’s more aggressive on drums and in the way she interacts with the audience. So it’s all different parts of me growing as an artist.
Can you tell me how you developed the hey! dw persona?
I don’t think I developed her. She just came raging out of me, demanding attention like a child. [laughs] She’s me as a nine year-old, who was watching cartoons and pounding cereal, getting hooked on sugar, bouncing around the house, blasting music, jumping on the couch.
I was a drummer in a bunch of different bands over the course of high school and university. Once I realized being in a band was like marrying five people—constantly in flux, and with other people’s insecurities in play—it began to inhibit what I wanted to do creatively. So I left the band world, went to film school.
I remember in first year of university, this jock guy was trying to impress girls by saying he could DJ with Virtual DJ. I looked into it, and was like, holy shit. DJing is very percussive; it’s beats and rhythm. I realized I could do musical things by myself, and not have to deal with five other personalities in a room. That set me on my path on being a bedroom DJ for a couple years. One of my friends booked me my first gig, and DW was born.
I wanted to understand where the music I loved so much was coming from, so I went to London, England, where I got into the underground scene. When I came back [to Toronto], I DJed once as DW. People added the ‘hey!’ before it, and when I realized it was from Arthur, I thought it’d be interesting. That’s how the name came to be.
As for the cheerleader outfit, I wore one for Halloween while I was DJing. The day after, everybody on the Facebook event page was like, ‘who’s that cheerleader?’ Nobody was asking about DW, or the blonde, or the DJ. It was interesting how easily people remembered me. Combining the DJing with the ten years I spent playing the drums… I decided to do both at the same time. I’d open and end my sets with a drum solo, and started doing more of them in between when I realized people wanted more.
So that’s how hey! dw was born. God knows what she’s doing to do tomorrow.
“You know that person at the party who’s pissed off, who was dragged there by her friend, who has to get up early to work tomorrow? My job is to get her onboard.”
What does being hey! dw feel like? It seems like she’s an alter ego who just takes over.
She does. Like every other Canadian when it gets cold, there have been days where I’d rather just sit at home and watch Netflix—but I’ll put the cheerleader uniform on and that energy just comes out. I feel like a party captain. When I’m on stage, I lose my mind. People get excited, and they have a good time, which makes my time even better. It’s a loop, so it’s about getting that loop started. My shows are party shows. The point isn’t about me being talented at DJing. The point is to get you drenched with sweat—your own or someone else’s. You know that person at the party who’s pissed off, who was dragged there by her friend, who has to get up early to work tomorrow? My job is to get her onboard.
The fact that people want to see me, and interact with me as I’m wearing this outfit, going crazy on the drums, blasting house music—it’s my dad’s worst nightmare. Nobody wants their kid to become a drummer, but it felt so organic with me. When I was little, I’d reach for my toothbrush and toothpaste and just start tapping on the bathroom counter. It’s the one time I’m not thinking. And drummers are fucked. They march to the beat of their own drum. [laughs] When my friends tell me they’re dating a drummer, I tell them that’s their first problem.
Does directing come naturally to you as well?
I loved film. All I did on a Friday night, as a super cool kid, would be to watch TGIF. Or go to Blockbuster and rent indies from the Festival Selection. I remember watching Bend It Like Beckham—taking notes—and thinking about the fact that we could watch something on the screen and be emotionally affected by it was the coolest thing. When we cry while watching Dawson’s Creek, and Pacey and Joey finally kiss… it’s incredible. That curiosity led me to editing, because that’s where you put the story together. Because there’s a rhythmic aspect to it, it reminded me of drumming, and that way of thinking came naturally to me.
Unfortunately, they don’t teach post-production in the Ryerson program, which I argue is the most important aspect of filmmaking. Without post-production, all you have is raw footage. So I did it on my own while taking a bunch of classes that didn’t really apply to what I actually wanted to do.
While editing a bunch of student shorts, I realized how little I was connecting to the footage. My friends told me to stop whining about it and do it myself. Because I’m the type of person to take dares very seriously, I wrote a short film, casted it, and directed it on set for the first time. I fell in love; I’d found my people. It was an amazing experience. My crew had fun, and that was wildly different compared to everybody else and their sets. Although we were all equals in the classroom, on set it’s different: I’m the director. You’re the gaffer. People were getting their egos off, and that’s not cool. Although everybody has their place and their position, it should be a collaborative effort.
Because everyone had so much fun putting my film together, they begged me to write another one—and I did. It was our one chance to have a positive set experience during our senior year. It was called Drop, about three dudes who go to a rave. I wrote it right before electronic music got big here, when guys like Zedd’s Dead were still playing in Wrongbar. That gave breath to the idea of That’s My DJ.
“Like a DJ set, a movie reveals itself through a beginning, middle, and end.”
It’s very cool how both directing and DJing come so naturally to you, with both crafts revolving around the heartbeat of the creative operation.
I’ve learned so much from both, and they really lend a hand to each other. Like a DJ set, a movie reveals itself through a beginning, middle, and end. The way hey! dw interacts with a crowd, I’ve pulled from my directing experiences—how to motivate a crew, for example.
As a multi-disciplinarian who clearly loves what she does, what defines play from work? Have you tried to differentiate the two, or does it not matter?
This is what I tell my parents: I’m always working, and I’m never working. There are 9–5 jobs where you’re like, I go to work to work, and I go to the bar to hang out with my friends. But I get to collaborate with my friends. I’m working on my first album right now, and I got to do a track with one of my favourite bands ever—but they’re also my friends. There may be meetings to set up, or schedules to follow… but I get to hang out and have fun. How cool is that?
I feel very grateful that I’ve managed a lifestyle out of the things I love doing. It takes a lot of work—like 24/7 work—and sometimes you don’t want to do elements of it. I procrastinate the shit out of all of those things. But when you love it, you do it.
Have you ever tried out the 9–5 life?
Yeah. Um, I usually get fired? [laughs] I’m not good at it. Even when I am good at it, there’s something inside of me that makes me self-sabotage. I become so unhappy. Because I’d get bored, I would start writing my scripts or play around with music on the side. I don’t understand why humans have to be at work at 9am. You come into work, you’re on Facebook for half an hour, you do some shit, get on the phone with a friend, go for lunch… Why can’t I come into work at 11, do the same amount of work, and leave by four?
Everyone works differently, and that’s what bums me out in regards to that way of thinking. That’s why I love contract work. You come in, you commit a few weeks or months, get to know your deadlines, and it’s like, see ya! Sometimes I struggle with the self-motivation, deadlines, networking… the usual things when it comes to freelance work, but I’m much better at this than 9–5. Even my parents are like, ‘hmm, maybe this isn’t right for you.’ [laughs]
I had the same problem at school, where teachers would ask you to spend an hour on the simplest math problem. They wanted me to be sheep. They wanted me to turn my brain off when I would finish, and just sit there. I’m too inspired by the world around me to just sit here and not say anything.
“I’m too inspired by the world around me to just sit here and not say anything.”
Were you ever shy?
Yes. You look shocked.
[laughs] When I was little, I was so overwhelmed by the world. I was more or less very quiet; taking it all in, trying to understand people, their emotions, their experiences, how time affects that. I was very scared to interact with that.
I was also scared of my own power. I knew there was a lot of potential for greatness inside of me. I was always searching for ways to break it down. When I wanted to DJ, I became a bedroom DJ, and that humble bullshit… it’s a gendered thing, as well. Women are expected to be nice and quiet. When you start out playing drums, immediately you’re not doing that correctly. Coming out of my shell has been an evolution, but you couldn’t shove her back in if you tried.
Anytime I naturally got into something, I got so much pushback from the world, telling me to be quieter, littler—until one day I realized they couldn’t do anything about it. There were no consequences to their threats. Let me live the way I want to live. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m much more interested in trying to figure out who I am, than trying to figure out what boxes other people belong to in order to make my life easier. If people focused more on why things trigger sadness, or happiness, or inspiration in them, then they could grow the confidence that prevents judgement or discrimination against what they don’t understand.
“Coming out of my shell has been an evolution, but you couldn’t shove her back in if you tried.”
Who’s your most important critic? How do you critique your own work?
Me. I used to be really hard on myself. Accepting the fact that I am an artist was something that I’ve always had trouble with, because being an artist is correlated with being a bum. But now that I’ve embraced the natural storyteller and performer inside of me, I’ve let go of my perfectionism a little bit.
[Creating] is an experience. It happens, it affects you, and that’s it. I produce a song; I mix it, master it. I put it out, people respond to it, and it lives as it does. Being precious with your work inhibits you from putting out more work. Artists are producers. We put work out. That’s how you sustain myself and career—doing things and finishing them. A lot of people struggle with that part.
How do you balance your own need to create with the expectations of your audience?
Do whatever comes naturally. After doing the second and third seasons of That’s My DJ, I thought it made sense to do a feature film. But it just wasn’t coming out; nothing felt right. My gut was telling me it’s because you want to do an album. I’d been talking about doing a solo album my entire life, so that’s what I did. Whether it’s a painting, or a one-woman show, I’m going to do it. If it scares me, it’s only going to push me as an artist. That could only help with the DJing and directing in a long run.
Self-reflection is a very important part of being an artist. I’ll ask myself, why do I feel so strongly about what I do? And I’ll take it from there. I know what I need, and what I don’t need. If it doesn’t feel right, call it a day and move on. You learn more from your mistakes than your victories.