Joe Kay's creating chill waves with his music, and he's doing it with a Kiwi by his side. He talks to Chris Schulz.
In 2015, Joe Kay was walking out of the gates on the final day of Coachella. He'd spent the previous three days seeing the music festival's headliners Drake and The Weeknd play, and he was looking forward to returning to his Pasadena home to recover.
As he was leaving, his phone rang. It was a representative from Apple, asking if he'd stop by their new base in Culver City for a chat. The DJ, who ran an underground Soundcloud playlist called Soulection, a compilation of laid back electronica, said yes, but didn't think much of the call.
He was used to getting offers that didn't amount to much. "At the time, Beats 1 wasn't a thing, Apple Music wasn't a thing," says Kay. "I thought they'd ask me to create a playlist on the Beats (headphones) app."
Still, he headed to Apple to take the meeting. Instead of a corporate big wig, he found himself pulled into a closed-door room for a hushed meeting with Kiwi DJ Zane Lowe.
"He was top secret at the time," says Kay about Lowe, who, several months later, would be announced as Apple Music's big get, enticed from his top-rating BBC Radio 1 show in London to spearhead Apple's new radio show Beats 1 in Los Angeles.
It was a pitch meeting: Lowe wanted Kay to bring his Soulection series under the Beats 1 banner, placing him alongside some of the station's other radio DJs, big names like Dr Dre, Drake and Elton John. "He sat me down and broke down their vision, their dreams, their artists," he says.
Kay wasn't a big get, and he certainly wasn't a celebrity. But Soulection was "an important missing piece of the puzzle". Says Lowe: "I was struck by how thoughtful and thorough he was. It was clear from the beginning that Soulection and its artists had to be protected and nurtured in a really tasteful way."
For Kay, 29, it was the culmination of four years of hard work. He'd started Soulection at university as a way of sharing his favourite music. His show doesn't play bangers, top 40 hits, or big singles. Instead, Kay plays music to chill to, a meditative loop to soundtrack lazy Sunday afternoons or cruisy evening drinks.
At first, Kay seemed like Beats 1's odd man out. But since the move, Soulection has taken off. While Apple doesn't reveal statistics, Kay tours continuously, recording his weekly two-hour show and updating his playlist from wherever he's playing shows. He employs a team of four who are busy putting together his second Soulection Experience event, his very own music festival, in February.
Kay says Lowe's offer stunned him. At first, he struggled to see how his low key show worked alongside Beats 1's celebrity-driven vision. "Even to this day I feel like Soulection is one of the most underground shows (on Beats 1)." He says: "I'm a normal guy. The majority of the people on there are big time artists and producers and DJs, people who've been established for a while. It's really cool to be part of it, with our humble beginnings."
But Kay didn't celebrate. Instead, he went back to the drawing board. He asked: "How can I take this platform to the next level? How can I grow with it?"
Kay lives his brand, and his brand is chill. Competitors and imitators, like Majestic Casual, which started as a YouTube channel and is now a record label, or Spotify's updated Chillhop playlists, and Washington-based record label Otherfeels, have also grown in popularity.
Crucially, Kay combines retro soul with new music and laid back remixes and samples of current chart-toppers. He sources most of his playlist by digging through the internet. "Does it feel right?" is his only criteria. "Honestly ... you just know. It's just something that makes me say, 'Ah this is great, I need to share this.' It's an unsaid feeling," he says.
That feeling is contagious, but despite his success, Kay hasn't changed his day one motto: sharing the best music he could find. "Whether I had two followers or 100,000 followers, I just believed in it so much." Kay doesn't talk much during his shows, but his meditative monotone preaches good vibes. "I feel like I'm a pretty relatable guy, I don't feel like I come off as higher above anybody else. People appreciate if I can do it, they can do it too."
Kay's regular tours include two New Zealand shows this summer, including a performance at Northern Bass. After that, Kay says he's putting all tours on hold. Things, it turns out, aren't quite as balanced as he needs them to be. "Touring is a gift and a curse," he says. "You get to see the world, you get to travel and play your music, you get paid for it (but) it has an effect on your health, physically and mentally, and your family. There's no perfect balance to it."
Kay pauses and says: "I'm going to be taking a break." In other words, music's coolest customer needs time to chill.
• Joe Kay performs at Northern Bass on December 30. Listen to Soulection on Apple Music here.