Xenia Ghali sat directly across across from me. You knew right away that you were talking to a star. Her spirit was larger than life. A person on the other end couldn't help but be drawn into her mystical world. The woman behind "Under These Lights" made it all the way to #1 on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart. She played insane shows in New York, Miami, Chicago and a place that is dear to her heart--Athens. How did it all begin for the dynamic DJ?
"I basically grew up in Greece. My mom is Greek and my dad is Egyptian. We are American citizens. We grew up in Greece because of various reasons. My whole family on both sides is living in Greece. When I was very young my parents were very adamant about both my sister and I being well-rounded kids. They enrolled us in classical piano and flute. I don't tell a lot of people that," Ghali laughed. She continued, "People kind of found out about it but I tend to stay away from it because I was in orchestra. It's very different from what I'm doing now. It was great because I learned classical musical when I was young. Then when I was 15 I started listening to a lot of rock bands, some indie bands. That kind of thing. A lot of punk--The Sex Pistols, The Clash. I was like, 'You know what--I want to pick up a guitar. Flute and piano aren't cool. I want to learn how to play the drums!' Seriously." Ghali then started to have visions of having her music heard on a wider level.
The enigmatic DJ elaborated. "I formed a high school band I was proud of at the time. I started writing songs for the band. I didn't want us to be just a cover band. That's when I started getting into songwriting. By the time I was graduating I had to decide what I wanted to do. My parents were very adamant about me going off and getting a bachelor's degree and a masters degree. So I told them I wanted to play music and I wanted to write music. We made a deal where basically I could do that as long as I received a bachelor's degree in music composition and a masters degree after that," she said. Ghali followed up by saying, "I ended up going to the UK. I studied music composition and production. While I was studying I went through a bit of a rebel phase. I started going to a lot of parties. It was during the time in the UK where dubstep, drums and bass were very underground. It wasn't in the mainstream yet. Most of the parties were underground and sort of dodgy. Kind of like raves," she smiled. Ghali continued, "All of the DJs in the UK used to spin on vinyl for authenticity reasons because it was an underground scene. So I used to look at these guys and go, 'How are they able to do this and I haven't done it?' I play four instruments. I write classical music because in university I was studying film scoring. So I was like, 'You know what? I'm going to pick this up.' I invested in myself. I got the equipment. I purchased five really old house records. I set them up in my dorm room and I started spinning. Whenever I didn't have class I would check out videos on YouTube and pick up techniques. One thing lead to another and people started finding out I played music. They wanted me to play at very small local bars and clubs. At one of the clubs I played at there was this scout from the Ministry of Sound of London." That was the moment that changed Xenia Ghali's life.
Ghali explained how that encounter helped launch her to DJ stardom. She told me, "It's one of the biggest clubs in the world. Probably the most famous in the UK. It's massive and legendary. There was a scout there. He was a promoter. He comes up to me and goes, 'Who's your manager?' And I was like, 'What are you talking about?' I wasn't even getting paid. I would just go and set up my stuff and get all my friends to carry my records. He said again, 'Who's your manager?' Then I went, 'What's a manager? What are you doing?' Then he goes, 'Okay well, do you want to have a set at the Ministry of Sound?' So I was like, 'Yeah, whatever. I don't even believe you.' So he told me to give him my email. A week later, he sent me a flyer with my name on it for the Ministry of Sound. That's pretty much what jumpstarted me to consider being a DJ as a full-time career." After that breakthrough experience, she became focused on learning as much as she could. Ghali said, "I started learning how to produce a lot of house and electronic music. Using all the different styles like classical, rock and Greek music with what I was doing electronically speaking. Now what I love doing is taking a great song and then making it into a great overall dance track that you can groove to. That's what I do." When talking about different influences, Xenia Ghali was quick to answer me. She nodded, "Of course Daft Punk was a huge part of my life. I grew up on that stuff. Moby was a huge influence for me. Fatboy Slim, the Chemical Brothers, those guys. Those were the kind of influences I grew up on because I was in Europe and that's what people were listening to. It's a very dance based community. That is very much the culture of Europe." The conversation then shifted to Ghali talking about her homeland.
When discussing Greece, Xenia Ghali's pride was on full display. She smiled, "I basically spent the entire summer in Greece, other than three dates. Greece is very, very much into deep house, tech house and parts of afro house. Obviously my set was very much tailored to that vibe. I love that vibe either way so it was very easy for me to do. My set in America would be a little bit different. I would incorporate a little bit of trap. Also a little bit of progressive and EDM. Greece is very much about the groove and the deepness vs. the rave and the hard sounds." She then compared how she does her job in other parts of the world. She continued, "Having said that, it was very much tailored to the crowd I was playing at. That's part of the DJs job. There is no point playing somewhere and then seeing the crowd not have a good time because you are too set in your own ways to acknowledge what the crowd wants to hear. Getting to know the vibe of the audience that you are about to play for is part of what your job is. Otherwise nobody is having fun, right?" The DJ raised a good question. Her awareness set her apart from the pack. She was very appreciative of how Greece has embraced her with open arms. She told me, "I have to say that it is incredibly touching to see how much support I get in Greece. It is always a scary thing when you are pursing a career outside of your home country and then you go back. All I've seen, especially this summer, there wasn't a single day where the crowd wasn't hyped. The energy was amazing. My fanbase grew 150% just based on my summer tour. People are so warm, receptive and supportive. They are proud. They are proud of the fact that I am doing what I can outside of the country because I am representing. It is always a beautiful feeling going back." When she received a hero's welcome back home, her family also showed her love. Ghali said, "I got to see my family during my sister's engagement. As much as they can, they try to support me."
The Greeks aren't the only people to support Xenia Ghali. She also found a friend in the legendary rapper Wyclef Jean. The two put together a track called "Get Dirty" that gained a lot attention on the radio. When explaining how it all came together, Ghali told me, "It was very coincidental. Basically, I was in a studio and Wyclef was in the studio at the same time. I was playing some of my records. He kind of popped in and asked me who I was. I told him my name. He introduced himself and I told him I knew who he was," she laughed. She continued, "He looked at me and asked if I made the record I was playing. I'm 5'2, I'm kind of young and small and don't look like much of a producer. He was just kind of like, 'What's going on?' I told him my background and while I was talking to him about it, there was a track that was kind of looping in the back. He grabbed a random mic in the studio and he started scatting over the beat. Just on the fly, whatever he wanted he was improvising. While he was doing that I asked him, 'Do you mind if I hit record to capture what you are doing?' He said, 'Yeah, do whatever you want.' Wyclef is a person of energy and vibe. If the vibe and energy is right he will let you do whatever you want. He's not about legality. He doesn't care about that stuff. He's a true musician. We were just vibing out. I hit record. It was May of last year. I had to fly back to Greece for my tour. Before I left the studio, I was like, 'Listen, would it be possible to take the vocals with me on a hard drive and I will give you my word that I won't touch them? And even if I work on them, if you give me a contact I will email you what I do. If you like it, cool. If you don't, that's fine too.' So he goes, 'Yeah, of course.' So I ended up going back to Greece with Wyclef's vocals on my hard drive. I didn't touch them for the three months I was out there," Ghali grinned. She elaborated, "And then one morning after an all night show, I went back to my place. I opened up my hard drive and I found his vocals. I scratched the beat that I originally started. I pulled up his vocals and I just created the entire beat that next morning. I decided to email it to him and then he wrote back saying 'Let's put this out.' A lot of people ask me the same question because "Get Dirty" is almost an underproduced track in the sense that it is very basic. It is very minimal. They ask me, 'Why did you do it?' I always say, 'I did it because that's what it was. It wasn't something that I wanted to market and make money off of.' It was about the moment and the vibe. That's what I wanted the track to be. That's what it was. From start to finish. It just grew." As the song grew, so did Xenia Ghali's popularity with the masses.
Xenia Ghali unexpectedly hit #1 with "Under These Lights." She had to quickly figure out a way to put a music video together to capture the spirit of the song. She went into detail about her creative process. "I was talking to my manager about this because we had a very difficult situation on our hands. After the song became #1 on Billboard we wanted to shoot a video but we wanted the video to match up to the song's success," she told me. She continued, "So that automatically put us in a very pressured situation. So we started overthinking it and coming up with crazy concepts. It was just turning into something insane. So he was like, 'Back it up.' The song itself was written in a very organic way. I guess that's how I work. Everything seems to be very organic. I cowrote the song with the singer and another kid, two years ago. I never did anything with it. I was here in New York in my apartment and I was listening to some of my old stuff. I wanted to work on some music. I stumbled across 'Under These Lights' and I was like, 'This is a damn good song, why have I not put this out?' Obviously the song sounded a little dated because it was two years later. So I started producing it. I started doing weird stuff to it because I didn't care. I was like, 'You know what? This probably isn't going to be a single because it's a dance track and it's a little too hard for radio. It's not pop or mainstream enough.' So I started doing whatever I wanted. I used a few plugins to virtually stretch the singer's throat where it's almost like an asexual voice. I didn't want the hook to be defined by who's singing it because the song speaks of unity, spreading love and everything the world is lacking. I didn't want the hook to be sung by a guy or a girl. I just wanted it to be by anybody. So I manipulated the singer's voice to be whatever it sounds like. The drop is what I created from my own voice. I sampled my own voice and I made the lead sound different. I put it out independently on my own label and it did its thing. Thank God. It went to #1 and it was awesome," Ghali smiled. She started shaking her head, "When I saw 'Under These Lights' was #1 and Sia was #2. Calvin Harris and Coldplay were below that. I was like, 'This is too much.' The song did it's thing organically." Soaking the moment in, Ghali put her thinking cap on.
The DJ told me that she sat down and started to figure it all out. Xenia Ghali said, "I asked myself, 'What's the song about?' I thought it was about having the basic need for love--as a human does. To be in a place where it doesn't matter. Anyone can do whatever they want. and be whoever they want to be without any judgement. To just have love and color. It doesn't matter if you are good looking or not, everyone is beautiful. That is what the song is about and that's what I wanted to promote. Not in a political or obvious way. My manager and I discussed this. My entire team was in Greece. My manager, myself and the director of photography decided it should be an action movie type of thing. Where I'm the person trying to get this box and doing all these crazy things. To escape SWAT teams and security guards while riding a motorcycle. Just to free the light to take us to the place where everyone is one. Everyone is there to have a beautiful time with each other under the lights with color and unity and love. Just a very feel good vibe." She then went into detail about shooting the music video for "Under These Lights." She told me, "It took two and a half months to prep because there were a lot of technical difficulties. I ended up bruising my entire left side. A few things had to be very well planned out and thought of. Casting the extras was a lot of work. My stylist had to do insane amounts of work. Every single outfit was custom made. From the security guards to the extras at the party. The locations had to be cleared. All the stunts had to be safe. Getting the licenses. It was a lot of planning. The whole thing was shot in Greece. That was interesting for me because I didn't want it to be New York City. We've seen New York City so many times. I wanted to show my home country without it being obvious that it was Greece, where even Greek people wouldn't know it's Greece. Very not known areas so it was interesting to do." That wasn't the only interesting thing Ghali has done in her career.
The Greek sensation collaborated with Miami's Pitbull when she first arrived in America. She said, "I had two singles with Pitbull. When I first came to the United States, Pitbull's camp loved my project so they offered me a deal. We released 'Broken' and that was my debut in the American market. It was surprisingly successful. It did great on dance radio and it really put me on the map in the US. I thank Pitbull because he genuinely believed in me which is a huge honor. Now I'm doing my thing and I love it. I'm at a point right now where I've had great collaborations. Now I'm working on my new project." Before talking about what she is working on, she talked about her experiences being on television in Greece. Ghali told me, "I did The Voice and the X-Factor in Greece as a guest performer. It was a very different experience when you perform on TV. Things are more rigid. It is very timed. You have your performance. You don't have your set and you can't freestyle. You do your track, you perform and you are off. Having said that, it was a crazy experience and it gave me incredible press which was amazing. It was live so there was a lot of pressure. It was fantastic. My team in Greece is incredible. The past year has been very big for me in Greece. I'm very much into the fashion scene as well. I did two events with H&M. Greece is a major market for me. I love going back because there's a lot of stuff for me to do." When she is not in Greece, Ghali has an amazing time playing festivals. On her favorite festival moments, she told me, "This summer I did three festivals. The Color Day festival had 50,000 people at the Olympic Stadium. That was absolutely nuts. It looks like a lot of people throwing color at each other. That was the beginning of my summer. It set the mood just right. All three were great experiences. I haven't done any festivals outside of Greece yet. Hopefully this year I can be on the roster for Ultra. Festivals are always a great experience." Xenia Ghali then proceeded to tell me how big crowds don't phase her.
"It's weird with me because I've never been nervous in front of a large crowd. The larger the crowd, the more energy I feel. I get more adrenaline. It's strange because in my personal life, people who meet me realize I'm not that energetic and about getting drunk. I'm more reserved. I love my movie nights and restaurants. I like bars. I'm not much of a crazy, party animal. But on stage I'm the complete opposite. It's like I transform into this other person. People always think I'm much taller than I am. I guess I just expand when I'm on stage. I think it's what I feel. I just look bigger. In my personal life I am this small girl that is somewhere out there in the background. I feed off of the energy." It is no surprise why people want to give Xenia Ghali all the energy they have. She came across as a master storyteller and true artist.
When telling me what fans can expect from her in the future, Xenia Ghali said, "I'm working on my new releases. I'm pretty much 85 percent finished on my next single. I'm planning on putting it out before Christmas. I have a few shows coming up. I'm addicted to traveling. I can never be in one place. A lot of new music is coming. Stay tuned."