Kyiv, Chicago, Berlin: three cities that Alinka has called home, in a life that’s been marked by an artistic journey and a physical one. With the rebirth of Twirl, the label that was born in Chicago, we talk to DJ and producer Alinka, who was born in Kyiv, from her home in Berlin, on war and house music, identity and self-education, migration and roots. One of the people we love, on the people and things that she loves.

There are, I once wrote, at least a few people in this scene determined to keep house music weird, and Alinka is one of them. I must have written that about 10 years ago, by way of introducing her to our audience. Introductions are no longer needed: Alinka is still keeping it freaky, it’s just that a lot more people are grooving to it now. A native of Ukraine now living in Germany, Alinka has seen her profile steadily rise without compromise. Her records still resemble that unholy fusion of house and techno and everything that influenced house and techno, everything a true born music lover would handle in decades of learning how to make, how to tease and how to twirl the infernal disco bassline underneath it all.

Alinka 5 Mag cover story

We first wrote about Alinka in 5 Mag because she was a Chicago artist. Back in the day she put in the hours at just about every job in this industry — passing out flyers, working the door, coat check — that could have been considered something like an apprenticeship. After falling out for a few years, she was stirring about with a live band when her manager introduced her to Shaun J. Wright, “and then my life changed forever.” Together, Alinka and Shaun threw parties together, made music together and released music together, most of it under the name “Twirl.”

Twirl is the reason we’re doing this story — the label manifestation of Twirl returned from hiatus this summer with Alinka’s Day Dreamer EP followed by records from Serge G. featuring remixes from Shaun & DJ Holographic and Alinka’s Sorry For Not Trending. But in truth I wanted to do this interview for a long time. As an artist and as a person Alinka represents the Chicago scene at its best — the work ethic, the hustle, the artist remaining true to what’s good, what’s solid, what they love. Chicago artists strive to craft everything as well as they can, even if nobody’s watching, because there’s a damn good chance they’re not. It’s something you can learn, and when you do it sticks with you and you can also recognize it in others. It’s one of the reasons we still have so much love for Alinka.


5 Mag Issue 209
Out September 2023

SOUNDS OF THE UNDERGROUND: This was originally published in 5 Mag Issue #209 featuring Alinka, Laseech, Being, Marco Lenzi, the sordid story of the Goldman Sachs CEO’s DJ career and more. Help keep our vibe alive by becoming a member for $2/month and get every issue in your inbox right away!


There’s one line in your bio that we might not have asked about two or ten years ago but now everybody would lead with the fact that you were born in Kyiv. Do you find yourself identified more as a Ukrainian artist now, and how do you think of yourself? Has the war changed how you think of yourself?

I always identified as Ukrainian-American; I think it just wasn’t until the last few years that I really understood what that meant to me. When the people from club ∄ (K41) brought me to play there at the end of 2019 it was the first time I had been back to Ukraine since we left when I was a child in the ’80s. When you immigrate to a country, especially when you’re young, I think you just want to fit in and have some sense of normalcy because it is such a difficult situation to go somewhere that feels like another world and to not speak the language. I grew up trying to be and feel American, and I lost touch with my roots and my own culture in the process. Going back to play there, seeing where I’m from and how special Ukraine is made me reconnect and understand myself on a different level.

I am fortunate to have spent a lot of time there the last few years. It was a monumentally important and a life-changing experience for me.

Tell me about how you got involved in the scene in Chicago. What was your first loft and your first warehouse / laser tag arena party?

I actually got into the scene in Chicago via Champaign where I was going to school at the time. Our first week of school and my 19th birthday, the kids from my dorm took me to this club called Orchid and they had DJs coming down from Chicago and international DJs playing every weekend. I just fell in love with the whole experience straight away. I think at that age when you’re on your own for the first time and you realize you’ve just kind of tried to live this normal life that’s mapped out for you, and also as a queer person you’re hiding your identity as I wasn’t out at the time, this scene represented something totally different and a sense of freedom I never felt before.

That’s what got me, it was a total escape from the norm, and it’s what I desperately needed at the time to find myself. My friends from the club took me to my first raves in Chicago on the weekends. We were driving up from school going to parties at Route 66 and Dolton, and then I was going back to school and searching for music and DJs online, listening to mix tapes, and trying to find anything I could about this world.

Chicago taught me my work ethic, it taught me to stay humble, to be a doer not a talker. You’re surrounded by talented people, some made it, some didn’t, none of that shit matters. You have to earn your respect in Chicago, no one hands you anything. I’ll always be grateful for my time in Chicago, it was magical and it really shaped me.

I don’t remember that we ever met, but I think I read that you were working with promoters and such in the beginning. It made me recognize that, wow, that whole aspect of dance music “internship” is kinda gone now, isn’t it? The getting turned on by the music and then handing out flyers or carrying record crates or put up a card table and sell horrible tasting TANG or glow sticks was sort of an “internship…”

I totally did every odd job I could just to be immersed in the scene, and get into parties for free because I was a broke student and spending all my money on records. I met Richard from Boogie Tribe the first year I was going to parties and helped him flyer at raves a bit, and then at some point that year met the Pure guys and was helping pass out flyers for them and for Zentra when I moved back to Chicago. I also drove DJs around at some point, worked the door, coat check, etc. You know all those jobs really taught me to respect everyone I meet and treat everyone equally, from the driver to the door staff and everyone involved. All those people make the experience what it is, just as much as the crowd and the DJ, and you really don’t know who someone will be to you down the line.

Who did you love listening to back then?

Superjane, Justin Long, Diz, Derrick Carter, Paul Johnson, Mark Farina, Cajmere, Honey Dijon, Gene Farris. I’m sure I’m leaving lots of people out, there are just too many talented artists in Chicago. Justin and Superjane really supported me and took me under their wings early on, so I’m forever grateful to them for having faith in me and putting up with me when I was a kid.

Alinka’s Day Dreamer EP was released on August 4. “I wanted to create music that sounds timeless because that’s what Chicago House is to me, my favourite tracks still sound as fresh as they did when I first heard them.”

Do you remember what your first paying DJ gig was, when and where it was at? What do you remember about how you were feeling?

I don’t actually remember if I got paid haha, but I remember my first DJ gig. It was at the club where it all started, Orchid in Champaign/Urbana. I think I was opening for Colette. It was like six months after I started DJing. I spent every day in my room playing records for hours instead of going to class. I’m pretty sure I was completely terrified, but also on a mission to get out there. What I really remember is at some point in that set I mixed New Order’s “Blue Monday” with Kevin Irving’s “House Ain’t Givin Up” and it went in perfectly though I’d never done it before. It was my first mix where I felt like, fuck this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I won’t be happy doing anything else. It’s funny it was 23 years ago now, and I don’t remember a whole lot in life, but I still remember that blend. I really fell in love with DJing at that moment. It was magic. Like the stars aligned to give me that perfect moment, and I’m still always chasing that feeling.

What are “Chicago roots” to you? Put another way: what do you think this city and the scene here teaches?

Chicago taught me my work ethic, it taught me to stay humble, to be a doer not a talker. You’re surrounded by talented people, some made it, some didn’t, none of that shit matters. You have to earn your respect in Chicago, no one hands you anything. I’ll always be grateful for my time in Chicago, it was magical and it really shaped me.

I’ve been all over the world, but it’s still my favorite city. Sometimes you need to get away to really appreciate a place and be grateful.

Alinka’s I’m Your Ghost EP was released on Rekids on September 8. “This EP is a dedication to Chicago, and all the ‘teachers’ that made me fall in love with House Music. They’re tracks for the dance floor. I wrote them for the people who are too busy dancing to stare at the DJ.”

I heard that you dropped out of the scene for a few years, when was that and why, and what were you doing at 3am on Saturday night during that period?

I took a step back around 2009. I was in my late 20s and just kind of lost and didn’t feel inspired anymore. I wasn’t working in music full time, I was still playing .Dotbleep with Justin at Smartbar and touring a bit, but I think the pressure of surviving financially and not really seeing it was possible to be a full time artist got to me and it kind of just felt like my dreams got crushed and weren’t realistic at the time. I stopped playing and was doing random jobs, from working on the floor of the Mercantile Exchange, to dog walking, and office jobs. I was pretty miserable and just trying to find myself and figure out what the fuck I’m going to do with my life. At some point I really didn’t think I’d make it to 30, I didn’t feel like I had a purpose anymore and it was soul crushing.

Dayhota sent me the first Hercules and Love Affair record when I was sitting in my little office cubicle and I started watching videos of them performing on YouTube and listening to their album. It was the first time I really saw people that I could identify with whose music I really loved. I went home and started to try to make music again. Later that year I met my old bandmate Elysia and started working on music with her, and we had a live project for a couple years. Then in 2012, Scott Cramer our band manager introduced me to Shaun and then my life changed forever. I still feel like I somehow manifested it in that office years before, I never thought I would meet any of the band and then life brought us together.

At some point in that set I mixed New Order’s “Blue Monday” with Kevin Irving’s “House Ain’t Givin Up” and it went in perfectly though I’d never done it before. It was my first mix where I felt like, fuck this is what I want to do for the rest of my life, and I won’t be happy doing anything else. I don’t remember a whole lot in life, but I still remember that blend.

When did you move (back, I guess!) to Europe and what did you want to find there?

I moved to Berlin at the end of 2015. I went there for a couple of gigs earlier in the year and just felt at peace there. It was the first place that felt like it could be home outside Chicago. I knew I really needed a change, but for years I could never figure out where I belonged, and then I found it in Berlin. It has always felt really inspiring, and the scene is so strong and respected here. It made me feel fulfilled and gave me a sense of confidence I was missing just from feeling respected for being an artist.

For the first time in my life, no one was telling me that music is just a hobby. I think I needed that validation to really grow.

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Let’s talk about Twirl. It started out as a party here in Chicago — or was there a pre-history before that? Then what did it become? What is it now?

It started as a monthly party at Berlin in Chicago. We got to bring lots of friends and DJs we loved over for Twirl, and it was always really fun. Although I think I’m way too anxious to be a promoter, because it always felt like you’re a child having a birthday party and maybe no one will show up. Thankfully they always did! It grew into a label because we were making so much music at the time and wanted to have full creative control over our output, and showcase artists we like on the label.

What can you tell me about Shaun? Artists in this industry usually don’t work together this long, especially when they each have had their own thing going on. What keeps a connection between you across time and space and everything?

Shaun is my guardian angel, musical soulmate, and friend for life. He’s family. He is the most talented, humble, real, and honest person I’ve ever met. I feel really lucky to know him in this life and to call him a friend. We’ve always had a mutual respect for each other and have never fought in the studio or in life really. He taught me to stay positive and trust the universe. He really gave me the confidence to grow as an artist and brings out the best in me. The distance gave us a bit of time to grow individually in the last years which is great, but he’s someone I will always collaborate with. We’re always rooting for each other and have each other’s back. I’m really excited for the music we’ll continue to make together and independently.

Why bring back Twirl (the label) now?

It just felt like the right time. We’ve both grown a lot and released a lot in the last few years on other labels. I really missed the sense of community and working with friends. The pandemic made me feel really lonely, and it was the first time I felt really homesick. I lost my grandma, one of my oldest friends, and my cat in one year, and it was a reminder we don’t have all the time in the world and that I want to spend it doing things I love with the people I love. Twirl is our baby and I’m looking forward to growing our label and whatever the future brings.

Twirl always seemed to have a cool network of likeminded souls attached to it — Stereogamous, Kim Ann Foxman, Justin Harris, Justin Cudmore, etc. How would you describe Twirl’s sound as a label?

We’re both into a wide variety of music, and pretty open artistically. I think the label is house music focused, but we’re pretty open to releasing other genres in the future. Neither of us want to be put into a box creatively and I think the label is a reflection of that. It’s a labor of love, running a smaller label, but it’s also really rewarding and meaningful, especially when you get to work with friends. I think we have a much greater understanding of what we want to do artistically with the label now, so it’s really exciting to be working on it again.

Twirl started off mostly with you and Shaun’s collaborations — is it going to be mostly the two of you going forward?

For now, it will mostly be our own releases because we have so much music to put out. But we will continue to feature friends and grow organically.

In terms of making music: what tools did you start out with at the very beginning, those first attempts at making music. And were you successful in making something good with it?

I got a copy of Reason in like 2002 from a friend and just started making loops for fun on my computer. I enjoyed it enough to want to keep learning, so I got a copy of Logic and started trying to teach myself. Youtube and all these free tutorials didn’t exist back then so I had to learn mostly from trial and error. I was very adamant on teaching myself everything because I saw how successful female artists were treated and talked about, and I didn’t want anyone to be able to take credit for anything I do creatively.

It was definitely the longer path forward, it took me probably ten years to even like anything I made, but at least I could hear the progress and growth in my tracks throughout the years. The first tracks weren’t good by any means, but I don’t think they were meant to be, or you would have no room to grow.

What do you use now?

I use a mix of hardware and software. I still use Logic after all these years, it’s gotten much better and much more user-friendly.

It’s been a lot of trial and error to get the hardware I really like and use on every track. I have a Moog Sub 37 and Korg Prologue and Korg Poly 800, and a couple of smaller synths. I use NI Maschine and Logic for drums, and a lot of plugin synths and effects.

What’s the first thing you do when you come back to Chicago?

Find the nearest tacos.

Is Queen’s reputation abroad as fierce as it’s become here?

Queen is a very special so I’m sure all the cool kids know about it, and if they don’t know, they better figure it out.

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