Paul Woolford: Hot Property

British dance music producer and DJ Paul Woolford has been raising the bar in more ways than one lately. Having scored a hit single in 2020 with Diplo and Kareen Lomax collaboration Looking For Me, Woolford has followed up with a soaring anthem that perfectly embodies his trademark sound.

HEAT echoes a sense of yearning for those long summer days, combining rousing piano chords and strings with the soul-drenched vocals of Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Amber Mark. Here, Woolford provides Headliner with a candid insight into how the track came together, his rugged new Special Request project, and why he wrestled with his own creativity for a number of years.

Growing up in Leeds, Yorkshire, Woolford in his early days was inspired by the club night Back to Basics, and eventually established a seven-year residency there. The experience was a pivotal one, enabling him to develop his DJing techniques and shape his sound:

“Most people buy dance music after hearing it in a club context first, but for me it was completely the other way around,” begins Woolford. “I was going there every week for years before I was a resident, and it was a labour of love. I have wild memories of that club burned into my synapses forever.

“I learnt how to properly open a room and make it feel welcoming; I learnt how to jump on and perform properly when somebody does not turn up; I learnt through making every mistake in the book how to DJ properly in all contexts.”

This then overlapped for a year or two with his weekly residency at We Love Space, a long-running Sunday party at Space in Ibiza which he started playing in 2008. Touring the world simultaneously, Woolford soon learnt even more about performing to a very different audience. It was during this time that he developed and refined his re-editing skills into its own area completely, playing sets alongside everyone from Jeff Mills and Carl Craig, to David Guetta and Aphex Twin.

“The sheer variety of different sounds there made me see the bigger picture constantly, going from a local scene with the same regulars every week to an iconic global destination with thousands of punters,” he recalls fondly. “That whole time was a unique moment, never to be repeated again and life-changing for pretty much everyone involved. In total I played about 96 gigs at Space, and that experience stays with you.”

Like many, the last year during the pandemic has been a strange, and sometimes intense experience for Woolford. That being said, when the UK went into the first lockdown, his thoughts were, “I can catch up on years of missed sleep here”. And once he had caught up on some shut-eye, he got stuck into creating:

“Pressing stop on the gigs enabled me to assess my longer term goals,” he reveals. “I think the entire music industry needed to take a step back to actually take stock of what we are dealing with, and observe where we can all do better. For me, the time has been spent focusing on all facets of creativity. I’ve never made as much music as I am doing now, and we are at the point where I need more channels for it, so I am building multiple contexts for things to be released into the public sphere.”

Woolford adds that his time is now carefully mapped out to a fine degree, where previously it could be bordering on the chaotic side:

“I am building a legacy and there is simply not enough time in the day to do things that don’t fold into that in some way. The choices are about shaping things and taking steps into different audiences; the bigger picture is way beyond what you can see currently.”

Woolford’s 2020 Diplo and Kareen Lomax collaboration Looking For Me, which was received particularly well in the UK and was certified platinum in January, was just one of his recent stepping stones on the road to global dance music domination, and as he puts it, “one of those situations where we all brought out the best in each other.”

I am building a legacy and there is simply not enough time in the day to do things that don’t fold into that in some way.

Bringing The Heat

More recently, Woolford joined forces with Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Amber Mark on HEAT, released via Ministry Of Sound. The song exudes alchemy and was also co-written by Celeste, forming a powerhouse combination of talent, and marks Woolford’s first single release of 2021 following his recent reworks for Dua Lipa, New Order and multi-disciplinary designer/artist Virgil Abloh.

“The main body of HEAT was done last summer, and then it took a while to complete the details; there were so many versions!” shares Woolford. “Amber Mark really brought the right feeling to it and I love what she did. I can become quite obsessed with songs – feeling like I’m existing inside them, which is a surreal feeling. My intention with all my songs is to make the most direct version of the idea. There’s no toning them down or making them anything other than fusions of dance records and pop music. There is no pretense with them whatsoever.

“Each song has a life outside of the most visible context as well. They work as proper club records both in the remixes, and with my re-edits, and there’s also versions built purely for festivals and bigger stages, for down the line.”

Woolford’s creative approach has become pretty fluid overall, and he has certain ways of working that have expanded over the years, viewing them as a set of different processes that combine in alternate formations depending on the project. The goal, he explains, is to find the natural flow of creation that the song gives off, and latch onto that. And while modern technology has removed the limitations of logistics to a large degree, Woolford believes that “there will never be a substitution for creators sitting together with absolute chemistry.”

So to what extent does he feel like he’s developed his creative process to embrace bolder sounds, and develop his artistry?

“It’s down to the mindset,” he affirms. “For years I wrestled with my creativity, because I allowed myself to be a follower of the media, rather than a creator following my own true path. I woke up to this properly around 2010-11 and that was during my work with Carl Craig in Detroit, and the evolution of my second project, called Special Request.”

Woolford’s Special Request project takes its inspiration from a whole range of other influences like pirate radio, modern and classical art movements, clothing, film, literature and more. Once he’d freed himself from the shackles of paying too much attention to outside factors, he felt reinvigorated:

“I immediately had a bolt of energy that was guiding me forwards,” he adds. “I realised that the worst thing any artist can do is to censor your taste to fit into any outside perception. Take control of the design, take control of the aesthetics, take control of your ideas and build an internal world from them. People will look in and really believe in it when you are yourself 100%.”

Creative Clout

Woolford tells me that his starting point when it comes to songwriting always involves him sitting at the keys in his writing room, which is stacked wall-to-wall with audio gear. Some of said gear is wired together in unorthodox ways, as some of what he does is completely outside the dance music realm, and therefore requires a different set of tools.

“Generally I write and arrange in there and then mix at Real World Studios (if it’s a PW record) with Oli Jacobs,” he explains. “The whole process of being in a different environment has enabled me to be more objective about what I’m hearing. The Special Request project is way more open-ended in that I can start something from any sound; there’s zero limitation to it. That means that I’m permanently looking at equipment of all types from the typical studio staples, to more obscure sound analysis tools, modular gear, whatever. It’s a world unto itself.

“My favourites include the Manley Massive Passive EQ, Maselec MLA-3 Triband compressor, SSL Fusion, Hammond SKX, Yamaha DX100, EMU E4XT Ultra samplers, all the Eventide stuff, and I adore loads of old cheap drum machines, particularly the Casio RZ1. I built a modular system to make an album with a couple of years back that has its own spannered psychedelic sound; it’s a never-ending quest. It’s easy to slip into obsession with equipment, and this is where I try to use everything as a tool, rather than just hoarding it. I want to make use of the things around me and if they stay unused for too long I’ll lend them out or give them away. Life is too short to see dusty racks doing nothing.”


When it comes to his sets, Woolford likes to crank up the energy, and re-editing has become entirely intrinsic to all of his live performances:

“You can apply more detail to a seven to eight hour set than a one hour festival smasher, although they are both as satisfying as each other in completely different ways when the planets are aligned. The overall thing is really feeling alive in the present moment. I’m itching to get back to it and it’s looking like we’ll get a taste of it again soon. It feels like it’s become a cliché to say it, but it will be unbelievably electric when the button gets pushed.

“I’m doing a handful of free shows for the small clubs that I’ve been connected to for many years to help them along the way, and then the touring will begin again. I would urge any of my peers who are in a position to help to do the same and contribute to their local scenes in some way. Small clubs have been the incubation zones for so much talent and as such, we need to support them.”

I proceed to ask Woolford if he’s got any particularly memorable moments from over the years:

“Remixing Whitney Houston and Kygo’s Higher Love was mind-blowing,” he replies. “I obviously thought such an endeavour could never happen, and then I had the request while I was waiting for a flight to take off from Ibiza — waiting to land to find out if it was confirmed seemed to take ages. The mix had to be approved by the estate of Whitney, which was another excruciating wait!”

Considering Woolford’s prowess as a DJ, producer and songwriter, it’s safe to say that he’s seen the dance music genre evolve rather dramatically over the last two decades.

“Between 2004-2011 or so the dance music media was focusing on quite a narrow subset of things, and it felt like so many styles of music were being overlooked. It needed to change and it eventually was blown apart completely as new generations of talent broke through and disregarded the old ways.

“It’s a fact that the media is always owned and steered by vested interests and this is even more prevalent today. Artists need to be aware of these connections in order to know not to take lack of coverage personally. The media used to make or break scenes, but these days the power has moved back to the artists, who, because of social media, can tell their own story in exactly the way they feel is the most (or least!) authentic way.”