Photo by Meg Fitz
Photo by Meg Fitz

The Haus of Margaret

How DJ Spicy Marg created her own techno-colored haven in house music

The small living room had been sloppily transformed into a techno-club. Sweaty bodies rubbed up against each other as shadows swept over facial features under the waxing and waning red, green and blue stage lighting set up in the corner. Upon involuntary observation of the uncomfortably thick, musty heat and a disturbingly large Guy Fieri portrait that hung on the dingy kitchen wall, I danced my way to the front of the ‘women’s showcase,’ where exclusively women artists dominated the performing lineup of a college house party.

That’s when I noticed the DJ. Decked out in dark denim button-up, jeans, and chunky silver necklace, Margaret Johnson wore her long red hair pulled back into a ponytail, tucked under a denim baseball hat emblazoned with the word “Ibiza” in cursive rhinestones. The first “oh-oh”’s of Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” crept into the house beat, and an overwhelming excitement that can only be unlocked by the power of Gaga soaked through the crowd’s already perspired skin.

But her eyes and ears were locked on the light-up buttons, knobs, headphones and laptop in front of her. When I met Johnson – or better known as Spicy Marg at the turntables – on the splintering deck outside after her set, she recognized me. 

“You were really excited about that ‘Alejandro’ mix,” she said. We fell into conversation about how much we love Gaga, and she offered a cigarette.

Now, sitting in Blue Wall about a week later to discuss how she got her start, the Holden, Mass. native told me she only began her DJ career less than a year ago, when she had basically nothing to do last summer. Coming down from the high of studying abroad in Barcelona, she sat in her family’s old camper in Maine and waited patiently for her three childhood friends to return from work every day. 

It was the group’s second summer living in the cramped hand-me-down trailer on Wells Beach. Since the other girls worked two serving jobs, and Johnson only one, she had to fill her time up with something to make the hours of silence go by.

So, she bought a small DJ board for a couple hundred bucks. The deck only had a few buttons, and was nothing compared to the big boards you see on a night out at your favorite club. But it would do just fine.

For a week straight, the senior hospitality and tourism management major spent hours on end trying to figure out this damn board like a crazed hermit. The growing frustration became her motivation. She grew determined to learn the functions of the buttons and dials, memorize them, then improve the quickness at which she found the knobs on the board, in precise timing for the hook or drop of a song. She was addicted.

Little by little, after a solid week on the Maine summer shoreline, Johnson thought she saw improvement. 

“Obviously in my head, I was like ‘Wait did that sound good?’ Just because I’m going crazy because I’m literally in a trailer. It’s like 35 feet of space,” Johnson said.

And it did sound good. This new love of the board, in all its maddening but obsessive glory, acted as an itch to be scratched only by way of steady, incremental improvement. Tracking her progress on Snapchat with videos of her mixes, friends’ validation soon invigorated a techno-flavored fuel that kept the beginner accountable to herself.

Photo by Jamison Wrinn / Courtesy of Margaret Johnson

But this venture wasn’t as foreign to her as she led on, as Johnson’s parents, now separated, instilled her persistent curiosity for music, cultivating a dream of becoming a musician, since she was little. Every Christmas and birthday gift was a music-related one.

“I just love the idea of being like, maybe not even the center of attention, just in control I guess of the music,” she said.

Not only did she learn guitar from her dad and play ukulele, she took up piano lessons with a genius Georgian teacher who never pressured a young Johnson to stick with it if she didn’t want to. 

Of course, the reverse psychology only delicately crafted a transferable skill that she realized not many had the privilege of learning. It was a calming, creative outlet opposite of her time on the field hockey team in high school.

Apart from classical piano, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston’s gritted and golden belts were staples in Johnson’s mothers’ house. They were two boldly authentic, goes-without-saying powerhouse women with “very self-righteous attitudes in the best way possible,” she said. 

She rambled a mile-a-minute in fervent adoration about her beloved musicians, as excessive green and gold rings on her neon orange-painted fingers flashing with each gesticulation. It was the type of universal rant we all share about our favorite boundary-breaking idols, the one that doesn’t stop once it starts, because it’s impossible to. It moves through the very molecules of your body, because these artists have impacted not only music, but culture, fashion, and yourself, so inextricably.

“It literally bursts beautiful friendships,” Johnson said about connecting with others over the avant-garde musicians. “Like if you can agree on something so outlandish and ridiculous … and be like, ‘I kind of get it. I kind of get the angle.’ You know what I mean?”

Masterful prowesses like Winehouse and Houston didn’t care what others thought, and they weren’t easily influenced to do one thing. That raw, unapologetic, unabashed attitude was an attitude Johnson had to adopt for herself at Wells Beach, and beyond. 

At the start, Johnson was often worried about how people would perceive her abilities. It’s a striking fact, actually, since she appears so confident. Her deep-pitched voice and introspective articulation of the industry’s complexities, mixed with a blunt humor lends itself to an assured young woman. 

But the unfortunate truth is that almost all women experience self-doubt in such heavily male-dominated spaces of any kind.

Take for example a group of guys Johnson met last summer. They insisted they would teach her the ropes of DJing, but it didn’t go as planned. “I’d go over, and then they’d be just ripping beers and doing it all themselves,” she said. 

The size of her board was, for some reason, a point of contention – and an unlearnable piece of equipment, she recalled them telling her. 

“Obviously, they were wrong,” she said as two tooth gems peeked out of the right side of her smile. 

So naturally, Johnson wanted to be better than those who doubted her abilities, and already had the framework to be. After all, Amy and Whitney and Gaga would have done the same thing. 

Johnson booked her first supporting set at Monkeybar in January. Anxious about performing, being perceived as inexperienced and messing it all up, she counted down the days as soon as she woke up every morning leading up to that weekend.

“I literally just needed to rip that bandaid off,” she said about her first set, which went off without a hitch. 

Once she made it through the performance, she actively stopped caring about the opinions of others. A realization struck her after alleviating that seemingly-external-but-actually-internal burden; Johnson was totally capable of doing this. She just needed to free herself from those mental blocks.

“Not that serious” was a phrase Johnson used often in our conversation when reflecting back on the internal pressures she put on herself. Those three words informally characterized the philosophy she developed when breaking into a boiler room-crazed collegetown club scene. 

There’s a key distinction in this ethos, which trickled down into the core of the once-novice DJ’s whole being after that first set in January: Johnson is a legit DJ, and she regards herself as one. But even if some people don’t take her seriously, she’s learned not to care, because that’s the part that’s “not that serious.” It’s just noise. At the end of the day, Johnson’s craft allows her the space to play, have fun and make her own. And that’s the only noise that really matters.

“That whole notion of understanding that it literally is a subjective art, like in the same way that [you’re] judging a painting… like people like different things, and at the end of the day just knowing that I’m not making music for eyes, it’s for ears.” She continued, “So it doesn’t necessarily matter if it’s a girl or a guy.”

Johnson playing Blarney Blowout 2024 / Photo courtesy of Margaret Johnson

Johnson hustled ever since the first gig. She consistently practiced in addition to the three jobs she worked during the school year, and while playing boiler room gigs at Monkeybar and other venues. 

Although much of this was accomplished with her own determination, Johnson is grateful to fellow student DJs in Amherst that welcomed her into their community. In an effort to get experience and volunteer to help at a student-organized Blarney Blowout DJ set, Johnson tacked on last-minute as a performer with no expectation to be one. But they took a chance on her.

“That was huge of them. Like they really made me be okay with inserting myself into a situation, especially in a room full of guys who are definitely better at something than me,” she said. 

Now, the guys from the Blarney set are some of her closest friends.

Back in the gloomy atrium of Blue Wall, Johnson was a bit bashful, two tooth gems ever-so slightly dazzling through, when she told me she scored her first headlining gig at Monkeybar for the coming Thursday night. 

She had never met her all-male supporting acts, but it wasn’t exactly the guys she was worried about: Johnson was scheduled to work one of her many jobs that night serving at a Belchertown restaurant. There lay the looming stress of clocking out in a hurry and running straight to the Amherst bar – a wad of cash tips in her pocket – late to her own headlining set. 

“I’m kinda just like popping up, running the show for a bit and then leaving and these guys are gonna be like, ‘Who is this girl?’” She laughed. 

If it were a guy coming in late for his set, it might not be questioned, but merely regarded as the hustle and bustle of a go-getter’s schedule. “This is the anxiety map of Thursday for you,” she said, although she felt ready with a plan A, B and “maybe” even a C to assess the audience at the last minute and switch up the mix on the fly if she needed to. Though, much of this anxiety, she said, is probably just a figment of her imagination.

But fittingly so, for Johnson’s first headlining set – which is even literally symbolized with the night’s dress theme being “strictly business” – she gets to wear the pants.

As for Johnson’s post-grad plan, it’s an open but exciting one: the now-Isenberg alum is looking to go abroad sometime after the summer to continue her professional and creative career. Confident in her Spanish-speaking abilities, she’s thinking South America, or maybe Spain.

“I mean my DJ name is literally Spicy Marg, I love playing Latin house, like that’s one of my favorite genres.”

And her (new) board, a recent upgrade from its laptop-sized predecessor, is definitely traveling with her. Wherever she ends up, Johnson will explore the nightlife, and hopefully, play the decks herself.

Even if “s*** hits the fan” and Johnson isn’t able to break into performing, the board solely exists for her own peace of mind. It’s an unwavering constant, always there for her to come home to. At this point, it’s therapeutic to her.

The struggle in the U.S., she noted, was entering the scene as a woman. Being a non-fluent Spanish speaker is the anticipated struggle abroad. But this time around, it’s not as intimidating to her as the last.

“If I have to have that business conversation in Spanish, and then get that gig, I think it’s a good challenge for next year.”

It was Thursday night at Monkeybar. Students packed around the decks with $10 drinks in their hands under weak stage lighting overhead. Wet hands sloppily clapped, until the audience suddenly cheered loudly and warmly, an increasing but welcomed noise for their headliner. Johnson rushed up to the big board in small reading glasses and a professional blazer, smiling in a tinge of relief. She tinkered with knobs, pressed buttons and plugged in wires hurriedly for a couple minutes. Then, as the house beat began to pulse, the 20-somethings tossed their hands up with shaking hips – and so did Spicy Marg.

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on X @caitlinjreardon.

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