A Sonic Trip Across The Airwaves With Tara Stewart

Tara Stewart has had a lifelong appreciation for music, one that has taken her halfway across the globe, leading her to become a prominent voice in Ireland’s airwaves and on their domestic music scene. Today she hosts a show on Dublin’s RTÉ radio station where she spins chart-topping singles and champions underground talent while conversing with some of contemporary music’s most prominent and exciting artists. She’s also a regular at festivals such as Electric Picnic and Pride and has worked as a DJ with brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Disney.

Her journey to mainstay presenter at RTÉ 2FM began over ten years ago and nine and a half thousand miles away in a remote town near Alice Springs, Australia. Tara honed her networking skills amidst the constant influx of patrons at her parents’ local bar and, with its backdrop of eclectic sounds, it fostered a love of people, music and adventure. 

Tara had an undeniable aptitude for music growing up, playing a total of seven instruments, from accordion to the mandolin. At 14, she was almost signed to Sony, and by 18, she had a publishing deal. With a tenure in law interpolating musical pursuits, the allure of writing and performing prevailed. Tara left her remote home and travelled to London by way of Dublin to follow her dream. The latter was too intoxicating to leave, and she soon became a permanent fixture on the city’s music scene.

After seeing a tweet that would change her life, Tara decided on a change of direction as a DJ, steadily working up the ranks at RTÉ 2FM, eventually landing her own show. Today, looking to industry heroes like Annie Mac, Peggy Gou and Louise McSharry, she has established herself as a refreshing radio presence, featuring a cross-pollination of genres on her shows, from Hip-hop, RnB to indie bands like Foals. And she regularly presents podcasts on themes from sustainability to our global conversations about the pandemic.

We had the pleasure of meeting Tara during a show at London Fashion Week, where her vibrantly hued wardrobe and relaxed, friendly vibe struck a chord, something that clearly resonates with her audience. She wears a vivid mix of urban wear and bright and beautiful saris passed down through the generations, a celebration of her Irish/Indian/Malay heritage and her vibrant personality. She is an advocate of slow fashion, upcycling and reworking clothes, using her presence on social channels to promote conscious fashion choices. 

We spoke to Tara about her career to date, from her early years in Alice Springs to DJ and podcaster, her famous guests and her hopes for the future:

You were brought up in Alice Springs in central Australia in what is described as the heart of the outback. How was it growing up in that iconic but isolated location, and how has that experience influenced you in later life?

It was a really interesting upbringing, I won’t lie! It’s funny, although it’s so isolated, my parents owned and ran a bar and a restaurant for most of my childhood, and they mostly employed tourists, so I was always making new friends from all around the world. But at the same time, they usually left after a few months, so I guess I had a rotation of new friends all the time. 

Looking back, though, I did really love it, although sometimes I wish I was brought up in a city, so that’s why I left soon after finishing high school because although I’m a small-town girl born and bred, I don’t feel like I am in my heart. I do love that I had such an unusual upbringing and am very grateful for that. Although the most annoying thing about being brought up in the back arse of nowhere is you get no good concerts. I do love the charm of having 1 nightclub, 1 casino, 1 Chinese restaurant, 2 supermarkets etc. etc., I would see a Kangaroo at least once a day (no Koala’s unfortunately), there’s barely any traffic, so it’s not that hard to get your driver’s license, everyone knows everyone, and we were all up in each other’s business, I knew most of my exes, exes and it only rains maybe once a year if you’re lucky and as the saying goes if you see it rain more than 3 times you’re a local.  

In terms of influencing me later in life, I think growing up in a small town has helped me be ok with spending time alone and being by myself. I’m an only child, so I think we are generally just used to making our own entertainment.  When I moved away from home first, I spent many years by myself, but I always enjoyed it. In saying that, though, I also love to be around people, so maybe that’s the growing up in a bar side of me. 

We understand that you left a secure and successful law career to move across the world to pursue your passion for music? How big a decision was that, and how did that ambition evolve into you becoming a DJ and radio presenter on Irelands RTÉ 2fm station?

Yeah so, I was lucky enough to fall into working in the Supreme Court of Alice Springs, which I know many people think is very random!! But my dad was a Lawyer and used to have his own law firm office attached to our house before he opened the bar with my mum. My mum used to do the admin for him, so they would usually be double jobbing, and I’d be chillin’ in the office a lot while they worked. So, because of that, I’ve always had a huge interest in law, hence why I applied for a job in the Court House! I ended up working as a Judge’s Associate and really loved it, but I guess that time was for me to figure out if I wanted to work in law or music. And if I’m honest, I adored that job, and it was really hard for me to leave it, but the problem I had with it was, it was in Alice Springs. If it was in Melbourne or Sydney, who knows, I might still be there! But I just couldn’t stay in Alice Springs any longer. I wanted more life experiences and wanted to see more of the world, so I decided to move to Dublin. I was working in restaurants and cafes for many years while playing music and eventually decided I didn’t want to be a musician anymore. One day I saw a tweet about radio DJ’s, and I thought…I love music, and I love talking, so I think that’s a good start? 

I knew I really wanted to do something in music, and I have a genuine love for finding new music, so after starting out as a cover presenter, a showbiz news reporter on 2FM, I eventually got my dream gig on the new music show! At the same time, I also got into DJing at clubs, events and parties and got to do some really fun shows over the years. 

We know you as a DJ who loves hip hop and R&B but also as one who plays across the genres and is renowned for championing new music. How rewarding has it been to be able to shift the dial in terms of what’s played on Irish radio, and how have you seen music and culture change in Ireland since you began DJing?

Aw, I really love finding new talent and discovering new music! It’s been something I’ve loved since I was a kid listening to Triple J in Australia and watching Rage, which was like our MTV, so do be able to showcase that on my show is great.  I feel proud and like I’ve done my job when I discover an artist who goes on to do well. My job is to introduce people to someone they might not have heard of before and hopefully get some new fans. 

The music and culture in Ireland have been changing for the last 5+ years, and it’s been so great to see more musicians and artists from all different genres and corners of Ireland. I knew when I got this job, I was so happy to get it during this time of great Irish talent because it makes my job easy.

You have interviewed music royalty such as Shania Twain, Faith Evans and Dua Lipa.  Who is left on your interviewee wish list that you would love to speak to?

Oh, my number one is Missy Elliott! I would absolutely love to interview her one day, but she doesn’t really do press at all. I am working on a music podcast at the moment, and I hope to get some bucket list people on that down the line. But I’m lucky to have interviewed some amazing people so far in my career. My other bucket list was Shania Twain, and I got to interview her very early on in my career, so I’m feeling positive about Missy. 

You also DJ across numerous festivals, at events such as London Fashion Week and have played for brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Diet Coke, Magnum, Moet & Chandon and Disney. How does the immediacy of playing out in front of a live audience compare with the intimacy of a radio audience, and what do you get from those different connections?  

I get two completely different feelings from both. It’s funny my housemate asked me the other day when I came home how do I know if I had a good day at work. And it made me think! But I guess when I get a text or a message or tweet to the show that someone wants to know what a song was or that they loved an artist I played, that makes me feel like it’s been a good day! 

When I DJ, if I see people bopping or singing along to what I’m playing, I am happy being out. I really love curating music for events and parties because it feels like a new challenge each time to look at what the brand or event might be about and figure out what their vibe is like. Most of the time, they will trust me to do what I feel is best that represents them or brings out the best in them. I think I love it so much because it is a bit of a challenge cause every gig is different. 

But back to your original question on how live audience compares to radio audience and intimacy. Without sounding strange, I feel more intimate with my radio audience because I have dedicated listeners who trust me and my taste; they trust I’ll play them something they will love. They might not love every song, but they will love something, and it takes a while to build that trust with people, I feel. 

Again, it is a trust thing with a live audience, especially if I’m DJing at a club, then I have to entertain and show the audience a good time for the night. When it’s the right venue, audience, vibe and music, then it feels really intimate when I’m feeding off of them, and they’re feeding off of me. Being live is definitely a bit more daunting because I can’t really make a mistake or pee…but in radio, if I make a mistake, I can just put my mic down quickly and go to a song, ha-ha. 

If we can envision your first post-pandemic club or festival gig, what will be your go-to floor filler, the old school anthem that cuts across the generations and your closing track, and what will have inspired those selections?

Oh gosh, this is hard!! Ok, if I am doing a sweaty RnB Hip Hop Club night, then I’m feeling My Neck My Back by Khia, which ALWAYS gets people feeling a certain confidence they didn’t expect they could feel when it comes on. That’s what I’m feeling when I’m thinking of the songs I want to play, the songs that make you feel a million dollars on the dance floor, the ones you leave the bar or toilet queue to dance to. My other choices would be Doo Wop (That Thing) by Ms Lauryn Hill, No Scrubs by TLC, Hit’ Em Up – 2 Pac (simply because it’s one of my favourite songs), Still Not a Player by Big Pun and Joe, Livin’ It Up by Ja Rule, One Minute Man by Missy Elliott and then some of the biggest songs from the last year that we haven’t been able to dance to like Wap, Best Friend, Pussy Talk, Tap In, Buss It etc. 

You also recently began hosting a podcast entitled “These strange times” “where you speak with cutting edge scientists whose technological innovations are tackling the spread of Coronavirus. How rewarding and interesting has it been to host such prescient conversations with those whose expertise will help to take us out of the pandemic?

It’s been so interesting, actually and not something I expected myself to be doing, but I’ve loved being part of it. The podcast is by The Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin, so it’s their podcast which I’m hosting for them. 

Talking of emerging from the pandemic, what plans and aspirations do you have for the second half of 2021 and into 2022?

I’ve got some really fun features on the show that I’m excited to continue from DJ Guest mixes which has had the likes of Sally C, Shampain and Fred Again, and I’ve had some great co-host specials with Saweetie, Priya Ragu and Pink Sweats which I can’t wait to continue with. 

I am working on a music podcast which will hopefully be out before the end of the year. I’m also hoping to get to go to Australia for my best friend’s wedding in January, so that’s genuinely an aspiration I have considering everything going on, so hopefully, I get to enter the country by then, fingers crossed. 

What strikes us about Tara are her many facets; her laid-back, personable presenting style belies a determination and perfectionism in all that she undertakes, whether in a courtroom, at a festival or in a studio.

From DJing to presenting, there is an authenticity that resonates. Tara navigates the hurdles of celebrity with ease, good humour and uncompromising grace. She carefully contemplates her audience, taking the time to listen to them and accurately represent them, rather than sticking to standardised sets. She has steadily built a rapport with her dedicated listeners developing a sense of trust and mutual respect.

And even her playful and vivid style reflects her warm, genuine personality. She fills our feeds with rainbow-toned outfits that, at first glance, may conceal that she’s an artist with ethics. But on closer inspection, Tara demonstrates that fashion can be experimental with consideration to the planet.

Just as her voice has been a fresh breath across RTÉ ‘s airwaves, so is Tara’s presence as a young DJ and role model. Being a female in one of the most male-driven industries must present its challenges, but Tara’s tenacity and will to succeed have served her well (she once famously slept at the station through 2018’s Beast of the East to ensure the show went on). She demonstrates that life in the public eye can be achieved whilst maintaining integrity and humanity.

Tara has come a long way, both geographically and metaphorically, trusting her instinct for great music and continuing to bring fresh sounds to her listeners, whilst inspiring new talent. And she’s achieved it all with an upbeat charm, a touch of realness and a little bit of hip hop in her heart.

Follow Tara on Instagram

You can listen to Tara’s latest show on RTE 2FM weekdays at 7pm on: 2fm.rte.ie

Stream Dirty Laundry Podcast with Tara Stewart
Stream These Strange Times with The Science Gallery

Words: Brian James and Leigh Maynard