Emily Portelli is a Toronto-based record collector. Performing under the moniker Moon Hymns, she has developed a deep crate of jazz, electronic, soul, and all things in between after years of curating the bins at Sonic Boom. You can catch Emily slinging records at bars like The Embassy, The Little Jerry, & Standard Time. Always in tune with the crowd, her sets can meander through any genre throughout the night. She loves a crowd pleaser as much as a deep cut. Whether you’re looking to add to your Discogs want list, or just groove along, her selections are for everyone.
I noticed that you did a mix with record store Invisible City. I’m wondering about your connection to them, and any bigger thoughts you might have about these community hubs for music?
I started working at Sonic Boom in 2016. It was very intimidating, because when I started working there I had about fifty records, and you think you know so much about music when you start a job like this. You think ‘I got hired, I don’t have anything to worry about.’ Then you meet all the cool people you work with everyday, and you realize ‘oh, I know nothing!’ Which, on the surface, can be terrifying, but the only way to get past that is to take it as a learning experience. You’re never going to know everything. I still don’t know everything, and that’s fine. After working for a while at Sonic Boom, I started to notice this dingy little record shop across the street in the courtyard, and I was like ‘what the hell is that place doing down there?’ I didn’t grow up in the city, so I didn’t know anything about it, until one day I went in, walked around, bought some records, got intimidated, and left. It just kind of became a habit to go over there during my lunch break, after work, on my day off – I would just go in there all the time and hang out with Gary and Laura. I got to know the crew that works there and now we’re all buddy buddy.
Was that a big part of the evolution of your life as a DJ?
It definitely lit some kind of fire under me. By going in there and seeing what was in the new arrivals and what the staff picks were, there were so many genres I knew nothing about. When I started working at Sonic Boom I thought Donna Summers was the be-all and end-all of Disco music, I didn’t know anything. I saw these people who knew so much about music whom I looked up to in a way, and I just wanted to learn anything that they had to teach me.
And what did they teach you?
They taught me a lot about music, and records, and the value of records. I did kind of learn that from Sonic Boom, but it’s a much different environment. Invisible City is very much a community hub kind of place, where a lot of local DJs and artists hang out. You’re surrounded by people who you want to be like, who you want to hang around with. You feel good being around them, you feel good when you’re talking with them. It’s nice to talk with people who have that same passion for this one particular thing.
Did you feel like you found your people, and how did that inspire you?
Definitely. If you asked me three years ago if I thought I would be a vinyl DJ, I would have laughed in your face. But seeing them do it, going to their gigs and hanging out with them all the time, you think ‘maybe I could do that.’ And you can! You absolutely can.
What was the first DJ gig you had?
I started going to The Little Jerry a lot, which is a hi-fi bar on College Street. They only play records. I started going casually – the food is good, the wine list is amazing – and then a few months later my partner started working there, so I started hanging out there all the time. I got really close to everyone that worked there, and the booker, Raf, was looking for some new people to DJ. One day he came to Sonic Boom and asked if I wanted to play a gig at The Little Jerry. I was like ‘absolutely not! I’m not touching that rotary mixer, are you crazy!’ [Laughs] It’s terrifying. He was like ‘no, you can do it, you’ll be fine.’ So I practiced everyday for two months leading up to this gig. I was terrified. I was so scared. He also gave me a Saturday slot, which – looking back – was good because it was going to be slammed no matter what. I just went in there, played some jazz, funk, some disco, some 80s boogie and the night went really smoothly. It was honestly one of the best nights of my life up to that point. Just watching people react so positively to what you’re selecting is a great feeling. When I woke up the next morning I just said to myself, I have to do that again, and I have to do it better. So, I just started reaching out to bars for gigs. I reached out to Embassy Bar in Kensington Market, and they enjoyed it so much that they asked me to do a residency, so I’ve had a residency there for two years.
So, what does your DJ landscape look like now, and what other gigs are you doing, or looking to do?
Sometimes I do a Thursday jazz night at Juice, which I really enjoy. Jazz has quickly taken over my entire record collection, and become my favourite genre of music. I also do a jazz night at Embassy, which I really enjoy, because there aren’t a lot of places where you can walk into and Alice Coltrane is absolutely popping off on the sound system on a Saturday night. Recently I’ve been playing a lot of kind of spooky, spacey jazz, and some post-punk new age stuff. Just like, experimenting with sounds. I feel like for many months I was just playing soul and disco and funk music, and I’ll always love – and love Djing – that kind of stuff. But, it just got to a point where I was playing it too much and it became a chore to pick out what records I hadn’t played in a while. I kind of boxed myself in a bit, especially because my DJ name is an Idris Muhammad song, I felt I have to be funky or I have to change my name. But, I don’t have to do anything, I can do whatever I want! [Laughs] So, I’ve been playing a lot of electronic music. It feels good to step outside my comfort zone.
How do you do your musical research, if you want to call it that?
I will say, I have a huge advantage working at a record store. I just want to point that out. I don’t want to be like ‘things just come to me.’ Things get handed to me on a daily basis, and I feel like that is definitely something that when I’m feeling frustrated with my job I can take for granted, because I am exposed to so much music every single day. It’s overwhelming almost, but when I do find something I really like I’ll just go down a rabbit hole of the label it's on or I’ll see if any people on that record played on any others. Circling back to Invisible City, hanging out at record stores, and going to people’s gigs, I also learn so much music that way. There’s so many times I’ve gone to a friend’s gig at Little Jerry and every five minutes I’m like, ‘what is this?’ Just showing up to people’s gigs is just so important for the relationship you’re building with that person, and you just have so much to learn from people all the time. Even people who I consider my best friends, who I talk to every single day, I show up to their gigs and I’m like ‘what the hell is this?’ I’m never going to know everything they know, and vice versa. That’s the great thing about DJing.
Do you really focus on vinyl, and the physical object of records? And is the vinyl experience a form of love language for you?
Sharing records is one-hundred percent a love language for me! DJing vinyl is such a pain in the ass. It’s the biggest pain in the ass I’ve ever put myself through. But the thought that I have to play what I have in front of me, I am bound to this crate of records, versus I’m going to go on the internet and every song that’s ever been made is readily available – just thinking about that makes me spiral into a panic attack. I like the boundaries that bringing a crate of records to a bar puts me in, but I also just love buying records, so why wouldn’t I do something with said records rather than just sitting in my house and listening to them by myself? But ya, talking about records with people, that’s how you get me. I can talk to anybody about records. We may not have anything else in common, but you want to start talking to me about records? It’s why I’m friends with 70 year-old men who come into Sonic Boom. We have no other personal relationship, but they grew up with it, and a lot of the time our genre interests are the same, and we end up becoming pretty good friends.
You mentioned that you were into jazz and post-punk these days. Are you playing them during the same set? That sounds really cool.
I’m actually going to for the first time this Saturday, back at the Embassy. Typically I kept them separate because I didn’t have quite enough transitional records to incorporate them, but now I feel like I have a good mix of both. I just went to Kingston a few weeks ago because my friend hosts a music festival there on Wolfe Island, and there are some really great shops in Kingston that have a lot of post-punk. I bought this weird one, it’s like a five dollar record called the Memory Serves by Material, but it’s literally just a post-punk jazz record. It’s unbelievable. I know that might sound terrible, but it’s really good. So, this will be the first time I try to mesh those two together.
What are some of the tricks you have for when you’re record shopping and you come across something you haven’t seen before and you’re curious about it? What is your checklist for deciding if a record is worth it?
The first thing I check is what instruments are on the record. If there’s a flute, I’m listening to it.
If there’s a synthesizer, I’m definitely listening to it!
If there’s both, that’s going right in the bag!
Oh my god, yes! If it’s solo guitar, I’m throwing it in the trash. So, that’s the first thing I’m looking for because I’m trying to see if I recognize anyone’s name from other records I own. That’s kind of the first and only thing I do, because most stores have a listening station, so if there are instrument combinations on the record I like, I’ll put it in a stack of records to listen to. Even if there’s a bass, guitar, and drums and the cover looks cool, or it came out in the late 80s it might be kind of weird, so I’ll also listen to it. So, it’s mostly going to be the instrument line-up or the year it came out. That’s usually enough to know if I’m going to find it interesting or not.
I do find that music has such a regional quality to it. If it’s produced in Detroit, or Jamaica, for example, it’s going to have a specific sound to it.
One-hundred percent. Also, the label on which it was pressed on will indicate something. There’s some labels where I won’t even listen to it, I’ll just buy it, because I know it’s going to be good.
Switching over to your Work Redux Mix, I wanted to ask about the prompt and how you approached it. Since it’s intended to be music to listen to while you work, I’m curious what your approach was and if it changed anything from how you normally DJ?
So, I think I had listened to some of the other ones and they were super upbeat, they were so much fun to listen to, but my problem when I work is that I get so easily distracted by everything going on around me that I need to listen to classical music. [Laughs] I just need to feel like I’m in a spa, which is why I chose a lot of sparse, slightly spooky, jazz and experimental music. Also, when I am working at the shop, it’s a lot of what I’m putting on. Tons of Beverly Glenn-Copeland, Rich Ruth, or Sam Gendel. That’s what I want playing in the background when I’m arguing with someone why their Led Zeppelin record is only worth two dollars. [Laughs]
The perfect soundtrack to rejection.
Yes, you need to be Zen when that is happening.
When you put it together did you have a plan, or did you just have your crate and kind of improvised it?
I think one of the things that I’ve recently discovered that helps me a lot is I’ll pick one record that I know I want to play or I’m really excited about and I’ll base everything around that. If I start thinking about what vibe or how I want it to sound, I get way off track and start picking things that are way too different, or don’t necessarily work together. So, I need that one thing I keep going back to. Not necessarily the perfect fit for every record I’m playing, but could this be put in any space in the mix and it’ll work. That’s what I wanted to maintain, especially with work music. You want it to have, if anything, a steady increase. You don’t want to be going from one extreme to another. I don’t need to be jump-scared by my playlist.
When is the right time to be jump-scared by a playlist?
Oh, if I’m listening to free jazz? One hundred percent, I want to be terrified by a saxophone.
Work Redux is a collection of mixes made to be listened to while working. We work closely with local and international DJs to assemble thoughtful music that will carry members throughout their day and introduce them to new sounds. East Room is a shared workspace company providing design-forward office solutions, authentic programming and a diverse community to established companies and enterprising freelancers. We explore art, design, music, and entrepreneurship, visit our news & stories page to read more.