Ciel, a Xi'an-born and Toronto-based music producer, DJ, and pianist, is a prominent figure in the electronic music scene. Her multifaceted career encompasses creating the women-focused concert series "Work in Progress," co-founding the multidisciplinary events platform, "It's Not U It's Me," co-owning the electronic music label "Parallel Minds," and being a member of the internationally acclaimed women & LGBTQIA+ DJ collective "Discwoman." Additionally, she hosts a monthly radio show on Rinse FM in London, UK. This November, she is set to release her debut album, Homesick, which features nine tracks blending her love for genres like drum & bass, house, electro, and downtempo with traditional Chinese instruments. Ciel took on the roles of writing, arranging, recording, and mixing the album, making it a heartfelt homage to her childhood musical influences and a response to the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and racism in the media.
What kind of music do you like to listen to while you work?
⎯⎯⎯ It’s a little bit different now that I’m a full time producer and DJ. My work requires my ears. Before I did this full time and I had a job in an office, I was always thinking about what I was going to listen to while doing unbelievably boring tasks. Back then I listened to a lot of mixes, a lot of ambient music, or really fast loopy techno, nothing in between. I find lyrics very distracting when I’m trying to work, especially while writing or reading. I find it very hard to focus, even in normal life when two people are talking at the same time. So I always prefer to listen to wordless music while I’m working. Now that I’m working as a producer/DJ and my job is music, well, working for me is listening to music in a way that it never was before; digging for music, listening to promos that labels send me, staying on top of that, and when I’m producing I’m not listening to anything but my own music and stuff I’m working on.
It begs the question then, how has becoming a full time producer and DJ changed your relationship to music?
⎯⎯⎯ It’s changed it significantly, I would say. I kind of envy people that have boring desk jobs, and they have like eight hours a day to just listen to stuff. I don’t really have that time. I don’t know if I can listen to eight hours straight of music anymore, unless I’m working in the studio, in which case I could do that forever. If I’m being honest with you, sometimes I just don’t feel like listening to music. I need that silence a lot, especially if I’m playing in clubs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I need to give my ears a rest, you know, and a break from always being immersed in dance music culture, which I obviously love, but there’s more to life than that. For my mental health, I like to have that distance or break sometimes, and as a result I find I rarely listen to music just for pleasure. I’m mostly listening to music because I have to dig for new music to play in my sets. That’s all I’m thinking about. I don’t even buy records anymore just purely for listening, unless it’s a really special limited edition box-set type of thing from a band I really loved when I was younger. I would do that. It kind of lost that hobby element. When your hobby becomes your job, you almost want to find a different hobby.
Have you found anything different?
⎯⎯⎯ I’m interested in a lot of things, so it’s easy for me to find a new obsession. Definitely watching films is a huge hobby of mine and it’s a great source of inspiration as well for making music. I love sampling from films. Movies are so evocative. When making instrumental music the question is ‘how do we move people with just instrumental music’, so I think sampling things outside of music resonates with people. I’m also very passionate about politics. It used to be something that I would try to bring when I would throw parties: how I would book, making sure all the lineups represented marginalised people. I try not to put all my political work into my music anymore, and, to be honest, dance music politics is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of the world. I like to be involved in political organizing in my own community. I volunteer every week with a group that defends unhoused people. So, that’s something I do in my spare time. I don’t get paid for it, I’m driven purely by a desire to do it. In terms of other hobbies, I’m not really into cooking, I hate working out, so that’s pretty much my life. [Laughs]
Something that came up in my research for this conversation was that in 2017 you made a Google doc of women DJs that were working in Toronto at the time, which is so awesome, but my question is has the scene changed at all?
⎯⎯⎯ Oh ya, I definitely think it has. 2017 was a pretty turbulent time for me. That doc got me a lot of hatred from the scene, and people accused me of doing the doc to increase publicity for myself because it came out about a month before I played my first Boiler Room. People accused me, or suspected me, of only doing that to get more views on my Boiler Room, which is just insane because why would I need that? It’s Boiler Room, they have a massive built-in audience. You don’t have to do anything to get people to tune in, you know what I’m saying?
⎯⎯⎯ So, the accusations were really ridiculous. You know, I threw my first event in 2015 and between then and 2017 there were a couple of parties I was involved with, one of which was called Work In Progress where all the headliners were women, and more than 50% of the lineups were women. I had been raving in Toronto for a long time, and up until that point I was pretty accustomed to going to parties where every single DJ on the bill, local or international, were cis-dudes. That definitely annoyed me and I knew about the conversations people were having about this topic in electronic music as a whole, because electronic music does skew male, even more so than other music genres. You know, the classical music world has tons of women in it and I don’t think anyone would deny that classical music is a bit more challenging than electronic music, so this idea that women aren’t good musicians and that’s the reason why there’s so little representation is just preposterous. People were starting to have these conversations a lot around that time, and I started my party hoping that it would be a good example, that it’s totally possible to book other women and still have your party sell out every time. But after two years of doing it, I felt it wasn’t enough. I still saw all-male lineups all the time and it was just insulting how normalized it was. After the doc, and after various articles came out about me and other women DJs that led the charge, I think it started to shift and now it would be weird to see a lineup where it’s all dudes, especially if it’s a lineup of four DJs or more. You have a lineup where it’s two guys, no-one’s going to call you out or anything, that’s just insane, it’s two DJs. But over four DJs and every DJ is a cis-man? I can’t remember the last time I saw that. I do think it has changed, but it’s not fully there yet.
This makes me think of early dance music as a form of resistance and collective community building with touches of utopian ideals. You can tell me if this resonates or not, but I guess I’m wondering why dance music is such a fertile ground for movements towards diversity, openness, safety, acceptance, and freedom?
⎯⎯⎯ If you spoke to Europeans they might tell you differently, but out here it’s a generally accepted belief that the origin of dance music came out of queer Black and Latino communities in the 70s and 80s in New York. Voguing culture, ballroom culture, how drag is so influential in dance music, a lot of the New York house scene, that wouldn’t exist without that. That’s a huge part of it, but I also feel that it became less about that as it became more popular. Like, everything changes as it becomes more popular. People forget where it came from, because electronic music is so popular, especially in Europe, and the more popular it is, the bigger the audience and the harder it is to have some kind of political alignment or togetherness. I think when I first started doing parties in Toronto, I definitely believed all the things you just said, about resistance and utopian ideals, and I still think a really amazing night - a really amazing party - could make you feel all those things and more, but these days they happen for me once a year. It’s rare to go to a party and feel like that. It’s not because people are bad or whatever, but I’ve just played and been to so many parties that I’ve seen it’s not really what I thought it was. You know, it’s part of “growing up,” and part of growing up in this industry is seeing that it’s commerce, it’s a product, and it’s quite mainstream and commercial. Anything to gain profit you can’t really inject it with some kind of political ideal, because you can’t control that. Even for my parties, with my audience, I trust that those parties are going to be really queer, really mixed, diverse, and feel safe, but my parties are like 300 to 500 people. That’s not a huge audience. You go to some of these other parties, like Tech House parties, and there’s 700 to 1000 people. I don’t know if I’m going to share anything politically with these people. Maybe a small percentage. I think it used to be like, ‘aw that sucks’, but I realize that this industry is a commercial industry like anything else, and even though I work in it, I can’t expect it to be moulded exactly how I want. Also, once I became more politically engaged outside of music I no longer felt the pressure that I had to find it in dance music. It was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I’m really proud of what I did, and I have no regrets, and I think it had an influence, but it wasn’t me that did that. I was just a voice at the right time. This conversation was happening globally at the time everywhere, and if it wasn’t happening, and we didn’t have the internet, then I don’t think I would have been as successful. So, to answer your question…
[Laughs] That was a pretty good answer.
⎯⎯⎯ I think it’s good to want to have those ideals. It’s good to have an ideal and a vision when you throw events of what you want your audience to be and how to foster that, and make everyone feel welcome, but at the end of the day it’s a party and people are there to get fucked up. I don’t think we need to over complicate it. [Laughs]
So, what’s your day to day like these days? It sounds like you’re on tour a lot and moving around.
⎯⎯⎯ Basically the first few months of the year are very studio focused. I do have a studio I rent in Toronto, but at the moment I’m not renting it because I’ve been on tour from March until the end of September, and I rent it from friends so they are pretty flexible. January and February I would go into the studio everyday and have a pretty normal regimented life working on music projects. Each day is probably divided 50/50, half of which is dealing with administrative stuff, like emails - I get so many emails - promos, and digging for music, and the other half would be working on my own stuff. I am a workaholic, so it’s very hard for me to keep it at eight hours. My partner works in film, and those hours are even longer, so it kind of gives me a pass to work long hours if I want to. That’s my life for the first couple months, and then usually I go to Australia, and then I’m in Europe pretty much non-stop from March until September with some US shows in between. At most I would be home for three or four weeks before I have to leave again. During those times, my day to day would be working on music but specifically stuff I’ve already written and just getting finalized, or doing mix-downs, or if I had a one off request, like a remix request, I could do that, but I wouldn’t do a big project during that time. The way I work, I don’t like to start something, leave, and then come back. It really changes your flow and mental headspace. When I’m on tour, my life is gigs Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I found that touring could be really hard on me emotionally, to be away from my friends and family for so long. It was hard to figure out how to manage my mental health, because some shows aren’t great, and then you just feel like shit for days after. It’s not healthy for me to be in that headspace and just chilling at home, scrolling on social media and beating myself up. So after the pandemic, instead of doing that, I would make music with my friends that lived in Berlin. During the summer when I’m on tour in Europe, Berlin is my homebase, and I just work on collaborative EPs with friends. It’s a great use of energy, and I think making music is one of the only things in life you can take something negative and turn it into something positive. That process of transformation is very therapeutic. If I have a bad gig, I’d rather go straight into the studio the next day and expel all those feelings from my head and work on something, and create something really amazing. That’s what my day-to-day is like when I’m in Europe, but these days I’m preparing for the release of my debut album in a couple weeks. It’s a lot of work preparing for it: getting the music video finished, doing promo…
What’s it like to finish the album and be at the stage where you’re watching it enter into the world?
⎯⎯⎯ I’m very excited to get it out there. I wrote the album two years ago, so I feel like it’s really ready to go out, it’s been ready. I think maybe if I made my debut album pretty early on in my career, I’d be a little more nervous, but I’ve already released like ten solo and collaborative EPs in my career so I feel like I’ve already had a lot of experience dealing with negative press, or even worse, no press or response at all. I’d rather get a negative review than no review. Nobody is born with thick skin, you have to build it up working in something public facing. I like to think I still have a long way to go but I’ve improved a lot since I first started when every little negative comment would ruin my week. I’m a little better at letting it roll off my back. So, I’m not that concerned with people thinking it’s not good. I know the album is good. I’ve sent it to my friends who are DJs and the response has been really positive, and I think it represents me well. That’s always the thing I care about the most, that the music is true to me. It doesn’t have to be the second coming of whatever, or the next Dark Side of The Moon. I’m not so concerned about that. As an artist, you’re really trying to tell a story with your output and your body of work, and it’s more important that your body of work represents you well rather than thinking this one release has to be the best thing ever. I try not to sweat those things as much. So, I’m excited! I’m not that apprehensive, I just want to get it out there!
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