Our latest interview comes from the extraordinarily talented Producer, DJ, Radio Show Host and Promoter, Ciel. She first came to our attention in 2017 through her debut EP on Peach Discs, and has since released more music and a host of brilliant mixes on the likes of Ilian Tape, FACT and c- to name a few. However first and foremost, Ciel is a music fanatic and we were chuffed when she agreed to answer a few questions about her life, motivations, Toronto, and as well as the music that has played a key role in her life and career.
Hi Ciel, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you grew up?
I was born in Northern China in a city called Xi’An, which is the home of the Terracotta soldiers. It has incredible history and food and was the capital of China through multiple dynasties.When I was in elementary school, in search of a better life, me and my family immigrated to a city in the US called Albany, which is the state capital of New York. I spent nearly a decade of my adolescence in the US before we relocated to a suburb outside of Toronto, Canada, halfway through high school. I grew up in a musical household, and though neither of my parents were professional musicians, they loved music and played music constantly in the house.My father played the guitar and would sing to me as a toddler, and at a young age they discovered I had a natural ear for and enjoyment of music, and thought it would be a positive passion to foster in me. I was enrolled in piano classes within the disciplined conservatory world and soon grew bored of a hobby that had quickly gone from exciting to oppressive. I grew up as an only child, my parents mostly worked, so I spent my childhood playing the piano (at least four hours a day), reading every book I could get my hands on, and listening to hip hop all my friends at school were getting into. Discovering hip hop at such a young age had a massive impact on me—at the time I was just starting to resent music as a source of stress and pressure and no-fun. Listening to music that was new and exciting to me, without the involvement of my parents, was a way of reminding myself that this was still MY passion.
Can you tell us a bit about some of your favourite music and bands growing up, and also what led to your discovery of electronic music?
My earliest musical discovery was hip hop. I grew up in the mid 90s in New York state, so of course my favourite kind was (and perhaps will always be) 90s NY rap. After a brief but obligatory flirtation with teen pop (it was Y2K, ok?), I discovered brit pop and art rock during the tail end of my high school days and spent a lot of late nights on music message boards arguing with teenage neckbeards who told me I had pretty good taste in music for a girl. I was absolutely obsessed with bands like Blur, Pulp, Stone Roses, and of course Radiohead and saw them play live 4 times in one year. One of those times took me on a cross continent journey on a Greyhound bus from Toronto to southern California to see them headline Coachella 2004, alongside a freshly reunited Pixies and my other obsession at the time, The Cure. Through Radiohead and Kid A, I discovered IDM and Throbbing Gristle and I saw for the first time what a modular synthesizer looked like.In uni, I joined the campus radio station and ran a radio show for four years where I only played music made by women. Even back then I could never choose a favourite style of music, opting instead to cast a wide net on all that excited me, playing everything from modern classical to riot grrl bands to 60s girl groups to french yaya to No Wave to post punk to shoegaze till I eventually started wading into electronic music.Some of my older friends that I looked up to at the radio station were really into electroclash and I discovered Miss Kittin and the Hacker. Through them I got into BPitch and Ellen Allien, Modeselektor, Audion, Magda, and Richie Hawtin. Blog house was blowing up at the time so of course I also dabbled in that, though my inner elitist always believed my “impeccable” music taste at the time was somehow above blog house, which is laughable to me now.
We were very happy to read that you started a radio show at Queen’s University. From our understanding, you were unhappy with the lack of diversity at the station, and so played music created only by women. How were these shows received? And are there any recordings of them? We would love to have a listen!
I don’t know if my reasons were that “woke”. I think I just wanted to make something that paid tribute to the amazing contributions of women in music because I myself am a woman, and the radio station wanted our shows to have a theme rather than just a bunch of kids playing whatever they wanted.I had gotten used to hanging out with a lot of music dudes on the internet, and had internalized a lot of toxic ideas about how women didn’t have good taste in music, and if they did they probably got into it because of their boyfriends. My bf’s fav band at the time was Tool, so that’s obviously NOT the case here. So perhaps it was a subconscious move to prove all those guys wrong. Who knows?The radio show was called Ladyflash, named after a Go! Team song, and I think people liked it. I don’t know how many listeners I had, this was still in the early days of social media and measuring engagement for stuff like this was still challenging so it’s hard to say. But people at the station seemed to like it…it won a couple of station voted awards. I have no idea where there might be recordings, but I did manage to find an old blog that I’ve since completely forgotten about where I talked about what I played on the show. The writing and braggadocio is far too embarrassing to share but I encourage you to look for it haha!
Your mixes showcase a plethora of different styles and genres; from drum & bass on your Ilian Tape podcast, to electro on your c- mix (amazing mix series to those who don’t know), and most recently tech house on your Beats in Space show. Does your passion for finding such a broad range of new music come from your days on radio? And how do you go about finding new music?
I am a DJ because of my early days in radio. I taught myself how to beatmatch and use CDJs at the same time as I was doing music programming at the station, learning how to fit ESG and Stereolab and Liliput all within the same 2hr show. One of my earliest heroes was John Peel. I skipped class and cried in my dorm room when he died.For me I have just always been drawn to DJs with more range than just one style of music. I want to be schooled by a DJ when I see them play, and to me it’s just simply not that impressive to mix one or two styles of highly specific and similar music. And even though I love electronic music, what makes me appreciate it even more is knowing the references and contexts that led to its inception.A lot of my habits in how I prepare for a DJ set, how I organize my digital music before a show, how I might move from style to style during a set, those were all honed from my days at CFRC. In fact I have had to teach myself how to unlearn some of the more reductive methods, simply because they don’t translate in the club. Because I grew up with the internet, it feels like I’ve been digging for music for as long as I have been alive. And the most important thing about digging for music is to always keep your eyes and ears open. I keep notes on my phone and take screenshots of music I want to check out or buy, for example.
It is always refreshing when an artist is not afraid of sharing their opinions and views, especially in the social media age where trolling and ‘cancelling culture’ is so prevalent. You have never been shy to express your opinions, what is your motivation? And do you feel that this has ever had a positive/negative effect on your career? Do you have any regrets?
I guess I just don’t know any other way to be. Sometimes it does backfire and hurts me/others. It can be a source of anxiety for me, so I definitely question my outspokenness all the time. It rubs some people the wrong way understandably, and of course I don’t want people to have the wrong impression of me because of a badly worded tweet. It’s hard to say if it’s had a positive or negative impact. Because I can’t compare it to anything else. But I do look at other artists and colleagues sometimes, and think wistfully to myself how much simpler my life would be if I just learned to shut up more.
Do you look back at a particular moment as your big break, i.e. meeting someone, or a particular gig/tour?
Definitely meeting Discwoman, and having my first record signed to Shanti Celeste’s Peach Discs.
Discwoman, the collective you have been part of for several years are now renowned worldwide, even recently being named as part of Rolling Stone’s ‘Future 25’, a list of forward thinking music professionals. What led to you joining Discwoman and what behaviourial changes have you noticed over the past few years since the formation of the collectives such as SIREN, Room 4 Resistance, and Discowman?
When I met Discwoman (Emma/Umfang, Frankie, Christine, and Ariana/Volvox) in October 2015, I had booked them for their debut Toronto show for my freshly inaugurated Work in Progress party. We just really clicked right away. We shared a lot of the same political views, the same sense of humour, and the same taste for older records. Soon they were inviting me to play in other US cities, and I knew joining the agency was something that made a lot of sense for me.At the time I knew of a few female and queer prioritizing collectives, besides SIREN there was also TUF in Seattle, Apeiron in Copenhagen, and within my own city, my party Work in Progress and Intersessions, which is a DJing and production workshop started primarily as a resource for women and queer folks. Undoubtedly the landscape of electronic music has changed tremendously in the last 5 years. There are way more women now on lineups and bills, but our work is far from over. There is still so much more to improve, as intersectional diversity is more than just a token white woman on a lineup. I also think as a community that even as we do the hard work of improving our scenes and amplifying marginalized voices, it’s always important to remember to be a little kinder to each other. This industry is tough on all of us, and it’s easy to forget that ideological perfection though a noble pursuit is pretty much impossible. Let’s just do our best to look out for each other.
We were sad to hear about the closure of June Records, it was a great store to visit with some amazing staff who had great recommendations. Where in Toronto are the best places to go looking for records?
Pretty much now I only go to Invisible City and Play De if I’m looking for electronic music. There is a great hidden shop for secondhand disco in Kensington Market called Paradise Bound. Grasshopper is also good for rare groove and jazz. Beyond that, your best bet is to check out a record show. If you’re lucky, you might get to dig through the personal collection of one of the nicest and most knowledgeable heads in the scene, Jason Palma.
There have been some incredible artists coming out of Toronto over the past few years, from Peach and Gingy to Korea Town Acid and Raf Reza, are there any other local artists you’d like to shout out?
My label mates who I co-founded Parallel Minds with, Yohei S and Daniel 58. The next Parallel Minds will be a split between them and I absolutely CAN’T WAIT to share it with y’all.
• Stacey Sexton who has a record out on All Centre soon
• E-Saggila is forever killing it
• Aquarian makes insane music (and food) and is a Toronto boy
• City Dance Corporation from Forth is making really sick ravey fast techno
• Philthtrax is an amazing electro / breaks/ghetto tech label. A lot of their recent VA comps have ended up in my sets
• My friend Emissive is making really beautiful house these days. Look out for his name!
• Ceremonies is one of my favourite DJs from this city currently
Can you name some of your most influential albums?
Chapterhouse – Whirlpool
When I was in university, I was obsessed with post punk and shoegaze and no wave. I consumed 90s shoegaze & dream pop voraciously and found albums that changed my entire outlook on music. This particular one by Chapterhouse wasn’t even in the top 3 of my fav shoegaze albums at the time but it’s made an enduring impression on me and still influences me to this day. The drumming on the first two songs are insane. On “Pearl” the drums sound a lot like the downtempo and trip hop sound that’s super influential on my production and djing. And “Breather”‘s fast tempo and ethereal vocals and thick swirling guitars is a direct precedent to the early trance I would later fall in love with. “Dreamy” is a word a lot of people use to describe my sound. Well, that’s not an accident. The dreamy quality and swirling texture of shoegaze can absolutely be found in my records, for example elevate (go off mix) is full of that.
ESG – Come away with….
I discovered this album when I was just starting to get into electronic dance music. At the time I was mostly listening to British post punk bands and enjoyed hearing similar influences and stylistic markers in their tunes and how they combined them with other styles I loved like funk and disco. Being a band entirely made up of black women, ESG was also super inspiring to me as a woman in the music scene, and I played their tunes in the club and on my radio show constantly. They’re probably the only artists on this list aside from The Streets that I still play in DJ sets now.
Cut Copy – Bright like neon love
This is probably the first dancefloor album I listened to all the way through and loved. I loved how musical it was while still maintaining a strong groove. I loved how unabashedly lovey and sincere the lyrics are, and though I’ve never written a track about love, I’m very inspired by that wide-eyed emotional honesty that is so hard to find in electronic music. Nowadays I rarely listen to dance music with this much singing and live drumming but Dan Whitford’s lowkey voice fits the emoshe-dancefloor anthems perfectly, and as an indie kid for most of my life, this was an obvious stepping stone for the electro and house I would come to find and love later on.
Broadcast – Tender Buttons
I loved this band and their discography deeply. When Trish Keenan died from pneumonia I was still working abroad and spent several days alone in my apartment listening to “You and me in time” repeatedly and crying. This particular album, more than their other works, carried an especially surreal and dream-like quality. I didn’t know what they were singing about but it didn’t matter. Her voice had a powerful effect over me, and I loved the textured and grittiness of the synth patches they used. The fact that WARP released stuff like this alongside artists like LFO and Afx is just…so insane to me. Legends.
Autechre – Tri Repetae
“Clipper” is god tier IDM. I remember hearing this, like really really hearing it, for the first time on my mp3 player while commuting on the subway in Toronto when I was 17 and just strutting it out and feeling so cool about myself. That’s how powerful those drums are! Honestly, it is probably more techno than straight up IDM, but the melodic arps on that track and how it mutates throughout the second half…I’ll never forget it. I still crave things that sound like this now. A couple years ago I was especially obsessed with melodic 90s UK electro & IDM, stuff like the Likemind label, B12, Stasis, Nuron, Paul Blackford, etc. When I went back to this album, it made perfect sense why I still seek out this sound. In my opinion, tastes don’t really change, they just mature.
Gang of Four – Entertainment!
I’m convinced I wouldn’t like techno if it wasn’t for post punk. They sound completely different but the energy hits the same. The way I’d put this record on and it would just make me flail with abandon was kinda crazy. I’ve always been quite a serious and uptight kind of person, always did my school work and very rarely got in trouble. Listening to music like this made me feel free. And it’s the same kind of feeling of release I get from mobbing to techno in a dark warehouse for hours. I wasn’t really into straight up punk (not musical enough) and most hardcore alienated me (with some exceptions). Post punk made sense to me because there’s a pulsating groove, and that grooviness is still one of the most important things in any music I choose to DJ with or produce now.
The Streets – Original Pirate Material
A few years ago I watched Shanti Celeste play at Dekmantel x Boiler Room and she closed her set with “It’s too late”, which legit made me scream out loud and then cry. This album was HUGE among all the hipsters when I was in university. I didn’t like it much at the beginning, because at the time I was a massive hip hop snob and it was hard to get used to how different this was to all the other hip hop I knew and loved. Now I know it’s so much more than that, that it’s as much influenced by grime as it is by UKG and soundsystem culture, and it’s continued to grow in my mind as a perennial favourite. I miss hip hop albums with such rich storytelling. It reminded me of Slick Rick in a way, but an extremely British version, which in itself was very endearing to me. And the beats still hold up today. I look forward to the day I make as powerful of an emotional banger “Weak become heroes”.
What plans do you have for 2020?
My next solo EP will arrive during the first half of 2020 hopefully. I’ve done about 4 collaborative EPs with friends this year so I’m hoping they’ll all come out over the course of next year as well. Working on Parallel Minds 02 currently, hoping that will come out early 2020 as well.I’m going on tour in Europe with D. Tiffany and CCL in the winter of 2020. And after that, hopefully some shows in Asia and Australia. l’m also looking forward to a whole new year of my Rinse FM show! In my spare time, i’ll be doing more remixes, and very slowly teaching myself the tools to hopefully play live for the first time in the second half of 2020.
Interview By: James Acquaye Nortey-Glover & Tom Allman