“We all have something to learn from each other and I think community is a huge part of what motivates me to do what I do,” says producer and DJ Cindy Li, aka Ciel. “I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the scene in Toronto.” Born in Xi’an but based in the Canadian city since her teenage years, Li grew up in a musical household, learning to play the piano from the age of four. This would prove foundational in her current work; however, it was a love of hip hop that would eventually inspire her to take up DJing while at university.
Community, whether at her university radio station or local record store, has been integral to Li’s development as an artist. In 2015, she launched her Work In Progress show on the independent radio platform Toronto Radio Project, and following its success, began throwing a series of parties under the same name in the area. “I had to book women. No one else was booking women at the time in Toronto. I was occupying a niche that was unfilled,” says Li. As well as amplifying local talent, the events welcomed international artists, such as Aurora Halal, Lena Willikens, and Courtesy, to the city.
Ciel’s DJ sets are dynamic, not to be pinned down or narrowed into any particular genre. Shifting from breaks to electro or minimal techno to jungle, their versatility reflects her own fascination with different sounds. “I'll never play just one genre,” she says. “I'm too interested in a lot of different styles, and I never want to restrict myself.”
As a producer, Ciel is prolific. After releasing her debut EP Electrical Encounters in 2017 on UK label Peach Discs, her subsequent work – including four EPs and a mini-album titled Trojan Horse – also nods to her eclectic disposition, featuring four-to-the-floor rhythms as well as more experimental ambient and New Age sounds. In 2019, Li launched the label Parallel Minds alongside artists like Daniel 58 and Yohei S, designed to bring progressive, Toronto-based electronic music artists to the rest of the world. It has since put out tracks from its founders, as well as from Radiant Aura Faculty (Raf Reza’s new alias).
For Carhartt WIP Radio, Ciel has put together a vibrant mix featuring purely original, unreleased material, melding house and break atmospheres, with flashes of techno and deep dub throughout.
As ever, we sat down with this month’s host, discussing how classical music training both helped and hindered her as an artist, the representation of women within electronic music, and her work as an encampment support volunteer.
Ciel, can you talk us through your musical background, and how you got into DJ and producing?
Ciel: My parents always really loved music, but it was just a hobby for them. I grew up in a home where my dad was always playing the guitar and singing. He has an amazing voice and can sing opera in both Chinese and Italian. So, I was exposed to music early on. When I was young my parents discovered that I had perfect pitch. When they would hum a musical note, I could find it on my toy keyboard and play it. So, because of that, they put me on piano training. I'm a classically trained pianist. I've been playing the piano since I was four years old and my parents, my mom especially, pushed me a lot. She wanted me to play for four hours a day. So, I did that and it was really challenging, but it taught me things that were foundational for how I work even now. It taught me the principles of music theory, of melody, and harmony. But more importantly, it taught me about work ethic and discipline. So, I played the piano for a long time and when I was a kid, I started to get into hip hop. That was my entry into non-analogue music, and I loved it so much.
And you also had a show at a university radio station when you were a student?
Ciel: Yes, I had a radio show for four years called Lady Flash, where I only played female artists. That was while I was studying at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, about two and a half hours outside of Toronto. It’s supposedly a very good school, but I didn’t find it to be an artistic place. I managed to survive the experience of going there because I found my community and that was at the CFRC radio station. While I was in school, I also got into dance music. I had always hated dance music until I was about 20 years old. When I eventually fell in love with it, it was like an obsession. I was just crazy about it. I even got a job working at the university cafeteria, which was humiliating as I had to serve my own classmates, but I was so desperate to buy DJ gear for myself. So, I did that for a year and saved up money. I bought my first CDJs back then because I didn't really understand vinyl at all. That was in 2004. I learned to beat match on the old style of CDJs, that was my exposure. Then I didn't really do music for a long time because I got a job in Korea and stayed there for two years. I moved back to Toronto in 2010.
Were you still following dance music around that time?
Ciel: No, I didn't really follow dance music. I completely fell out of it. It was almost like a five-year long break. At that time, dance music was just a small part of all the music I loved. When I came back, my friend from university hit me up and she was like, “I'm living in Toronto now, I really miss DJing with you, let's do a night here.” I was listening to Northern Soul and funk at the time, so we started a party together called Soulvation where we played a lot of soul music. I think only 50 people ever came. It wasn’t a popular night at all, but it was a way to get me out of the house and practice. I also DJ’d hip hop music for a year at a bar downtown. I played there all the time and while I was doing that, I started going to raves again. That was probably 2013. I missed all of dubstep. I missed 2008 to 2013. I mean, I know what happened then, but at that time, I was so completely out of touch with electronic music that it almost felt like I was starting over.
And then you started another radio show at TRP radio in Toronto, right?
Ciel: Yes. In 2015 I started Work In Progress. Shortly after, we started doing parties under the same name. We only booked women. It was then I found that I had a knack for throwing parties. My friends would teach me everything they knew, like how to create a budget, and I was just wild about it. I'm a control freak and also very organized. I loved to manage our nights and I thought that I had the best bookings. It gave me a great thrill to book artists that were seen as risky. I had to book women. No one else was booking women at the time in Toronto. I was occupying a niche that was unfilled. When I was raving in Toronto, I never saw females DJing or performing. It was hard for me to accept that, because when I was younger, when I first got into electronic music, my first DJ hero was Ellen Allien! And I loved Magda, she was so great. I really loved Minus and all of that. It's funny I've been called a champion of tech house, which is fitting because my gateway into dance music was minimal techno.”
I had to book women. No one else was booking women at the time in Toronto. I was occupying a niche that was unfilled
Are you glad that more female DJs are appearing on club and festival billings?
Ciel: Sure, but there were always female DJs, it just wasn't really talked about that much. The women that did it were really committed and passionate about what they were doing. They're not afraid to be the only woman in the room. It was harder, especially in North America, where dance music wasn’t popular. I think in the 90s it was kind of popular, but it was also kind of looked down upon, especially If you were into serious music. Dance music was considered to be somewhat frivolous then.
Would you say that this perception has changed?
Ciel: Absolutely. I think dance music has just had really ugly moments in North America, like EDM and everything post dubstep. EDM is just so popular in the US and Canada. And it can be hard to convince people dance music is serious art while living in the shadow of EDM. In the last decade though, the underground scene has grown a lot and became quite trendy. Right now, we're on an upswing but who knows when we'll have a downswing. So far, our government doesn’t recognize electronic music as having cultural importance, like many governments do in Europe. Our government still thinks it's a nuisance. It’s so hard to throw parties in Toronto, it's almost impossible to even open a nightclub in Canada. There are so many rules about liquor, how late you're allowed to serve, where you're even allowed to open a club, the zoning laws, and noise issues. In Toronto for example, there's technically only one area in the entire city that you're allowed to open nightclubs in and it’s already occupied by the big players and corporations like Live Nation. The places that have opened in those areas are also really awful nightclubs. They’ll only play top 40 music, and there's sometimes turf wars and gunfights in them. So then ordinary Canadians think that's what nightclubs are about. In all my years of throwing parties, I've never seen a fight or a gun. Nothing like that happens in our parties.
In Europe the peacefulness of electronic music festivals isn’t really acknowledged and valued, and people's expectations are constantly changing. What are your thoughts on the expectations between DJs’ live sets versus their mixes?
Ciel: To me, I want a Ciel DJ set to sound the same as a Ciel studio mix. I really think a lot of people expect that, they also expect a high level of perfection. That’s why I generally don't like to obsess over the perfect mix as I don't want to give a false expectation towards my DJ sets. How I play is remarkably different between a live setting and in a studio.
So, do you feel that a lot of today’s audiences aren’t looking for much experimentation in a set?
Ciel: For sure, but I don't really know what people expect. Some people want to hear a mix that sounds more human, where something falls out of sync but then the DJ fixes it. At least that’s what I want to hear because then I hear them work, right? You can't really hear a DJ work until there's a mistake and they correct it. I also feel like there's a lot of pressure because of the way people are on social media. When they critique things like Boiler Room sets, where people think it's suitable and appropriate to put a magnifying glass on someone's DJing like, “oh, this transition isn’t good.” It creates pressure on the DJ and creates even more uniformity and less experimentation.
It could be argued that digital DJing hands everything over to the machine, including transitions, right?
Ciel: It depends on how you use everything. I think everybody who uses a tool has their own rules of what they do. Like for me, I would never use a sync button as I think it's bad, but I don’t care if other people use it. People are free to use the machine how they want to. It's just my personal decision. I love cue points and loops and I use them generously, whereas lots of other DJs don't think about them at all.
Are you only buying digital, or you still buy vinyl too?
Ciel: Yeah, I still buy and play records. My DJ set up on my rider is three CDJs and a turntable, which really captures my needs. I play around 60 to 70% digital and the rest is vinyl. I don't think I will ever change. It's definitely easier on my back when I don't play vinyl – to not have to carry this heavy bag! Also, I love playing on CDJs. But as I will never rip all of my vinyl, I will continue playing it physically. I think the idea of sitting at home, recording my entire record collection for twelve hours is just so boring to me. Even if I did, I feel that I would lose the ability to play this tool. Vinyl shaped the entire music culture that I live and work in. You know, on the one hand I respect that DJing has become more accessible and democratic, but we shouldn’t be sacrificing our connection to the roots.
Was it easy for you to start producing music, being a classically trained pianist?
Ciel: Firstly, I have to say, I was not a good piano player. I worked really hard but I was always a nervous player and my teachers always said that I couldn't play with emotion. I'm very wooden when I play. Loving hip hop and all of that pushed me to get into DJing. In fact, for a long time, I was really afraid to learn how to make music, as the classical world is really strict and allows you only to do things in a certain way. I also had no time back then. For two years I was working 80 hours a week, DJing, throwing parties and festivals, and working in a publishing company for a magazine. It was a terrible job but I did it because I needed a paycheck. Then on the weekends, I would throw my Work In Progress parties or DJ elsewhere, so I had no time to make music. In 2016 my boss called me into his office and let me go. He said, “I'm speaking to you as a friend, not as a boss. I think you owe it to yourself to try to pursue music full time. You're obviously juggling two lives and it's making your work suffer. Probably making your DJing suffer too, so maybe you should just focus on one.”
At the time, I was terrified. I didn't know anybody that DJ’d full time while living in Toronto. But my boss was like, “we're going to fire you so you get a severance package, and you also can get unemployment insurance.” That helped me a lot for the first year I was unemployed. During that time, I learned to produce, and a friend taught me how to use Ableton. I found that once I learned the tools of how to make the music, it wasn’t that difficult. I think this is because I had been listening to this kind of music for ten years. I think that’s the right way to do it – for the first few years that you can't DJ or produce, you need to listen.
Would that be your advice for young DJs and producers just starting out?
Ciel: Yes, listen to the music first. Also find like-minded people for an exchange. Another big influence for me was the record store as a social hub. Places like that are different to Beatport or Bandcamp because your friends are there, you play these records out loud, exchange things face to face and not at home. There’s something I strongly believe about record stores and it's why I still play vinyl: in the end, the record store is the only way of looking for music separated from an algorithm. Everything we do, how we search for music, whether it's on Discogs, YouTube, or Bandcamp – everything has an algorithm written into it. If you dig anywhere on the internet, it's determined by, for example, people in your immediate network that have already played it. To me as a DJ, and everyone around me as a DJ, I'm trying not to play music that I’ve heard from another DJ. I'm trying to play music that I’ve discovered on my own. Sure, you always end up playing songs that other DJs are playing, but you must make the effort to have unique tracks. Going to the record store is how I found music that I would have never discovered had I only used the internet.
It seems like it’s been a very long and profound educational process for you.
Ciel: Yeah, I had a long educational process. There was a long time where all I did was listen to this music and go to the parties. I didn't DJ at all and if I did, I was really not very good. I only learned how to play vinyl when I was throwing parties. I started to buy vinyl because it was important to me and I think this is where my classical training comes into play, which is wanting to do everything the "right" way and wanting to learn as much as I can about something, not just doing the bare minimum. For me it wasn't enough to just learn how to use the CDJs. I want to be able to play on everything. I can play on Serato, on Traktor, turntables, CDJs, anything. That’s the sign of a good DJ. That was a philosophy and a belief that I held.
I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the scene in Toronto. Coming up in that scene influences how I make music.
Did you work on your production skills with the same discipline?
Ciel: Yeah. I didn't have a job, so I forced myself to work on them every day. I wrote my first EP, the one released on Peach Discs, three months after I started learning to use Ableton. Those were my earliest songs. Now I listen to them and I think they sound really childish! But I think in a way, that’s maybe why people liked them, there was an innocence to them. After that, I just kept working on music.
And in a diverse range of styles too, from ambient and downbeat to house, techno, or breakbeat.
Ciel: I think that's because of who I am as a DJ. I love music. I'll never just like one genre. I'm too interested in a lot of different styles, and I never want to restrict myself. I think it's also good for artists themselves. I know many artists who suffer from being pinned down to a certain signature sound and feel like they must repeat that all the time, because that's how they’ll get booked. There's a reason why people pick a style, it’s because it's easier to market. Like these days, it’s become really popular for some people to play exclusively progressive / trance. I'm like, this is great, but what are you going to do in a few years?
Is that why you also do a lot of collaborative work? To diversify and be inspired by others?
Ciel: Yes. I like it a lot and I will – this sounds maybe a little disrespectful to the people I've made music with, but it's not meant disrespectfully – make music with anyone because I think everyone that makes music has something to say and is inspiring. We all have something to learn from each other and I think community is a huge part of what motivates me to do what I do. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the scene in Toronto. Coming up in that scene influences how I make music. I always want to have that exchange with other people.
You’ve also launched your own label on top of your work as a producer and DJ. What influenced that decision?
Ciel: I didn't start the label for me, I started the label for my city. I feel like Toronto was never really a dance music city. When people think about Canada from a dance music level, they think of Vancouver and labels like Mood Hut or 1080p, or of Montreal and Mutek festival. Toronto has never had that reputation. Even in Canada, people think Toronto is the lamest city. We ARE the lamest city. Toronto is not where you would go for this style of music. Toronto is great for hip hop, it's great for bands. We're a band city but in the last ten years, I've seen a lot of people migrate into electronic music from the band world.
It’s the same reason you started your parties, right?
Ciel: Yes. I mean, I don't have any power or money, but I have some level of influence in Toronto and people know me and I have a platform, so I want to use that. In my early days of touring in Europe, I think I was the only person from Toronto that was putting out music consistently on an international level, and I had more connections with DJs in Europe and the States.
Ciel b2b Shyboi @ The Lot Radio/NYC
You’re currently touring in Europe. Are you happy to be back on the road after such a long break brought on by the pandemic?
Ciel: It feels good. I used to struggle with touring in the past, I thought I would even quit it because it was a lot for me emotionally, but this tour has been great. I think it's because the last two and a half years were quite good for me. They really gave me a new purpose. Before the pandemic, I thought of myself as a DJ first, producer second, but in the last two and a half years, I established this new relationship with making music that I never had before. Making music before was just a means to get booked, but during the pandemic, I had nothing to do except make music. I also got really involved in political activism in my community. I work at an encampment support in Toronto, and we work with homeless people. During COVID a lot of people lost their homes or got evicted, and we just had an explosion of the homeless population. Unhoused people don’t want to live in shelters, because shelters aren’t safe for COVID, as they don't have individual rooms. You can't quarantine them. So, when someone is sick, everyone is sick. So, a lot of people move to live in the street because they feel that that is safer. We defend them from police evictions. We also help them get access to long-term housing. A lot of times we also just hang out with them.
Does doing community work affect your own emotional wellbeing?
Ciel: Yes, I think it helps me a lot because it adds some stability to my DJ life. Being a DJ is very narcissistic. DJing means thinking about yourself all the time. I love working for myself and being my own boss, but working as an artist is a very self-reflexive kind of activity. I feel like all I'm thinking about is me. What's my next move? What's my music? How am I? Am I doing well enough? I don't think that suits me. I think maybe it’s fine for other people, but it makes me very anxious to just be thinking about me all the time. So, activism work helps me a lot, but I don't want to say that I do it for my own mental health. I do it because I care about the people I work with. It’s also something that I am passionate about. Topics like housing, gentrification, landlords and how they ruin our city, Toronto.
Do any of the people you help come to your parties?
Ciel: Some of the people that we do outreach to come to my parties. We give them free entry and they have a great time. I meet so many homeless people who were artists. When I talk to them, I feel so much empathy, because it could also happen to me too. A lot of them just miss going to parties, the luxury that we take for granted. So, I just like to try to give that to them. That really helped me during COVID. Having something to fight for that was bigger than me. I was luckier compared to my American friends because our government paid us monthly checks during COVID, so I didn't have to get another job and I felt I needed to use that time responsibly. I work on music every day for an average of four to five hours, so the rest of the time I want to do other things that improve my community.
Would you say that community work has also influenced your music?
Ciel: I mean, my politics are present in my music, whether it's in a sample that I’ve specifically chosen or a recording that I like. It's never explicit. But I think that it’s better to do community work than to just talk about it on social media.