The crusade against toxic masculinity in contemporary dance music feels like a relentless battle. Few can step up to the plate with the fervor to take this on than the outspoken Toronto-based producer, DJ, and promoter, Ciel. While technofeminism is experiencing an undeniable heyday, the Discwoman affiliate—otherwise known as Cindy Li—is not capitalizing on Toronto's cultural momentum. She's helping make the scene less sexist and more inclusive.
Ciel's unwavering dedication to inclusivity led her to co-found collectives like It's Not U It's Me, whose progressive safer spaces and anti-harassment policies drastically evolved nightlife experiences for femme and LGBTQ-identifying clubgoers, in addition to booking wicked acts like Ben UFO, Avalon Emerson, and Volvox. No less impressive, her own radio show "Work in Progress" is a monthly program on Montreal's n10.as that curates electronic music produced by female-identifying talent, with selectors like Lena Wilikens, Powder, and UMFANG having contributed to the catalog.
On the heels of her Boiler Room debut, Ciel is seizing her self-made spotlight with a dreamy, sophisticated 3-track EP, Peach004, on Shanti Celeste's Peach Discs imprint out Oct. 18. The record bleeds Ciel's eclectic influences, highlighting an ethereal shoe-gazing past that envelopes her experimental percussive patterns. Read our interview below to find out the reason she is releasing her own music now and why it took Ciel's special breed of resilience to help reform the hyper-masculinity in Toronto's underground music community.
Noisey: Let's circle into the history of Work in Progress, and how that started up.
Ciel: I've been a feminist since I was a young girl because my mom was like that, and my mom really taught me so much about these values—being a strong woman. When I was 18, I did a radio show for four years. I only played music made by women, but back then it was more eclectic. The experience of doing that and digging into that world—that stuck with me, so I thought, "why don't I do it for this?" It's something that I care about, and everyone tells you that there are no women in electronic music—especially three to five years ago, people were really saying that—and it's easy to internalize it and believe it.
How does your production compare to your DJ sets?
In the past couple of years, I've really changed how I DJ. Before, my only concern was beat matching, but now I'm thinking of it more as a collage. If you're thinking of it as a musical collage, it's so much more than just the rhythm that you're matching. You also have to think about harmony and melody.
Despite this being your debut EP, you're off to a very impressive start.
There are three tracks that are on this record that are the fourth, fifth, and sixth tracks that I ever made. I felt really pressured from everyone telling me to make music. I resented this thing in dance music where if you are a DJ, you have to make music. I think that's absurd—they're completely different, but I also didn't want to sell myself short and not try something because I was afraid. I think really, deep down, that was the reason—I was afraid I'd not be good at it and fail. I think that's the stupidest reason not to do something. I quit my job a year and a half ago, so I'm doing this full time. If I'm not taking advantage of it, I'm a fucking idiot.
What about production did you find intimidating?
I'm not a technical person, I'm not good at wires. I feel like to be an electronic musician, you're getting into modular synthesis and learning about electricity and things. I was like no, that's not me. I don't really care for that stuff. For me, it's about the music. I like playing instruments, I like thinking about the musical theory aspect of it, and not the technical aspect. I knew that if I taught myself how to use Ableton, it would have taken me years, and I am very impatient, which is why I'm so thankful to have had a teacher who is not weird and mansplain-y.
Is there a track on your new record that you're particularly proud of, or maybe even posed a technical challenge to make?
I think probably "Electrical Encounters." I learned a lot of things while making that track that I wasn't taught from anyone. It was kind of the first track where I forced myself to use samples, because I come from playing instruments. When I first started using Ableton, I was like, "I'm going to make everything from scratch, and write all my own arpeggios instead of using the arpeggiators." It's stupid because the way that people use samples with electronic music is so much more than just dropping a sound in. I wrote all the melodies so don't worry—but it's warming up to the idea of using samples in an interesting way.
There seem to be a lot of different music influences that you've been exposed to. Is there a genre that you feel most at home working in?
Dreamy is a word I hear a lot associated with my music and it makes sense because I was obsessed with shoegaze and dreampop when I was in college and in my 20s. I just loved that kind of wall of sound from My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Lush, Ride, all those bands from the 90s that really treated rock music like electronic music in a way. I think that influence has definitely stuck wit me in terms of how I make music now. The track "Elevate" on my record, it definitely sounds like it could be a dream pop song.
What made you choose Toronto as your home base?
I think the exchange of ideas between cultures is paramount to new ideas, new music flourishing. You kind of need that cross-pollination. That happens when different cultures coexist. I will always love that about this city. Is it perfect? No. It skews so conservative when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality and when it comes to trans, non-gender binary, queer people. I feel like Toronto is still pretty behind compared to places like New York where people are so progressive. I grew to really like the racial diversity here. It is something that we should really be proud of. The people that work here are especially resilient. I want to put this city on the map, and I don't think I can do that by just deserting it and starting over in Berlin.
Corinne Przybyslawski is a writer and composer living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on Twitter.