Montreal's Chiiild Moves from Usher Collaborator to Solo Trailblazer
The breakout star talks about his rise from sleeping in his car in Los Angeles to making a big splash with his solo debut
Published Jun 29, 2021Chiiild — the pseudonym of songwriter Yonatan Ayal — is unfailingly optimistic. It's only fitting that his studio debut, out July 23, is called Hope for Sale. "It just has a good ring to it. In terms of hope in general, it encapsulates my being. I think that word speaks to my personality."
It does — even more than the Montreal native seems to notice. During his call with Exclaim!, Chiiild is near-pollyannaish about everything from weathering the pandemic ("It gave me more time to refine my process and rise to the opportunity") to navigating bumps along the road on his journey to stardom. He laughs as he recalls being an emerging producer (then known as xSDTRK, pronounced "soundtrack"), making his way from Montreal to Los Angeles in search of opportunity.
The back-and-forth trips to California left him so strapped for cash that he had to sleep in his car in the parking lot of a Ralphs grocery store. Not exactly the stuff of dreams, but Chiiild recounts the story with a smile in his voice. "You save a couple bucks, get on a plane, you run out of money, you go back. And you kind of repeat that cycle, as many times as you can. [I went through] random things that everyone has to go through in order to make something happen. It's been a long road."
As xSDTRK, Chiiild earned production and co-writing credits with artists like Jennifer Lopez ("So Good," "Acting Like That"), Chloe x Halle ("Thunder") and Usher ("Hard II Love," "Stronger"). He built a name for himself in L.A. by attending as many studio sessions as his stamina would allow. "Doing the session grind allowed me to get much better [at making beats]. There's nothing that beats having the mileage, you know? Doing it over and over and over and over again," says Chiiild. "I was doing two-a-days. I might've done 300 sessions in a year, especially that first year. I desperately wanted to make something happen."
But while studio sessions with veteran acts gave Chiiild the skills and credentials he needed to earn respect in the industry, they also left him craving a better way to flex his creativity. "When you're working with a bigger artist, the world is kind of defined. I wasn't able to get my creative DNA into the music. I didn't have much agency [as] I wanted," says Chiiild. "Eventually, me and my buddy decided, 'Forget this, let's just do our own thing.'"
That buddy was producer, guitarist and fellow Montrealer Pierre-Luc Rioux, Chiiild's creative partner and bandmate. Together, the pair created 2020's Synthetic Soul EP, a genre-bending blend of soul, jazz, pop, rock and R&B that earned them support from Zane Lowe, sync placements on FOX and HBO, and a U.S. and European tour with their Avant Garden labelmates Emotional Oranges.
Chiiild says Synthetic Soul allowed him to find his footing as an artist. "Working on Synthetic Soul was about getting to the finish line with some of the songs. The art of finishing a song is something that I don't think people focus on enough," he recalls. "With your first record, it is incredibly challenging because you don't know what it sounds like when it's [truly complete]. There's nothing to hold it up against. So you just kind of stop when you think, 'Alright. I think this is about all the time I have with this [song] and I should probably get it out eventually.' You're a vehicle. You just do what [the song] tells you to do."
Synthetic Soul was an introspective project that gave Chiiild a chance to define himself and develop as an artist. But he is taking a different approach on Hope for Sale, which he describes as a collaborative effort between him and his listeners.
From the way he speaks, there's no denying that Chiiild is a people person. Where artists like Kendrick Lamar and the Weeknd are far more elusive, Chiiild is hyper-accessible to his fans. For Chiiild, performing live shows or scrolling through social media feedback gives him a new perspective on his music: it reminds him that people are actually listening. That realization, he says, made Synthetic Soul feel less like yelling into a vacuum and more like a shared experience. The thought that his music isn't for him alone inspired Chiiild to create Hope for Sale with his fans in mind. "I respond to pretty much every DM," he says. "I started to see the people that were listening to [my music] and hearing their stories. And I was like, 'Oh! This [song] affected you this way. Understood. Well, I need to write a song for you.' I need to make sure that on this next project, I'm still talking to you."
True to his intention, Hope for Sale plays like a conversation. On it, Chiiild attempts to connect with his listeners and capture their lived experiences through his songwriting. "Synthetic Soul was about trying to please myself. The songs written were very personal, very in my head, very 'for me.' But with Hope for Sale, [I wanted] to create highs and lows and make sure that the lyrics were way more conversational. It's 'between me and you.' It's really a dialogue," says Chiiild. "I want people to feel like they're understood. There's a reason why I cover a set of emotions [on the album]. Because, as a human, you feel so many different things. I'd love for people to listen and say, 'Oh! You get me! Finally, somebody that encapsulates the human experience.'"
Upbeat, pop-leaning tracks like "Eventually" and "Hold On Till We Get There" set a positive and empathetic tone. As optimistic as he is in person, each track on Hope for Sale is a testament to Chiiild's eternally sunny outlook. "I see everything that's wrong with what's going on [in the world], but at the end of the day, the only thing that there is to do is keep pushing," says Chiiild. "If I'm not optimistic, then what? I just succumb to whatever is going to happen and sit there and take it? I don't really buy that. Optimism is the least painful outlook and life is hard enough. Why make it any harder?"
He mentions "Gone," a vulnerable portrayal of miscommunication and tension in a relationship, as his favourite song on the album. Its sombre and reflective lyrics sit atop a bright and decidedly hopeful bed of glossy alternative rock. Even on this doleful track about arguing, Chiiild suggests a silver lining: yes, misunderstandings suck, but they can be opportunities for growth. "It's an experience that I live all the time," he says about the song. "I'm always misunderstood in innocent ways — with my partner, with people, just stuff that comes up all the time. And so that song really speaks to me. It feels like my current testimony."
Sonically, Hope for Sale is all over the place in the best way possible. Chiiild cites Bon Iver, Coldplay and Lucky Daye as some of the artists he listened to while working on the project, and those influences are most evident on songs like "Wasting Time," with its crashing drums and sweeping melody; or "Refill," a sexy, R&B-infused ballad laced with boozy guitars and a breathy chorus. Throughout the album, there are touches of funk (especially on "Awake," a smouldering duet with British chanteuse Mahalia), pop-rock ("The Best Ain't Happened Yet"), hip-hop and blues tucked in the folds.
To try and categorize the album into one or two genres would be futile, but there is a thread in Hope for Sale that keeps it from sounding scattered. "It's all created with the same hands, the same group of people. That's what keeps it consistent, even though it reaches in many places," says Chiiild. "I don't worry about cohesion. That's the last thing I think about in terms of the creating of the record. At the beginning, it's 'How vast can I reach in order to land on something that's really exciting?,' and then it's 'What do I want to say?'"
From the moment he branched out from production to performance, exploration has been the marrow of Chiiild's music. "One of the reasons why [music] stays fresh for me is that I'm constantly trying to push it to a specific place — like, 'Hmm, how far can I go with this idea?' What would it sound like if Frank Sinatra was working on this? Then I just start experimenting," says Chiiild. "That's where [the term] 'synthetic soul' came from. There's no label. It made the most sense to try and label it for ourselves."
Chiiild credits his Canadian upbringing with developing his varied ear. "Growing up in Canada, you're exposed to a lot musically. I feel like it's kind of doing a disservice to just look into one of your influences, or two. You're influenced by so many things." A first-generation Canadian born to Ethiopian parents, Chiiild started learning to play piano at the insistence of his father when he was just three years old. His earliest training is in classical music. "I remember the music teacher didn't want me to press the keys because my hands weren't fully formed, but my dad wanted me to start absolutely as early as possible," he says.
Chiiild veered into hip-hop after switching from private to public school in high school, an experience that led his musical world to open up. "I started beatboxing at rap battles that were happening at the school with a friend of mine, Milli Millz. He was a rapper who lived in the neighbourhood and he introduced me to making beats." From there, Chiiild adopted the name xSDTRK and started developing his chops as a producer, first in Montreal, where he studied remotely at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music, and later in L.A., where he set up shop to try and tap into a larger market.
His diverse musical background has served him well as a producer and an artist, and with Hope for Sale, Chiiild aims to push boundaries in Black music. He speaks about how the music industry puts limitations on Black artists and listeners by assuming they'll only be interested in trap, soul or rap. By fusing all of his musical influences and refusing to stick to just one sound, Chiiild aims to show that Black music transcends a singular definition. "I think that the world undermines the Black listener. I think people think that Black people just want to hear [one genre]. But if you market the same type of music to me all the time, I'm obviously going to listen to that music all the time," he says. "I want to represent in alternative spaces, in the classical space. Maybe the next album will be a classical album! Or maybe I'll score a film and it won't be retro funk, you know? Who knows! I don't want to feed into the pocket that's been [pre-]determined for Black listeners."
In the short term though, Chiiild has his sights on releasing his Hope for Sale over the summer. He's also excited to bring the album to life in September at the Governors Ball Music Festival in New York. He speaks with excitement about connecting with fans, and gauging their response. His fascination with listener feedback doesn't come from a desperate desire to people-please; it's more of a childlike curiosity. There's no punctuation mark on this album — it's meant to remain open-ended and up for discussion.
"Once you get the record, let me know what you think! I'm honestly interested," says the crooner. "I can't wait to hear from people. This is a relationship that we have, from listener to artist." Who knows? Maybe Chiiild's next song will be written in your honour.