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Hot Chiiild In The City

The synthetic soul artist finds his way in L.A.’s immaculate song machine.

by David MacIntyre

Packing up and moving to L.A. requires a giant leap of faith for any artist chasing their dreams. For Montreal-bred musician/producer Yonatan Ayal, it took plenty of behind-the-scenes work and sleeping in his car before he found success with his experimental soul project, Chiiild.

Composed primarily of Ayal and guitarist Pierre-Luc Rioux (also a Montreal native), Chiiild is known for his experimental, genre-defying take on soul music, with elements of indie rock, pop, electronic, jazz, and R&B. Fittingly, “synthetic soul” is the name of the genre often used to describe Chiiild’s music (it’s also the title of their 2020 debut EP), as it represents a dynamic mélange of influences with soul music acting as the guiding principle.

Debut album, Hope For Sale, is one Ayal hopes listeners will fully embrace and enjoy from start to finish. Additionally, making his lyrics and songwriting more conversational was a major point of focus after the Synthetic Soul EP. “With the first record, there’s a bit of a barrier between you and the listener. You don’t even know who’s listening,” he says. “After Synthetic Soul, I started to see who was listening, and how it affected people. I was like, ‘Oh okay, now we can have a direct conversation, because I know who I’m talking to.’ Lyrically, Hope For Sale represents that.”

Ayal grew up in Brossard, located on Montreal’s South Shore. When asked how his upbringing in the Montreal area shaped his perspective on music and art in general, Ayal mentions the city’s diverse palette of cultural influences, as well as its abundance of musical talent. “Montrealers have real taste,” he says. “What was playing on the radio growing up is what shaped me. There’s the music you choose, and there’s the music that finds you. Montreal is very eclectic in that way.”

Ayal, whose previous moniker was xSDTRK (pronounced “soundtrack”), saved up money and moved to Los Angeles with the goal of making the right connections with the right people. Having already known fellow producer and Montreal native Billboard (who’s worked with Madonna, Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Robyn, and Dua Lipa) in L.A., his path in the industry began to feel more clear thanks in part to their relationship. “I was like, ‘Okay, it seems like you can go here and all these records are made here. So let me just be there and see what I’m made of. That’s how I ended up in that song machine,” he says.

With influences as wide-ranging as Marvin Gaye, Pink Floyd, Tame Impala, Moby, and Craig David, it makes sense that Hope For Sale is similarly eclectic. Traces of The Beatles’ psychedelic baroque pop (“Wasting Time”), atmospheric indie rock (“Sleepwalking”), and haunting piano balladry (“Lotus”) are heard at various points, with Ayal crediting Bon Iver as a guidepost for its creative process.

Having worked on various projects for other musicians, Ayal eventually began craving the freedom to focus on his own musical endeavours. Starting Chiiild gave Ayal a greater opportunity for agency and creative self-expression. “You’re working on all kinds of stuff, and people are selling you everything left, right, and centre, until you’re just fed up and you’re like, ‘I’m going to do my own thing,’” he adds.

Part of finding success is in paying your dues first, which Ayal learned through living out of his car in an L.A. grocery store parking lot. The biggest lesson he learned from the experience about making your way in the industry? “When you have a house, you might not shower one day, and it’s no big deal,” he says. “But when you’re feeling really shitty, you haven’t had a good sleep, and you have to go meet somebody, be presentable, and feel good about what you’re doing, not being able to shower is the difference.”

Prior to Chiiild, Ayal would write and produce for artists like Usher, Jennifer Lopez, Jessie J, Chloe x Halle, and Jack Ü (Diplo and Skrillex). In 2015, Ayal’s first job in L.A. would be as a drum programmer for Rob Thomas’ third album, The Great Unknown—a gig he found in an online ad posted by producer Keith Harris, and won after competing against nearly 1,500 applicants.

“That job really helped me build a life here,” he says of working for the Matchbox Twenty frontman. The two did not meet in person, however, as Ayal worked mainly alongside producer Matt Serletic while Thomas sent voice notes with ideas for songs. “It was a really great experience,” he adds. “There was a programmer who also programmed [Jay-Z’s] ’99 Problems’. It was cool to be in a room with such talented people. The producer, Matt, also produced [Aerosmith’s] “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” I’m just soaking all this up. This is all music that I grew up on.”

Hope For Sale sees Ayal team up with British songstress Mahalia on single “Awake”, and Jensen McRae also appears on a remix of album track “Gone.” Furthermore, Chiiild’s music has been featured on TV shows like FOX’s The Resident and HBO’s Hard Knocks, received co-signs from Zane Lowe and Joe Budden, and he most recently performed “Sleepwalking” and “Pirouette” on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “It was really great to be able to showcase what Chiiild is,” he says of his experience performing on the late night talk show. “We’ve been very reserved and kind of let the music speak for itself. In this particular case, people got to see what the full, finished product looks like. It provided context, and to do it on such an iconic platform, I’m super grateful.”

With plans to tour Hope For Sale this fall, Ayal hopes the album will be enjoyed and understood by listeners, particularly with lyrics that represent what it means to be human. “It’s hope for sale, because sometimes you’re optimistic and sometimes you’re losing faith,” he adds. “It’s the whole human experience.”