Inside the mysterious world of Canadian chillhop

This popular genre of ambient music has exploded on streaming services — and some of its key practitioners are based right here in Canada.

This popular genre of ambient music has exploded — and some of its key practitioners are based here in Canada

Do you, like millions worldwide, listen to chillhop music while you work? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

It's said to improve focus while studying. Insomniacs use it as a sleep aid. People practise yoga to it. Office workers play it in their headphones to eliminate distraction.

There's actually no consensus on what this genre of ambient music is called: Lo-Fi, beats, jazzhop and chillhop all get used to describe these tranquil, loop-based instrumental tracks with an unobtrusive backbeat. But one thing is certain: its popularity has exploded with the advent of music streaming services.

"In the past couple years, Lo-Fi has skyrocketed across streaming and has become a household name in mainstream media," says Kyle McEvoy, an A&R manager at Chillhop Music and owner of Sonder House, a label and studio based in Woodstock, N.Y. "At this point, almost every big indie and major label is trying to get in on it. With streaming numbers the highest they've ever been, I think we're just getting into a really exciting part as we see more Lo-Fi-inspired songs cross over into radio and mainstream culture."

And yet, one is hard-pressed to name even one chillhop musician.

That's because, unlike other genres of music, chillhop eschews celebrity culture in favour of a prevailing ethos of anonymity. Producers use cryptic monikers — weird inside, auv, FloFilz, sadtoi — and often publish unhelpful, one-phrase bios such as "making music from New York afternoons" or "I do this" or simply "<3."

It's not easy to learn about today's chillhop practitioners, but some sleuthing revealed that a number of them are based here in Canada and doing quite well for themselves.

'Sometimes it's nice to show your audience who you are'

Guelph, Ontario's invention_, who prefers not to reveal his identity, tells CBC Music that chillhop's culture of anonymity stems in part from the passive way the music is consumed.

"[People] put on a specific playlist and go about their business without even glancing to see what's playing," he says. "On another side of this topic, some people choose to use production aliases as they have done for ages, perhaps as a layer of digital privacy, or maybe because they feel it adds an alluring or mysterious edge to their brand."

Vancouver's Gustav Joseph, who produces chillhop under the name Blue Wednesday, has mixed feelings about it. "It's one of the elements of the chillhop scene that can be rather discouraging, especially when you have a story to tell as an artist," he explains. "On one hand, there's a real sense of liberty that comes with being able to solely focus on what matters most — the music. And all the perceivably superficial qualities of your image, brand, status, and endless social media posts are rendered irrelevant. On the other hand, sometimes it's nice to show your audience who you are, and have the ability to give them an in-depth perspective into your work."

One of the obstacles to building a distinctive profile as a producer is the predominance of curators in chillhop's dissemination. People are familiar with Lofi Girl (formerly ChilledCow), which has more than 9 million subscribers on YouTube, and popular playlists such as Spotify's lofi beats (4.3 million likes), but much less so with the individual chillhop musicians they feature.

"While they are for sure central to reaching a global audience for many artists these days, curated playlists are not the only way to get your music out there," notes invention_. "Many artists supplement their strategy with, for example, […] gaining media/blog coverage, landing sync licensing deals, having strong social media presence, distributing to digital stores, and by taking advantage of the resurgence of vinyl records and pressing their own using services like Qrates or through Bandcamp."

There are exceptions, but producing chillhop is largely a solitary pursuit, which adds to its mystique.

"As much as I enjoy sharing and listening to music with others, I almost always work alone," admits Joseph. "I find the process of creating art in general quite sacred."

Invention_ also prefers working alone. "I have a humble studio setup at home which consists of my desert-island equipment: computer with Ableton Live, audio interface, Ableton Push 2 controller, Roland SP404SX, and most importantly my MIDI keyboard," he explains.

I love creating familiar and comforting timbres and textures that make the listener wonder whether they're listening to something original or sampled from vinyl.- invention_

One imagines chillhop musicians staying up late, creating their soothing beats by the glow of screens using software, formulas and algorithms. But invention_ says that's a misconception.

"There are even some opinions circulating in the community that much of the Lo-Fi music being made today is essentially gentrified hip hop; generic in sound and often lazily produced with the aim of being curated for editorial playlists and streamed to the masses."

'Like actors in a play'

In fact, invention_ holds a bachelor of music from the University of Western Ontario and his artist name is a nod to J.S. Bach's two- and three-part Inventions for piano. "These pieces feature intertwining contrapuntal melodic lines, or 'voices,' that require a unique independence of the hands and are a real challenge for the brain to grasp," he explains. "The word 'invention' is esthetically pleasing to me in terms of how it looks and how it sounds. In a broader sense, each piece of music that I create is in it's own right an 'invention' of sorts. It wasn't until later that I adopted the underscore at the end for no reason other than I like how it looks!"

Like composers from the baroque era, invention_ creates his music within a formal framework, but that doesn't mean his songs are formulaic.

"When it comes to form, simplicity is a key factor in my method, with an inclination toward gradually introducing each element into the mix almost like actors in a play," he describes. "At times they may leave and re-enter, coupled by a new element and supplying some refreshment in texture."

On his most recent tracks, invention_ aims to capture a "sampled" feeling without actually sampling. "I've invested a lot into expanding my instrument library over the last few years, and it's been a joy to include more organic sounds — various keyboard instruments, guitars, orchestral instruments — in my tracks. I love creating familiar and comforting timbres and textures that make the listener wonder whether they're listening to something original or sampled from vinyl."

As for Joseph, he grew up studying classical piano, and then jazz later in high school. "Learning through private lessons, music theory, performances, and lots of improvisation — I'd say it's where I gained most of my musicality as an artist."

He links his artist name, Blue Wednesday, to his childhood.

"I was moving around a lot as a kid. I often found myself in a new environment, school or neighbourhood. And being naturally introverted, I spent a lot of time alone. While I initially felt discouraged about it, I eventually grew to be comfortable being on my own, and in my own space. 'Blue Wednesday' describes the tenderness that one can experience when finding a new footing outside of their comfort zone, or finding their identity outside of a social setting. And I like to think my music encompasses a similar sense of intimacy; perhaps contributing to the fact that a lot of people listen to it on headphones and/or while they're alone."

I often strive for a sense of slight imperfection in my art​​​​​​.- Gustav Joseph, a.k.a. Blue Wednesday

It was in high school that Joseph discovered the bridge between jazz and hip hop. "At that time the pioneers of the scene were artists like Flying Lotus, Robert Glasper and the late J Dilla. From there, I really started to gain curiosity for production and a bigger interest into how records were being made with the use of technology."

Like invention_, Joseph strives to incorporate as many organic and acoustic elements into his music as possible. "Especially considering the genre that I operate in, as well as the way in which music is consumed these days, I think highlighting something 'real' is becoming ever more important and valuable to the listener," he reflects. "I often strive for a sense of slight imperfection in my art, and try to showcase how something unpolished and raw can be just as beautiful as a highly engineered, auto-tuned performance recorded in a commercial studio with high-end gear. I usually gravitate toward instruments like the piano, rhodes, guitar, and bass as the building blocks of the songwriting process behind any production."

It begs the question: When you put so much effort into a song, doesn't it frustrate you that most people use it as background music?

"This kind of music is so versatile," invention_ responds. "It works as a subtle background mood-setter or to help you fall asleep at night. Conversely, you can put on some headphones, pump up the volume and dig deep into the intricate details that the producer most likely put heaps of thought into; details that go largely unnoticed by the casual listener. I love how it straddles the line here. Its purpose can be whatever you make of it."

But Joseph sees chillhop as part of a continuum.

"Whilst still in its infancy, it can sometimes be difficult to see where the scene is headed, but I'm confident that there will always be a space for beat-makers and other instrumental acts to showcase their work; whether it's on a larger commercial scale like we're seeing with chillhop now, or deep in the corners of undiscovered SoundCloud accounts."

'Canada has always felt like a sweet spot'

Chillhop musicians rarely perform in public or go on tour. They reach their audiences virtually and as a result, their fans are internationally dispersed. Spotify lists Australia, Singapore and the U.S. as invention_ and Joseph's biggest markets. So, does being Canadian enter into their identities?

"I like to think so," replies Joseph. "I'm definitely a product of my environment, and Canada has always felt like a sweet spot in the international market. Germany always felt a bit club/techno-heavy to me, and as much as I love the States, I could never see myself living there. Canada seems to have a healthy balance of genres, and true diversity in its arts and culture. And at least for now, I feel very much at home here."

Invention_ says being Canadian informs his music only on a subconscious level. "I generally don't channel much 'Canadian-ness' into my musical identity other than through my visual art. I enjoy taking photos out in the forest (or wherever I find interesting plant life) and processing them using various apps on my iPhone to make vectorized, glitchy artwork to accompany my music releases. I suppose all of that native Canadian flora somewhat contributes to my overall identity as an artist."