This is: Kei-Li
s a multidisciplinary artist with a passion for music and a knack for design, KEI-LI should be something of a role model for people that are fearful of imposter syndrome.
Giving new meaning to the phrase “lifelong student,” KEI-LI has managed to achieve a high level of proficiency within a wide variety of fields (including dance, XR design, animation, beatboxing, and more) through self-learning for one simple reason - because he wanted to. He started making music professionally as an undergraduate student in Montreal, and has since been featured on lineups alongside artists like Robotaki, Joyce Wrice, Abir, and Busty and the Bass.
KEI-LI’s freshman release, GTA Funk, serves as the perfect introduction to his music. With a nod in the title to his hometown of Mississauga, the album serves as a homage to the funk, soul, and hip-hop albums that he grew up with. The titular track’s music video was filmed in Toronto and also shows off his skills in other fields like dance and animation.
His sophomore album, Drifters, will be coming out later this year and will be his first full-length release of the decade. Check out his interview with Myth Magazine below.
KEI-LI x Robotaki's music video for "GTA Funk" featuring Clairmont the Second
Hey Kei-Li, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today. What have you been up to these days/any projects you’ve been working on?
I haven’t released stuff recently.. it’s probably been nearly three years now, not counting a single or two here and there. Last few years have been rough for me. That said, I’ve been working on an (almost full-length) album that’s coming soon called Drifters - let’s say before the end of 2020 - with my buddy Corey, aka HMLT. He’s an awesome producer, almost like a living tutorial for me.
How did your journey with music start?
My family has always been pretty musical, which was really encouraging. My parents are kind of like the strict religious type - we used to have church in my house, so my whole family would play music together. My dad plays the guitar, my sister plays the piano and we all sing. My brother and sister are a lot older than me and were super into hip hop when I was growing up (my parents hated it obviously) so that was how I got introduced to the stuff I listen to now. It was classic, my parents would point at the album art and be like “is that a weed leaf?.”
Afterwards I had a cool drum teacher, and he introduced me to all sorts of music beyond the classical stuff. He introduced me to Rage Against the Machine, Jamiroquai, even like AC/DC. I think I started producing in grade 9 cause I was into hip hop and dancing and all kind of that stuff - beatboxing too. I wasn't that good, but in university I started to learn how to sing and met up with Robotaki. We’re just like life friends, we started producing and chilling a lot together and it kind of just took off from there.
In a past interview you said your most influential artist/album was Voodoo by D’Angelo. Is that still the same case or has something come up since then that has changed your mind?
Have I changed my mind on Voodoo? No, never. Voodoo is the best album of all time in my opinion - I actually just got back to listening to it again. I come back to it every couple of years and it’s still amazing, it’s crazy to me how it just never gets old. I did want to shout out some other local artists, though - I think Toronto and Canada are underrated. We have Daniel Caesar, Charlotte Day Wilson, Busty and the Bass, A Tribe Called Red, T. Lo, Monsune, The 25th Hour (he’s produced for Drake’s Scorpion Album), Desiire, TIKA, Joyia, Estyr... sorry i’m just shouting all these names because all these people are just around and chilling and secretly amazing.
Your first album GTA Funk was released several years ago. Can you give us some insight into that release and the story/production behind it?
The story behind GTA Funk is this double entendre of funk - like you know it’s funky, the whole album is funky - but I was also in a funk at the time. My parents were getting divorced and they were selling the family home in Mississauga so you know - GTA (Greater Toronto Area) Funk. It’s a little bit more dark actually but non-ironically, music is therapy for me. I worked on it for about two-three years or so but I want to shout out Darker Than Wax who really helped with the international release, Maxx Mortimer who helped me mix and master, and definitely my friends like Robotaki, Falcxne, and more who helped me with advice.
You have an incredible range of musical styles. How would you personally describe your style? Is there an audience that you have specifically in mind when you create your music?
Yeah... I don’t know about the audience in mind, but there’s a mood in mind. I think generally speaking I like going for fun, sexy, funky vibes and such. I don’t have a style but I’m influenced by a lot of stuff - like I'm influenced by soul, jazz, funk, RnB, hip hop, disco - the great genres of time - and also latin jazz. And through hanging out with Robotaki over the years and stuff like, some EDM - I’m a huge fan of Shook, Justice, etc.
How long does it take you to write a song? How do you know when it is complete?
I think you know when something is good and should be fleshed out very quickly. I think it’s just how long it takes for you to get back to finishing the gruelling parts of the process, like mixing and mastering, stemming out, fixing bugs, errors and glitches - that kind of stuff. Once you know that the idea and core concept is solid, you know that’s what it’s gonna be.
I don’t want to sound too cocky here, but sometimes me, Corey (HMLT), or Preston (Robotaki) will get together and.. well, some nights it’s off, but on a lot of the nights that we hang out, we’ll shit out a couple of bangers by accident.
KEI-LI x Robotaki's music video for "Lunar New Year", animated by KEI-LI
What part of the creative process do you enjoy the most?
My favorite energy is when I’m sitting with somebody who I flow together creatively with - there’s no ego, and we both know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s cool to feel where we fit in in the song, and to know that we contribute to something greater than the sum of its parts. I love that shit. That’s usually found in the depth of studio sessions somewhere deep in a basement. Supplementing each other and just building something crazy is something that you can’t do alone.
Which if any performance did you really enjoy doing?
I actually did a livestream with HMLT for a virtual fundraiser festival for BLM organized by Joy Ruckus Club, which featured Asian-American artists. I liked that one a lot, and it was nice to film because it was just in my buddy’s backyard. Those same guys that filmed that set shot a short film we are putting out potentially with the upcoming Drifters album.
I also loved dancing with A Tribe Called Red at their Toronto show and… this underground show I played in Taipei with grime heads Sir Spyro and Faze Miyake - that was a different experience for sure.
Anything you do to prepare for a studio session or performance?
Aside from blazing too much, I like the process of listening to tracks or having an idea in mind, talking it out with whoever you’re working with whether conceptually or through narrative or through theory. Sometimes I’ll build a little bank of words that sonically sound nice or phrases that have layered meanings just to play with them later and bring them up quickly in a studio context. Credits to my buddy JOZEM for that tip.
Most of the stuff with HMLT is freestyle, or first take shit, or something that I wrote in 20 minutes while he’s making a beat. I like that better because I’m a producer first so coming from that background I’m able to understand what the sonic landscape looks like - and then connecting that with words that resonate with the sort of texture or feeling to hopefully get something deeper out of the song.
Has there been a performance you’ve attended that really left an impression on you?
So I’ve been to festivals and I’ve, you know, “enjoyed my time.” I caught D’Angelo once in Montreal in 2013 and it was amazing - I was only smoking a little but it was still a next-level serotonin release of feel good blues, and soul, gospel, funk shit. At the end of his set he just screamed and yelled for like 7 minutes and it was awesome.
Has there been a particular place or location that has impacted you either as an artist or as a person?
Every place I live definitely imparts something on me musically. All music I write is infused with what’s going on in my life. Like I just arrive at the session and carry whatever I'm feeling and just bring that in. Montreal was a birthplace for me in some respects and left a lot of impact - the city is like magic, a real creative hub, but places like DC, Pittsburgh, Toronto have all influenced my music too.
What’s the next step for you? What current goal are you trying to achieve?
That’s an interesting question because from a music business standpoint, right now the market is focused on singles. Because of that, I feel like that’s where the more efficient output lays and that's where the incentive to put out singles is. I’ve been sitting on stuff for too long, so fuck it - I don’t care about any of the trends in the music business, I just want to put out my music. But I want to do it right and still add layers to the stories and visuals to the releases, that kind of stuff. Definitely aiming for that with Drifters. I’m gonna try to do a bit more solo work in the coming year, and hopefully once a critical mass of songs in my vault get put out, I can really artistically flesh out this “Kei-Li universe.” Maybe I’ll pump out an animation and cartoon and game spin off of certain [concepts], or maybe make some toys while I’m at it.
I would say that as long as there's any ability to hybridize or find opportunity within your work, you should seek out those opportunities professionally and that’ll help you merge that with other skills that you might have. I was able to parlay doing concert posters and album design art into graphic design jobs, and from there I learned a lot just doing the corporate stuff. Everything can be used in the right context and everything should be used together if you can!
Any advice for people looking to go into music production?
Two things are a must-do. Firstly, you must find people that you can jam out with - it doesn't matter what the skill level is, low or high. They just need to be people who are interested in music at the same level that you are - that way you can share and grow together. You can individually learn stuff and bring it together, which makes you get better so much faster. It’s helpful to have a guide in some respects (like a mentor or something) to help you understand what to look for and what you don’t know.
Secondly, once you have an overarching structure of what you don’t know, you can learn anything yourself as long as you go online and find a YouTube tutorial. I highly recommend self learning (even though I just graduated from my masters hah). Build a bank of amazing references you’d love to get inspired by. In my opinion, it’s the only way to survive in this digital age. Like if you want to be an animator just start animating; don’t worry about imposter syndrome or wait for a time in which you arbitrarily are called one. Like if you’re making cartoons you’re an animator. If you make games you’re a game designer. It’s the only way to learn.
Last thing I want to call out is for music specifically, to dig deep into the history of modern musical genres and be a true student of the game. To understand the historical context behind the genres and give credit where credit is due - to the legendary Black and Brown musicians that paved the road for most modern genres. BLM still!
KEI-LI performing his original song "Tide Me Over" for Hidden Sessions