If Yonatan “xSDTRK” Ayal is the face of the Chiiild project, singer-songwriter Pierre-Luc Rioux is its heart and soul. Following an EP launched in February 2020, the group is back with Hope for Sale, its first proper full-length album of engaging, easy-on-the-ears, synthetic soul. The Montrealers have been based in L.A. for awhile now, offering their songwriting and producing services to various pop stars, and are now ready to fly on their own.
“Yoni and I came to L.A. in 2015,” says Rioux. “We quickly started getting booked for sessions left and right” – by which he means sessions for Katy Perry, David Guetta, Jessie J, Usher, Céline Dion, and Chloe X Halle, to name only a few. “In 2016 alone, we worked on about 300 sessions – we never stopped! Then, at some point, we thought, ‘Maybe it’s time we start working on our own projects?’”
Rioux and Ayal’s approach reminds us that being a songwriter is a profession, and that experience is a valuable currency to earn a place in the sun on the California music scene. Hope for Sale, Chiiild’s first album, is the perfect example of the skills honed by the two musicians over the past few years: formidable choruses backed by a welcoming sense of groove, and slick production. First-class pop.
Most of the time, as Ayal explains, they work together. “I’m not necessarily the one who always writes the lyrics,’ he says, “but for the Chiiild project, I’m mainly in charge of that, more than I am of the music or production,” which is the purview of Rioux.
“What’s cool about the relationship I’ve built with Yoni is that it is based on collaboration, not competition,” says Rioux. “We each have our strengths, onstage and in the studio. There’s stuff I do better, the same goes for Yoni, and as time goes by we each develop further into our respective roles. Yoni [as a singer] is the face of Chiiild, but there’s a lot of his personality that shines through, especially in the lyrics.”
When it comes to writing, Yoni finds inspiration in the real world around him: “I don’t write songs about fictitious subjects, I don’t like fiction in songs,” he says. “If it didn’t happen, I won’t write about it. It’s all real,” and sometimes even predictive, Rioux adds: “We’re used to working with people with their fingers on the pulse, people who know what time it is, intuitively,” he says, citing the song “Hold On Till We Get There,” a pop-soul number propelled by a mellifluous rhythm reminiscent of a Gorillaz groove. “‘Hold On Till We Get There’ was written in December of 2019, and when the pandemic hit, that song took on a completely different meaning. That feeling that everyone’s in lockdown, and we’ll get through this together. It wasn’t written to describe that situation, but it works perfectly!”
The song was produced by their mutual friend Mathieu Jomphe-Lépine, a.k.a. Billboard, another one of those pop geniuses who deploys his talents as a composer, accompanist, and producer in the service of others (Madonna, Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, etc.). “He’s one of our great friends, but also someone we admire: he’s such a good producer!” says Rioux. “He felt like leaving Montréal to come and work with us in L.A. for a few days, of his own volition. It’s a nice story.”
“What’s really cool about the Chiiild project is that we were able to count on the talent of many great collaborators,” Rioux goes on. “Yoni and I are obviously at the heart of the creative process, but it’s a heart that beats in every direction. We’ve participated in many a song camp over the years, and each time, we try to involve new talent in our project.” Hope For Sale, as a matter of fact, features a few guest vocalists, notably Jensen McRae, on the remix of the irresistible “Gone,” and Mahalia’s delicate voice on the ballad “Awake.”
“Throughout the lockdown, I would throw Zoom pizza parties on Fridays,” says Rioux. “I discovered Mahalia on Instagram, where she posted a cover version of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car,’ and I clicked. Thanks to a mutual friend, I was able to contact her, and I invited her to our pizza party. Later on, she was kind enough to accept [our offer to] sing on that track, and boy did she kill it!” says the musician, who switches from French to English seamlessly throughout our conversation.
His own voice is full of charm, and his singing is inspired by the delicate stylings of Astrud Gilberto on the classic Getz/Gilberto album from 1964. “You know, some singers sing to you, and others simply sing,” he says. “I didn’t want to be that type of singer who sings ‘to someone’ – I prefer a more internalized and heart-on-the-sleeve type of interpretation.”
Chiiild was getting ready to play Lollapalooza in Chicago when we spoke, just a few weeks after being invited to perform on Jimmy Kimmel Live! “We were super-lucky,” says Rioux excitedly. “They’d secured a time slot for us, but that was before the pandemic. People make promises, but they’re generally postponed… The people at Lollapalooza, however, called us back, so we’re really stoked!”
For that gig, the band will feature five musicians on stage: Ayal on vocals and keys, Rioux, discreetly on guitar, one violinist doubling as a backing vocalist, Nick Clark on bass (“He’s an authority here in L.A., he plays for everyone including Kanye West”), and drummer Maxime Bellavance (who was the tempo master of the house band for the TV competition La Voix, the Québec franchise of The Voice).
“For us,” Rioux continues, “releasing an album isn’t about the number of views on YouTube or of plays on Spotify. It’s about being proud of being able to say we took our destiny in our own hands. Our future used to greatly depend on the success of others – now, we’re flying on our own. I’ve been a touring musician for a long time, playing for others. Being able to go on tour with our own material and releasing songs that we created with our friends is a victory in and of itself. That, and being able to represent the talent pool from Montréal.”