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2021 has seen Montreal’s Hillel Shabtai emerge among the new vanguard of house and tech producers looking to make waves on post-pandemic dance floors. The rising Canadian has caught all the right eyes and ears to date with 2 inimitable, vibrant EPs on DIALNINE. His spirited sonic blend combines irresistible melodic hooks and sleek grooves with his very own signature vocal touch. This week, we caught up with Hillel to get the low down on the journey so far, the launch of his new mix series, and much more.
Electronic Groove: Thanks for joining us, Hillel! 2021 began with a long, harsh winter in lockdown, how has it been since?
Hillel Shabtai: Thanks for having me. The winter was one for the books. Covid-19 restrictions kept getting worse in Montreal so I hopped on a flight and spent 4 months tanning my pasty butt cheeks in Florida. During my time out there, I released my first 2 EP’s. Feedback and love were overwhelming. Now I’m back in the city for the summer and I’ve got a good feeling about this one! Kicking things off with the start of my new Mix series. A little something to help get the blood flowing after a winter like the last.
EG: There is a vibrant soulful touch to your sound. Where does that come from? Did your childhood play a role?
Hillel Shabtai: Definitely. My mom’s been singing since the day I was born. And probably long before that I’m sure. She actually was a backup singer for Celine Dion back in the day. She was always in several bands and gigging every weekend. I remember going to watch her perform as a kid. Her favourite artists were the big voices like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. We had every Destiny’s Child album and a lot of Mary J and Alicia Keys.
My favorite was Craig David’s 2000 album ‘Born to Do It’. I remember when my mom popped that cassette into the car. I was hooked. One of the best r&b albums ever made in my opinion. I was about 12 and it was just around the time I started to notice girls. That album was the perfect soundtrack to keep me company for all the young love and heartbreak of my early teen years. Since then, I’ve always been drawn to the sexy and soulful. I’m sure subconsciously a lot of my sound is highly influenced by those early formative years.
EG: Can you share 5 classic jams that you still bump regularly?
Hillel Shabtai: I always love this question. And funny enough I always have a different answer.
- D’angelo – Spanish Joint
- Vocab – Fugees
- Craig David – We Were meant to Be
- Full Clip – Gangstarr
- Bill Withers – Use Me
EG: When did you start featuring your own vocals in your music?
Hillel Shabtai: From the start. I would make a beat and immediately I would start humming along. I’d press the record button and just freestyle. I had no idea what I was doing at first. I was recording with my laptop mic which isn’t ideal. I still do that when I’m lazy or not in the studio. Vocals are a touchy subject. They can make or break a track. And what is just as important as the vocal itself is the processing. I’m still learning new tricks every day to refine my technique.
“I love it when that happens. You know, when a session just flows. No resistance. Time stops and creativity takes over”.
EG: How do you approach the writing process for your lyrics?
Hillel Shabtai: My best ideas always come out when I’m relaxed and flowing. I have to first get a solid groove pumpin’ through my monitors. If I’m really feelin’ it and my head is boppin’ up and down, I try to take a step back and remove myself from the production.
I usually get up, bust out a few dance moves in the mirror and then whip out a pen and my lyrics journal. I’ll start singing and saying anything that comes to mind. 90% of it is complete jibberish. But once in a while, a coherent comprehensive sentence will emerge and I jot down the idea. After a while, I’ve come out with a few ideas and then I start getting more intentional with my direction and start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. I usually get my ideas out in one sitting. A lot of it has to do with the energy of the moment. It’s all about riding that wave.
EG: What advice would you give to any producers that would like to start using their own vocals in their tracks?
Hillel Shabtai: Don’t overthink it. Just have fun and experiment. There are so many ways you can process and mangle up a sound. Run your vocals through delays, reverbs, phasers, vocoders, and pitch shifters. I even like to chop vocals up and use the vox samples to add rhythmic elements to the groove.
Also, don’t stress about the vocals being perfect. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that really bring out the emotions and make a vocal stand out.
EG: How do you decide when a track is done?
Hillel Shabtai: Ah! my biggest challenge! We always feel like we can add more and do more. But the truth is actually counterintuitive. Both in life and in music production. Less is More! When you are listening to your track, instead of focusing on all the sounds, try to focus on the space between the sounds. One of the last questions I ask myself before finishing up a track is: What can I remove?! I will keep doing that until everything in the mix belongs there. Then I know my job is done. By that time it’s usually around 4 am and I have to try my best to catch some shuteye before the production roosters start crowing again.
EG: Your latest EP ‘Testimony’ has a killer energy. No surprise to see nice feedback from top dogs like Jamie Jones, Josh Butler, and more! What was the creative process like for the EP?
Hillel Shabtai: The ‘Testimony’ EP was a big one for me. That project allowed me to really start exploring my sound and identity as an artist. I didn’t really have a direction. I just knew the sounds I liked and started putting things together. The result was Testimony. The lyrics on both tracks were created in less than a half-hour. The recording took another 30. Pretty sure I did it all in one or two takes. I love it when that happens. You know, when a session just flows. No resistance. Time stops and creativity takes over. Funny thing is, it’s not my creativity. Feels like I’m just the channel.
“Don’t overthink it. Just have fun and experiment”.
EG: What else can we expect from you this year?
Hillel Shabtai: Music music music. Beats, grooves, rhythms, and then more beats. That’s the focus right now above all else. And maybe a few parties and dance moves sprinkled in this summer. Currently in the studio juggling through tracks like a fire-eating acrobat. We’ve got a few EP’s planned for release over the next few months. Hopefully, as things open up, I’ll get to start performing these tracks live.
EG: Thanks for your time today and all the best for 2021.
Hillel Shabtai: Thanks to you for the invite.