Get to know our Promise Cherry Beach headliner Madeline
August 3, 2023
Chicago's Madeline headlines our Promise collab party alongside a perfect queer local lineup
A regular DJ at Smartbar in Chicago, a past radio host at WNUR's 89.3 FM, producer and community leader Madeline first caught our ear during at set at the weekly Queen! party in Chicago... we quickly added them into our Soundcloud rotation thanks to their classic house mixes swirling with vocal-forward feelings, horns! Strings! Soul! Madeline has created a joyful, sexy sound all their own (check our their recent Boiler Room set to hear and see more, below) and we're so happy to have them headline our extra-special day at Promise Cherry Beach (we love the Promise crew, btw and are honoured to be asked to curate and play a day by the water).
We asked Madeline, who's been playing since 2014 both digitally and on vinyl, a few questions to get to know them a bit better before we all twirl together during sunset at Cherry Beach.
Madeline! Thank you for answering our questions! We're so excited to have you here in Toronto. This is a very imaginary question, but what do you hope to deliver musically to a bunch of queers on a beach here in Toronto?
Thanks for having me, I'm excited to be in Toronto for the first time! My hope is that people can get lost in the moment and feel connected to their bodies on the dance floor. That's something that's particularly important for queer people and the nuanced relationships we often have with our bodies - it's been an essential form of therapy for me. I hope to share some of myself with you via music that I love, and hope some of the joy I feel for it radiates to you all in the process <3
What are your favourite types of clubs venues/environments to DJ in?
I love situations that create a specific mood - a dark, intimate, industrial basement or sunrise in a wooded forest - because I like to be prompted by the energy of the space. I'm not really a natural performer - I don't always feel comfortable having all eyes on me so I really enjoy a booth that's a bit tucked away from the crowd, but I don't mind a stage in an outdoor setting.
You've been DJing since 2014, how has your sound evolved?
It's been a long journey of uncovering what moves me and learning to trust my own taste. I started DJing during a very specific time in the evolution of dance music. I was 19 and living in Evanston (suburb that borders Chicago), listening to a lot of grime, ballroom, jersey and baltimore club from labels like Night Slugs and Classical Trax and going to parties like Total Therapy on Thursdays at Berlin and Area 69 at Exit. Footwork was really starting to come up at that time, and I would get periodic exposure to house and techno but I didn't realize the scope of the legacy of those genres in the Midwest. I was exploring and playing a lot of what was current, and constantly keeping up with new music as a DJ started to take a toll on my relationship with music - it became much more about utility than pleasure and I started to lose a sense of what I actually liked vs what was new and on trend. I didn't take time to connect with new music, and that made it less fun.
It wasn't until I turned 21 and could get into Smartbar (which was notoriously difficult with fake IDs) that I really started diving into the legacy of house music here and how Midwest dance music has shaped everything that followed. Around the same time, I met Lauren Lowery of the Modern Dance Music Research and Archiving foundation through the radio station I was managing (WNUR). She had been a DJ on WNUR in the 80s and she came back to archive classic house records from the station's collection. Participating in that project really excited me. I started tracing the throughlines of current music I liked and realized that so much of it was sampling or referencing past works. So I dove into house history and started exploring deeper sounds from the past, detached from my prior moniker and eventually came to be known primarily as a house DJ.
But that, too, became a box eventually, because I allowed it to. For a long time I would limit myself with various labels - I'm an 'X' DJ, so I can't play 'Y' anymore. That type of mindset is so limiting to creativity. I am absolutely a house DJ, but if there's anything I've learned from history, it's that 'house' is more than a genre. Now I'm in a place where I'm drawing connections between unexpected parts of my library rather than 'outgrowing' music tastes and judging myself for them. They're all part of my journey. I can communicate more effectively through music now because my library is broader and my selections are more intentional, and I trust my own taste. And I think that's been a factor in the increasing opportunities I've had lately.
You're a Smartbar resident DJ now, what an honour! For our followers who haven't been to Smartbar or a Queen! party... how can you describe how important this is for someone who lives and breaths house music?
It's a serious honour to be a resident at an institution with as much history as Smartbar. It's one of the few Chicago clubs that's committed to the underground and has been since 1982. People come for the music, and management values quality music over acts that bring in big money, which is rare. It has one of the best sound systems in the city, and it was one of the first places I really felt connected to myself on a dance floor, so it means a lot to me personally as well. The opportunity to be part of that legacy is something I don't take lightly.
Queen! - run by residents Michael Serafini, Derrick Carter, and Garrett David, and the Godfather of House himself Frankie Knuckles until his death in 2014 - is a weekly party celebrating the LGBTQ+ roots of house music that has been happening on Sunday nights for about 10 years now. Some nights the crowd can feel like standard circuit party with better music, but it's really special on the nights where the mix of people and music is right. The weekly cadence matters - there are dedicated regulars, and when you see them, you know people are there for the music and community, it feels like a ritual, like family.
My first time playing Queen! was in March of 2017; now I play 3 or 4 times a year so I feel like an unofficial resident. It's the party where I really got to develop the sound that earned me my own residency at Smartbar. I'm eternally grateful to Michael for those opportunities.
You're also a producer (with an official EP out!)... how would you describe this project and why do you love it so much?
Yes! unlearning was self-released last September. I describe it as intimate pop songwriting with a deep house sensibility - sensual vocals and lush pads layered over dance-forward drums. This was the first time I ever wrote my own lyrics and recorded vocals, in addition to being the first project I ever properly finished. I had been dabbling in producing for a long time but could never finish anything. In the words of RuPaul, my inner saboteur held me back.
The first song I ever actually finished - the last song on the EP, doubtful baby - was born out of a moment of extreme frustration with my inability to create something I was happy with. I started repeating to myself that I couldn't do it. That moment of letting go, of almost giving up, ended up being the spark that I needed to move forward. Those lines eventually became the chorus and helped me ground the song in a lyrical perspective: the inner voice of self doubt I'm trying to walk away from. That moment forced me to reframe my approach to producing - creativity is a process, and the defining moments often happen by accident, so surrender yourself to the process. I love this project because I proved to myself that I could finish a project I was proud of and develop my own unique sound. I'm looking forward to growing that sound (working on some new tracks currently).
You also play vinyl sets... how do they differ from a regular digital set for you?
There are sonic and technical differences when I play vinyl-only. When I play purely vinyl I'm often playing older or more obscure cuts from my collection, so the selections might feel more classic. On the technical side, DJing vinyl is much more physically engaging, it demands a lot more attention but you also can't mix as quickly, so it lends itself to some settings better than others. My blends are often longer because it takes more time to beat match and I enjoy exploring the 'conversation' between the turntables. That said, I can get more creative with looping and cueing on digital, so I prefer to play a hybrid set when I have the option. (For the record, Madeline will be playing a digital set at Promise because of the sand and the breeze on the beach... it's not optimal for playing.)
As a queer person, where do you sit with House music in your life/heart/soul.
It's hard to put into words! House music is a queer art; I feel a connection to queerness and queer history through house music that feels significant. It helped me redefine my relationship to music and my body. My first sexual experience was nonconsensual, and that impacted my relationship to my body in ways that I didn't realize for a long time. I tried to suppress that trauma through escapism, eating disorders, drug use instead of dealing with it directly. So that coloured my relationship with partying when I first started going to raves in high school. I was going to hear the music and escape but I didn't really start dancing until I found house music. It unlocked a journey back to feeling like my body is mine. It's still escapism, but a healthy kind. One that heals.
Also with a queer lense, how is Chicago doing? What is it like there for you and your community?
In general, Chicago has been a great place for me to be queer. I feel lucky to live in a fairly progressive city in the middle of an otherwise conservative part of the country - only an hour's drive to Trump country in Wisconsin - and there's a wide array of events for queers with different interests. I think intergenerational support in the queer community is solid here, especially in the DJ world.
That said, my experience as a white, able bodied, gender nonconforming queer person is specific. Chicago is still a very segregated city, and it's still the Midwest. I know a lot of trans women don't feel very safe, and some don't feel the same type of support network that they might have in cities like New York. So I love it here, but there's always work to be done.
Shoutout time! Who do you want to give a shoutout to in your Chicago DJ life? Who should be following and listening to?
You probably already know these two, but I have to shout out my longtime roommate Ariel Zetina, along with the fabulous Shaun J Wright who connected me with y'all (both coresidents of mine at Smartbar). My sonic kindred spirit Club Chow is one of my favorite people to share a lineup with, and I think Miss Twink USA has one of the most unique sonic voices in the city - I immediately know when I walk into a room where she's playing. And of course La Spacer and Cqqchifruit of TRQPiTECA who curated the Chicago Boiler Room in April and have been creating music-focused queer events for as long as I've lived here. All of these people have a unique sound, and that's what makes them stand out to me. So many more great DJs here that I could name! Come visit us and see.
Join us for Promise Cherry Beach, Sunday Junly 9th from 4pm-11pm with headliner Madeline! Opening for them will be Valeroo, Armandd, Phillippe and Blackcat.