Joanne Hill’s life has been two big journeys. She was born “in the middle of nowhere, with the outdoors all around me” in the small city of Thunder Bay, Ontario.
At 17, she debunked to the livelier Ottawa where she studied tourism at college and discovered dance music at a club called Atomic.
In 2000, she turned down a job at Walt Disney’s Epcot Center Globe in Orlando, Florida, to become a local DJ in Toronto.
Now she spends most of her time at 35,000 feet circling Earth. She was a small town girl who yearned to be a DJ. She is now Sydney Blu, a jetsetter who wants to be a globally recognised brand.
“I ended up turning down that job to stay in Toronto because I got deep into the club scene. I made friends with loads of DJs and promoters, and eventually started DJing,” says Joanne, in her quietly assured voice. “I was pretty good at building a name for myself and after a while I had a strong following. That’s when Guvernment came knocking and offered me a residency.”
For six years Sydney Blu maintained a DJ residency at the giant superclub, which has something of a “monopoly” on Toronto’s club scene. “Because they own and promote so many venues in the city, I was able to play five or six gigs a week,” says Hill, now aged 31. “On long weekends, I could play two gigs on Friday, two on Saturday, one on Sunday and end up finishing on Monday morning at an afterparty. It was amazing and exhausting at the same time, and it allowed me to build a large fan base in Toronto.”
After a few years of being a successful local DJ, Sydney Blu longed for more. “I wanted to travel and build my DJ name internationally, and I realised that the only way I could do that was by producing my own music,” she says. Sydney Blu attended Trebas Institute in Toronto to study audio engineering, and she started learning off other Toronto-based producers like Fabio Palermo, Noah Pred and Deadmau5. “Then I built my own studio, and started doing it myself at home.”
In 2008, Deadmau5 released Sydney’s debut single ‘Give It Up For Me’ on his Mau5trap label. The track shot straight to No.1 on Beatport and remained in the Top 10 for two months. To date, it remains one of the biggest singles ever to have been released on Beatport. Sydney says, remembering with a smile, “That track was the big lift off of my career. Off the back of that record I got known internationally and got signed to the William Morris talent agency. That’s when I started getting bookings in countries all over.”
I never played the ‘girl DJ’ card. I had agents offer me the chance to join playboy type DJ agencies, where the girls take their clothes off whilst they DJ. Some girls do it as a shortcut. I’m not into that.
For years Sydney believed that the only way to build her career was via solo productions, and the success of ‘Give It Up For Me’ proved what she always knew. Her follow up single ‘Senses And The Mind’ was released in December and after its success “I saw the opportunity to launch my own label,” she says.
Blu Music dropped its first release just in time for this year’s Miami Winter Music Conference, and two releases in the label already has the support of Paul van Dyk, Funkagenda, and Steve Porter. The label’s latest single ‘Panic Attack’ was released last week, and is a collaboration between Sydney and fellow Toronto-based star Matteo DiMarr.
“The plan is to do one release a month,” says Sydney, who has enlisted Abigail Bailey to sing on her next single. “I want to work with artists that I like, such as Oliver Giacomotto, Steve Porter, MC Flipside and Funkagenda, and then next WMC I plan to do a Blu Music party. I want to build a brand, and paint the world Blu.”
Not much has been said about Sydney Blu’s gender thus far. But Joanne Hill is indeed a rare breed – a female producer, who writes her own beats and programs her own sounds. She has managed to earn the respect of Deadmau5, one of dance music’s biggest stars, and she has built a name for herself in what is predominantly a man’s world.
“I never played the ‘girl DJ’ card. I had agents offer me the chance to join playboy type DJ agencies, where the girls take their clothes off whilst they DJ,” reveals Sydney. “Some girls do it as a shortcut. I’m not into that. It’s not right to cut corners. Every other DJ out there has to work hard to get noticed for the right reasons, and I wanted to be recognised for my music like everyone else.”
Has Sydney experienced any sexism in the industry? “There are always going to be obstacles. There will always be guys who don’t like the fact a woman is doing it, but I’ve found that by trying to fit in and by proving yourself, eventually you become one of the guys. You have to break down the barrier, and you can only do that by constantly proving yourself.”
When asked why she thinks there are so few women producing electronic music, she replies “The path to building a name for yourself in dance music via solo productions is still relatively new. There are probably loads of guys out there, as well as women, who still think they’ll get noticed if they hand out a decent mix CD but that’s not how you do it anymore. You have to write your own music, and not everyone has realised that yet.”
For now, the journey continues for Joanne Hill. She escaped Thunder Bay, kicked down the doors of electro house, and broke into the upper echelons of the North American electronic music scene. The world is next, and Sydney being a true dance music nomad will follow the music wherever it may season.