Spinning Out: Shanghai's Teenage DJ Gouachi

By Sarah Forman, January 25, 2019

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While many children in China grow up learning to play traditional instruments like the piano or violin, Shi Jiayuan, better known by her stage name, Gouachi, opted for turntables instead. Over the last few years, she’s made a name for herself in Shanghai and across China, but her story is just as interesting as her sound.

“This is the first tattoo I got,” 17-year-old Shi Jiayuan says as she pulls her denim pant leg up to her knee. The words ‘Disk Jockey’ take up the outer right side of her calf in an ornate font, reminiscent of a tattoo you might see on the arms of a 20-something in downtown Los Angeles. “It’s kind of stupid,” she says laughing, as we talk about the others on her arms and the back of her neck. A ghost emoji, a smoking cat sticking his head through a piece of bread and a protective Egyptian eye are among the most visible.

Photo by Sarah Forman

It’s uncommon to see someone this young covered in as much ink as Shi, but then again, there’s nothing particularly common about this Shanghai-based teenage DJ. She lives with her friends – not her parents – and has played everywhere from Chengdu and Ningbo to Hangzhou and Shenzhen. “I loved playing in Shenzhen,” she says laughing. “In Chengdu everything closes super early, not like in Shanghai. But in Shenzhen, the people were so excited, so enthusiastic, they danced so much. Afterwards we went to Oil Club and their speakers were so good, the sound broke one of the windows.” But despite her easygoing demeanor, things haven’t always been so easy for Shi.

Photo courtesy of Gouachi

A skull marks her left bicep, with what look like crystallized flowers emerging from the center of its forehead. “I was sick two or three years ago, and it turned me into another person.” During that time, Shi was anorexic, weighing just 30 kilograms. “Most people don’t believe this was me,” she says, pulling up a photo on her phone that was completely unrecognizable from the healthy, confident young woman sitting before us. “I had to go to the doctor in the morning, once or twice a week. It reminds me that I can change things, that I can always get better.”

Not long after she started to work towards a healthy weight, she saw an advertisement for a free DJ lesson at CTRL Studio. After reposting the article, she contacted the manager to claim her class, and with a few other friends they went to see what the studio space over on Kaixuan Lu was all about. After one lesson, she signed up for 10, but only made it to the first five before a leg injury put a pause on her progress. She forgot everything she’d learned during the unexpected hiatus, but once her leg was healed, Shi returned to the studio and has stayed there ever since.

Photo by Sarah Forman

“I used to come sleep on the couch when I’d play a weekday gig,” she says, clutching a folding chair to her chest. “One night in the winter it was so cold, I slept with my bag and this chair on top of me to keep warm.” When she first started out, the only opportunities she had to DJ publicly were on Thursdays, where she could be found doing hour-long sets at Arcade on Fuxing Lu. “One time my dad came to the studio and found me on the couch. He said I looked like I’d been doing drugs because I was so tired, and told me that I needed to stop, but I would just try to explain to him how much I love it and promise to focus on my school as well.”

Photo by Sarah Forman

At first balancing the two was hard for her, but as she progressed and became better known in the circuit, she moved away from weekday gigs into weekends. She’s since been able to travel across the country, playing in clubs of all shapes and sizes, while still making some time for her homework and a reasonable amount of sleep. She doesn’t much care about those things though.

Photo courtesy of Gouachi

For Shi, there are really only a few things she cares about – art, her mother, her friends and her cat Stan. “DJing is like…a way to show others what you’re thinking, what you want to say. It’s the same for my painting or drawing, and it’s why I want to study video production in university. It can tell a story.” She went on to talk about how Claude Monet does this with his use of light and color in impressionism, how much she listened to Murlo when she first started playing, and the way Alduous Huxley’s writing shaped how she looks at the world. But to Shi, music and art aren’t just about her – they’re about other people, and an experience.  “If I play very early in the night, it can’t be such a heavy set – for the people that DJ, it’s hard to follow that and keep building the intensity.”

Photo by Sarah Forman

Shi spends hours getting ready for each set she puts on, having her own copy of keys to the studio where she was once a student. “I listen to the sets of people playing with me before I prepare my material and what’s suitable for this party… I think more about the DJ lineup because I can never know who is going to come.” She thinks about the dancers too, stockpiling a reserve of tracks to pull from depending on the crowd, but she only ever knows what will work when she’s in the room seeing how people respond. For Shi, there’s only so much you can ever anticipate, but being present and planning forward – knowing herself and thinking about others – has brought her this far, and it looks as though there’s no stopping her now.

[Cover image courtesy of Gouachi.]

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