Published May 16, 2008Success does not define an artist; failure does. Instead of moving from one triumph after another, the ability to bounce back from a faceplant – and to be able to laugh about it – is a much greater artistic feat.
The man who calls himself Gonzales thrives on this trajectory. For a guy who has produced a million-selling album (Feist's The Reminder) and worked with musical legends like Jane Birkin, the glass is always half empty. "I court failure and learn from when it doesn't work," he explains. "That's how it's always been for me." That's never more true than when it comes to his hometown of Toronto, which he left a decade ago for Europe. His new album Soft Power came out across the Atlantic earlier this spring; a May, 2008 show in a soft-seat Toronto theatre was to be the triumphant homecoming to mark the last night of his tour – despite the fact that the show was held six weeks before the new album would be released in Canada. There was no shortage of audience enthusiasm for the unfamiliar new material and Gonzales's tour-de-force showmanship. Yet a mock indignant Gonzales hopped off stage to literally walk all over the crowd of old friends and new fans, chiding them for not recognising his "hit single" from 2000 – a song that never got a formal release in this country.
Later that week, Gonzales chuckles as he recalls the show in the corporate boardroom of the Arts and Crafts label, shortly before they presented him with plaque celebrating The Reminder's double platinum status in Canada. "That moment, when I walked out in the audience and hung out in the 50 empty seats, was painful," he says. "I thought, 'This is what being Gonzales is all about.'
"In Montreal [the night before] there was a massive crowd of 800 people and an incredible media reaction. Then I came to Toronto and had a half-filled theatre. I thought it wouldn't have been right to finish off the tour on such a high note in Montreal; it would have been too much of a triumph. I needed to be brought back down. I really appreciated that."
For all his megalomania, Gonzales stands firmly in the tradition of both Jewish and Canadian humour. He's Canadian in the sense that he straddles American and European forms, able to satirize each from a place of sincere respect. And the performer who created a "Jewish super-villain" stage persona explains that Jewish humour is self-deprecating by nature, in order to make a larger point. "It's not like parody, which is about 'look at that idiot,'" he explains. "It's about look at this idiot; I'm the idiot. I'm the one who needs to protect myself also from being considered just a straight-ahead musician. Maybe that's my flaw; that I need to create this distance by putting in a joke where it doesn't need to be. And maybe people are laughing at my flaws.
"I would rather put those flaws on display in the service of entertainment," he continues. "I find it awful when I'm watching a performance and someone is pretending to be such a humble guy, when you can tell that the guy is a shark. I'd rather say that first: I'm full of myself; I'm frustrated; I'm incapable of just living in a world where the music should do all the work for me. That way, no you can say that about me first. It's pre-emptive."
The story of Gonzales begins with a McGill composition student named Jason Beck, who recorded an album entitled Thriller under the name Son; the demo recording got him signed to Warner Records (by future Polaris Prize founder Steve Jordan) and landed him a minor radio hit. Befitting his oversized ego, at Thriller's CD release show Beck opted to perform Prince's Purple Rain in its entirety. After a public battle with the label over the second Son album, Beck fled to Europe and reinvented himself as Gonzales, a self-described "potty-mouthed prankster rapper" and sidekick to his old friend Peaches. He shifted gears to collaborate with Feist on her soon-to-be international breakthrough of soft pop concoctions. Somewhere in between he put out a quiet album of solo piano pieces that defied everyone's expectations in his adopted country of France, both critically and commercially.
He left an overly earnest Canadian indie rock scene in the late '90s because, in part, he felt that no one here valued musical skill and showmanship. "I do view music as something to be mastered, as something that has science and mathematical secrets to be learned that create emotions," he says. "The world I came from did not appreciate those." Yet considering his disdain for the wilful amateurism of indie rock, his early records were deliberately stripped down and, quite often, downright stupid – little more than vehicles for the character of Gonzales that came alive in the stage show. Since then, he's been moving between the worlds of respectable music and kitsch. Before the release of Solo Piano, he would interrupt his clownish hip-hop set with a classical piano interlude, throwing audiences for a complete loop. At Solo Piano shows, he gives the likes of Michael Sembello's Flashback hit "Maniac" the same arrangement he would a piece by Ravel. The current stage show finds him incorporating every stage of his career, with a set list designed into a dramatic arc. It makes him a Liberace of sorts for the 21st century: equal part serious musician and shameless showman.
Anyone put off by this type of shapeshifting isn't likely to change their impression after hearing the warm and accessibly smooth '70s pop songs, disco instrumentals and musical theatre pieces heard on Soft Power. Yet true to his reactionary nature, Gonzales sees even this music as adversarial, despite the fact that anyone familiar with Feist's Let It Die is unlikely to be intimidated by Soft Power.
"After Solo Piano, so many people who felt that they could finally permit themselves to musically respect me are now completely threatened by the idea that I've gone back to some kind of bad taste or kitsch," he insists. "It's intentional: for me, Erik Satie is the same as Billy Joel. I have sincere musical respect for both.
"As much as you have to please people, you also have to shock them and make them hate you and then earn back their respect," continues the Machiavellian musician. "It's something politicians do all the time. They calibrate according to the over-stepping and then ask for forgiveness, and it works to their advantage. It's an old trick for any kind of mass communication: to be able to transgress and be redeemed."
Having a ringside seat to witness Feist's slow-burn rise to global dominance has been educational – but, despite his own ambitions, it's not something he seeks to emulate. "I would have trouble accepting accolades all the time," he says. "I need to feel like a tiger in a paper bag. That's why I didn't make a second Solo Piano record, which could have been so seductive. In a way it would solve so many problems for me. But the lesson there isn't that I found my formula; the lesson is that I should keep taking risks."