As He Completes His Trilogy, A Deep Dive Into How Chilly Gonzales's 'Solo Piano' Conquered the World
Published Sep 07, 2018Speaking over the phone from Cologne, Germany, Chilly Gonzales cuts through the small talk with a cleaver of a question about the place he once called home.
"How's life in Doug Ford's Ontario?" he asks Exclaim!
"In Germany things are also heading in an overall direction that is super worrisome," Gonzales reflects. "When I moved here I sort of naively thought I'd moved to a post-nationalist society, and then maybe people would probably say the same thing about Canada, that things like what are happening in other countries couldn't happen in Canada, but it seems like a worldwide trend."
Known for performing live in a bathrobe and with a history of appearing alongside rapping puppet crews and renting out government press houses to stage madcap conferences announcing his campaign for president of the local underground, Gonzales has spent a significant portion of his career immersing himself in a zany universe of his own design, but as the world around him has become increasingly perverse, Gonzales has gradually tempered his resolve, reeling in his persona and lowering the fourth wall that separates him from his audiences.
And as Gonzales locates the Ontario provincial election within the context of the zeitgeist with a biographical tidbit, it sets the tone for conversation about his new record — the third (and apparently final) instalment in his celebrated Solo Piano records.
"I didn't create Chilly Gonzales," he'll eventually say, "so much as it became obvious that if I want to create a connection with audiences, I need to carefully choose certain parts of myself that I think are going to make my music more powerful." Gonzales is an enigma wrapped in a bathrobe, but as he tracks the evolution of his Solo Piano records, a clearer portrait begins to take shape.
Born Jason Beck, Gonzales grew up at the keys of the family piano, but in the time leading up to the release of his seminal Solo Piano, he'd been without access to one for years. Hightailing for Berlin and adopting his stage name after he became disenfranchised with the Canadian music industry, most of his output involved a series of vaudeville hip-hop performances mainly revolving around wonky keyboards, only approaching the ivories after happening upon a piano in a studio while recording session tracks in France.
"At the time I was working on an album for the French chanteuse Jane Birkin, and it was very formal. She had a sort of royal coterie around her, and it was super stifling and exhausting to be in that room while everyone kind of deferred to the queen and no decisions got made. It was very much the opposite of just being able to be creative," he recalls. "I just had this sort of need to go and blow off some steam and I started to write pieces on piano, naively thinking they'll become something else, and then eventually there was kind of a eureka moment and I thought, 'Oh, what if I did an album of these pieces?'"
Sixteen tracks of unadulterated acoustic piano themes, the album that resulted from those sessions was instantly celebrated and frequently compared to the work of Erik Satie. For fans and peers that knew Gonzales for his flamboyant ersatz-rap persona, it was an unprecedented metamorphosis, and new audiences flocked to the project; it was a cult hit.
In the time between his first and second Solo Piano instalments, Gonzales unloaded another eclectic series of records that pushed the limits of his repertoire even further: the pure pop statement of Soft Power's Bee Gees-influenced soft rock; the "part art, part athletics" live album documenting his marathon 27-hour Guinness World Record performance; the (sort of) autobiographical piano-driven disco of Ivory Tower; and the orchestral rap accomplishment of The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales. It was time for another Solo Piano release.
"I did five albums that were all sort of, like, doing something different. 'Now I'm rapping! Now I'm playing the piano! Now I'm singing!'" Gonzales says. "It almost seemed that a purposeful part of Chilly Gonzales was to change radically with every album and to never do something twice. And here I was not only doing something twice, but also trying to repeat or add to something."
While the first Solo Piano emerged out of an exercise in decompression, Gonzales took a more hands-on approach with its sequel, gradually compiling approximately 100 melodies over the course of eight years and writing 14 tracks from a meticulously curated shortlist.
With Solo Piano III, Gonzales has tackled the project from yet a further different angle, casually assembling the music that makes up its 15 tracks over the extended recess of a self-imposed performing sabbatical in 2016. Without the nagging pressures of public life, Gonzales says the respite allowed him to reconnect with his creative impulses in their pure and undiluted form.
"I had no interviews, I had no social media, so none of the things that would change my brain chemistry to bring something to an audience — bring it to the world. Without that, I could really exist as more of an artist in a way, and less of an entertainer."
What flowed out was an inspired collection of acoustic piano music that is less beholden to the rigid dogma of music theory and more indebted to the natural exploratory whims of the performer, more free and expressly experimental than either of its predecessors.
In a press release, he frames the album within the pervading drama of the contemporary socio-political atmosphere, acknowledging that it arrives at "a more problematic inflection point" while insisting that its "musical purity" is "not an antidote for our times," but "a reﬂection of all the beauty and ugliness around us."
Over the phone, he offers this might be best expressed through album centerpiece "Be Natural," wherein the note B natural presents itself as a technically wrong note within the languid progressions of a piece in the key of F major, but also comes to connote becoming comfortable with such dissonance.
"I think when you hear the piece for the first time, the note does seem to be sort of out of place, and it's the kind of note that would beg for a little resolution. It would normally need to be tied up with a bow, musically speaking, and bring us back into a note that would be a member of the F major chord. I think on the other two albums, I probably would have resolved that.
"I had started to gradually experiment: with leaving that resolution note out of it, what effect would that have on the listener? And at some point I just left it out entirely. I think that note must come I think five or six times throughout the piece. And I noticed that as people would listen to it, by the time the piece ended, I could end on that wrong note and it would feel almost like a kind of resolution — that the ear had gotten used to it — and relative to the rules of the piece, I'd [taken] something uncomfortable, potentially dissonant, potentially unresolved... and then people could just live with it; the ears of people could live with it, and most of all, me as the composer, I could live with it."
Gonzales discusses it in terms of instrumental autobiography. "[It] sort of seemed to be a mirror of how my personal life has essentially gone over the last five, six years since moving to Cologne," he says. "And I would just say living in reality more than in fantasy. And that means less time spent as Chilly Gonzales."
Invoking his stage name in the third person, he remarks that the sabbatical encompassing the making of Solo Piano III allowed him to reconnect with the version of himself that still goes by Jason Beck. In the album's liner notes, he references that lifeline, dedicating "October 3rd" to the version of himself that still goes by his birth name and a decision he came to on that date. While he's reticent to get into the specifics, he emphasizes that this all came about because he "didn't have recourse to being Chilly Gonzales" — he could just be himself.
"I didn't have those punctuations in my life that would reinforce the fantasy life of being a sort of curated version of myself. And essentially that led me to write these pieces, in a way, that felt a little bit less active."
On a personal level, Solo Piano III keeps instincts towards theory at bay, and on a global scale, the music suggests an idealistic state in which the echo chambers of partisan tribalism are left behind, allowing parallel voices and opinions to interact — in theory, it's a conversation starter.
That insistence on cultural cross-pollination and dialectical interaction was also the guiding impetus for the Gonzervatory — the all-expenses-paid, eight-day residential performance workshop Gonzales premiered this past April. Conceived amid the hiatus that prompted Solo Piano III, the accepted dissonance that defines the album reverberates through the workshop's syllabus. Gathering seven artists from disparate geographical and performing backgrounds, each day focused on performance elements like collaboration, improvisation, and dialogue, with a mind toward working through organic differences and exploring what's in common.
"Let's focus on what all musicians over this whole planet, over every era where there have existed musicians," Gonzales contemplates. "Surely there was enough common motivation for making music that we could focus on one point for sort of the transmission of musical ideas."
For Gonzales, that's a palpable form of resistance.
"The way to sort of diffuse the attention that comes from nationalism is to focus on what's common between certain cultures and things like that. When you apply that to music it just means that you sort of kind of focus on 'Well, what are some of the similar tools or some of the similar ways of making music that would've been in common between a monk making music in a Spanish cathedral in 1500 to a folk musician living in a culture that's very foreign to ours to a jazz musician in the 1920s to a European making electronic music today?'"
It's all about recognizing shared DNA. "Humans and chimpanzees share, what is it, 98 per cent of our DNA? Yet we would see such a huge premium placed on those differences, because, well, we're not animals, we're humans. And well, what if we focused on that 98 per cent? We might feel closer to the other beings on Earth."
He says finding these similarities was the key to ending his Solo Piano saga "in a satisfying way," because it pushed the basic criteria that have always compelled the series to their limits. "It needs to fundamentally use the structure and feeling of how I listen to pop music, despite being instrumental piano. That's one box I try to check. And the other is that it can be listened to in a passive way but also in a deeper way — that it can exist in both modes of listening.
"I don't have a hierarchy," Gonzales rhapsodizes. "I don't think that deep listening is necessarily a better way to listen to music than background music. I love background music; I have background music on for a lot of my day as a soundtrack to various activities that would make it impossible for me to have a deep listen. I'm annoyed by music that I have to get up and turn down when it gets too loud. I think you've basically failed at being background music if you've brought the person out of that activity and made them turn down the stereo."
For Gonzales, Solo Piano III was all about pushing the limits within that liminal space.
"I guess at some point you start to want to add to it and see if you can stretch that rule to its limit. And I feel like I did that with Solo Piano III. It's right on the border, maybe, in a few moments, where you would almost turn it down, and I tried to push up against that border to the point where now it's hard to imagine going further."
And with that, Gonzales says the arc of the Solo Piano series has reached its terminal destination.
Of course, no one's preventing him from walking things back and repurposing the entire narrative for a new instalment — this is Chilly Gonzales, after all.
"It's not like I have a contract to only do three. I mean, Jay Z did retire a number of times, so never say never."
Solo Piano III is out now via Gentle Threat.