Gabriel Garzón-Montano – Interview – 2017

For an artist to make you want to hear and find out more about them after just a single listen of one of their tracks, is quite a profound talent. Gabriel Garzón-Montano has talent in abundance – playing the violin from a young age, his mother started his musical training early, which culminated in him being the impressive multi-instrumentalist he is today. Now with a stunning EP (Bishouné: Alma del Huila, 2014) and debut album (Jardin, 2017) under his belt, Gabriel has created a sound that is unidentifiable and stands completely on its own, being a tribute to the music that he has grown up with and loves. We spoke to Gabriel ahead of his European tour, to find out more about him, his debut album and the future.

Growing up in Brooklyn, there must have been an incredible music scene there?
I was born in Brooklyn but then we moved around a lot. I quickly found myself in Manhattan, uptown, downtown, Staton Island and Queens. I have never really been part of a scene, as in a place where people would meet up and jam. There are definitely a group of people I met in college who I grew up with in the city and are great musicians, but that wasn’t till I was 18. I wasn’t going to clubs seeing music when I was in high school at all, I would have been at home in my bedroom with my CD player, my drum set and guitar – that was my scene.

What kind of music were you brought up on?
Being born in 1989, I missed out in the golden age of hip-hop, so it was Britney Spears and Eminem for me. When I was in high school and becoming pickier with what I was listening to, I found myself going backwards in time. I started checking out Prince and then Syl Stone, James Brown, P-Funk and Earth Wind & Fire, not forgetting D’Angelo.

Can you remember the first album you bought?
I can’t remember the first album I bought. The first memory of an album cover or holding a CD in my hand was one of my mothers, the red Beatles anthology (1962-1966). It was the first record I really cherished.

With you mother being a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, it must have been a very interesting introduction into music?
Yes, she was always playing medieval concerto, Handel or singing in choirs. I found myself being aware of a lot of classical music without necessarily listening to it. We would also listen to the classical show on WKCR (local radio) and she would ask me who the composer was, but I pretty much knew it was going to be Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin, so my odds were good. Her thing was definitely not pop.

What drives you to write music?
Being from a musical family, at the beginning I wanted to find out if I could do it. My first songs where inspired by Kurt Cobain when I was 12. I had my Fender Strat electric guitar and a distortion peddle, doing the verses clean then hitting the peddle for the choruses and start screaming. I then went on to write songs with the acoustic guitar – listening more to Jeff Buckley, Ben Harper and Dave Matthews Band – adding more chords and over complicating my songs.

When did you start making this modern soul/R’n’B music?
I became increasingly tiered of the acoustic guitar as a format and I had no concept of a multi-track, it was just strum strum strum, vocal vocal vocal. When I heard my favourite bands – Prince, The Beatles, Sly and The Family Stone – there were all these arrangements and little details coming in and out of the song. I stopped the singer-songwriter vibe and really got into R'n'B and funk music in a serious way, almost reconditioning myself, as I was blown away by the virtuosity of the music. I started a funk band where I was the musical director as well as the frontman, but realised that, from an A&R point of view, no one would want to sign a 12-piece band as it would be near on impossible to take it on the road. So I took it back to square one, to see where I am when I’m bearing my soul and trying to be more original, rather than going into it with a distinct aesthetic. What I found was that I had this new pallet to draw from, and I was making this music that sounded a lot more original and interesting to me.

Do you have an artist that you see as your main influence?
I think it was Stevie Wonder and Prince. Prince is even more impressive in a certain way; his presentation of his music onstage, how considerate his aesthetic was visually and how much energy it must have taken to push that hard every single day. Going into the studio in full makeup and heels, writing all the tracks, playing every instrument, playing his songs day after day and then going out there doing all the splits and ballet, and generally kicking ass. That definitely singles him out as the greatest to me.

When did you first meet Henry Hirsch who worked for Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, Mick Jagger, The Charlatans, Dawn Of Midi?
I met him when I was about 15. He liked the fact that I could hold pitch pretty well and saw something in my songwriting. He said you’ll be a completely different person when you’re 20 and after then you’ll maybe make some records, but until then I can train you. He said he could see that I had a lot of talent and that he would be able to help me refine it. It was a real reality check that I would not have seen on my own terms. I think I would have engaged in a lot more self-reflection and been lazier in my craft. For someone who was 30 years deep in the game telling me to put down some drums then pull back the tape and compare it with a recording of John Bonham, or, to sing a vocal then compare it to Jeff Buckley. It was devastating as I wanted to be that good on that day. It’s not often that someone confronts you with tough love in that way, so I feel very blessed to have had him there. I kept trying to play lots of fills and generally be more impressive than I really was – he would say “you just got to keep in time. Listen to all your favourite records, they are just keeping time. Learn how to keep time before you be flashy.” That’s where I got a lot of my minimalism from – if you don’t know any better then don’t try to play it, just rely on the strength of the ideas.

Have you been thinking about the next release?
I have a bunch of early sketches. It’s made me think about what the fuck I’m actually going to talk about now I’m 27 years old. The twenties are a really interesting time, it’s like an extracurricular afterschool development program me for teenagers – you find all these crazy ways in which you’re lying to yourself, or blocking yourself off from traumatic experiences that you have had in your life, and how it limits you personally and artistically. My next goal is to become even more vulnerable, more direct and to speak from a great deal of personal growth.

How are you finding taking the album on tour, being as you tracked the majority of Jardin yourself?
I am playing bass in my left hand, keyboards on my right hand, and singing. I also have a drummer who does background vocals and certain percussion elements. Sometimes I do feel I maybe over extending myself and it would be a lot easier if I just sang as it can be challenging to have all aspects sat in the pocket, but it allows for a continual training as I am never quite satisfied with my performances. It does paralyse me with fear, but it also stops me from being complacent in my musicianship.

What has been a musical eye-opener?

Encountering Prince’s catalogue was a huge moment for me. Realising the context of his music, how brave it was of him to do what he did, and how everyone loved to tell him how crazy he was to do it but still rack it all up. The level of intimacy that is in his vocal performances was a feat in itself and really made a massive impression on me. At first his music seemed a bit stand off’ish to me, that he was just a very 80s product, but once I found out that he was playing the bass, that he wrote everything and that it was really him and not a major label Barbie, it was quite moving. Also one of the biggest breakthroughs for me was to be able to look, understand and get around a keyboard – I did that by learning Stevie Wonder songs. I didn’t really feel that learning jazz standards was the way, I didn’t feel as close to them as I felt to his songs. You can see the harmonies and the way it functions within his style. It really helped me to map out the keys and gave me a reason to want to learn the piano rather than just play the scales, it was more stimulating. I would have been about 21 and it really opened the door for me.

If you could work with any artist, who would it be and what would they bring?
I would have loved to worked with Stravinski, although I would be totally intimidated as he is on another level. He would bring a total mastery of composition and the ability to create these really dark and quirky worlds. The same with Debussy, they were both really pushing the envelope with how to use an orchestra or how to use a piano to create these very brave new worlds. In terms of today, I would really like to work with Damon Albarn. I love his voice, I love his melodies and I love how eclectic and creative his projects are.

Who would be in your ultimate supergroup?
Bjork on vocals, may be with a women’s choir, as well as doing some programing with J Dilla. Sly Stone would be in charge of keys, working with an organ. Pino Palidino would learn the music and give it his feel, he knows how to play bass to it all. J Dilla would know when to lay out and let things be simpler, but would also know when to really put some drums on it, perhaps by Karriem Riggins.

What would be your perfect lineup of any three acts for a concert you are putting on and where would it be?
At Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado. Sun Ra Arkestra opens, then as the sun sets Lil Wayne and friends. For him do it, there would be a restriction on what he could do, it would be more creative show rather than his usual flame thrower blockbuster Hollywood set. Earth Wind & Fire headlining.

What music are you listening to at the moment?
I’ve been listening to just one song over and over, it’s called ‘Man Does Not Live’ and it is a Sly Stone demo done some time in the late 60s. It’s him blowing down the blues, his lyrics were as good as they ever were and his vocal is out of control.

Any gigs you have been to that have recently stood out?
It was a little while ago at the Hollywood Bowl, I saw the LA Symphony Orchestra performing the Rites Of Spring.

What are your future plans?
After the tour in Europe, I have a couple of shows in Los Angeles and a show in San Francisco, it’s turning into a bit of a West Coast run. I plan to tour the hole of the US. Then later on in the summer, Japan and Australia. I will be releasing three new videos. There is also a collaboration with James Fauntleroy coming. At the end of the album’s cycle, there is another song I am very excited to share with everyone, one I decided to hold back from Jardin. By then I hope to have more music written and I can go and record, then do the whole cycle again.