Chilly Gonzales has been through many incarnations. He's been a rapper, pianist, supervillain, world record holder, all-star arranger for the likes of Peaches, Jamie Lidell and Drake, and now he's adopted his most egalitarian persona yet: educator.
In his latest incarnation, culminating in this year's Chambers, his piano-and-strings collaboration with the Kaiser Quartett, the Canadian, Berlin-based musician has become an unlikely champion for the spread of musical knowledge.
When I spoke to Gonzales, it was the day after his performance at Toronto's Koerner Hall at The Royal Conservatory of Music. Despite being a Conservatory dropout himself, he's now been fully embraced by the institution and his concerts, which sees the composer/performer showing the audience his tricks as he does them. As he entertains an audience with music, he's revealing the tools that make it work.
And he's just as inclined to do that for his own music as he is for others'. In his brilliant Pop Music Masterclass series, he examines the popular hits of today - from "Shake It Off" to "Tuesday" - and reveals why they're so effective. This week, Gonzales finished a three-part Canadian version of his Masterclass for CBC Music, in which he applies that approach to Bryan Adams, Feist and even the national anthem. But beyond the Canadiana, there's another noticeable difference: he no longer introduces himself as "Chilly Gonzales, the musical genius."
In his interview with CBC he says he wants his audience to determine whether he's a genius or not, but from our chat about his evolution as a student and creator of music, it seems to be a part of his more overarching discovery: musical knowledge is for everyone. He doesn't think musical theory should be a specialized field, but instead free and inclusive.
I'm no teacher. I just think if I can show some connections then people people will feel that much more connected, more included.
Chilly Gonzales has two upcoming Canadian dates.
Feb 5, 2016 - TORONTO, ON - Massey Hall
Feb 8, 2016 - MONTREAL, QC - Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier
Chart Attack: What's your relationship to the Royal Conservatory of Music?
Chilly Gonzales: I studied at the Royal Conservatory for a few years and at a formative time when I was kind of forming my first bonds with music. And they've used a piece of mine, "Carnivalse," in their Grade 9 syllabus. So yeah, that's a bit of a coming of a full circle for me.
But you didn't continue there, right?
Yeah, I was probably 12 or 13 and I did about two years of piano lessons there. My brother was kind of the pianist of the family. He was getting better and better, and I was also taking piano lessons, but I was more quick to form a band with my friends and to play Depeche Mode covers. There was always this push and pull between my pop stars fantasies, and my thirst for musical knowledge. They were always kind of in parallel, and one would hold sway over the other for a particular period of time. That sort of continues 'til this day.
Until now, right? It seems like you've found a way to combine those two things.
I guess I resent the fact that for so long I've always thought I've had to make a choice. But, it's a false choice, actually. I see that a lot with pop stars, and especially rappers. They don't seem to have to choose between "am I serious?' and "am I superficial?" Most rappers are happily both at the same time. You know, ignorant and socially concious at the same time. You know, human beings with contradictions. That's what I've always thought: I want to do all of that. In some way I'm trying to always have it both ways.
That seems to play into some of the things you say in your Masterclasses, especially about how hip-hop has destroyed the high/low-art divide.
Hip-hop was the inspiration for me, really, to get where I am now. I kind of came on to it late. Busta Rhymes was the rapper that I glommed onto to at first. That's how I realized how musically advanced it was. Just crazy, futuristic ways of rapping for that time. Virtuosic, and at the same time that cartoonish image and the energy. It was like, oh wow, this is what I'm missing in this alternative rock world that I was sort of slumming in at that moment.
I feel like those barriers have come down. Like, neither of those two worlds is considered more "serious" than the other.
Well, yes, there's also the idea that it is better to be a great songwriter and a rapper than just a rapper. I'd say Drake is some first culmination of all the bubblings of all that were leading up to him, that rapper who can construct a really effective pop song. He really went for it, because he has those "going home" type songs. And then of course he has that sort of virtuosic, athletic rap stuff that he's doing more and more. Or it's the same with Kanye. If we're living in some sort of Reality TV era, he really embodies that, while at the same time having a very real sensitive artist sensibility.
You did that book of sheet music, Re-introduction Etudes, which is geared towards lapsed piano players, people who maybe took lessons when they were young and are interested in getting back into it later in life. It seems to run both ways, where now more pop-leaning fans are rediscovering their thirst for musical knowledge.
That's exactly right. I know many who said that, "oh how can I get back in?" I was feeling for them, because when I tried to get into sight reading I started to play the beginner's repertoire, and I was like, oh god, most of it's so terrible and so unexciting and unfun. Then every once in a while, there would be some minor, simple bagatelle or something, and all of a sudden I would think, oh wait, I'm really good at this. And the lesson was: if you're enjoying it, then you'll have the feeling you aren't really working anymore. And therefore this whole other way of interacting with it opens up and suddenly you're better at it because you've met the quality of that piece at its level.
That was the idea: give people something fun to play and hopefully they'll kind of forget they're doing something that requires discipline and concentration. That's really difficult for many adults of our generation, including me. I was never a great student and I have lots of problems with authority figures too. And so the only way to get rid of all that baggage is to play good music. And that was just the idea.
And more and more piano teachers have been discovering it as a possible tool for their beginner students too, and I've been getting some good feedback from teachers that have been getting the kids to play some of the etudes. So it turns out it's not just for the lapsed pianist, but the future lapsed pianist.
I was the same way. I actually took piano lessons at the Conservatory until I was 12 or 13 and I had that same feeling, that it was work. And now that I am older, I wish I had realized it was actually supposed to be fun.
98% of the DNA of all music is the same. The things that the ear wants are relatively unchanging.
So it seems like what you keep coming back to is accessibility...
Your newest album Chambers you've said is a way of combining pop music with the classical sensibility. But in a lot of people's minds classical music is something that happens in a concert hall, where everyone's seated and the musicians are dressed in tuxedos. It's not something that people think of as modern or accessible if they aren't schooled in that mode.
Well yes, the institution clearly has sort of become a sort of weird refuge on this sort of periphery of culture now. It's mostly government supported or it's this weird class of people who believe they should be part of that world. And how many people are really there because they love the music? Those are endemic problems that go back a few decades, to the moment, basically, where those institutions decided that the audience was wrong to lose a connection with classical music, and they didn't think it was worth fighting to meet the audience on their turf. But I think the way to make it live is through people like Arcade Fire or Owen Pallett or Sufjan Stevens, people doing interesting things and trying to preserve a link with music of the past. We are legion, and I think it is a great time for that.
So I think, yes, what you said is right, but doesn't everybody know that already? Doesn't everybody know that these classical and jazz instutions have kind of painted themselves into a defensive corner? I just want to keep it positive. And moments like me playing at Koerner Hall shows that there are ways to connect with younger audiences. They are little proofs. Like every time Patrick Watson plays with a symphony, we're that much closer. It doesn't have to be the tuxedo-wearing 1% who maybe aren't even all that interested in it. But when you have an audience that's interested and open, I'm just happy that our team can score one on the board. It's team positive, team 'let's break down the barriers between high and low-art,' team 'just take advantage of this wonderful musical moment where everything's possible and everyone has access to everything.
That seems to be the moment we're in now, where many more people have access to at least some sort of recording software. It almost feels like that now that the technology has caught up, the approach has to meet it as well.
Well yeah, and what's great is that musical tools are universal amongst styles and eras. And so I just like to see my little nephew making a dubstep beat and all of a sudden he's discovered his apreggiator plug-in, and I'm like "here we are again." He's like the millionth musician that is stumbling upon this universal tool that will always exist. Musical tools are always the same. It's all those 12 notes in western culture.
98% of the DNA of all music is the same, somewhat similar to the human/chimpanzee DNA ratio. That's a lot, so I try to just focus on that, all the stuff that makes eras and styles similar rather than different. All the rest is technology, social message and all of these other elements that are very important and define styles of music, but don't mistake style for being musical tools. Musical tools are relatively unchanging. The things that the ear wants are relatively unchanging. That's what my Pop Music Masterclass series is about.
Is that the philosophy that led you to starting that series of videos?
Well, it was actually the idea of the radio station in Germany that I did them for. I had never really gone deep into trying to explain modern day pop hits and trying to connect them with that overall vision, but they turned out to have a really good hunch. I can't just take any song and find something to analyse in it. I have to feel something. And if I don't like it, it has to be a strong dislike for me to find something to talk about. Like the Iggy Azalea "Fancy" one. I don't like the song, but I understand its take, somewhat, and so it bared it. It was asking for it.
Is that how you think about music now? When you hear a song on the radio, are you taking it apart in your mind?
No, well luckily I'm able to react emotionally to music, which is the most important thing. If I get that emotional charge, then I'm able to sort of go in. I don't listen that closely, analytically, until I sit at the piano and put my hands down. What I love is when you think a song is simple and you sit down and play it you find out that it is much more sophisticated then you allow for. Like if you try to play "Suburbia" by the Pet Shop Boys for example. It seems like simple chords, and you're like ''oh yeah, I think I got this,'' and then it's like "wait a second" and you realize there are these little extra bars, little two/fours, little bars of two, little major-minor flourishes.
That's the best music. You don't hear how sophisticated it is until you go deeper. Your first reaction is like anyone's: did I feel something? That's the first criteria. If there's then a sophistication to be found, great. If not, also great. There are some songs that are just what-you-hear-is-what-you-get, and then there's some where you like it and then there's a whole other level you can read it on.
You brought up Owen Pallett earlier. Did you see those pieces he did for Slate?
Oh yeah, they were great. It was great that he could even go a bit deeper in print and have the written examples, that more musicological approach, and his amazing sense of humour of course came through.
Well, what's funny is that I interviewed him around that time, and he said that those were "100% tongue-in-cheek," a rebuke to that style of analysis. He said it implied a sense of classism and necessarily adopted a patronizing tone. How does that jibe with your ideas about education?
Well, I don't think it's about education. I would say musical openness. I'm no teacher, I just think if I can show some connections then people people will feel that much more connected, more included. I don't know, I have a bit of tunnel vision. I try not to think too much about issues of class as it relates to my music and all that. But it sounds like he has a point.
Well, maybe the refutation of his point is that musical education is no longer something you necessarily have to pay a lot for. There's things like your Masterclass, Beck's Song Reader, even The Talkhouse, that site where musicians write music criticism. Maybe curiosity exists because there are more forums for that kind of analysis?
Yeah, I find it's a nice frame around my music. There is a certain sharing quality to it, and that helps because it's abstract instrumental music. And so, okay, how can someone feel included in something that is in theory is kind of abstract because it doesn't have words? That's why I put this special effort into my puns and song titles and guiding people through my concerts in a way that they can get all the connections of why I'm rapping one minute and then another time playing Romantic chamber music.
And when you approach it with that element of sharing, it just creates a lot of positive energy. That's a great thing to happen in a performance, to feel positive energy between a performer and the audience. Sharing just creates rapport very quickly, and I love it. I like to hear the little "a ha!" moments here and there. It might be in the form of a laugh, but that connection has been made. It's not just a joke. It's a teachable moment, as they say.