A conversation with Canada’s self-proclaimed musical genius
For years, Chilly Gonzales has introduced himself to audiences around the world as “The Musical Genius.” Although “genius” is a demanding moniker for anyone to live up to, a quick browsing through the liner notes of your record collection will reveal that many of your favourite artists have turned to Gonzales for doses of his “genius” potion, often to undeniably superior results. Although Gonzales has a prolific solo-discography, some of his most significant musical successes have come through collaborations with Feist, Drake, Daft Punk, Jarvis Cocker, and Peaches.
This autumn marks a busy time for Chilly Gonzales, as he celebrates the release of Shut Up and Play the Piano, a career-retrospective documentary, and a new album, the conclusion of his Solo Piano trilogy, aptly titled Solo Piano III. This year has already seen the release of a collaborative album with Jarvis Cocker and the inaugural graduating class from The Gonzervatory, Gonzales’s music school in Paris.
On October 22, Gonzales, or Gonzo as he is affectionately called by his friends, will be making his return to the National Arts Centre for a performance that will combine several of the hushed miniatures from Solo Piano III with the flashier rap mixes from his early career. Gonzales will begin the performance solo, on the piano, and then will be joined by Stella Le Page on cello and Joe Flory on drums to perform a blend of hits and surprises from his celebrated repertoire.
Although he is deep into a career now entering its second decade, Chilly Gonzales tells Apt613 that he still doesn’t like hearing his recordings played back to him. This pain, however, pales in comparison to his experience of watching himself on film. “Seeing yourself on camera is the worst thing,” says Gonzales, “it’s like seeing yourself in a photograph. I think if anyone actually enjoyed that there is something wrong with them.”
Shut Up and Play the Piano made its North American debut at Pop Montreal in September, and traces Gonzales’s life and career from his Montreal childhood, to rapping with puppets in Berlin clubs, to grand onstage accompaniments with the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. “After twenty years you sort of make new sets of fans that don’t know what you did in the beginning of your career,” he says. “I thought the documentary would be a nice way to tell the story of my experience in the art world.”
“After twenty years you sort of make new sets of fans that don’t know what you did in the beginning of your career.”
The process began with being convinced by director Philipp Jedicke that there was a narrative to be explored through delving into the different phases of his career. “I wanted to make sure that the director used the film as an opportunity to showcase various highlights and memories from my career,” says Gonzales. “I have this amazing archive of stuff, and I thought that if the director could really find a role for the archive in the movie then I’d be up for trying to make this movie with them.” As it turns out, almost half of the documentary is comprised of archival footage, and thankfully for Gonzales, the fear of seeing himself on screen was not as excruciating as he thought it could be. “I didn’t really even have to watch it that many times; I watched one rough-cut and then I watched the final version. I have only ever seen the movie twice and I’ll never see it again, so it hasn’t been that painful.”
“I have only ever seen the movie twice and I’ll never see it again, so it hasn’t been that painful.”
Fans of Chilly Gonzales are familiar with his ability to analytically break down nearly any song in order to expose the musical theory behind it. With an arcane ability to explain musical theory to the uninitiated, Gonzales successfully developed his own music school, The Gonzervatory, which saw its first class of seven hand-selected students graduate in 2018. The “Gozervatorians” as he calls them explored musical humanism, audience psychology and what it means to be a performing musician in 2018. “The Gonzervatory is the project that I’m really most excited about for the coming years,” notes Gonzales. “It’s what I wake up every morning dreaming about, much more so than my next album.”
Gonzales says that he expects a new batch of Gonzervatorians to pass through his school in 2019, and he is currently undecided on if he wants to keep the school in Paris or move it to Cologne. Applicants can come from anywhere in the world, and if selected they are invited to The Gonzervatory all-expenses paid.
Chilly Gonzales’ upcoming concert at the NAC will predominantly feature pieces from Solo Piano III. The album is broken down into three suites, which blend an irresistible pop sound into a more traditionally-classical format. The compositions on Solo Piano III are each dedicated to a different historical figure, musician, or celebrity. Instead of composing a piano miniature around the idea of one of these figures, the dedications were doled out at a later stage. “Once I decided which songs would make the album, I had an opportunity to add some context and information to the music that would maybe get certain listeners antennas up and listening in a different way,” he explains.
Gonzales notes that these dedications follow a 19th Century tradition where composers would dedicate piano miniatures to various sponsors, unrequited crushes, and contemporaries. With a list of dedications ranging from Amelia Earhart to Eric Andre, many seem to be right out of the box, but as Gonzales sees it, these individuals all have an “underdog” quality to them. “These are all people who had to struggle to practice their craft and often were excluded socially from their time and place. I really admire people who had to struggle much more than I did. I’m an underdog by choice, but what I truly admire are people who are underdogs by necessity,” says Gonzales. “Other than trying to find my voice, I didn’t have to struggle very much, and that’s essentially a luxury as a straight white Canadian male.”
“I’m an underdog by choice, but what I truly admire are people who are underdogs by necessity.”
In recent French interviews, Gonzales has noted that although Solo Piano III marks the end of the trilogy, he will continue to make “musique seul au piano, mais ça va plus être Solo Piano.” The Solo Piano series started as a game where Gonzales attempted to copy structural principles from pop music on an “old-fashioned instrument.” However, Chilly Gonzales notes that although Solo Piano III is the last in the series, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he won’t do a project like it ever again. “Jay-Z retired a bunch of times and came back,” he says, “so I guess never say never.”
“You know, Rocky IV wasn’t that bad.”
Chilly Gonzales plays the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall on Monday, October 22 at 8:00pm. Tickets start at $39.50 and can be purchased online, by phone at 1-888-991-2787, or in-person at the NAC Box Office.