Gonzales an unusual piano man

Darryl Sterdan, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:03 PM ET

Chilly Gonzales is keeping his hands to himself for a change.

The mischievous and unorthodox pianist -- whose resume includes collaborations with Drake, Peaches and Feist, not to mention electronic and orchestral rap albums, an iPad jingle and a world record -- is getting back in touch with his serious musical side on his tellingly titled instrumental album Solo Piano 2, a sequel to his acclaimed 2004 release.

"After my last album The Unspeakable Chilly Gonzales, which was my high-concept orchestral rap album, I wanted to do something more emotional," explains Gonzales, born Jason Beck in Montreal 40 years ago. "If felt like the right thing to do after such an indulgent album. And when I want to do emotional music, it's got to be instrumental. It's got to be intimate. That's the power for me of playing the piano alone, and reminding myself of the purity of making an album of one guy with one instrument, taking place in real time. It's more like a documentary."

Unlike the rest of his life, which even he likens to a cartoon. And no wonder: The Paris-based entertainer and self-proclaimed "musical genius" leavens his serious musicianship with a hefty dose of humour and publicity stunts. He often performs in a bathrobe -- as fans will see when he returns to Canada for shows this fall. He challenges other pianists to live duels. And he captured the Guinness World Record for longest solo-artist performance when he played piano for 27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds in 2009.

While working on orchestrations for Jarvis Cocker in a Cologne studio, the nimbly witty Gonzales chatted about his love of rap, jumping the shark and being a musical gadfly. Some highlights:

I understand you recorded this in a matter of days. What about the composition? Was that also quick?

Honestly, the writing took place over years. The writing pretty much started when Solo Piano came out. I had to wait years to have songs that were impossible to imagine in any other format than alone at the piano. When I sit down at a new piano, which often happens because I'm on tour so often, little bits of music come out. Sometimes they're just little chord progressions, or a piece of a melody. Those little germs -- there probably were dozens and dozens -- gradually get whittled down as you realize this one is better for making an electronic song, that one is better for making a beat for someone, this one could become a melody for a singer I work with. But some of them just stay on the piano; they just can't go anywhere. And once I had 30 or 40 of those, I went into the studio and whittled those down to the 14 that made it on the album.

Do you want to be taken seriously on any level, or are you happier being a gadfly?

Isn't that a great word, gadfly? It really is. Let's put it this way: If the fact that I have a somewhat ridiculous name and wear a bathrobe onstage is enough to make you say, 'I'm not interested,' I'm not for you. That is, in a way, a hazing ritual before you get into the Chilly Gonzales fraternity. I enjoy displaying a cartoonish side as well as a musically serious side. I think those two things coexist. The best is when people can see both sides -- and there are people who normally listen to more straitlaced classical or jazz who also appreciate me. And people can prefer different parts of what I do -- there are people who prefer the rapping and find my solo piano stuff to be lounge music. There are people who would rather I just mess around with wordplay and be a kind of Andy Kaufman of the underground. But for me, humour is just the other side of the melancholy in my music. And if you enjoy contradictions in the artists you frequent, then you are welcome.

How do you make that work in a live setting?

I consider myself primarily an entertainer. Making albums is an ancillary part of that. What's at the top of the pyramid is the live show. I have a way of structuring it and guiding people through it. That's where I can really make you understand why I only listen to classical music and rap music. I believe in rapping as a way to transmit ideas because I think rap is more like conversation; hence it has all the projection and bulls--- of when we talk to each other. And the best format to understand that is to see me live. That's when you'll have the a-ha moment and those issues of, 'Am I a rapper? Am I funny? Am I serious?' go out the window, because I can be all those things. You've got to spend time with me to really get it, but that's what a luxury brand is about.

Do you plan to break any more world records?

No. That happened because I was in the situation where I had jumped the shark, to use a TV term. I had put out an album called Soft Power in 2008. The piano wasn't really front and centre, and I was singing. And that was a huge strategic error. I've realized since that I don't believe in singing. Anyway, to sort of erase that and give myself a traumatic event to move on, I decided to focus in on the entertainment and the competitive aspects of what I do. Basically, my ego made me do it to change the subject. But I'm in a much more comfortable place in terms of feeling like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. So I literally could not do it now. I don't think there will be more Guinness records in my future. I'm happy with the one I have.

Would you ever work under your own name?

I have no interest in that. I've spent this much time building a brand. Because the point of building a brand with such a ridiculous name is that it's so empty it can contain all the different styles of music that I like to touch on. Each style to me is like a toy to be used. I'm playing with all of them.

 


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