Born of artistic parents of French-Colombian heritage and raised in Brooklyn, Gabriel Garzón-Montano has spent years honing his musical knowledge to encompass not only the raft of instruments that he plays, but also his love for genres as varied as P-Funk, hip-hop, cumbia and soul, to name just a few. His debut EP, ‘Bishouné: Alma del Huila’, released in 2014, was a statement on the cultural melting-pot of his upbringing, merging densely layered production with precision instrumentation to create six tracks of simultaneous depth and minimalism.
Following high-profile backing from the likes of Lenny Kravitz and Drake, Garzón-Montano recently signed to the label-home of his heroes Madlib and J Dilla, Stones Throw, to release his debut album, ‘Jardin’ in Januart. ‘Jardin’ sees a continuation of his soulful experimentation of the intersections between culture and soundscape and takes his painstaking attention to detail one step further as the entire record was tacked direct to tape with the help of Kravitz’ long-time engineer Henry Hirsch.
We met, through our computers, to talk about the pleasures, and limitations, of going analogue, challenging commercialism, and the ubiquity of Drake.
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How did you first get interested in music?
My mother was a massive influence, she was a mezzo-soprano and played a bunch of instruments - the cello, the piano, the saxophone – and when I was six she encouraged me to learn an instrument too. I ended up playing the violin until I was about 13 and then when I went to High School I was set on being a rock drummer. Around the same time, I was really getting into playing the guitar and singing and writing songs.
I was influenced by John Lennon, Jeff Buckley and Radiohead, until at 15 I started listening to Biggie’s ‘Ready to Die’ album and Prince’s ‘Sign O’ The Times’. On a class trip to Arizona I bought three CDs from a dollar bin: Sly and the Family Stone’s ‘Greatest Hits’, P-Funk’s ‘Greatest Hits’, and James Brown’s ‘The 20 All-Time Greatest Hits’. The first time I heard [Sly and the Family Stone’s] ‘Sing A Simple Song’ the heavens just opened up. I later read that George Clinton felt the same way, he said it was the funkiest thing he’d heard from James Brown to the Beatles, and I agree.
That changed things for me and when I went to college I decided I wanted to make records that get people up and that are more interesting arrangement-wise. I started a 12-piece funk band and I learned a lot by taking apart all the arrangements and learning the instrumental and vocal parts. I eventually found that way too derivative though and so I went back to the drawing board and put the sound a little more in the centre, I brought in more of the Radiohead and my previous influences. That's when I started making the tunes for my first EP, ‘Bishouné: Alma del Huila’.
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My mother was a massive influence...
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So is your writing and recording process now quite isolated?
Yeah, on ‘Bishouné’ no one else made a sound and I did everything. On this record I had a drummer on two tracks and I had a friend do some guitar looping, but the lyrics and arrangements are all me and I play most of it.
That must be quite an intense experience.
It's very intense. I've worked with other people before and I work best when I have an exact plan for them. Part of the set up with Henry [Hirsch], my mentor and collaborator, is that he hates it when I bring in a beat - he thinks it's stupid. The last record I made he told me was not a real record, he said it was amateur. He meant that it wasn’t all recorded to tape. So, I recorded to tape for ‘Jardin’ and I liked it because it gave me all these limits and it's very difficult to work with.
The sounds are amazing, especially when they don't get too fucked around with, and it forces me to perform which I think gives the music a soul, since when you hear a song you're hearing a performance, not a loop. It gives the minimalism a certain electricity.
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It's pretty exhilarating to be pushed to your limit...
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So the challenges of working analogue appeal to you?
Yeah, they do. The sound of it compared to the stuff I've done digitally is just night and day and the way it ends up is always something pleasantly unexpected. You can't fake it - you can't sit there and fuck about with your mouse, there's none of that. You're just playing or you're not and it creates an urgency in the moment; it's pretty exhilarating to be pushed to your limit. I've done records the other way, I've watched a Pro Tools engineer correct everything and it's so lame, I know that's how a lot of artists do it and it's just too bad because people miss out.
Apart from the instrumentation and arrangement, lyrically there seems to be a social commentary on the record - is that a theme you were striving for?
Quite a bit, yeah. ‘The Game’ is huge with that, the whole second verse: ‘And we bite with stolen teeth/Clattering in finery/Baseness glimmers all day - we're going/Crazy over shiny things’, it's easy one-liners on materialism. I think it's what most people who spend a lot of time alone trying to figure out something beautiful to do end up coming upon.
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Is the album’s title and the natural imagery that runs throughout it, such as on the tracks ‘Sour Mango’ and ‘Fruitflies’, meant to be an antithesis to this materialism?
Yeah, that also refers to the art and the poetry I love. I'm really into the Impressionists, both the painters and the composers, and I was reading a lot of Rimbaud to come up with the lyrics, to get all the colours he's always talking about; the reds and golds and the flowers and streams. There's a magic to that kind of language which gives me a sense of wonder; I love that flavour and I want more of it. Ideally, I hope that the work is a break from something more commercial for people in terms of a lack of technological or urban feeling.
Has living in New York, such an urban centre, shaped the way you make your music?
There's something about the Caribbean culture and hearing music in the streets that has affected me a lot. If I lived in the interior of America, I might be more hyper self-aware in my search for the so-called 'eclectic'. I'm not really on the scene always going out though, I'm pretty much just in my room. The most important thing was my upbringing, having artists as parents was huge.
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There's a magic to that kind of language which gives me a sense of wonder...
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You can definitely hear that mix of cultures in the music, even in the use of different languages.
I'm trilingual, I speak English, French and Spanish and I suppose I seek that linguistic mix out. That's why I named the record interchangeably French and English for ‘garden’. Some of it also comes out in certain phonetics, in the scatting that I do. In ‘The Game’ there's a feel to the scatting which could be like Erykah Badu or French words - I don't really know where that comes from but somewhere it all gets mixed up. Certainly in the EP I played around with all sorts of things relating to different cultures; rhythmically there’s salsa and cumbia for instance.
The hand claps on 'Sour Mango' have that feel too.
Yeah and that was literally because I'd heard Flying Lotus’ song ‘Zodiac Shit’. That's when I made that beat and then it made its way into the album five years later.
What would be the ideal effect you want this record to have on its listeners?
I definitely just want people to be tickled in their minds and hearts, in the best way possible. I love being amused and bewildered but delighted by things that I consume, so I'd hope for that.
After you released your EP you ended up opening for Lenny Kravitz on his 'Strut' stadium tour – how was that experience so early on in your career?
It was incredible, I did twenty shows with him, I learned so much and got an opportunity to do something that people at my level and with my sound just don't get to do. Also, unless I have music that sounds drastically different, I don't think I'd ever want to play stadiums. Really, unless you have an electric guitar, or you have a Skepta/hip-hop thing going on, you don't have any business playing stadiums.
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I really believed that I would make good music and that would be enough.
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I heard that straight after one of those shows you got a call saying that Drake was going to sample your track ‘6 8’. Was that exposure to his audience pressurising or welcome?
I welcomed it. I felt pressure at a certain point but then realised there was no need to be what I thought that situation called for, or to reconsider what my career was. I really believed that I would make good music and that would be enough. A lot of people said to me, ‘you should do a social media campaign and put videos out,’ etc., but I wasn’t thinking about it in that way.
Drake was all anybody was listening to at that point, there was this moment where he became more ubiquitous than he already was, which for me was far too much. Personally, in my Inbox, everyone was congratulating me too, so from that perspective I felt like my mental privacy was being invaded by Drake, as if he wasn't already enough in my mind. Overall though I'm super happy that happened and it's an honour to have a collaboration with him.
Looking ahead, what do you have planned for this year apart from the album release?
I'm just trying to get my shit together and learn how to play this music for the live shows we have coming up. We also just finished shooting all the videos for the record so we're going to start trickling those out and I'm making some new tunes, slowly but surely. I'm excited to come to the UK because you guys really love music and show so much respect. Both times I've been to London especially it's been so moving with so many people showing up and engaging with the music - it's a special place for me.
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Words: Ammar Kalia
'Jardin' is out now. Catch Gabriel Garzón-Montano at the following shows:
22 London Jazz Café
24 Dublin The Workmans Club
25 Cardiff Millennium Centre (Jazz Club)