What would you do with a year to yourself, just to write music? No recording or touring obligations. Just you, your instrument, and the muse. In 2016, Chilly Gonzales conducted this experiment, and the result is his latest album, a collection of instrumental piano tracks called, simply, Solo Piano III.
“I didn’t put myself in front of an audience, or a camera, or use social media,” says Gonzales. “To sort of see what happens to my brain chemistry when I don’t have to do anything that I feel has to cross the void to another person… What happens if I can really get lost in the music?”
The new Solo Piano III is 15 songs, with each song dedicated to a person of interest to Gonzales, from athletes, to inventors, to classical composers, to pop stars. It’s the third in a trilogy, following 2004’s Solo Piano and 2012’s Solo Piano II. Each is, partly, an exercise in using pop structures for his abstract instrumental music, and they’ve each “crossed over.” Solo Piano II was long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, for example.
“I actually had the feeling the pieces were writing themselves,” he says of the new record. “I had the luxury of time, to not make any final decisions before I’m good and ready. Rather than, ‘Oh, I have to go back on tour, so I have to finish these pieces.’ At the end of the sabbatical, I had 15 or 20 new ideas that weren’t leaving the piano.”
Born Jason Beck in Montréal, he and his brother Christophe (now a screen composer in L.A.) were schooled in music at a young age by their maternal grandfather, who Gonzales says instilled his “respectful connection to music.” In the 1990s, Beck began by playing drums in Son, an alternative rock band signed to Warner Music Canada – which produced a radio hit, “Pick Up the Phone.” He soon re-located to Berlin, and still remains in Germany. There, he adopted the stage name Chilly Gonzales and a new persona: rapping over piano and electronic keyboards, often while wearing a velvet robe and cracking jokes. An upcoming retrospective documentary Shut Up and Play the Piano features some choice archives from this period, which he admits was thankfully short-lived.
Still, the Chilly Gonzales character remains ambitious and outrageous, regardless of what music he’s playing. “Franz Liszt said he was possessed by the Devil,” says Gonzales. “I call myself a musical genius in the same way; it’s not meant to be taken literally.” The man his friends call “Gonzo” broke a Guinness World Record for longest solo-artist performance in 2009 (27 hours, 3 minutes, 44 seconds). He’s created a series of YouTube videos called Pop Music Masterclasses, in which he breaks down the musical elements of pop hits like “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift, attracting millions of views. He’s written columns for The Guardian about the correlations between rap and classical music, published a best-selling book of piano pieces, and earlier this year, created his own music school.
Called The Gonzervatory, it selected seven musicians for a week-long, all-expenses paid music workshop in Paris with Gonzales, and guest professors including Jarvis Cocker, Peaches, and Socalled. What was originally designed as a performance masterclass quickly turned into a songwriting one.
“As I dove into what I wanted to tell [students] about performance, I realized we needed to address the songwriting issue,” he says. “Because there are ways to compose in which you already have the stage in mind, and that shortens the distance between the abstract idea when you’re alone, and its final form.
Gonzales has increasingly been called in to consult with pop’s A-list, as an expert in the art and science of harmony. It’s how he ended up working with Drake on the rapper’s multi-platinum 2013 album Nothing Was the Same, contributing piano to the song “From Time.” “It was very interesting to see Drake work,” he says. “How he thinks he’s written a chorus, and then he’ll write something even more catchy, and what he thought was the chorus becomes the verse. You get these pieces… where it seems every part of the song could actually be considered a chorus. It’s very high-pressure, and not my usual musical world, so very interesting for me to soak that in. I had a temporary visa into Drake country… [but] I’m not there to brainstorm higher concepts for songs, or as a holistic collaborator, or adviser. I’m there to fix musical plumbing.”
“It’s something I learned from Jarvis Cocker when we were writing Room 29… He would perform [my piano pieces] while he was trying to come up with the lyrics. Instead of coming back from a tour and thinking, ‘I finally know how to perform these songs,’ but you’ve already committed [them] beforehand to a record.”
One assignment for the students mimicked a co-writing experience with Feist. They had to pick a song title out of a hat, then compose on the spot. It’s a technique he found success with when working on her JUNO Award-winning, Grammy-nominated album The Reminder. Their track “Limit to Your Love” – which later became a hit in England for James Blake – originated with the title, and then the two “performed” the song as if it had already been written. “I think 85% of what you hear on the final version was improvised in the moment,” Gonzales recalls. “It about erasing the barrier between composer and performer.”
Where to next? A solo piano tour starts this fall, booked through to spring 2019. Beyond that, he wants to take The Gonzervatory idea into year-round programming, for both students, and teachers. “As I grow older, I start to think about what might still work when I’m 60, the sort of connection to music that I want,” says Gonzalez. “What I want is to be around young musicians. Feed off their energy and transmit to them my energy.”