17 On The Frontline: Gabriel Garzón-Montano

“I like to put an emphasis on healing, love and positivity”

Gabriel Garzón-Montano: the sonic love child of Prince, D’Angelo, James Blake and Pete Rock – is a pleasure to chat to. Being a multi-instrumentalist and an extremely proficient songwriter/arranger, his compositions are entirely self-produced, conferring on them an originality that aids in bucking the current homogenisation of R&B, and cohere perfectly with his new label – Stones Throw.

What’s more, since his youth, Gabriel has been assimilating the works of Nirvana, Radiohead, James Brown, Biggie and many more through a variety of musical phases, affording him an eclectic tonal palette that he uses diligently when creating his gorgeous projects. His debut album, ‘Jardin’ (out on the 27th) – a heady mixture of frenetic percussion, honeyed vocals and diverse instrumentation – is a testament to everything I’ve just stated, and indisputable melodic evidence that Gabriel Garzón-Montano belongs in the ‘17 On The Frontline’ group – not to mention your earphones.

So, in 2014, Gabriel released his debut EP, ‘Bishouné: Alma del Huila’, a beautifully pared-down project that’s as funky as it is insightful; while you’re enjoying his playful croon negotiate the bendy basslines – you might just miss him drop a gem on ya: ‘We spend the days joking / And love to complain that there’s no time / And so we’re planning and planning / Only to live in the meantime’ (‘Keep On Running’). ‘Bishouné’, then, created quite a buzz, leading Gabriel to hit the road with rock legend Lenny Kravitz and provide support at concerts all over Europe. This is obviously a massive deal, so I asked him how it came about.

It was incredible and it was brutal at the same time, you know, to be a no-name opening up for a legacy artist, and the last rock star I can really think of.

“That came about because my friend Zoe is Lenny’s daughter, and she showed him the music and he loved it. He initially reached out to me to be in his band, and then I didn’t hear from him for six months, and then he called me asking if I’d like to open for part of the tour… It seemed really early in the game, it seemed out of the blue.” Obviously intrigued to hear more, I asked him what the tour was like. “It was incredible and it was brutal at the same time, you know, to be a no-name opening up for a legacy artist, and the last rock star I can really think of. I just found that the intimacy of my sound had no place in a stadium, and I found the electric guitar, distorted, to be the highest possible currency in that setting, and I don’t have that in my music… But then when things were going good and we were playing ‘Keep On Running’, they were giving us a good volume in the house. You know, we had ten thousand people in Poland visibly moving to the music, and that was amazing.”

As we continued to chat more about the tour, in particular his experience of playing at Wembley, I asked Gabriel about something that occurred immediately after that show: namely, a call notifying him that Noah 40 would be sampling his track ‘6 8’ for Drake’s ‘Jungle’ from ‘IYRTITL’. “That must have been pretty crazy for you?”, I muttered – attempting to conceal my excitement due to the fact that I fucking love both songs. “Yeah, it was out of control”, he replied. “For me, in my mind, he was the biggest artist in the world. It was just the strangest person ever to come knocking on my little door, you know?

I really wish I could have gotten a little more credit, and that’s about it.

Needing to hear his opinion on the song, I swiftly asked him for it. “I loved it; I thought he really knocked it out the park. I didn’t really understand, at the end, when he’s talking about girls who, like, go to college and are impulsive and all that. And sometimes, when you pull back, it is a little melodramatic and just, kind of, strange – and I don’t really get what he’s talking about.” (Yeah, I get that sometimes.) “But in terms of his melody, the chords they used, avoiding the second section, and the way he turned that into this fully fleshed-out R&B song – I thought it was really smart and well done. I thought my vocal was really soft, and his was really loud… But yeah, I really liked it. I really wish I could have gotten a little more credit, and that’s about it.”

We proceeded to talk a bit more about Gabriel’s credit for the sample, or lack thereof. He explained that on Drake’s Instagram thank-you letter, what preceded “Zoe Kravitz” was simply “GGM” – Gabriel’s initials. After politely noting that GGM is not his musical moniker, he joked that, whoever had written the letter, their hand must have got tired after writing Zoe’s name. I chuckled a little at that; perhaps all double-barrelled names got the initial treatment on the letter? No, but seriously, at that point in his career, he had only released his six-track EP and was still relatively nameless. Moreover, in my mind, ‘Jungle’ – in which Gabriel’s ‘6 8’ plays a pretty sizeable role – is one of the best songs of Drake’s career. So, perhaps writing “Gabriel Garzón-Montano” wouldn’t have been too much to ask. Nevertheless, Gabriel’s still happy: “But I’m super thankful for the opportunity and that song will be there forever – and it’s great.”

The idea that I would put something on record, at this stage in the game, that I don’t feel is A1 contender to be on an album – is unacceptable.

Once we had patched that up, we talked about Gabriel’s subsequent movements, which included touring, recording, touring, recording – you get the picture. “I guess doing everything myself and just having a small team, in terms of production and music, is pretty strenuous; when I’m making the record, I’m the only person who’s on call for the work days besides Henry” (the sound engineer). So, for all intents and purposes, Gabriel is a one-man band; he is the sole conceiver and realiser of each track. That is, all of the instrumentation, all of the percussion, all of the song writing/arranging and singing is down to him. Pretty impressive, right? With that in mind, I asked him how important it is, for him, to take his time when curating a project. “Yeah, definitely. I’m afraid of making filler. The idea that I would put something on record, at this stage in the game, that I don’t feel is A1 contender to be on an album – is unacceptable. So, yeah, to that end, it takes me a while to write the stuff. I’m definitely in no rush. I’m not trying to keep anyone’s attention or to cater to this single-driven blog market that we have nowadays.”

Following this, we chatted a little bit about Stones Throw. Gabriel expressed his pride in finding a musical home that has housed legends such as J Dilla and Peanut Butter Wolf; however, he highlighted that being on a label wouldn’t necessarily change his musical process. “It’s gonna be a period of growth for me, for sure, because they’re plugged in and have had a really solid brand for twenty years, but creatively, nothing’s really changed since I started doing all this stuff. Someone yesterday asked me if the Drake thing influenced what I was producing, and I realised that it didn’t at all. It didn’t cause me to try and make music that was more OVO-ready or anything like that. I will take a hit on the listener counts – I know I will – for the style of music and the way I do it. But for me, it’s not really about getting more people to hear it, it’s just about making it what it is because I think that’s important.”

My mother represents music to me in my life, and she was an incredible lady.

The conversation ping-ponged for a while, before I decided to ask Gabriel about his mother, who, during the 1990’s, was a member of the Philip Glass Ensemble. I asked him if she was the reason he loved music. “Totally”, he replied abruptly. “My mother represents music to me in my life, and she was an incredible lady. She was singing in the street all the time, she had an upright piano at the house, a cello, she played all sorts of percussion instruments, and was just really full of life, love and optimism. Which was incredible really because she was a freelance musician… And when I was six years old she was like, ‘It’s time for you to play an instrument now. And we’re gonna go to a music school and walk around, and when you see the instrument you’d like to play – point it out to me.’” (He chose the violin, however, six years later, when trying to pluck his way through Nirvana records, he realised he’d wanted to play the guitar the whole time.) “She definitely ingrained musicality and practice into me, because I didn’t want to practice – ever. She’d be like, ‘Please play it for me’, then she’d be like, ‘Stop, you just made a mistake. Go back, play it three times, and once you can play it three times in a row, we’ll go to the next part.’ Sometimes I’d never get to the next part, and sometimes I did – I just remember that so well… You just gotta play it really slowly; you gotta Alexander Technique that shit.”

So, Gabriel’s mother gave him his rigorous classical instruction, but I was interested to know how he built on that foundation to create the funky R&B sound he’s known for today. In what follows, then, Gabriel reels off a stream-of-consciousness timeline of his musical fanaticism.

I didn’t want people to just sit down in silence while I played some song.

“Well, the violin really stopped by the time I was in high school; when I was thirteen, I really gave it up. And that’s when I got my first drum set, which I still have in this room with me. I got an electric guitar, and that was the vibe for a while, you know, it was Nirvana; later on, Jeff Buckley, Radiohead; The Beatles – always. I discovered Prince when I was fifteen, so everything started coming together. The Biggie album, ‘Ready To Die’, that was the first hip-hop album I knew front to back. By the end of high school it was P-Funk, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, and by the beginning of college I was listening to D’Angelo. But, meanwhile, my Prince fanaticism had really got out of control. So yeah, slowly, my listening just took me to R&B… In the meantime I’d been playing acoustic guitar in little coffee shops in New York, and the music was very, you know, in that realm of folk, wannabe John Lennon/Radiohead, and it just occurred to me that that music was just really sad and didn’t move people; I didn’t want people to just sit down in silence while I played some song.”

So, Gabriel switched it up. He began to do less playing and more listening, and started a funk band in a bid to emulate some of the groovier sonics he’d been consuming in his late teens. “We did full scores of Prince records, of Earth, Wind & Fire records, James Brown… That was really where I found some of the inner secrets, things I hadn’t really considered – other ways of doing things. And then with my singing voice, it kinda took me to a new level because I really had to stretch it to lead a twelve-piece funk band.” And he took it further still. Listening to electronic musicians such as James Blake and Hudson Mohawke – and Lil Wayne in his ‘No Ceilings’ prime – Gabriel burgeoned into the fully-fledged musical omnivore he is today.

So, we arrive at ‘Jardin’, then, Gabriel’s debut studio album. ‘Jardin’ (which, in English, translates to ‘garden’) is rather aptly named: the percussion is bright, the instrumentation is colourful and the full sequence of tracks creates an audible space for relaxation and growth. Gabriel’s voice adjusts gracefully to the often unconventional chord progressions that he chooses to dial in, floating just above the floral, strobe-like synths on ‘Sour Mango’ – and gliding just below the poignant strings on ‘Trial’. All in all, ‘Jardin’ is just the soundtrack to a really good day; the melodies are medicinal, and the vocals remain optimistic throughout even the rare moments of melancholia – it’s just beautiful.

Closing words from Gabriel on ‘Jardin’: “I think all experiences are valid, and all styles of music and modes of expression are great, but I like to put an emphasis on healing, love and positivity. That’s just what I feel like people want and need; healing is in order for everyone, and that’s what I want to bring to the table.”

Gabriel Garzón-Montano’s debut album is ‘Jardin’, is set for a 27th January release on Stones Throw Records. You can catch him live in the UK on Feb 22 in London, Feb 24 in Dublin, Feb 25 in Cardiff, tickets are on sale now.