Chilly Gonzales: The RD Interview

Pianist Chilly Gonzales talks bathrobes, busting musical barriers and his new album, Chambers.

Chilly Gonzales: The RD InterviewPhoto: Alexandre Isard

You’ve had a diverse career: you’ve worked on pop and instrumentals; you’ve collaborated with the rapper Drake (né Aubrey Graham). Why put out an album of chamber music now?
It began when I met the Kaiser Quartet in 2011. Once in a while, playing with them, I would think, Why did that feel like a rap song? Looking back, I think I was also interested in the translatability of genres. Early on, I realized that formal covers of songs that seem undeserving of being done seriously-a baroque take on “Eye of the Tiger,” let’s say-would be successful onstage. Chambers is the funhouse-mirror version of that. Hopefully my music takes what people think of as high art-a string quartet-and brings it into the world of pop music

Why make high art accessible? 
I don’t see myself as a gateway drug to real classical music, that someone listening to my music should then decide, “Oh, I’m going to check out this Brahms album.” I want to be a man of my time. 

You often say that music saved your life. How so?
Well, that sounds very dramatic! The piano can be one of many positive options for escape, and that’s what it was for me. As a young person, I experienced a lot of awkwardness, social anxiety, difficulty finding my place. That instrument made me feel safe and gave me a place in the world. I once performed a piece called a in which a socially anxious guy sends his shadow to a balcony he can’t reach, to take his place in a world where he feels misunderstood. The piano is my shadow. 

You often take breaks from playing in your live shows to explain musical techniques and terms. Why? 
It’s like director’s commentary on a DVD. Because much of my music is instrumental and associated with being old-fashioned, there’s potential for intimidation and confusion. My rapping and my uncle-at-the-barbecue sense of humour-these elements might seem haphazard, but for me, it’s about guiding people through. This approach is superficial and funny, but I hope it leads to some musical depth without saying, “Hey, man, you thought classical was old and stodgy, but it turns out it’s pretty cool!” I hated that when I was a kid. 

What was your relationship to music like when you were younger? 
My grandfather was my first piano teacher. He left Hungary against his will in the early 1940s and really wanted to hold on to his European values; he did that mostly through his love of music and the great composers. Parallel to that, I was getting interested in pop, mostly through MuchMusic and playing in bands with friends. 

Is it safe to assume you will, as usual, be wearing a bathrobe onstage at your Canadian shows this year? 
Come on, man! We’re not going to finish with that, are we? I’ll be wearing the red, patriotic Chilly Gonzales bathrobe that Cirque du Soleil made for my Pan Am Games performance. It was much discussed: at one point, I think someone speculated that it was a nod to couch athletes.

Chambers is available now!
Chilly Gonzales plays shows in Ontario and Quebec throughout February 2016. Click here for upcoming tour dates.

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