Chilly Gonzales
Photo by Alexandre Isard

Chilly Gonzales: “I try to pull the curtain back”

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Short Profile

Name: Jason Charles Beck
DOB: 20 March 1972
Place of birth: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Occupation: Pianist, composer

Chilly, even though your music has no lyrics, would you call yourself a storyteller?

Absolutely! In the music itself, there’s always a chance for storytelling. There’s questions, there’s answers… Music is based on tension and resolution, and so is every story since the dawn of time: call it the hero’s journey or whatever you want to call it, but generally you start in a stable world until in comes a problem — and the story is: how does that problem get resolved? And I suppose every chord progression is a little microcosm of that story.

A recent review described your music as containing misdirection, gentle dissonance, and musical inside jokes. Is that the kind of storytelling you aim for?

Well, I don’t know about musical inside jokes because inside jokes are very exclusive! And I don’t like that. I try to sort of pull back the curtain on the inside joke, if you will. But otherwise, absolutely, that storytelling is an aim. I do like to use humor on stage as people know, verbally, but there is a way to be humorous musically as well. And I think that’s really what the author was catching onto, was the playfulness with which you can tell stories. I believe you can translate those humorous concepts into the music in one way or another.

“I really want to make sure that I include people — whether it’s through a pun or references to people who inspire, I feel like that gets people’s antennas up.”

How so?

When I think of giving titles to the pieces, there becomes a level where I can verbally intervene and steer the listener towards maybe having some images. I dedicate the pieces to people who inspire me in some form, and that’s another way of adding a little bit of information for those that prefer to have a little bit of context. I remember going to art galleries with my father as a kid and seeing him feel sort of threatened by abstract art. The minute he couldn’t tell what was literally being represented in a painting, he was a bit like, “Ugh, I don’t know how to react to that!”

A little bit intimidated.

Right. He would go and read the little card next to the painting and it would say something about Mark Rothko going through a divorce when he painted this and all of a sudden, I could see my father’s body language change. “Oh, now I understand how I’m supposed let this piece of art have its effect.” I feel like sometimes with my music, I really want to make sure that I include people who might not listen to a lot of instrumental music. For example, calling a piece “Evolving Doors” or “Be Natural,” or what have you, whether it’s a pun or references to people who inspire, I feel like that gets people’s antennas up.

Do you think that changes the way that they understand or listen to your music?

Definitely. They listen in a way where the music can just be more effective, they are more open. But I don’t use wordplay just for the sake of it. I can show you a file in my telephone of hundreds of pun titles that I don’t use because they don’t have a deeper meaning! Sun Ra, Serge Gainsbourg… Every rapper alive is always interested in wordplay. And we all know when they go too far — when it becomes just a pun for the sake of a pun, then we groan. But when there’s a beautiful deeper meaning, like when Lil Wayne says, “Real Gs move in silence like lasagna.” Not only has he pointed out that there’s a silent G in the word lasagna, but that it goes much deeper because a G, of course, is a gangster! And a gangster is never going to be touting his crimes as the top of his lungs.

Pusha T called writing challenging lyrics “sacrificing for the greater good,” because once people figured them out, they thought he was a genius.

You know, when that Lil Wayne line came out, people were really confused because it’s a grower. And hopefully if you’re using wordplay, you always want it to have that secondary meaning which is, in a way, dead serious. I think, a rapper like Pusha T who is a very good rapper, he’s aware that there are two levels. There’s the head nodding, that’s a great beat, this guy sounds cool, I’m just vibing… But then there’s the: I’m going to bring up the lyrics on and I’m going to read along with him, and what exactly is he getting at here? That’s two different levels of how you consume the music. I feel like I sort of set up that game with my Solo Piano series…

In what way?

Well, in the sense that it could just be music for a hipster’s dinner party, and you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t feel like a person who is getting really deep into my album is necessarily doing it better. I just think you have to be able to make your music exist on those two levels. That’s all very valid. I don’t really prefer one to the other, the trick is making sure that it can exist on both of those levels. I guess my years as a lounge pianist sort of prepared me well for being appreciated as background music sometimes. It made it less precious. Unconscious unaware listening is just as important.

Chilly Gonzales' Pop Music Masterclass on Daft Punk

But is it fair to say you’re not completely satisfied with unconscious listening? Your Pop Music Masterclass series, which deconstructs commercial pop songs, would suggest as much.

I actually think that’s just like meeting the audience on their playing field. If I can show them the connection between a very current pop song and certain musical tools that have been used at least in the western world since the dawn of music 400 or 500 years ago… Maybe that will point them in the direction of understanding that there is more in common between the eras of music and the styles of music than would seem at first glance. Instruments and techniques we hear in today’s pop songs or even in rap are new but fundamentally, the musical material is not quite as different as we would think. And it’s a kind of musical humanism I suppose to sort of say, “Let’s focus on what’s similar.”

Musical humanism?

I mean, sure, it’s very important to focus on differences but perhaps not at the expense of what’s in common. I feel like those Pop Music Masterclasses are kind of a way to preach musical humanism. “Look, this song has arpeggios in it, and just so you know, arpeggios existed already back in the 16th Century and also in jazz and also in rock and also in Daft Punk’s music.” You’re letting people know that there is a thread running through centuries of music and over continents and cultures… And that can be a beautiful thing to realize.

But despite all those connections, there must still be some mystery left in what makes a song special.

And thank God for that. Analysis and all the things I do to sort of bring people into the music, it’s all in service to the great mysterious moment of creation. And I hope that no one would misunderstand that and think that I’m trying to give up the formula of how to create great art. There still has to be that mystery because if you could just wake up in the morning and decide, “Here are all the tools I’m going to use, here’s the formula I’m going to adhere to,” it removes that exciting eureka moment where you surprise yourself. I’m just taking a shot in the dark like everyone else.