I was lucky enough to meet Gabriel Garzón-Montano before his concert at La Bellevilloise, where he came to defend his new album “Jardin“.
Given, the intricacy of his music, I thought that we would mainly talk about the recording process, the numerous layers or live performances…But I soon found out that the Funk singer had even more to say about writing and creating a full-fledged universe through music. I was thrilled to discover an artist who was both introspective and curious of everything – so much that by the end of the interview, it felt like a dialogue rather than an interview – and that I was able to give back a tiny sample of what I receive when I listen to his music.
Highclouds: Compared to most R&B singers, you don’t appear to me as a show-off artist. I wonder if it is related to your multi-instrumentalist approach: do you use your voice like any other instruments?
Most of time I spent on the record was with the other instruments, and I find it diffcult to switch modes. To spend maybe two days making a track and then all the sudden to go upstairs and start the singing – that’s not very natural, because I feel like I am out of practice. I like to do all the instruments and then come and do all the vocals, because then I’m in the singing mode and then I’m warmed up. Otherwise going back and forth feels like I’m raising something out of the ground and reviving it. So I’d rather be out of practice for a while and then do the instruments and then get my voice ready and perform.
Did you do all the instruments like yourself on this record, like you did for “Bishouné: Alma del Huila”?
Except for the strings and the drums on two songs. Also there’s processed guitars, like reversed guitars [mimic a guitar sound]. But I did the rhythm guitar on “Crawl” [sing again] and at then end of “My Balloon”, there’s a guitar that sounds like the ones in Sly & the Family Stone [tchenketchenketchekenkechen], that’s me again. It’s a classical guitar doubled with an electric guitar.
But you’re a pianist originally. As such, how do you approach a song?
I used to write only the right hand (the melody) and then I used to add the left hand (the bass line) to contextualize what chord I was playing; it was before I really had the sense of harmony the way I do now. Now the left hand comes with the right hand. So I need to know what the root is. I’ll just block it out first and then I’ll find a way to move around more with the bass, knowing what the main root motion is.
Taking about bass lines, you tend to use very repetitive ones, a little bit like Ostinatos. Do you look for this state of trance when writing?
Yeah I think it comes out of all the funk music I listen to. All the group stuff where it’s just a loop. « The Game » has that a lot.
“I describe something like a criticism of capitalism” – Gabriel Garzón-Montano
These recurring bass lines can also evoke the action of walking, like a “walking bass”. This is actually one of the themes that you tackle in the album, like in “Fruitflies” where you sing “We are tired of walking, but we can’t find our way home”. Is this a feeling that you experienced a lot, personally?
Yes. So far and throughout my process there’s been a lot of inner resistance. But in the song I’m not referring to that. In this song, I think that in the human race in general, a lot of people are put in a position that they don’t necessarily choose and it’s tiring.
Is this something that you experienced yourself?
Not being put in a position that I didn’t choose, because I do what I like to do. But sometimes I don’t feel like doing what I like to do, I feel this inner resistance.
This notion of self-doubt is very salient in the record. Like in “Trial”, where you ask yourself if you’re going to play the game. What is the game, and did you end up playing it?
Yes. But the music I never changed. There’s never been a point where someone has said “You should try this” or “maybe don’t do this”. I have been the executive producer of all the projects. ‘The Game’ is a game that people are forced to play. On the one hand, I describe something like a criticism of capitalism and the way it traps people in their minds and in their routines, and it makes them do things that they know are wrong, and they start to punish virtues and forgive mistakes, like in the line “Jokers in a marketplace/Going crazy over shiny things”. It’s about materialism.
“Mentioning animals or fruits was really exciting to me, cause putting it in a pop song, it stands out.” – Gabriel Garzón-Montano
In the beginning though, the game is about doubting yourself, and realizing that a lot of people feel like maybe they’re not good enough, or if they should do something. And it came out of a personal feeling of wondering what my worth was. I’m afraid of maybe not being interesting enough. I think I’m quite original, but I don’t know if I have what it takes to deliver it, to take it over the edge and to make it something real, something successful. It’s wondering if that’s gonna happen : “Do you worry about averything” – it’s this anxiety that’s very commonplace for a lot of people. “Afraid you don’t have the tight game”, it’s about your skills, you’re ability to convey something. “Do you feel just a little to plain” – the journey of being an artist, especially a recording artist, it’s this idea of presenting yourself like an exotic bird or like something special that people are going to be curious about, and invest in. Do you compare yourself to someone else? When you’re learning you compare yourself to your heroes. And you’re always learning.
Your heroes like…
Prince. We’re forever gonna stand in his shadow, you know, he’s the greatest. It’s easy to say what Prince was doing when he was my age. But I think I have a lot to discover when I truly embrace being myself all the way, and realize that they could never be another.
So according to you, what is your originality, your specific message to the world?
I think my thing is that I fell in love with American music but I’m not American. But I think I’ve studied it enough to know it. I make decisions that separate the music I make from R&B – though a lot of people are saying my music is R&B. I have something that comes to the world into an American context. I’m Colombian and French, so I think it comes across in the lyrics, and in my choices harmonically. Gabriel García Márquez for instance is a huge influence, and I’ve never really mentioned him that much.
“I’m afraid of maybe not being interesting enough” – Gabriel Garzón-Montano
It’s funny that you mention a writer because your lyrics sound a lot like poetry, which is pretty uncommon in R&B/Funk music – especially the “garden” metaphor which runs all over the album. Do you read a lot?
Yes. You know Rimbaud, the “Illuminations”? I took it from there and I decided to call it “Jardin” because of the poem called “Enfance” [childhood], but the whole book kind of gave me a language that was very visual. When I read that, I see it in my head, because he describes a lot of things happening, or the children or animals, and I wanted people to have the same reactions that I have with his poetry, to my music, to bring that into a modern context. For the game it’s Nietzsche, “Zarathoustra”, it’s almost a found poem. When I was reading it I was just realizing “oh this could go here and there” and I’d just fill in the blank here and there and then I had the lyrics.
Is it where you found the line “Have heart like a tangerine”?
That I made up. I think I had a poem that I was writing about my mom, and it went like “Mama was a rock star, she had heart like a tangerine”…oh no it was “she had punch like a tangerine”. It was to describe her presence, like bright and strong, and then I changed it to “have heart like a tangerine”, cause “The Game” started with this whole notion of having self-doubt, but “You don’t have to lose the game”, you can always win the game – with your heart, by having a strong heart and just go through it.
Do you feel like you’re a little bit closer to winning with this album?
Did you know, prior to recording the song, that it would be a concept album and that you would mention fruit and animal metaphors in every song?
No, it just happened. “Sour Mango”, I already had that lyric a long time ago. “Fruitflies”, I had it a long time ago. I think the attraction to this…in my first EP, I’m wondering if there’s any mention about it, because this was when I wrote those two songs, in 2012. “Puffy lip from a spider bite”, I think I started that with the song “Me Alone”, at the end. Just the mention of the spider was really exciting to me. I felt like mentioning animals or fruits was really exciting to me, cause putting it in a pop song, it stands out.
So is it usually poems that you then put into music, or is it the other way around?
Either way. I collect little things, and if I have something, I’m like “La la la la la”, then I go look through the book, I try and I’m like “that kinda start working”. It doesn’t really happen at the same time. “Crawl” happened at the same time. After “Fruitflies” was done, “Trial” was done – “The Game” was definitely later…Yes I think it’s when I was writing “Bombo Fabrika”, the line “a peach bite melody” was in there…by then I was aware that I was doing that already [the concept album] , but It wasn’t something that I decided to add after having all the songs done, it just kind of happened.
And yet you build connection with the rest of your work, like in “Sour Mango” where you mention “Naeja” which is also a song in the E.P. Do you find necessary to build a whole universe around your music?
Yeah, that’s important. A lot of artists I like do this. Like in « Abbey Road » [by the Beatles], they always make references. Like Polythene Pam who gets mentioned again, The Fool on the Hill…oh wait no, that’s in « Magical Mystery Tour »…Anyway, that became an attractive idea because it’s jus striking and also it’s a lazy way of writing lyrics. When you don’t know what to say you’re like « Oh, well, I can reference different things ». So Naeja became this goddess – In « Sour Mango » it’s like « Naeja won’t you please come rescue me » cause in the original song she rescues a guy that is in a desert and about to die…On « Long Ears », I say « Fruitflies in the breeze »…
There are lots of lyrics that are quite hermetical in such a way that they build up a whole world, a whole myth. How did you come up with those names?
Well, for “Naeja” I needed to invent a woman’s name cause I had just found the song “Naema” [sings] and that name was really great, so I played around it. Cause I needed material, and I wanted to know what the mythologies of fairies, deities, of those character were, so I just typed “Women with wings that live in the woods”…It’s a lot of fairies and it comes out a lot of Celtic stuff, and so there was like a something-eja in Celtic so I took it from here and I put it at the end of “Naema”. And I had a character. And “Bombo Fabrika” is from a Saul Steinberg sketchbook – he’s my dad’s favourite cartoonist – so it was in my Dad’s house and he has all these books I was just looking through.
He’s this guy who blurred the line between cartoons and fine art. He drew “View from Ninth Avenue” where you see Russia And China in the background…He made these great cartoons, and his stuff his incredible. He’s got one cartoon where this guy is marching, and he has long hair and a really long beard, like a John Lennon character, and it’s written “National School of the Avant-garde” , and they all look the same like in the military…He was around since the thirties and maybe until 1993 or something. And he wrote “Mondei, Tuesdei, Wednesdei, Thirsdei…Bombo Fabrica” and I was like “I need to put it in my notebook”. Bombo means bass drum, and Fabrica means a factory, so I was like wouldn’t it be nice if I had a home base! You know, people have their little mythologies. Unfortunately the only example I can think of is Drake, with the “6”, you know how he named Toronto the “6” and he always references it. And I was like, “I want to have my home to”, but I didn’t want to claim New-York like that too, so I made an imaginary one and it’s Bombo Fabrika, the place from which all the music comes from. It’s like a actor of bass drums…
And is there a new product from Bombo Fabrika coming soon?
Not really. I have a bunch of scraps…I just started the official notebook for the new album, so I have everything in there so it’s organized. Cause otherwise I have all these papers everywhere, so there are papers here and there, and it’s hard to remember where each paper is. So I need to take it all and copy it into one book so I can refer to it, an cut it, and start doing it. And also, I’ve never tended to talk about my stuff as much as I do now, so through talking about it, I got these clues about how to keep moving, so writing is gonna be important here. And musically, I keep finding that I write things that are pretty slow and dark and strange and I’d like to keep the darkness and the strangeness a little bit but I’d like to make music that I can stand up and dance while I sing it, but still have the delicacy…I find I have a really hard time striking a balance. One of the things I wrote down is that I’d like to be the combination between Prince and Björk so that I could make really weird dance music that’s still very good. And I hadn’t figure out how to do that, so that’s a big challenge.