Gabriel Garzón-Montano is the musician’s everyman. He’s a songwriter, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and an all-round purveyor of musical finesse. For Garzón-Montano musicality and personal background are not mutually exclusive. The native New Yorker crafts seductive R&B hits around deeply vibrant layers of production and does so in a way that is distinctly non-western. Gabriel Garzón-Montano acknowledges that he was raised in an ‘un-American’ household, and the funk and sunniness of his music certainly shows through.
However, tracks such as ‘Crawl’ and ‘Sour Mango’ are so unique in their execution, they have no borders or specific cultural influence. The emotion driving each beat and each harmonious interlude is characteristically human; warm, curious and enticing. Having just dropped a new full-length, and with an expansive tour on the horizon, we phoned up the trailblazing youngster to get his two cents on family, culture, definition of genre, and finding your own unique voice as a young artist in 2017.
As a young artist from New York, was it difficult to find your voice amongst a thriving sea of young musicians?
It feels that way. When I finished the EP – which was five years ago now – I just had no idea how I would get it out there. So, I decided to write down a bunch of people in the industry who I admired, and that’s pretty much as far as I got with that. I then put it out on my SoundCloud and posted it to my Facebook. Since then, everything has come out of that single post. I soon got approached by Phil Tortoroli from Styles Upon Styles and he said he wanted to press 500 copies of it. That really got the ball rolling. Once you put it out into the world – whether it’s physical or digital – you can only hope for people to enjoy it. It does feel like no one’s going to care. Even when you’re in your room mixing by yourself, you do think “How many people are really gonna rally behind this?”
Did you feel like you were ever going to make something of your music or does it sometimes feel like a brush of luck?
I didn’t know with the first EP. At this point I know there’s an audience for it and I feel validated in the style I’ve chosen. But I did see the possibility of people either missing it completely or getting really excited about it. I was really relieved when people connected with it in the same way that I did when I decided to record it.
You’re still a young artist with a niche audience, but in this day-and-age does it feel like a day-to-day grind or are you thankful for being able to create this music?
I think it’s a privilege to have a connection to making records and making songs the way I do. But it does feel like a bit of a grind. I’m still happy to do it. The more I do it, the more I can be seen in the world of creating music and giving people great feelings when they hear this music. I think the more I stay there the more positive I become as a person.
You began your career in a funk band called Mokaad, and then you slowly transitioned to solo work. What made you want to initiate a solo career?
The band was really derivative and it occurred within a very specific situation, which was my college days. But personally, I just wanted to become way more intimate with funk music; to learn the arrangements and to see what studying the language could do for me and my musical impulses. At that point I thought I was way too much on the singer-songwriter side of the spectrum. I wanted to honour other desires I had as a musician and to make more funky arrangements that were more moving on a visceral level. I originally thought my music was too sombre and I needed to counteract that with some groove.
Did you feel like your music was so non-formulaic and unique that you couldn’t make it with anyone else, it had to be your own creative driving force pushing it?
Exactly. I didn’t know anybody who was as interested in minimalism as I was. People wanted to play and riff. Instrumentalists at that age are not as mature. They want to have something to say and they feel like their vision is telling them to play the same thing over and over. As a solo artist, I’m happy to play each role and to give it up to the song and the lead vocal
Your music is obviously very minimalist and can also be quite sparse. There’s also elements of soul and R&B. Was it other artists who influenced your sound or was it more your surrounding environment and what was happening in your life at the time of writing this music?
I’d like to think that it was just musicians, but I know it’s not. I’ve definitely had the experience of coming at music for music’s sake, then realising that I also have the option of writing lyrics and fitting my musical impulses into a format that’s digestible as opposed to leaving them where I would be comfortable leaving them. So, thank God for the pop format. Otherwise my songs would just be [makes noisy, obscure sound] going nowhere. I am thankful I pushed myself to make them “pop songs”. I’ve absolutely been influenced by the things that happened in my life. I grew up in a household that was distinctly un-American. I think that contributed to the mood of my music. Also, my mother died when I was 17. Carrying on her legacy of colour, beauty, joy, childhood, and love of life has really been a big influence. So, too, my connection to her.
Your music can be rather warm and sunny, something which juxtaposes what one thinks when they hear “New York”. Is that another reason you were influenced by your family’s background?
It has something to do with that. But New York is a really vibrant place. A lot of people are just raising families and surviving out there and making do how they do everywhere else. Sometimes it can be very unwelcoming. In the winter, it’s very oppressive. But in the summertime – in Brooklyn particularly – there’s music in the streets. There’s a strong Jamaican culture, a strong Caribbean culture, and there’s a lot of people who give a lot of love in New York. But I do see how my music is a way of transcending New York.
Last week you released your latest record Jardin, which means ‘garden’ or ‘enclosure’ in old French. Is there a theme relating to this name running through your album?
There’s a poem called Jardine which means ‘Garden of Childhood’. It’s a sunny poem that’s been a huge influence on me. You can see a lot of my impulses in the poem. They include colour, flora, and fauna and this very surreal, majestic and saturated landscape. That poem definitely pointed me in the direction I needed to take. I also thought it was a beautiful thing to call a record ‘Garden’. The sounds I was making could definitely fit into that.
Your debut album Bechoune was released in 2014, have you been trying to push your sound since then and if so what changes can listeners expect on Jardin?
I think there’s some growth there for sure. Vocally, there’s some new ways of singing that I didn’t sing on the first one. One of the main differences is bpm and the strings. But you can still hear a lot of the same sounds, whether it’s the bass, the piano, the cello, the percussion. There’s also a lot of common ground. It was recorded the exact same way. But we did get this one to sound better and it’s a brighter record in general. I consciously wanted to make music that had more energy. On the grand spectrum of things, it’s definitely on the chiller side of things. It’s not party music at all. But I still wanted it to be more in-your-face. I look forward to continuing that search.
Now that the album’s out, are there any plans to tour extensively or just keep it low-key in North America?
I’m gonna go wherever the phone calls take me. For now, we have some dates in Europe during February and a few one-offs here and there. But I think once the record grows on people and enough people hear it – and hopefully celebrate it – then there will be more of a demand for me to tour. I definitely hope to visit Australia in the summer.
We’d love to have you.
- Cover photo: Matthew Scott