A new kind of piano man

by Ryan McNutt

Chilly Gonzales contributed to Feist's Polaris Prize winning album Metals and set a Guinness World Record in 2007 by playing a concert for more than 27 hours.

Chilly Gonzales’s grandfather introduced him to classical piano, but what tantalized the future virtuoso as a kid growing up in Montreal were the lessons he found on MuchMusic.

“On one side I had this kind of slightly xenophobic, Euro-snob approach to the great tradition of compositional legends like Richard Wagner and all that,” says Gonzales (né Jason Beck, BMus’94). “And on the other side I had these music videos and the idea of living a pop fantasy that looked to me like a nice revenge fantasy: getting revenge on the world by being a pop star.

“There’s always this European and American fight going on, and I realized later it’s essentially a fight between art and entertainment, and that’s kind of the story of what I do today as well.”

What Gonzales does today is a little bit of everything. He’s been a successful indie rocker with the band Son. He’s written orchestral rap albums. He’s co-produced with Feist, collaborated with Drake and, in the ultimate 21st century pop coup, he’s had a song (“Never Stop”) featured in an iPad commercial.

Throughout, he’s maintained a steadfast commitment to being not just a pianist, but an entertainer, one who abides by the codes of rap and pop rather than the traditionalism of classical or jazz. His iconoclastic approach to performance was honed at McGill, where he was a regular at the Alley in the University Centre.

“I would make these huge, massive posters, like half a metre wide, and I would put them up right at the front of the Faculty of Music. I was so clearly trying to live out this pop fantasy in the context of the jazz and classical faculties, and of course a lot of people found that to be far too bold, and I took a lot of heat for that. I developed a reputation as an egomaniac, but I think that was just my way of doing things counter-intuitively.”

Behind all the boasts and theatrics is a remarkably accomplished pianist, so it’s fitting that on his most famous album, Solo Piano, Gonzales let his 88 keys speak for themselves. This past summer, after years of collecting melodies and musical fragments, he finally delivered a proper sequel, the appropriately titled Solo Piano II.

Solo Piano I came when I moved to Paris, and Solo Piano II came when I left,” says Gonzales, who moved to Cologne, Germany earlier this year. “It’s a much more internationalist album than the first one, which is a little bit of a love letter to my new home [at the time] of Paris. This one is saying goodbye to that and embracing myself much more as a musical citizen of the world and a citizen of pop music once and for all.”

And while Solo Piano I’s success was something of a happy accident for Gonzales, he considers its sequel much more ambitious: it’s his claim for the piano as a truly modern instrument.

“Eight years ago, I was concerned with what my underground fans would think [about a solo piano album]. Now I’m thinking, ‘I want the world to hear this, I want the world to hear what the piano can do.’”

Visit here to sample some tracks from Gonzales's Solo Piano II.