Pianist Chilly Gonzales up for Album of the Year Grammy
Daft Punk’s gorgeous Within opens with exactly a minute of cascading piano keys, a delicate and melancholy twinkle that signals the record’s shift from icy abstract electronics to something more directly emotional.
The man behind the keys is Toronto-reared pianist Chilly Gonzales. The minute of twilight piano work was culled from a single six-hour session, recorded back in the winter of 2011. (He also contributed “a few chords” to the album-opening Give Life Back to Music, but notes that even when listening on headphones it’s difficult for him to parse his own playing).
It was, in his opinion, a relatively minor contribution to the chart-topping, deeply acclaimed album Random Access Memories. So imagine Gonzales’ surprise when the album landed a nomination for album of the year at this weekend’s Grammy Awards and the French duo saw fit to include Gonzales in the nod, one of the only instrumentalists to be singled out amid featured singers Julian Casablancas, Paul Williams and Pharrell Williams.
“That was extremely generous of them,” Gonzales said in a recent telephone interview from Cologne, Germany, where he lives. “They’re really putting me front and centre. … I would get a statue and I’m technically nominated for album of the year as a featured artist, despite not really having done a deep, deep amount of work.
“It’s a very nice sign of respect. I’ve known Daft Punk for a very, very long time and we’ve done quite a few collaborations and they consider me part of their musical family.”
And that was the reason that the widely admired dance duo trusted Gonzales with what they saw as a pivotal shift in the intricate album’s mood. (Gonzales notes, obviously impressed, that the pair was already thinking about the album’s sequencing even two years before its 2013 release).
After the squiggling nine-minute mission statement “Giorgio by Moroder,” the helmeted pair — Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo — wanted Gonzales to take the record from something on the surface to something “deeper.” They wanted the record’s mood to shift from shiny and danceable to layered and psychedelic.
And specifically, they wanted Gonzales to write a piece that would transition from A minor to B-flat minor.
The thoughtful 41-year-old was thrilled by the cerebral nature of the task.
“It was a great job to me because I really do enjoy the theory of music and the scientific details of music that create emotions and feelings, and I understand why they asked me to do that,” he said. “Those were very much in my wheelhouse, key changes and that kind of thing.”
He was delighted with how the song turned out, and generally applauds the way the house duo managed to bring a wider audience into its crosshairs without sacrificing artistry.
They received a total of five Grammy noms for the album, which achieved gold sales south of the border.
“I believe that what they did was part of the future because they brought it to the mainstream,” he said. “Many electronic musicians felt betrayed by the use of live instruments and that’s a very interesting thing they did.
“In my world, everyone has known about them and considered them gods for over a decade,” he added. “But it’s true that many people heard about them for the first time with this.”
And he stresses that while Daft Punk provided a clear goal for his contribution, he was given the freedom to scribble outside the margins.
“I had a very specific role to fulfil, but within that I had a lot of freedom and having known them, I know that they’re very specific about the feelings they want,” he said. “But they’re open to a lot of ways to get there.
“I would say the same with Drake. The minute they hear something that fits into their vision, they let you know and they won’t let you even try it again.
“They’re happy, it’s done, and that’s that.”
Oh yes, Drake. The Toronto rapper — like Daft Punk, a five-time nominee at Sunday’s bash — has long been an admirer of the pianist, since sampling “The Tourist” from Gonzales’ “Solo Piano” for his 2009 mixtape “So Far Gone.”
On the 27-year-old’s double-platinum “Take Care,” Drake again went to Gonzales, asking him to contribute the brittle outro to despondent album highlight “Marvin’s Room.”
“That was a first take,” Gonzales recalled. “It was on a cheap synthesizer. I was going to say, ‘This is the kind of thing I could do, when you rent me a grand piano and I come back for real.’
“They were like, that’s it. That’s the one. And that’s the one that ended up on the album. A great artist knows when to do that.”
Gonzales took on an expanded role on “From Time,” a downcast nostalgic hymn from Drake’s latest, “Nothing Was the Same.” Gonzales had sent him roughly 15 different pieces over a period of months, but it was the winsomely plinking keys from that tune that most moved the rapper.
And it certainly moved him, judging by a tweet he sent out Aug. 8.
“Might be my new favorite song,” he wrote, before shouting out Gonzales directly.
Gonzales, who has also made major instrumental and songwriting contributions to Feist’s last three albums, also boasts a remarkable solo career — his most recent album, 2012’s “Solo Piano II,” received Polaris Music Award recognition — and he’s an engaging live presence.
That work is still, he says, his priority: “What I prefer is composing, working, doing my own concerts, working on my career as Chilly Gonzales the entertainer.” He’s planning on releasing books of easy-to-play piano pieces in the summer, in the hopes of stimulating an interest in players who have let their skills calcify.
But he takes estimable pride in his genre-crossing aptitude for contributing to notable pieces of music.
A dedicated hip-hop head — “I’m particularly a huge fan of rap music in particular and always dreamed of working on rap music … it was a longstanding fantasy,” he explained — he’s thrilled that his work with Drake has opened him up to collaborating with other rappers, including Odd Future’s Domo Genesis. That rapper cheerfully tweeted “wake n bake to solo piano II” in March and the two have since started working together.
He’s never exactly sure when or if these collaborations will be released, but he’s “just happy to be of use,” he says.
“Next thing you know there’s an album coming out and I get the Christmas morning feeling, and those were two of the biggest albums. It was a very special year for me,” he said.
“Being able to contribute to that is incredibly satisfying, and moreso when it touches on the Grammys and things like that. But it’s a great way to collaborate with a lot of lesser known artists as well.”
He won’t be at the Grammys in Los Angeles this weekend — he’s used to being a barely visible presence, anyway — but he’ll be paying attention from afar.
“I’m proud to be one of a few Canadians nominated,” he said. “Despite the fact that I feel a bit disingenuous.”