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PROFILE | Chilly Gonzales: "I always consider myself a musician who happens to be playing the piano"

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on October 12, 2018

Chilly Gonzales (Photo: Alexandre Isard)
From Daft Punk to Bach, Chilly Gonzales is what’s in-between. Ludwig Van’s Cecilia Lee catches up with Chilly Gonzales about his early days living in Montreal and Toronto, his move to Europe, and his love of the inner workings of music, no matter the genre. (Photo: Alexandre Isard)

How does one win a Grammy playing the piano? Of course, there are many ways to get your Grammy — there’s even a big dedicated category just for Classical music.  But for Gonzo, it was a cancelled flight that led him to a studio session with a friend in Los Angeles.  He sat down and gently pivoted from A minor to B flat minor — this became ”Within,” the fourth track for Daft Punk’s international multi-platinum album Random Access Memories,  bringing him the 2014 Grammy for the best album of the year.


Remember the global craze of the very first generation iPad way back in 2010, and the sticky earworm that came with the magic screen? That was Chilly.

If you are into the current pop culture and social media, you can’t really escape from Drake. Remember Drake’s  80s’-soaked second single, “Hold On, We Are Going Home” from his third album, Nothing Was the Same? It was Pitchfork Media’s best song of 2013.  Want some expert opinion on the song by one of Drake’s collaborators, as you scratch your head, wondering what makes it so great? Well, here it is.  That’s Chilly for the 1Live, Westdeutscher Rundfunk Radio, one of the biggest producers of the German public-broadcasting network.

Win a Guinness World Record? Chilly’s done it back in 2009, for the Longest Solo Concert by a Solo Artist.  27 hours, 3 minutes and 44 seconds — check! Co-produce with Feist? Check. Put together an all-expenses-paid, 8-days workshop and a graduation show in Paris for seven young musicians, with guests such as Jarvis Cocker and Kaiser Quartett, and cover most of the costs through crowdfunding? (By the way, if that tickles your interest, better get working on your applications ready for 2019 Gonzervatory workshop — for its first year, 2018, Chilly received 800 international video applications.)

He’s also sold +40,000 copies of piano music books — a lovely, friendly piano technique book, Re-Introduction Etudes, and sheet music books from his three solo piano albums, the Notebooks.  There are 43-thousand YouTube subscribers on his official channel, where Chilly jumps from topic to topic, some theory, some performances, and breaking down the allure chart-singles in simple man’s language: Gonzales Pop Music Masterclass.

“Chilly Gonzales, musical genius,” everyone.


This eclectic musician may be one of the best examples of the new generation of artists, where one is no longer definable by the genre, but by what they do.  Rather than playing the traditional management/record label vs. artist game, he simply set up his own team, Gentle Threat, producing all things Chilly-music (audio and video recordings, music publishing, with a side order of managerial work).

In contrast to much of the Classical music world, where the nuts and bolts of it is still very much tied to the tradition — not just the materials, but of its interpretation, presentation and in its socio-economic context (especially concerning funding and public presentation: many Classical music organizations rely heavily on the expected support from the  government and wealthy donors, and most Classical stars are continued to be presented at designated conventional venues in programming structure that hasn’t really changed since… well, a few centuries), Gonzo’s self-drive and international success seems almost foreign.  Such a comparison often leads to a well-worn reply from the Classical music realm:  Chilly’s not a Classical musician!

No, he isn’t.  But he is a musician — a pianist, at heart.

Chilly Gonzales (Photo: Alexandre Isard)
Chilly Gonzales (Photo: Alexandre Isard)

———— The early life of Chilly Gonzales 1  ————

Jason Charles Beck (Chilly’s real name) was born in Montreal, but with his father’s job, the family moved to Calgary, then to Toronto.  Piano lessons were a big part of Jason’s childhood, especially with his grandfather.

“… Our grandfather had emigrated from Hungary, against his will, in the 1940s. He, I think, didn’t want to lose the connection with the European culture that he was forced to leave behind.  Us (Jason and his brother Chris) learning the piano was urgent, it felt important to him, and we played along.  We took it quite seriously that this was something important as well, and he was about respect for the composers, as much as the classical music… I enjoyed my piano lessons with my grandfather because I felt that I was learning and getting better.  It was satisfying to feel that progress from week to week.”

Piano was quite a strict thing, but Jason was also aware that there are other facets to music:

“…… I quickly realized that when I made music with my brother, just jamming, then with my friends, it really clicked, that music would be the permanent thing for me.  I’m not sure if the classical lessons were enough to really get me addicted to music making, but it definitely laid a foundation… In parallel, I was watching much music as a kid – Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling”- things like that, or watching Marx Brothers’ movies where Chico Marx use the piano as way to entertain, tickling his crowd… So I thought: oh, there’s another way of doing it, to also respect the audience.  This tension between respecting the composer, or let’s say, the composers who came before us, and wanting to do something to make people feel something positive, it can actually work together, but so often, it seems that musicians are forced to choose between my grandfather’s vision, and Richie and Chico’s vision, and I suppose that I try my best to embody both of those.”

He then went to McGill to study Classical piano:

“I went to McGill University because I wanted to go back to Montreal, where I was born, and I knew that the music program there would be something interesting for me. I didn’t want to lose the connection with French-speaking, and maybe it was a way to be closer to Europe.  And mostly, I wanted to leave home, and I didn’t want to be in Toronto, I wanted to escape and make my own life.”

Jason enjoyed his Classical piano study at McGill, but he feels that his best teachers were non-pianists:

“… They were jazz guitarists, saxophonists, drummers — these were the formative music teachers for me, because they taught me about music — how music works, how chord progressions work, what does it mean to use space, what does it mean to communicate to a musician, what does it mean to lead or to follow when playing with others.  These are the finer points that sometimes don’t really get taught to musicians because they are too focused on their instrumental ability — I always consider myself a musician who happens to be playing the piano, rather than a pianist.”


———— The early life of Chilly Gonzales 2  ————

However, returning to Toronto and trying to find his crowd proved to be quite tough.  In that scene of 90’s Toronto’s independent music, where self-taught guitar bands and indie rock dominated, Jason experimented with different elements, but could not find his audience.  His indie band Son, was signed with Warner Music and released two albums, Thriller and Wolfstein, but the management felt that the band’s musical direction wasn’t mainstream enough. So he packed his bag and left for Europe.

“When I moved to Europe, it was mostly out of frustration that I couldn’t really find my audience… by moving to Europe, I was able to reset — it felt like a blank slate, and that’s where I was able to become Chilly Gonzales, and figure out how to let out the real me, in a larger than life yet intimate way.  I’m not sure what would’ve happened if I stayed in Canada.  Maybe I would eventually find that combination of elements that eventually worked for me in Europe, though sometimes I think it just requires a change of  scene in order to approach a problem differently.”

Since then, the rest is history. He’s collaborated, presented, sold music (and books), toured, and this year was the very first year of his latest project, Gonzervatory, where he took up the mission of nurturing young musicians, helping them become much larger than mere instrumentalists.  The clash and mix of genres in Gonzo’s music is fascinating and gripping. It’s loud. It’s frenetic. It’s sweaty and all heart, spilling over so many things:

“I like genres. I like the idea that musical styles have salient features, different instruments they use, I like that in baroque music you hear harpsichords rather than piano.  I like that in rap music, you hear turntables scratching, I like that in jazz, you hear cymbals and swing time, I like the idea that you can go in and listen to style of music and you can find a bunch of rules that a particular style will follow. At the same time, I like to think that there are complicated, eclectic combinations of styles that people can like, based on what they grew up listening to, or identify socially later in life — I happen to love rap music, I also love romantic classical music, and part of my career has been looking for connections between those two… I am not a no-genre musician, I’m just an all-genre musician and have my particular favourites, and I enjoy stretching the rules of those genres — but you can’t really break the rules of those genres because then it ceases to become itself. If there is no rapper, can you really say you are making rap music? Let’s see what happens when you have no rapper but instead of a drum machine beat, there is a romantic orchestra — now we are talking! We haven’t really broken any rules, but we are simply bending them, and trying to be complex human beings who have complicated and eclectic tastes.”

Chilly Gonzales (Photo: Alexandre Isard)
Chilly Gonzales (Photo: Alexandre Isard)

———— Solo Piano ————

His love of piano and Classical music is the heart of Chilly’s intimate solo piano series.  In 2004, Chilly released his first solo instrumental album, Solo Piano, followed by Solo Piano II (2011). Calm and simple initially, this music does grow on you, and it even changed people’s lives. Aitua from Reims, France, can tell you all about it.

Aitua grew up listening to jazz and pop music with her dad.  At age 10, she attended music school to concentrate on Classical Spanish and Brazilian music. She first discovered Chilly through ‘Solo Piano II.’  Then she went to see the Chilly and Kaiser Quartett tour.  She was totally hooked on the music and Chilly’s energy.  And like many before her, her chosen sensible profession — engineering, left her drained and time-starved for music.  Enough was enough, and with her brother’s urge, Aitua submitted her application for the inaugural Gonzervatory session — and was chosen.

During the magical eight days, Aitua was immersed in Chilly’s challenges: to create immediately, and without fear and self-criticism.  Chilly installed the much-needed spontaneity and courage for Aitua in those short days, so much that now she’s quit her job as an engineer, and enrolled in music school in Rouen for music teacher training.

“… I didn’t have real confidence in myself, though I wanted to believe in ‘me’.  I was really intimidated initially with all these cameras and Gonzales himself. But despite his performance character, he is real and kind.  He pushed us to go beyond our musical limits. Please go to his concert, there is so much energy that he gives to his audience!”

The last of the triplet, Solo Piano III, consists of 15 compositions, each representing his own special connection with someone – including Hildegard Von Bingen and Wendy Carlos. Chilly’s current world tour features an hour of selections from the Solo Piano album cycle, and the second half will feature Stella Le Page (Cello) and Joe Flory (Drums), and he’s excited to return to Toronto on 18th and 20th of October at the Koerner Hall.

“I really love coming home to Montreal and Toronto. I love to see my family of course! And I have many friends and fellow musicians who live in Canada. I feel more Canadian since I left [Chilly currently lives in Cologne, Germany] …  Perhaps you take things for granted and don’t really see how Canada is a different country while you are in it. How would you know? It’s by going to Europe and having to confront different cultures, whether it be German or French; in my case, I lived in both of those places, and I never felt more Canadian than when I have to be a little bit shocked or surprised that other countries do things in a different way. I do consider myself a Canadian artist and I suppose the people who look from the outside might see a sense of humour that they might recognize as distinctively Canadian, which I can hear in many Canadian artists, even such as Drake. When people asked me if Drake’s in on the joke of his sweaters and dancing, and his famous hotline bling video, my answer’s always simple: of course he is, he is Canadian! He grew up watching Second City Television, like I did.”



Intrigued yet?

Alas, unfortunately, both shows are sold out.  For those few lucky ones with tickets, hold onto them tight, as Chilly Gonzales promises to bring his larger-than-life yet intimate self, with pockets full of beauty and surprises.

Chilly Gonzales, 18 and 20 October 2018, 8 pm. Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor St. West, Toronto. Details, here.

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